It is Wartime. Where is Our Rock’n’Roll?

A former record executive laments the decline of risk-taking in rock.

February 27, 2018 5:00 am
Singer Johnny Rotten and guitarist Steve Jones of the punk band 'The Sex Pistols' perform their last concert in Winterland on January 14, 1978 in San Francisco. (Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
Singer Johnny Rotten and guitarist Steve Jones of the punk band 'The Sex Pistols' perform their last concert in Winterland on January 14, 1978 in San Francisco. (Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
Michael Ochs Archives

It is wartime. If you are reading this, it is likely your side is losing.

Will music play any meaningful role in this war? Will rock’n’roll, for 60 years our treasured totem of freedom, inspire or instruct us?

We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, bent over Facebook and Instagram, binge-watching fantasy, looking uncomfortably to the world our children will inherit.

I have led a relatively cozy existence. I have basked in the cathode ray glow of a low-impact life that cast Diet Coke-colored sunbeams on America. Even I, who refuses to tan, lounged beneath this obscenely convincing fake noon that smiled down on our country for a few years. That is all to say, I lived my life after the draft ended and before America, bug-eyed in terror, chose their leaders out of fear instead of hope, and before we prayed for exclusion, not inclusion.

If you were born after 1953, you never experienced the hovering terror of the draft: Anyone sitting in front of a Zenith TV or studying the open gatefold sleeve of a Moody Blues album could suddenly be sent to die. But those of us raised in the ’70s, ’80s, and ‘90s did not have to live under that shadow. Therefore, we were satisfied to listen to guitar-slinging cartoon Chés carrying construction paper weapons and dispensing rhymed advice that sounded very, very good to tenth graders. We called these rock stars rebels.

Rebel Rock’n’Roll was a lissome, pouting, enchanting, exhilarating whore, and it encouraged us to lead a life where we confused actual freedoms with the freedom to dye your hair pink. We did not need to fight to defend our liberty, so we fought for the right to ridicule Styx.

We were safe, and we never dreamed, not for one moment, that “it” could happen here (whatever “it” was — discrimination, genocide, the abrogation of the free press, the persecution of those who loved or desired someone of the same sex, the eviction of the working immigrant class who powered our country). We hypnotized ourselves into believing the following: What we have now, these extraordinary freedoms of speech, movement, desire, and worship, no one can ever take these away. These are permanent.

But only a fool believes in permanence.

Now, I am not here to say it will happen here. I am here to say it can, and the machinery to strip you of the freedom of speech, movement, desire, and worship is already in gear. We used to say, “The future is full of things that we cannot possibly imagine!” It is entirely plausible that in half a dozen years you will not recognize America. The future is full of things that we cannot possibly imagine.

Because of our complacent age, the age when we bravely fought and won the battle to wear Brothel Creepers, our rock’n’roll heroes lied, again and again and again. But that was okay: They didn’t need to tell the truth. We didn’t need actual instruction, actual direction or actual risk-taking from our heroes. The simulacrum, the Green Screen of rebellion proffered by virtually every rebel rock artist you ever loved, well, that was enough. We somehow convinced ourselves that pissing off our parents or our teachers or our bosses was actually a meaningful act of war, so we only needed a soundtrack that would accompany that.

Shouting “White Riot” without offering any information, without directing the listener to issues or resources, is as ridiculous as some newly minted plastic hippie moaning that if you go to San Francisco, you need to put flowers in our hair. Actually, it’s more ridiculous, because putting flowers in your hair was a reasonable and achievable goal, whereas I can be fairly certain not a single white riot was started because The Clash suggested one should happen. Oh, but you shouted “White Riot!” and thought you were a rebel, didn’t you? I know I did. The Clash were beautiful bullsh-t. We saw god in their slogans, smoke and mirrors. But they didn’t even change their own rotten industry, they barely even tried.

The Sex Pistols led a cultural revolution, true, but one completely devoid of any remotely meaningful political content, information or direction. This sums it up: On “Anarchy in the U.K.” John Lydon sings, “Give the wrong time/Stop a traffic line.” In 1976 if one made a list of actions that could help resolve the problems of Northern Ireland, incendiary race relations, and rabid unemployment, it is extremely unlikely that the words “Give the wrong time” would have appeared anywhere on that list. It sounded like it meant something, but it was utterly meaningless.

There are literally eight thousand other examples of our decades-long romance with talented and exhilarating fake rebels. I will happily, constantly, remind you about what Bruce Springsteen was doing in the weeks and months running up to the 2016 Presidential election: He was on the road promoting a book and taking selfies with adoring fans, and there was not a voter registration table in sight. Another beautiful fake.

The fake rebels of rock’n’roll taught you that “the revolution” was going to be a revolution that made you more free. Not only could you piss off your parents with that haircut, but you could take drugs, too! Wow! What fools they were. What fools we were. While they were singing their little pop songs about Woodstock and how much the radio sucked, people on the other side were actually organizing, building armies, singing rousing songs. But hey, you took a stand against your local FM radio station; you’re such a rebel!

Yes, you. You who thought you did your part for the revolution because you sang along with some wet guitarist in Central Park’s Strawberry Fields. This is what Wartime means: it no longer means thinking that we “won” because the Beatles music now accompanies figure skaters.

If you don’t start the revolution, it’s going to be started for you, and it will be started from the other side. It has already started. Someone is already building the gallows your freedoms of speech, movement, desire, and worship will hang from. See, the revolution, the one happening right now, was not just televised; it was everywhere, all at once, it became wallpaper, it became easy to ignore.

There will come a time, soon, after the neo-oligarchs take away your elections and stand under a cross while doing it, that you will wish that rock’n’roll had actually told the truth; you will desperately wish that the revolution you have been crowing about for fifty years hadn’t just been a painted backdrop at a high school production of Hair.

So many of us have been so lucky and known nothing but freedom.

But that is changing. And as we fight for our freedoms, if we fight for our freedoms, it will teach us to empathize with those who have always had to fight; and we will fight for them, too.

But we will need singers who sing the truth, and that truth can be full of melody and joy, that truth can even be sexy, but it can no longer be made of bandanas and slogans and held together by willful blindness. We will be at war, we will be fighting for real freedoms, not just for the freedom to piss off our parents.

For John Robb, Paul Sanchez, Matthew Goodman, and Mick Hargreaves, all of whom remind us of these words by Phil Ochs: “Even though you can’t expect to defeat the absurdity of the world, you must make that attempt. That’s morality, that’s religion. That’s art. That’s life.”

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