The Death of Rock & Roll
Top 10s: Year, Decade, Eternity
Like this country's forefathers, it came from England. Though it didn't originate there, it took hold of and thrived in the taverns and music halls of London, then traversed the Atlantic Ocean and touched off another American revolution. Spreading like smallpox brought to the New World by European settlers, it soon became the preeminent form of popular entertainment in the Unites States, reigning supreme for the next four decades. Although the hindsight of history affords us a clear, concise chain of social, economic, and technological events leading up to its inevitable decline and ultimate demise -- declared by the mass media, anyway -- its death nevertheless came as something of a shock. The King was dead. And yet, since the beginning of mankind, the death of one ruler has only meant the coronation of another. The King is dead! Long live the King! Call him by his real name: Evolution. He waits for no man, woman, or society. He pauses not one second for any trend, movement, or cause. Marching forward with time, he leaves behind those that can't keep up, never looking back, never giving them another thought. Neither scientists, politicians, nor philosophers can say where he's headed, only what might be passed along the way. Those landmarks are history, and new centuries give way to new technologies. Thus came the death of vaudeville.
Originally a light song style derived from French drinking and love songs, American vaudeville was stage entertainment consisting of unrelated songs, dances, acrobatic and magic acts, humorous skits and sketches. Its dominance in stateside theatres began circa 1880 and continued through the late 1920s, when it ran afoul of the Great Depression. Some of the 20th century's greatest entertainers -- George M. Cohen, Harry Houdini, W.C. Fields, Will Rogers, the Marx Brothers, Eddie Cantor, Jimmy Durante, Jack Benny, and Edgar Bergen -- got their start in vaudeville. With the sudden and drastic economic downturn of the United States -- came the ascendance of a relatively new, and better yet, free, form of entertainment -- radio -- which then absorbed many vaudevillians of the era. Later, film and television did the same. Still, the cries of "Vaudeville Is Dead" were long and loud. Sound familiar?
It's hard to pinpoint exactly when the bullhorn started sounding that familiar apocalyptic warning -- "Rock Is Dead!" -- but 1996-97, sometime after Soundgarden broke up, is a good guess. Certainly by the next year, at South by Southwest 1998, the music industry had more or less decided that two turntables and one DJ were far more interesting than two guitars and a Marshall stack. If nothing else, the dissolution of Chris Cornell & crew suddenly brought the Seattle hard rock group's main benefactor, "alternative rock radio," the medium's defining format in the post-Nirvana Nineties, into sharp relief; turns out "modern rock" playlists were as stale as those of "classic rock" stations. A new Foo Fighters album? So what? Smashing Pumpkins, Hole? Who cares? Of course, it wasn't just radio. The consolidation of all media -- television, film, print -- left many forms of contemporary communication owned by giant, multinational corporations whose shareholders were too busy poring over this morning's Dow industrials to notice the exact same 10 faces being fisted up the public's you-know-what by their NASDAQ stock's NYC-based marketing firm. Look no further than 1999's Return of the Haircut (Backstreet Boys, N'Sync) and Rise of the Booty (Britney Spears, Ricky Martin) to get a frighteningly unironic, bad-acid flashback to the days of pre-rock-era pablum. Didn't Elvis, the Beatles, and Nirvana already die for these sins? Just how much Puff Daddy does anyone besides Jennifer Lopez (ay caramba!) really need?
Plenty, as it turns out. Though Nirvana managed to mate the two biggest sounds of the modern rock era, Beatles and Sex Pistols (punk, anyway -- sorry Oasis) and thus get the Seattle trio's 1991 DGC debut Nevermind first place on most Decade Top 10 lists, it was hip-hop and rap that defined the Nineties. In a world where John Lennon and the Beatles were bigger than Jesus Christ, Public Enemy and their Hip-Hop Nation call-to-arms, Fear of a Black Planet (1990), were as important to American civil rights as Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. A Tribe Called Quest, Beastie Boys, Dr. Dre, Fugees, Lauryn Hill, Kool Keith, KRS-One, LL Cool J, Notorious B.I.G., Prince Paul, 2-Pac, Wu-Tang Clan -- the list goes on. This is where innovation, as well as violence, misogyny, homophobia, and ridiculous loot could be found thriving in the music industry during the past 10-15 years. Rock & Roll? Hell, that's dead.
