MERRY SKULL BITES: ROCK FACES FIFTY
"Time marches on, time is waiting in the wings, ticking away the moments that make up a dull day, but time is not on rock's side. Believe it, pal, your hippie grandma had rock and roll way better than you ever will. And your punk rock daddy, he didn't have it half as good as grandma, no matter what he tells you, Jello Biafra had nothing on Abbie Hoffman, but he still had it way better than you! In a world where Al Qaeda threatens to blow up a million children, where crooked corporate CEOs pocket billions while their companies, employees, and investors eat shit, rock and roll is a nice diversion, an interesting sociological study, a course in historical social revolution for the culturally starved, a nostalgia machine for those who remember when suntans were sexy instead of a cancer precursor, when the worst thing you could get from promiscuous sex was a disease a couple shots could cure, once upon a time when the drugs really were recreational."
by Ronnie Pontiac
COPYRIGHT © 2002, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS
Nobody wasted time writing about it in 1954. If you were really into the Rock and Roll, Daddy-O, you were too busy huffin' reefer, chasin' tail, slickin' up your style, too busy dancin' to fuck around with a typewriter or lowly pen. It wasn't about charts then, or teams of marketing experts, lawyers and accountants competing for quarterly profits in the fuck the public Wall Street Superbowl. Back then it went like this: you want distribution for your record? Well gas up the Plymouth, son, stuff the trunk with vinyl, congratulations, you are the proud proprietor of your own mobile record store! These days everything is paid for right down to placement at eye level in the bin. Back then you had to tune into some radio show broadcast a million miles away at a godforsaken hour to hear the secret gospel preached by some hopped up goofball. These days the record company inc. pays the promoter inc. who pays the radio station inc. to play the approved corporate product inc.
It's hard to believe, but the first dorks who wrote about rock with appreciation took a lot of heat for wasting time on something so temporary and puerile. Hah! Rock was way more than a teen fad. In fact it was the very tip of an iceberg of social revolution. When rock first hit, your visit to its spawning ground would have brought you face to face with a new world. You'd see black, white, brown people, all kinds of people laughing together, dancing together, while out there in the real world of supposedly separated church and state they had segregated facilities for "coloreds." Yes, sir, you came for the music but you stayed for the easy access to pot, booze, cigarettes, pills, hot rods and sex. You learned a whole new language, a magical slang indecipherable by parents. Rock and roll was the Internet back then. A simple rock club was a place where a thousand different privacies could collide in an orgy of revelations.
Now it's 2002 and the music business is buzzing about the rebirth of rock and roll. The Strokes, The Hives, The Vines and others are eagerly trotted out for a run before the judges, splashed across front pages and headlines. The refurbished Guns and Roses is expected to save the day. Certainly a rebirth of rock and roll is to be wished for, isn't it? What other tradition do we have that in its very name implies fucking, intoxication, freedom, energy, and a whole list of other mostly positive associations? For many fans the definition of rock and roll extends to intellectual and even spiritual enlightenment. No wonder hostile Christian critics accuse it of being a new form of the old pagan religion.
Can there be another Chuck Berry, a Rolling Stones, a Jimi Hendrix for the new millennium? Or something so new it will dwarf the accomplishments of the legends? Bands claiming to be just that clog sites like MP3.com. So could the next Beatles actually be getting five hits a day on MP3.com right now? How would we know? Without corporate financing for the kind of promotion and product placement most of us require to even consider noticing something new, the next Beatles will wait around for career ignition till they are spider-webbed skeletons while consumers glance over the latest Eminem soap opera.
Anyway even if the new Beatles are better than the old Beatles, they can't achieve what those Beatles achieved. Burning Brides are a great band but they're not as good as or as significant as Smashing Pumpkins were, and they weren't as happening as The Stooges, who weren't as amazing as the Stones in their prime, who weren't as awe inspiring as Elvis in 1954 and they couldn't be because they could never mean what Elvis meant to Western civilization the year his shaking leg and smiling sneer made clear the new world order.
The Hives aren't The Who. How could they be? When The Who did it, it was being done for the first time. Theirs was a surprising twist on the good old rock and roll religion. Now that every infinitesimal niche of rhythm, mood and melody has been explored in every variation by an ever-growing army of musicians, nothing is new. Somebody already said better what is being said yet again. Everyone has that annoying friend with a good ear to announce what old song the new song really is.
When Trail of Dead destroyed a vintage Gibson Flying V to wow the Brits at the big shrewcase, I mean showcase, they were comparable to Civil War re-enactors. Scenesters may wonder if Trail was inspired by Icarus Line's attempted liberation of a Stevie Ray Vaughn guitar at the Las Vegas Hard Rock. But when The Who smashed their instruments back in the early sixties it was a shock to people who had never seen musicians express violence. It became a liberating symbol of repressed anger, disgust with the status quo, disregard for practicality and good manners. Now that the grandkids are doing it, well, let's just say vintage Gibson Flying V's are things of beauty. So you got something new to say that makes you special enough to destroy one?
