'It's Only Rock 'n' Roll (But I Like It)'

Crispin Sartwell is the author of "End of Story: Toward an Annihilation of Language and History."

For what is essentially quite a simple musical form, rock 'n' roll sustains a wild profusion of histories. For one cohort, it is the music of sock hops and malteds; for another, of marijuana and Molotov cocktails; for another, of safety pins and despair; and for yet another, of a parent's insufferable nostalgia.

John Strausbaugh casts his lot with marijuana and Molotovs. The thesis of "Rock Til You Drop" is this: Rock 'n' roll is youth music. It is a music of rebellion, of either unfocused adolescent rejection of parental values or actual political revolution. Thus, what rock 'n' roll music has become--as represented by the latest corporate-sponsored Rolling Stones stadium tour in which self-simulations of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards try half-heartedly to start it up one more time--is sad, stupid, redundant, unseemly and reprehensible. Lest we allow the bloated members of Fleetwood Mac to sell us one more reunion, Strausbaugh dedicates himself to ridiculing "colostomy rock."

Whereas in the '60s and even in the early days of punk, rock music was raucous, cool, actually dangerous, rock 'n' roll has now been denatured by being celebrated and thus institutionalized. Strausbaugh strolls up to many of the biggest and most bloated of these institutions--the Stones, Rolling Stone magazine and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame among them--and lobs in the Molotov.

And his attack is not limited to institutions; he brutalizes individuals as well. He has evidently been honing his skewer for quite some time, and it is a wicked joy to watch him puncture his victims. Try this on for size: "Rolling Stone put [David] Crosby on its cover again that year [2000], not for any musical achievement but for his Frankenstein love-child arrangement with Melissa Etheridge, an affirmative-action rock mediocrity better known for her lesbianism and her fawning friendships with the more powerful rock industry figures than for any musical talent." Or this: "Patti Smith was one of the least talented posers in rock. Patti Smith was Jim Carroll with breasts, Lydia Lunch with anorexia, the Madonna of punk rock: everything bad and pretentious about the union of punk and poetry in one self-conscious package."

Well. Agree or disagree with such assessments (and I think the man has a point), you'll admit that this is sweet, nasty writing, a kind of beat poetry of malediction. That, along with a lot of good, detailed, myth-puncturing reporting, is what makes "Rock Til You Drop" extremely readable and informative. And even though the book feels a little patched together (parts of it first appeared as articles in the NYPress, the weekly paper that Strausbaugh edits and for which--despite the deep disagreements about his book I am about to air--I write a column on country music), they also hold together as a coherent account of the nature and history of rock music.

The account runs like this: Rock is different than pop. Pop is about selling records, and as long as Cher wants to keep dressing in ridiculous costumes and regenerating her voice and body through the wonders of technology, more power to her. But rock is about making noise, not money. Rock is different from blues and jazz, and if dignified old black people, or even dignified old white people, want to sit on stools and jam the traditional musics of America, what the heck. But rock as a performance form is a kind of physical assault of which old people are incapable.

For Strausbaugh, the defining event in the history of rock 'n' roll is the British invasion. It's the '60s spirit of the Stones and the Beatles--the drugs, the hair, the politics--that constitute the style. Essentially, rock is four angry kids on a stage, peering through their stringy hair and singing songs about rebellion. And they need to stop when they're 30 or so and think of something else to do, whether it's to go somewhere else in music or to settle down to a nice career in real estate. Within this historical structure, certain relatively minor bands, such as the MC5 and the Fugs, emerge as paradigms for their politics, their shambolic performances and, despite occasional revivals, their short, short careers.

Indeed, the ideal band for Strausbaugh would seem to be someone like, let us say, the Germs, the L.A. band that more or less invented hardcore punk music and made one very raucous, definitive record. Then the lead singer, Darby Crash, overdosed. There have been no Germs reunion tours brought to you by Miller Lite, and for anyone who pondered the Germs at all in later years, the band remained forever young, angry, self-destructive and heroic.

And therein lies the problem. Underlying Strausbaugh's telling of rock history, there is a very romantic idea of the music and the people who make it. It is almost as if Jagger and Richards are Shelley and Byron but didn't have the decency to die young. So they persist and persist and, rather than growing much as artists, they repeat in an etiolated way the gestures that made them great, as if Byron just kept adding cantos to "Don Juan," and they started to descend into mediocre repetition.

