"Rock 'Til You Drop" by John Strausbaugh

A baby boomer rock critic condemns his generation's insistence on lionizing the burned-out bands of their long-lost youth.

Published August 22, 2001 7:06PM (EDT)

Ah, the baby boomers. If we're not hearing about how great their teens and early 20s were, it's how much better, how much more important their music was than any that's come since. They've even built a museum in Cleveland to house the rotting relics of that long ago era called their youth.

Granted, the '60s were a critically important and fertile time for rock music. The only thing resembling a mainstream rock revolution we've had in the last 30 years are punk's brief flirtation with fame in the late '70s and the now-you-see-it-now-you-don't "grunge" movement of the early '90s that was largely a Black Sabbath rip-off anyway. Other than the success of bands such as Radiohead and Tool, the so-called n| metal movement is the only thing even resembling rock music currently on the mainstream cultural radar. Rock radio is full of bands like Limp Bizkit, Staind, Slipknot and Linkin Park, bands who look as though they'll have the shelf life of a watermelon and seem just about as important.

But each generation of rock fans has its own cultural battles to fight. For the baby boomers, many of whom seem to think that rock died along with their youthful ideals in the early '70s, well, they've been shelling out big bucks to try to relive their glory days by watching aging warhorses like the Stones; the Who; Clapton; Crosby, Stills, Nash (and, recently, Young) and Jefferson Airplane/Jefferson Starship/Starship, an ongoing joke that hasn't been funny since the '80s, dust themselves off and limp onstage once every couple of years for a tour or release another remastered box set with new liner notes and some old photos.

Although these bands regularly fill amphitheaters and concert halls, it would be unfair to say that all boomers are happy about the never-ending nostalgia carnival. Chief among the dissenters is John Strausbaugh, editor of the Manhattan weekly New York Press, who thinks that these acts (to paraphrase what he says about the Rolling Stones), are "Not a rock band anymore, but a handful of middle-aged men, acting as a rock band."

The rock of the '60s gave voice to the emerging youth culture just as much as it churned out kick-ass tunes you could dance to. As with many American social/cultural movements, however, it was only a matter of time before the marketplace learned the lingo and co-opted the rebelliousness of rock. Strausbaugh is careful to point out that the bands that made it big at the time weren't necessarily the revolutionaries they've been marketed as -- rather they were primarily guys who wanted to rock, make money and ingest as much as they could in the shortest amount of time. The sociopolitical ideals were there, sure, but to a large degree it was the first generation of rock critics, writers such as Greil Marcus, Stephen Holden, Robert Christgau and Peter Guralnick, along with magazines like Rolling Stone and Crawdaddy! who attached their own countercultural agendas to the music.

The funny thing about the rock journalists who wrote about the "revolution" in the late '60s is that they are, by and large, the same guys writing the RZA and Bjvrk reviews in the mainstream media today. Since it took the contextual cultural knowledge of people in their 20s to convincingly write about the Beatles or Dylan in the '60s, Strausbaugh contends, how can a 55-year-old pretend to know what's necessary to offer a relevant analysis of the Beta Band? Sure, as the elder statesmen of rock journalism they've witnessed the unfolding of rock history, but does rock criticism really need more historians -- or does it need young, fresh voices for whom the music is the soundtrack to the formation of their own identities?

Strausbaugh is at his best when he takes on the once-relevant Rolling Stone magazine, and its publisher, Jann Wenner's, strange and wholly anti-rock offshoot, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. At one point, he visits the Hall for a round of induction ceremonies. Watching aging rockers suck in their bellies and play songs they wrote 30 years ago seems painful enough, but the Hall's meaning (or lack thereof) really hits home after Strausbaugh walks out and wanders down to Cleveland's lakefront, to an area called the Flats, where "In the middle of a Saturday afternoon, one of these [rock] clubs was housing an all-ages hardcore show. Just standing on the sidewalk at the open door I got more rock in five minutes than I had in three hours inside the Rock Hall."

The Rock Hall has done nothing but turn old, sweaty T-shirts, mike stands and soiled napkins into cultural artifacts to gawk at before moving on to the gift shop to purchase a Rock Hall keychain for Aunt Phyllis back home. Where's the rock in that? Does the Rock Hall diminish the cultural relevance and the sense of youthful urgency these artists exuded at their peak? Not necessarily, but it does make what was fresh and important 25 years ago seem like ancient history now.

So, who owns rock? Is the energy and innovation inherent in the best rock the sole property of the young, who are still angry, confused, chemically altered and experimental enough to take risks, or does it belong to anyone with an amp and the desire to turn it up (provided they turn their hearing aids down first)? The Rock Hall, Strausbaugh claims, props up the theory that the best rock is the rock that sells the most records and fills the most arenas; it is the rock that has been ordained by boomers like Wenner and recording industry mogul David Geffen as the most important or relevant to our lives. (We'll see about this when some more contemporary acts come up for induction. R.E.M. and U2 are shoo-ins, but you shouldn't hold your breath waiting for the Pixies, Fugazi or Bad Brains to make the cut.)

When it really comes down to it, though, while the Rock Hall is a silly, almost meaningless extravagance foisted on the public by the moneyed cultural elite of a bygone era, great rock music will continue to be made. The geezer critics can label, package or ignore it at their leisure, but it's out there, and the young are making it.

By Paul McLeary

Paul McLeary is a staff writer for CJRDaily.org, and reported from Iraq earlier this year.

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