There was a time when parents didn't buy their kids amps and proudly video their shows. I'm told there was a brief time when if you saw a kid with long hair chances were he was cooler, smarter, truer than most. When Jimi Hendrix first unleashed the potential of guitar distortion, the overpowering roar was a shock to audiences. When the Stones toured the U.S. in the early sixties they caused riots. The reactions of lust, out of control excitement, resentful rage they provoked will never be duplicated by a rock band in America. We are not the same sexually repressed, information starved society we were then: we're sexually repressed and information starved in a different way. Then information was withheld from us, in some misguided attempt to shape a better world. Now there is so much information we don't know how to find the most vital. We live at the butt end of the rock and roll deal, when every product commercial is rock and rolling us, the electric guitar is as familiar as the laugh track, and every high school bully sees a future in a refuge once reserved for freaks.
From Bowie's gender bend to Elton's stately queen, from snotty "smart(?)" Yes to snotty "dumb(?)" Ramones, every possible shock rock could bring has been brought. White guys rap, black guys crunch, blow jobs on stage, self mutilation, Nazis, spewed fake (and real) blood, hung by the neck till dead, baiting Christians with satanic satire, realistic beheadings, fire breathing Kabuki Jew, fire breathing six foot woman, chainsawed cars, flaming pentagrams, death cults, sex cults, drug cults, alien dramas, shitting, peeing on the audience with The Mentors, astrological positioning of band members, shooting up, if suicide on stage hasn't happened who cares, it would be a yawn by now. Anyway what Kurt Cobain did was close enough to count.
Perry Farrell wasn't shocking back when he declared "Nothing's Shocking." The only shocking thing for most of us is that any of this was once shocking. Look if we want shocking we're not going to go to a band to get it. We're going to go to the Internet. You want shocking sex? You want shocking drug info and possible contacts for all sorts of illicit activity? You crave shocking gossip or shocking violence? Visit your local search engine. Online you're more likely to hook up with anything you want (if not on Ebay in a chatroom) than at any rock show. At bars most rock shows are mostly male, mostly drunk, and mostly disgusting for most females. The Internet is safer, with ZoneAlarm set on high. You can have a cookie and tea while perusing the latest ecstasy or atrocity. The Internet is far more rock and roll than rock and roll could be. More egalitarian. More dangerous. More informative. More challenging to prejudices. Filled with the possibility of new experiences in the intensely concentrated way rock once was.
Time marches on, time is waiting in the wings, ticking away the moments that make up a dull day, but time is not on rock's side. Believe it, pal, your hippie grandma had rock and roll way better than you ever will. And your punk rock daddy, he didn't have it half as good as grandma, no matter what he tells you, Jello Biafra had nothing on Abbie Hoffman, but he still had it way better than you! In a world where Al Qaeda threatens to blow up a million children, where crooked corporate CEOs pocket billions while their companies, employees, and investors eat shit, rock and roll is a nice diversion, an interesting sociological study, a course in historical social revolution for the culturally starved, a nostalgia machine for those who remember when suntans were sexy instead of a cancer precursor, when the worst thing you could get from promiscuous sex was a disease a couple shots could cure, once upon a time when the drugs really were recreational.
Hey, sure rock may turn up burning the torch of some crazy unknown poet girl who can sing, though she'll probably do a whole catalog of historically significant work before anyone ever hears her. Or it'll be four kids in China who put it together in a way nobody else ever has, and besides being The Beatles of Asia and helping a generation navigate sudden social evolution, they'll even be popular in America because they do rock. But why should the Chinese use an American art form for their cultural evolution? Why should anybody use it, especially now that it's several generations old, an art form that predates the Internet. Prehistoric almost! Well, maybe because they'll differentiate between the ideal of America and the imperial actuality, maybe they'll see rock and roll as the purest image of that ideal of freedom we visualized but failed to realize. Sure they will.
And why should we ever hear of that mythical rock goddess who will unleash the pent up poetry and rage of the half of the population that John Lennon called the slaves of the slaves? We don't have the time to go looking for her even if her music could enlighten and move us as we had thought rock never could again. No one who controls mass distribution will let her viral message through the monopolized consensus. But she will keep piling up masterpieces and the integrity of the work will have a gravity of it's own, and in time, perhaps when the future looks back, her obscurity will make her shine all the more brightly. Yeah, right.
But hey what the hell do you want from rock anyway? Rock set out to change the world. And the world changed. Rock ended a war. So rock advertises for the army? Rock is pushing fifty now. You don't even want to think about what The King would have looked like at the big 5 oh. Let's just say Vince Neil looks more like Jon Lovitz everyday. Yeah rock is greedy, sleazy, hypocritical and lascivious; the new boss really is the same as the old boss. But kid, believe it, there was a time, when rock was young, and poetry poured from beautiful lips, and the world rearranged as if a magician had reformed it. So if rock tells the same stories over and over again, constantly embarrasses us, and forgets what it was just doing, well, hell, kid, rock earned it.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ronnie Pontiac plays guitar in the band Lucid Nation, one of Alternative Press's "100 Bands You Need to Know 2002." His zine Eracism 2 was distributed to gang truce offices and prisons all over the U.S. "Privilege," Ronnie's Food Not Bombs anthem inspired by kitchen duty at Koo's Anarchist Cafe in southern California was #2 on Scour.com's worldwide punk MP3 download chart in spring 2000.