But I would tell a different history. Rock, we might say, is a traditional craft of our culture, like a style of pottery or woodworking. It is continuous in its history with the blues, from which developed a number of pop forms such as R&B; and rockabilly and even country music. Rock is the continuation and development of a style that is African American in origin but has spread through white Americans, white Europeans and now the whole world. In a yurt somewhere west of Ulan Bator, nomad kids are jamming. And like the ascendant rock bands of the moment--Blink-182 and Sum 41, for example--they're probably not taking what they do too seriously as art or as something that might change the world. But Sum 41 obviously takes very seriously the craft of making a good rock song.

There was a period in the '60s when rock was made mostly, though not exclusively, by young people. There was a moment when rock was the music of a revolution. But there was rock before the revolution, and there was rock after the revolution failed. The people who made rock in the '60s, and the people who listened to it, got older. And the '60s cohort kept making music, as did Muddy Waters, George Jones and, for that matter, Cher. These people are crafters, and they continued to ply their trades, with mixed aesthetic success to be sure. Now that the '60s' kids are in their mid-50s, their music does not have the urgency and power that it once had. But if we're lucky, it has something else: a kind of effortless mastery that comes from a total knowledge of the style. It's true that some nights Richards does not seem to care very much about the riff to "Brown Sugar." But it's also true that even on those nights, he can hit it just right. Richards' style was always a radical simplification, a minimalism comparable to Donald Judd's or Miles Davis' that strips everything down to the single, indispensable form, the single, indispensable gesture.

By the time you get to an album like 1997's "Bridges to Babylon," which is no "Sticky Fingers," Richards has reduced the riff that launched a thousand lips to a single, incredibly alive chord, as on "Gunface," a song in which the Stones thing is still there, now perfectly ripe.

It's easy to make fun of, say, Eric Clapton, revamped as a bespectacled yuppie and doing a half-speed acoustic version of "Layla" with a string section. But it's also hard to miss the relation that Clapton now has to a guitar: If he was a hero or god before, now he's just a master of the instrument, and he's capable of very intense expression of the sort that emerges from the mastery of craft. Clapton's art has deepened even as he has ceased to change the world.

There's no reason that these folks shouldn't keep playing, recording albums, touring. The Stones, perhaps, should revamp their act so that it is not a mere simulation of their early-'70s' shows. But they should keep playing as long as they want to and as long as people want to listen.

The black origins of rock hardly show up in Strausbaugh's account, for the very good reason that they would mess it up. If you consider rock's black origins, it becomes evident that the tradition is continuous and the radical moment just a flashpoint in a long history. In fact, figures like Elvis Presley, who invented rock in the appropriation of African American music, barely register: For Strausbaugh, rock is a '60s, not a '50s, style. But I wonder if he begrudges rock's black progenitors such as Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry the right to keep playing and keep trying to make money. Those artists entered the tradition at a certain point, expressed it fully in a certain respect, then settled into the bit of the tradition that they had made their possession and worked it for the rest of their lives.

You could say the same of the Stones, and you should. Bands like the Beatles tried to abandon craft for "art," tried to develop a series of avant-garde gestures. Eventually this not only led them into pretentious music but led to the true nadir of the form: "art rock." But the Stones always viewed what they were doing as an extension of the craft of African American popular music, and they have stayed true to that vision for almost 40 years. That is an achievement that deserves our admiration.

Now, the fact that there is a rock "establishment" of record companies, sponsors, old rock stars, old rock critics and Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner is unfortunate. It's unfortunate because the taste of that establishment, as Strausbaugh shows in spades, is atrocious: It's all Fleetwood Mac, Billy Joel, Elton John or, at best, Melissa Etheridge. It's unfortunate because this establishment is now trying to inscribe its taste in marble and has always claimed the right to tell the story of rock music in its way and suppress other versions.

Strausbaugh writes of a display of guitars at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: "If there's any spirit of rock 'n' roll inhabiting those guitars, it's begging you to smash the glass, pull the ax down off the wall, strap it on, plug it into a big stack of Marshalls, and ... play the thing. It's a key to how wrong-headed, how nonmusical, the Rock Hall is that no one associated with the institution understood what an anti-rock 'n' roll gesture it is to crucify all those instruments like that." How right that is. It's sad and stupid that something as alive as rock 'n' roll is being killed by institutions created to apotheosize it.

But as long as they are alive, people have to be allowed to age, and people have to be allowed to do what they have devoted their lives to until they can't do it anymore. In the life of a musician, in the life of a style and in the life of each of us, there is a moment of youth and rage that, if we are lucky, mellows into mastery. Both the rage and the mastery are forms of life and power and truth. So relax, man, and let us geezers rock. *

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