It’s probably safe to assume that most of us have wanted to be a rock star at some point in our lives. The impulse is usually fleeting, however, and instead, we embrace the ritual of vicariously basking in the glory of the genuine article, the sort of glory that borders on rapture. It’s been said a gazillion times, but the comparison is apt: Rock concerts really can be full-blown religious experiences, with a different sort of dogma — thousands of strangers worshiping together at the feet of a Christlike deity who howls like a banshee and most likely wears very tight trousers.
Why have we loved them so? “They did things you didn’t dare do with people you would never meet in places you could never afford to go,” David Hepworth writes in “Uncommon People: The Rise and Fall of the Rock Stars.” “Our favorite rock stars weren’t mere consumer preferences. They were markers of our identity….”
Yet even as the author commemorates rock star majesty, he acknowledges an extremely inconvenient truth: It’s over. The music has died. The age of the golden god has run its course. Sure, a few proud 70-plus ax-wielding geezers — Paul McCartney, Neil Young — still roam the Earth. And while their shows may be inspiring and sometimes even great, they’re also a painful reminder of a final fade to black. When the remaining septuagenarian gods shuffle into the permanent twilight (joining Lemmy, Prince and Bowie), they’ll be taking their era with them, and only their holograms will remain.
“Uncommon People” really sings when Hepworth connects rock ’n’ roll’s evolutionary dots. The British music journalist and former presenter on BBC’s “Old Grey Whistle Test” chronicles rock’s most pivotal stars and moments from 1955-95, focusing on make-or-break flashpoints, including Buddy Holly’s plane crash, Janis Joplin at Monterey and Live Aid. As the book moves methodically through rock’s often sordid history, patterns begin to develop, as the layers of rock star template are unpeeled, revealing both its evolution and eventual de-evolution.
In some cases, there is little insight that can be added. What hasn’t already been said about the Beatles, the Stones, Michael Jackson or Madonna? But even the most banal profiles offer valuable context. Little Richard kicked it off, but Jerry Lee Lewis was rock’s first official bad boy, marrying his 13-year-old cousin and unapologetically flaunting her on a British tour, a scandal that sent his career into a death spiral from which he could never rise. Lewis, though, shattered behavioral taboos and inspired subsequent deviant deeds among rockers (see: Keith Moon, Axl Rose, Ozzy Osbourne).
Rock’s aspirational pull took took hold as early as 1961 on Robert Zimmerman, a Jewish kid from Hibbing, Minn., who reinvented himself as the folkie Bob Dylan. Dylan’s calculation and self-mythologizing is grist for a dead-on assessment. “What the career of Bob Dylan teaches is that if you develop the mystique of a great rock star, then you can ride out the rough patches of your career. That’s because the greatest investment is the myth itself…. Once the myth is established, it allows you to perform a striptease act where you never need to take anything off.”
If anything, Hepworth repeatedly illustrates that mythmaking is Rock Star 101. Nearly a decade after Dylan, Black Sabbath innovated the genre with a presentation rooted in the dark arts. Rather than entertain, the band sought to freak audiences out. “You would stagger away from any live encounter feeling you had been ravaged and would not have had it any other way,” he writes.
In the decadent 1970s, where Hepworth finds an extended groove — from the Rolling Stones’ bacchanalian 1972 tour to the star-making money-hemorrhaging hype bestowed on David Bowie to Don Henley fetching cranberry-colored Lear jets to whisk Stevie Nicks to his side — this wasn’t rock ’n’ roll. This was a rich guy flaunting his wherewithal to seduce women .
Yet Hepworth painfully explains that those moments on the mountaintop can be fleeting: In 1977, the members of Led Zeppelin were lusted-over deities, but a mere two years later, after the penetration of punk, they were a joke, old men in their 30s on the verge of obsolescence. The desperation was apparent on their last promo photos: Both Robert Plant and Jimmy Page wore skinny ties, an overt concession to the new generation. Their two dates at Knebworth, the last in Britain before drummer John Bonham’s very rock star demise (choking on vomit) were a disaster. “In the era of the Jam and Stranglers, this looked almost like historical re-enactment.”
Led Zeppelin is pitied, but Lou Reed is savaged. The chapter on Reed focuses on his post-Velvet Underground period when he briefly attempted to return to civilian life. Hepworth deliciously describes Reed’s straight girlfriend at the time as someone who “would deal with all the aspects of the world that were beneath his dignity, and also on hand to adore him when he was temporarily removed from the sunshine of his admirers’ acclaim.”
“Uncommon People” winds through the much less interesting ’80s and ’90s, through the day-glo, commodified eras of MTV- and Live Aid-driven corporate sheen that spawned the likes of Madonna and Duran Duran. Guns N’ Roses, which had cannibalized rock’s past wearing the uniform of hard rock that had been established a generation earlier, had chops, but their presentation screamed louder: Ambition had overtaken attitude.
By the time Kurt Cobain’s body was found in a pool of blood in 1994, the party was officially over.
Hepworth’s theories provide no great revelations: It was technology, he writes, that killed the rock ’n’ roll star. He points to the decline of physical product as one culprit — super-compressed sound files deflating much of the music’s power and devaluing its worth, while killing the ritual of record store shopping.
Social media and mobile phones turned fame into something more egalitarian, demystifying the concept of stardom itself. Anyone with a cellphone can be a YouTube celeb. Besides, stars no longer want to be stars, bending over backward on Twitter and Instagram to seem normal (even if that means hiring someone to seem normal for them).
Now, at a time when the term “rock star” has been hijacked to describe anyone who isn’t a lockstep conformist, someone perceived to describe a successful “rebel” and “rule breaker” in almost any field, “Uncommon People” serves as a loud reminder of the real deal, shining a bright floodlight on a beautifully flamboyant era rich with creativity and characters who deserve to live forever.
Himmelsbach-Weinstein is a Los Angeles writer and television producer. He blogs at valleyboy.net.
Henry Holt: 320 pp., $30