Not really, but it's fun to trumpet, isn't it? Since "Artist" and "Band" honors somehow divy up between Nirvana and Public Enemy, that leaves the "prestigious" Irving H. Thalberg award going to some dopey-looking skinny white guy from L.A. who makes music under the nom du dork Beck. In this one goofy, gifted twentysomething, all the key musical elements of the last decade came together: rock & roll, hip-hop, singer-songwriter, lo-fi, DJ. More surprising is the idea that between his last-minute winter release this year, Midnite Vultures, an instant lock-down for most 1999 Top 10 lists, and '96's galvanizing Odelay! (following up the previous year's hit single "Loser," which was to Gen X what "Satisfaction" was to baby boomers), Beck managed to come off like rock & roll's savior and its Antichrist (apologies to Marilyn Manson) all at the same time.
After all, most live hip-hop doesn't come off looking as good as Beck at the Austin Music Hall or the Beastie Boys at the Alamadome. Time and time again, the practice of rapping reams and reams of stoney poetry to the beat of James Brown's drummer has endured way too many 20-minute bullshit sets not to confirm that Ol' Dirty Bastard belongs confined behind some thick-ass studio glass rather than be loosed on the public. This is decidedly not rock & roll. ODB's outrageous N***A Please, the Roots' prophetic street treatise Things Fall Apart, Handsome Boy Modeling School's pimping So -- How's Your Girl?, and especially Rubberroom's bomb squad scare Architechnology, all released in '99, will make you rock & roll, sure, but they ain't rock & roll. For better or worse.
Whether one carbon dates the birth of blues-based "rock & roll" back to the Twenties and Thirties with the likes of immortals such as Robert Johnson, Son House, and Charlie Patton; the Forties with jump bluesmen Wynonie Harris and Louis Jordon -- or Bob Wills and Bill Monroe on the country/bluegrass side of the fence; Fifties with a hillbilly movie star wannabe who brought the two uniquely American musical forms together; or the Sixties, with two groups who spit it all back in our faces -- the Beatles and Rolling Stones -- the outcome is the same: Rock & roll is at least middle-aged. Naturally, as that torn T-shirt, slicked-back-hair youth who grew up on the back streets of Jersey, it's having trouble growing old gracefully. Not that it should. As the Who's Pete Townshend said while inducting Mick Jagger and Keith Richards et al. into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, "Don't do it, guys, it wouldn't suit you." As a band that has remained true to its purest essence ("I can't get no satisfaction, no satisfaction, no satisfaction!"), these scruffy English blokes who began by revving up American blues and R&B in deep, dark, dank London basements during the early Sixties embody the phrase "rock & roll" better than any other group in the genre's history. A singer with his cabaret heart, pirate guitarists wielding their instruments like slave-ship whips, an exceptional jazz drummer, the Stones are why VH1's Behind the Music always plots out the same: scarves and sunglasses, gold earrings and hubcap diamond star halos -- limos, drugs. Egos, excess, and overdoses. Rock & roll.
Astonishingly, 35-plus years after they took Muddy Waters' advice, the Rolling Stones' rock & roll juggernaut continues on steel wheels. Topping the 1999 concert receipts list, the band's impromptu North American tour -- supporting a live album spin-off of the band's decade-best Bridges to Babylon -- edged out Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band's Came, Saw, Conquered tour as the biggest buck-raking rock & roll extravaganza finishing off the decade and, yes, century. As with Beck, this was both good and bad. Like the Eagles, and Neil Young on his solo acoustic tour recently, only concertgoers in the same income bracket as Jagger & Richards could afford these shows. Billy Joel, Madison Square Garden New Year's Eve for $1,000? This is what set off the Sex Pistols for chrissakes.
