Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Rock formations

Rock of Ages and the problem of great mediocrity

In the fall of 1978, a big event happened in my life: the progressive rock band Styx released its eighth album, Pieces of Eight. I'd become a Styx fan the year before when I went to my first rock concert and became a devotee. Pieces of Eight was about the first time I'd experienced a new release by the band I had been following, and I regarded buying and hearing the album as a ritual of initiation.

The really great days that fall where ones where I'd come home from school to an empty house and so could blast the album as loud as I pleased. I particularly loved one track, "Blue Collar Man." Singer/songwriter/guitarist Tommy Shaw depicted an unemployed worker declaring his determination to overcome adversity:

I'll take the long nights, impossible odds
Keeping my eye to the keyhole
If it takes all that to be just who I am
Well I'm gonna be a blue collar man

It was the closest I've come to perfect sublimity. Class consciousness, thick rhythm guitar, hot guitar solo: what more could anyone want?

Little did I know that Lester Bangs, a rock critic I later much admired, would write of Pieces of Eight in Rolling Stone that "What's really interesting is not that such narcissistic slop should get recorded, but what must be going on in the minds of the people who support it in such amazing numbers." (The album went triple platinum.) I was not yet paying attention to people like Elvis Costello and Bruce Springsteen, who would open large windows into what rock music could really be. Nor had I acquired the three academic degrees which would furnish the means by which I absorbed truly towering works of art that would enrich my life and provide me with a living.

But here's the thing: no work of art, no aesthetic experience, has ever provided me with more satisfaction than "Blue Collar Man" did. That magic is inevitably gone; I watched a latter-day configuration of Styx perform the song on YouTube this morning and my reaction was closer to Lester Bangs than my 15 year-old self (though I do think the late Bangs's condescension toward Styx finally outstrips that of Tommy Shaw toward the blue collar workers he sentimentalized). But I was impressed by how well he was still singing thirty years later, and could not help but still feel a frisson of pleasure in hearing that old riff.
I was reminded of Styx, Pieces of Eight, and "Blue Collar Man" when I went to see Rock of Ages, Broadway-musical turned film at my local multiplex this weekend. I went less for the music -- critically benighted heavy metal of the eighties -- than its strong cast of veterans, which included Paul Giamatti, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Alec Baldwin, Russell Brand, and Tom Cruise. They were all fun to watch, particularly Cruise, who performed a fascinating near parody of himself that suggested a keen intelligence behind his portrayal of a lurching rock god named Stacee Jaxx. I was also impressed by the performances of newcomers Julianne Hough, Malin Akerman, and Drew Boley.

What also struck me -- what the musical taught me -- is how many great melodies animated the otherwise macho-encrusted songs of bands like Foreigner, Journey, and Poison. (Doesn't hurt to have Mary K. Blige reinterpret Pat Benetar's "Shadows of the Night" and Journey's "Anyway You Want It," or to have clever medleys that splice together Foreigner's "Jukebox Hero" with Joan Jett's always refreshingly unpretentious "I Love Rock & Roll.") By any rational standard, the story is hopelessly hackneyed -- boy meets girl/boy loses girl/boy gets girl, against a backdrop of prudish harridans trying to prevent any fun. On the other hand, having Brand and Baldwin declare their love for each other amid a hilarious deconstruction of REO Speedwagon's "I Can't Fight This Feeling" was worth the price of admission alone.

To at least some extent, the relative low regard of this music is a function of the people who embraced it: young, white, non-impoverished men (and a few women) have never been much admired by the literati, musical or otherwise. The fact that much of this literati is itself comprised of older, white non-impoverished men is not incidental. I don't particularly want to invert a hierarchy here or valorize a subculture with some obvious limitations. But a sense of fairness, to myself and others, compels me to pay tribute to these would-be Caesars. Rock on, boys. As is so often the case, if you listen hard enough you can hear the love in other hearts.