For every gap, there is (re)generation

Rock 'n' roll fills the void at South by Southwest


Sarah Vowell
March 22, 1997 1:00AM (UTC)

That the youngest music lover at Austin's South by Southwest Festival last week
seemed like the wisest wasn't surprising. What I like about popular music is that
it's the one milieu of public life that sets you up to seek wisdom in the
words of adolescents, weirdos and miscreants. On his current American tour,
the 18-year-old Australian popster Ben Lee's been playing Loudon
Wainwright's "Motel Blues." By turns heartbreaking and letchy, the song
finds the modern minstrel in the middle of the night. It starts, "In this
town television shuts off at 2/What can a lonely rock 'n' roller do?" The
narrator meets a teenage girl at the club where he's playing, and pins all
his hopes for the evening on her. He takes her back to his depressing motel,
offers her liquor, promises her breakfast. He needs her. He's impressed,
too: "Chronologically I know you're young/But when you kissed me at the
club you bit my tongue." He asks her to sleep with him and by the end of the
song, it's plain what that means: "Save my life." When Wainwright sings it,
he backs away from that last phrase, as if he's shy about asking so much.

The young girl in the song is 19, which makes her a whole year older
than Lee. A less savvy youngster might turn the age twist into irony,
shrinking the story. But Lee sounds so desperate that he makes the theme
larger, into a parable of pop music itself. When he gets to the words "Save
my life," he doesn't back down. He's practically screaming, and he's a singer
who screams only occasionally, when he means it. At that moment, just before
the song is over, it becomes a whole new work of art. It's no longer about
nothin'-to-do or a one night stand. When Lee asks for his life to be saved,
he's asking rock 'n' roll to do it. When I caught up with him last week at SXSW, he said
of "Motel Blues," "I don't even think of it as a cover. It's my song. I need to sing those words."

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Sexagenarian rockabilly legend Carl Perkins has been covering his own songs
for 40 years, but he wears a kid's goofy grin as he sings and shakes his
hips around on stage like a time-warped bobby-soxer. Maybe it was because I
spent the hour before enduring the glum hot air of indie band Helium, but
Perkins' childlike joy seemed somehow naive and subversive at the same time:
Naive in that he actually expected an industry audience to accept his
invitation to applaud his record company, BMI, subversive in the way that
pleasure always is. I can, without qualms, lovingly refer to it as a
show. My friend went to get a soda in the middle of Perkins' set of
songs about rockin' and Memphis and Elvis and blue suede boots (this was
Texas after all) and came back with the most endearing anecdote of the
weekend -- techno guru Moby at the back of the hall bobbing his sleek bald head, doing his own pre-millennial version of the Ubangi Stomp.

I like that story, the idea of different generations listening -- and
dancing -- to each other. The most interesting (and exasperating) SXSW panel
discussion I attended, moderated by Trouser Press maven Ira Robbins, was
called "No Direction Home: Rock Music in its Fifth Decade." Rumor had it
that the ostensible title of the critics' roundtable was "The Generation
Gap," but someone eventually noticed that the panel failed to represent
either the first generation of rock critics or anyone under 30. All the
panelists (Holly George Warren, Jim DeRogatis, Greg Kot, Lorraine Ali) are
between the ages of 33 and 40, so the name had to be changed. The panel itself, it turns out,
was the gap. Robbins posed the question of whether, as a writer
in his 40s, he should be allowed to write about Silverchair, to which an
audience member replied, "I don't think anyone should be allowed to
write about Silverchair." The point was well taken. Who cares how old the writer is? Do they
have anything to say? Do they care about what they're doing, and if so, do
you?

While teen spirit is an inherent part of pop appeal, reducing rock 'n' roll to "youth culture" misses the point of it as culture, period. What makes hearing Ben Lee wailing "Save my life" anything other than a transcendent moment for anyone, of any age, lucky enough
to be in the room? You don't have to be 18 to understand longing, desperation, confusion and desire, though it helps.


Sarah Vowell

Sarah Vowell is the author of "Radio On: A Listener's Diary" (St. Martin's Press, 1996) and "Take the Cannoli" (Simon & Schuster, 2000) and is a regular commentator on PRI's "This American Life." Her column appears every other Wednesday in Salon. For more columns by Vowell, visit her column archive.

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