And it's getting worse. The concert promotions business has become as corporatized as the rest of the music industry. In Austin alone, the impending throwdown between Direct Events (Backyard, Music Hall, La Zona Rosa) and the soon-to-rise Liberty Lunch and Stubb's axis will only push up local ticket prices, edge out a certain strata of local talent, and make getting good acts at Emo's for $5 that much harder. And what about the technicolor bloom of 21st-century technology? With live Internet concert Webcasts, DVD players hooked up to expensive "sound design" systems, and high definition TV and now digital cable -- all of them looking to morph into a universal form of entertainment -- is there even any reason to battle Friday night parking on Sixth Street?
Sure, because 1999 was actually another good year for music, and rock & roll in general. Considering locals could see cock-rock king Kid Rock at Emo's in January for a few bucks, Janie & Jonny Allowance haven't yet been relegated to endless, your-brain-on-asbestos MTV attempts at Studio 54 glam 'n' sham. The Black Crowes (By Your Side), Buckcherry (Buckcherry), Hellacopters (Grande Rock/Payin' the Dues), and Rage Against the Machine (The Battle of Los Angeles) all left testosterone levels rising like a frat boy's boxer shorts in the AM. Nothing new, certainly, but in recycling lies rock & roll rebirth. Witness this year's renewel of New Wave punkers Blondie (No Exit), Eurythmics (Peace), Pretenders (°Viva El Amor!), and Talking Heads, whose revamped Stop Making Sense CD was a must in 1999. Their Third World offspring in the Rock en Español army, Fabulosos Cadillacs (La Marcha del Golazo Solitario), Cafe Tacuba (Reves/Yosoy), and P18 (Urban Cuban), brought it all full circle.
Seguro que 1999 was another bueno year for all things Latin, starting with Mr. Grammy nomination Carlos Santana (Supernatural), and continuing through a trio of worthy wolf traps (Latin Playboys' Dose, Los Lobos' This Time, Cesar Rosas' Soul Disguise), and ending again with one of the defining movements of the Nineties: Cuban music. Buena Vista Social Club offshoots Ibrahim Ferrer (Ibrahim Ferrer), Compay Segundo (Calle Salud), and especially Eliades Ochoa's sublime Sublime Ilusion -- as well as the stunning Cuban doo-wop of the Los Zafiros retrospective, Bossa Cubana -- translated Latin roots music into Americana.
Ah, another trend identifying the last decade: rock & roll with twang, aka "country" and "alt.country." Dudes such as Marty Stuart (The Pilgrim), Buddy Miller (Cruel Moon), and particularly the dead-on chemistry of Jim Lauderdale & Ralph Stanley (I Feel Like Singing Today) mixed well in 1999 with ladies like Patsy -- er, Mandy Barnett (I've Got a Right to Cry), ol' Emmylou Harris & big ol' Linda Ronstadt (Western Wall/The Tuscon Sessions), and smooth, sultry Sally Timms (Cowboy Sally's Twilight Laments).
None were as eye-opening as the third LP from primo Band of the Decade candidates Wilco, whose stunning Summerteeth took the Beatles' Rubber Soul to heart and continued through Americana, pop, and rock & roll as smoothly as old pros like Jack Logan (Buzz Me In) and Randy Newman (Bad Love). Joe Henry (Fuse), Sparklehorse (Good Morning Spider), and Moby, who fused ancient blues and gospel field recordings with dance music (Play), blurred musical categories like singer-songwriter, lo-fi, electronica, DJ. French studio settlers AIR managed to assimulate Stanley Kubrick's comically perverse sci-fi vision with Premiers Symptomes.
