For a few years now, mostly as devil’s advocate, I have advanced the thesis that Rock Is Dead. Now this is not an original thought with me. The exact date of rock’s imminent or recent demise has been a bone of contention at least as far back as Elvis joining the Army. Other possible milestones are Buddy Holly buying the farm, Yoko getting jiggy with John, or Kansas® deciding they need to be a brand.
I personally place the toe tag on the body at the moment Run-DMC crashed through the wall onto Joe Perry. By making a clear link between hip-hop/rap and rock as a young Turk/elder statesman comparison, the stage was set for the rise of hip-hop and the waning of rock music as the predominant musical cultural force in our society.
Not that rock will ever truly die. Like jazz, classical, Gregorian chants, and Mongolian throat-singing, there will always be fans and practioners of rock music. It will just become increasingly irrelevant. Rock is what I grew up with, but the point of popular music is to annoy your parents and rock is a poor weapon to use against the baby boomer or proto-punk generations.
The latest person to come by and hammer a few nails in the coffin is David Segal in the August 28, 2005 Washington Post Magazine. His article, Memoirs of A Music Man takes the stance that as the Major Rock Concert has become more tightly arranged and staged, the resemblance between rock music and musical theater is becoming increasingly blurred. He cites the prevalence of supposedly spontaneous “stunts” during a show as being against the true spirit of rock.
I’ve got bad, bad news for Mr. Segal. The rock show as tightly choreographed spectacle goes back at least as far as my youth and definitely much further. When I was a junior in high school, sometime in the 1980-81 timespan, I saw Van Halen in their on-the-rise glory days, and I used to have the baseball jersey half sleeve t-shirt to prove it. When comparing notes with a classmate who saw them two days later at a different venue, we discovered that David Lee Roth’s tequila input is so closely calibrated that he stopped at the same point in the same song during both shows to announce, “I’m so f&$king wasted, I forgot the f&$king words to the f&%king song” to thunderous cheers from the similarly situated crowd. Rod Stewart isn’t the only one whose ad lib lines were well-rehearsed. Rock music has always been theatrical. And staged.
Then David goes on to use Bruce Springsteen as an example of setlist rigor mortis.
A Bruce Springsteen concert is unforgettable because you always get the sense that you just witnessed something so heartfelt and draining that it couldn't possibly be reproduced. To a degree, that's an illusion, since many of the Boss's shows are pretty similar, set-wise, on a given tour. But the guy is such a gifted showman that it doesn't matter if he does a note-for-note replica in the next city. People leave those concerts feeling like they've been given something they'll never lose. And Springsteen always seems like he's having more fun than anyone else in the building.
This is where he loses all credibility. I'm suprised that the folks at Greasy Lake haven’t hung him in effigy for this heresy. Springsteen fans have a statistical compulsion that makes SABER-maticians look like drunk Elbonian accountants. It took me less than five minutes at The Bruce Springsteen Setlist Page to determine that at the two shows I saw of the recent Rising Tour, less that 50% of the material played overlapped. And half of that was obligatory new material. This is from a guy who has 30 plus years of fan favorites to squeeze into just three hours every night. If anybody could carve a greatest hits setlist in stone and set up a tent, it’s Bruce. That he doesn’t, and not just at his 10 night stands on his home turf, is a testament to his need to stay fresh for himself and his fans.
As a counter-example, Segal uses Green Day as ray of hope because they do a stunt where they get audience members to come on stage and play a three-chord, School-of-Rock-101-easy number. I have a co-worker a decade and a half younger than me that thinks the version of this skit that he saw several years back is the Greatest Moment In Concert History™, so obviously it’s a crowd pleaser. It’s still a rehearsed pre-planned gimmick. And gimmicks are tough to kill.
Alice Cooper is still out there with his whole bag of tricks. Even Bruce has to look down every night at a pit full of Courtney Cox wannabes. He usually resists the temptation to pull someone out of the audience unless they have come up with a particularly novel twist on the sign holding gimmick. Even then, because it is done so rarely, it still gets the r.m.a.s.’ers to soil their drawers every time it does happen.
David Segal comes off pretty close to the jaded, hipper-than-thou, rock critic caricature Benn Ray of Atomic Books recently skewered, and I wish he would shut up about his quest for the elusive Live Concert Moment. When I am paying $165 a seat to see U2, I expect a professional well-rehearsed spectacle and I know I will be manipulated into cheering, clapping, singing along, and holding up my lit cell phone. And if I were to see Cathy Rigby on her farewell tour I would clap along to revive Tinkerbell just as hard. If I want spontaneity, I will go to a 200-seat beer hall where I can yell “Freebird” as loud as I want and the band might actually indulge me. In the meantime, David Segal ought to just enjoy the show, because it’s only rock and roll, and I like it.
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