Tuesday, November 19, 2013
As a kid, listening to WMMR and WYSP, I established myself as an absolute classicist about rock music. This meant that, driving around as a teenager, I was on a perpetual quest to find the right song at the right time. This is especially true because, by the time I was a senior at Cheltenham ('93/'94), WDRE had converted me to a bona fide fan of alternative rock music and the alternative revolution. With twenty years hindsight, it is amazing to me how much classic rock has stuck to my bones. Even crap which I would usually skip through is still lodged in my brain as squarely and ineluctably as the good stuff- and, as the years go by, I begin to see meta-dimensionality even in 70s rock kitsch- Supertramp, Heart, The Eagles, Jethro Tull, Boston, other AOR stalwarts. What thoughtful vistas open up, for instance, from Heart? A cursory viewing of Heart vids on YouTube establishes a few obvious quirks- the character "Ann Wilson" has clearly been played by many different female rockers at different times; she isn't cohesive. It's also clear that the gestalt construct "Heart" was put together to fill a niche as a kind of girls' Led Zeppelin; most of the Heart signature songs are about lust, but lust-in-reverse from the typical rock scenario; lust of girls for guys. Listening to "Magic Man" and "Barracuda," it is easy to believe that the whole Heart team thought they were revolutionaries, bravely blazing a trail for other girl rockers to follow. Yet Heart's songs fail to distinguish themselves- they listen as plain Jane, musically and lyrically, with nothing extraordinary about them to make them distinct. With Heart on YouTube, the kitsch factor is huge- beyond the obvious physical discrepancies, as Ann and Nancy Wilson keep changing, the hammy rock posturing and simulacrum of do-or-die intensity is funny to watch. It's a remnant of a more innocent time, when the merely stylized could still sell as substantial.
Heart, as a rock moment, couldn't be more miscellaneous- yet, as 70s miscellany, Heart, like The Eagles, have a sense of being exemplary. Watching the Eagles rockumentary which has been airing regularly on Showtime, it is easy to see that many of the same forces are at work, towards miscellany and kitsch value, which makes Heart an interesting rock curio in 2013. First of all, there's the stretch it takes to believe that the guys reflecting on a storied past from the present moment are actually The Eagles- how that center of credibility and good show-biz faith cannot hold in a Recession as harsh and unforgiving as ours has been. Rock docs are a genre in which narrative incoherence and hack-ism are de rigueur- it is cute that the producers of such fare still pretend that good faith holds. That the composition of "Lyin' Eyes" or "Peaceful Easy Feeling" merits such seriously baroque narrative moves, as though we were watching the creation of the Sistine Chapel murals, is both cute and redolent of a more naive age, when there was an expansive, credulous American public to consume this crap. That having been said, I have grown fond of some Eagles songs in my old age- "One of These Nights," "Best of My Love," and even the mock-existential, bombastic bathos of "Take It To the Limit." Much more than Heart, The Eagles chose to address serious issues in their lyrics- there was always something at stake, other than sex and lust, for their narrators. In Eagles-land, there's always a party going on, where the beautiful and the damned do their decadent dance- but behind that brittle facade lies a welter of stark, desperate emotions for their sensitive protagonists. Decadence decoys aimlessness and self-destructive complexes.
In the pure corniness stakes, Supertramp have some points on both Heart and The Eagles. Supertramp, for many reasons, are so completely anti-heroic within their schlock-of-ages context that it is difficult to remember that there songs do attempt to be heroic- Supertramp pursue the deep and meaningful. "The Logical Song" distinguishes itself as one of the few top forty hits of all time to assay philosophy and the broadly philosophical, the rigors of cognition- and all the "Breakfast in America" singles distinguish themselves by attempting to embody the best of 60s and 70s rock together, for a big push forward into the 80s. Supertramp are companionable as kitsch, for their grandiose ambitions and silly executions of same. For me, I still can't hear anything in Jethro Tull- always a conversation-stopper in my car, still so murky against being distinct that even Ian Anderson's onstage, flute-huffing shenaningans leave me blank-faced. Yet, the whole tenor of 70s cheese-rock is attractive to me, because it is not only naive but assumes complete naivete in its audience- that generic music will reach and move an audience also generic, who cannot distinguish wheat from chaff, in rock music or anything else. The adult American populace on 2013 grew up being underestimated. Are we tired of this kind of treatment? I'd say we are, from what I've seen- but baby pictures are cute and even instructive to sift through sometimes.