The single most important uprising of the Nineties, the women's movement, had a relatively quiet year in '99, jazz mama Abbey Lincoln (Wholly Earth), reggae rebel Sister Carol (Isis), and soul sister Meshell Ndegeocello (Bitter) defining womanhood for lil' girls like Britney Spears, Fiona Apple, and Jewel. Beth Orton's steady, mature Central Reservation also helped the cause -- a cause that rose with the decade. Erykah Badu, Sheryl Crow, Ani DiFranco, Elastica, Kim Gordon, PJ Harvey, Lauryn Hill, L7, k.d. lang, Courtney Love, Shirley Manson, Loreena McKennitt, Sarah McLachlan, Natalie Merchant, Alanis Morissette, Sinead O'Connor, Joan Osborne, Liz Phair, Sleater-Kinney, Patti Smith, Syd Straw, Lucinda Williams, Cassandra Wilson -- plus an international legion of others -- were bigger and badder than the Teamsters union.
Good year, notable decade. So why are people saying rock & roll is going the way of the Ritz Brothers?
The reality of the situation is that at the brink of 2000, when uncounted millions secretly hoped modern technology would short-circuit and we'd be revisting the age of clay pots, all we really needed to save our musical civilization was a guitar and someone to play it. A singer-songwriter. You know Austin, that guy busing your table -- the espresso girl at Starbucks. Willie Nelson to Lucinda Williams. The heart and soul of a rapidly upscaling Texas capital. At the apocalypse, one expects it's Austin "singer-songwriters" and the statue of Stevie Ray Vaughan who are left. Thus, 1999 was a typical year in a decade teeming with local songwriters who stand atop coffee tables with Texan Steve Earle to proclaim Townes Van Zandt's divinity: Terry Allen's sacrilege with a smile, Salivation, Stephen Bruton's endearing Nothing but the Truth, Troy Campbell's fierce Man vs. Beast, Alejandro Escovedo's barroom showdown, Bourbonitis Blues, Guy Forsyth's forceful Can You Live Without, Radney Foster's frank See What You Want to See, Jon Dee Graham's sweet 'n' sour sophomore success, Summerland, Jimmy LaFave's sprawling Trail, Trish Murphy's rocking Rubies, Billy Joe Shaver's Electric Shaver, Monte Warden's romantic dissolution, A Stranger to Me Now, Ray Wylie Hubbard's West Texas epic, Crusades of the Restless Knight -- even Bob Schneider's Songs Sung & Played on Guitar at the Same Time. Songwriters, all of 'em. Good ones. Making quality albums. The Lone Star Legacy.
A legacy started back in the Sixties with the Austin music scene's Christopher Columbus, Willie Nelson, and carried forward by a cabal of local and one-time local songwriters who were at the peak of their powers during the Nineties: the aforementioned group, plus Guy Clark, Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Nanci Griffith, Butch Hancock, Robert Earl Keen, Lyle Lovett, and Lucinda Williams. And that's just the classic, folk-influenced "singer-songwriter" types. What about a songwriting savant like Daniel Johnston, whose vibrant Rejected/Unknown reminded locals why Kurt Cobain was known to sport T-shirts with Johnston's artwork. Even the acoustic demos of Roky Erickson's beautifully spooky Never Say Goodbye recall another Texas songwriting institution.
In fact, the punk and "alternative" movements in Austin over the last two decades, which gave rise to all-time genre giants such as the Bad Livers, Big Boys, Butthole Surfers, Cherubs, Dicks, Ed Hall, Scratch Acid -- any number of local bands sponsored by King Coffey's seminal Trance Syndicate label -- have made good use of songs themselves, and this year was no different. Brown Whörnet, Handful, and the Shindigs all pounded punklike on self-titled releases, while Fivehead (It's Not All Good and It's Not Right On), Hidden Speaker (The Brittle Stars), Kiss Offs (Goodbye Private Life), Solid Gold 40 (Rock Show), and --Trail of Dead (Madonna) might've found play on "modern rock" radio if that's the way radio worked today.
Top honors in that department belong to Meg Hentges' sweet, prickly, packs-a-wallop Brompton's Cocktail, fumbled badly by yet another indie with major-label dollars and distribution. The second Silver Scooter release, Orleans Parish, put on a happily droopy pop face, while the American Analog Set's warm, dreamy The Golden Band followed suit on their catalog. Eschewing songs for sounds, 7% Solution's elegaic guitar suite, Gabriel's Waltz, and the Friends of Dean Martinez' swirling Martian soundscape, Atardecer, join with Knife in the Water's outstanding, somewhat unsettling pop sandstorm, Plays One Sound and Others, as the cream of Thirty-Three Degrees good taste.
The usual suspects, blues and country, gave their homeland solid campaign contributions, the former category giving up Toni Price's exceptional Low Down and Up, Doyle Bramhall's smooth, savy Jellycream, ZZ Top's 21st-century industrial greaze, XXX, and finally young Jake Andrews' fine SRV-style debut, Time to Burn. The latter stable, rounded up with Austin's simpático roots rock/alt.country contingent, bucked good and lively starting with hearty output from the Big Ds -- Don Walser (Here's to Country Music), Derailers (Full Western Dress), Dale Watson (People I've Known, Places I've Been), and the winner by a landslide, Damnations TX's sometimes mournful, sometimes rollicking, always under-your-skin Sire debut, Half Mad Moon.
Asleep at the Wheel (Ride With Bob), Wayne Hancock (Wild, Free & Reckless), Hot Club of Cowtown (Tall Tales), Cornell Hurd (At Large), Roger Wallace (Hillbilly Heights), and of course the belle of the ball, Kelly Willis (What I Deserve) distinguished Austin as the capital of more than just George W. Bush's empire. South of that border, Bradley Jaye Williams' finger-licking four-star Tex-Mex Gumbo and Santiago Jiménez Jr.'s El Corrdio de Eseqiel Hernandez were on par with the Eastside's Texas Trumpets, whose self-titled debut should fit right in with all your Clifford Scott imports.
What's left? Left-of-the-dial folk implosions from Austin's battling Barkers (Burn Your Piano) and Barbers (You Know How It Is), dueling Flamenco guitar from Teye (Viva el Flamenco) and Gypsy jazz courtesy of Tosca (Amado), and one out-of-this-world electronica compilation of locals, Bloo. Oh, and an overlooked, slightly tarnished local gem. A straightforward rock & roll album, one that's hungry, loud, and comfortably worn-in: Dumptruck's Terminal.
That's right, plain ol' rock & roll. That archaic form of musical entertainment that went the way of vaudeville. Dull, finished, kaput. Dead as Doug Sahm.
In a century in which the United States dominated world economics, this country's most important universal export will have been something which it sorely lacks: culture. Art as deep and lasting as 22,000-year-old cave paintings in southern France and Spain. What does a young, sneering culture torn by racial and sexual tension put up to rival the sculpture of Michelangelo, the screaming paintings of Van Gogh, the poetry of William Shakespeare? Duke Ellington, that's what. And his Orchestra. Louis Armstrong, Lester Young, Billie Holiday & Teddy Wilson, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Ella Fitzgerald, Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman.
Bessie Smith, Howlin' Wolf, John Lee Hooker, T-Bone Walker, Ray Charles, B.B. King, James Brown, Fats Domino, Little Richard, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke, Diana Ross, Al Green, the Temptations, Curtis Mayfield, Parliament/Funkadelic, Sly & the Family Stone, Prince, Staple Singers, Neville Brothers.
The Carter Family, Louvin Brothers, Woody Guthrie, Jimmie Rogers, Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, George Jones, Merle Haggard, Lefty Frizzell, Don Walser, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley.
Allman Brothers, Beach Boys, Bob Dylan, the Doors, Everly Brothers, John Fogerty, Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Metallica, Nine Inch Nails, Roy Orbison, Iggy Pop, Ramones, Lou Reed, Donna Summer, Ike & Tina Turner, Velvet Underground, Neil Young, Frank Zappa.
A list to end all lists. Vaudeville lives.