Hammer of the Gods
In November there will arrive on newsstands a music magazine edited by Alan Light, who left Spin to embark on his endeavor of publishing a journal devoted to that long-ignored audience: the over-30 CD-buyer, the old fart for whom “new music” is a mystery left to be fathomed by The Kids, or at least those between 18 and 24. The prototype for his magazine, Tracks, features Bob Dylan on its cover; inside, Light promises, will be pieces about the likes of Bruce Springsteen and younger artists to whom there’s an appropriate classic-rock corollary (John Mayer=James Taylor, Ryan Adams=Van Morrison). In media reports, Light cites numerous stats for his decision to run such a magazine: Fifty-six percent of all CDs sold last year went to the over-30 consumer; the Who and Paul McCartney and the Rolling Stones and Springsteen ranked among the top-grossing tours of 2002; and, yes, there are plenty of music magazines already catering to the alternakid or popbaby, chief among them the revamped Rolling Stone and Light’s once-beloved Spin. The Highlights of rock and roll, in other words.
Light’s competitors, those newly imported Brit editors with short attention spans and Yanks to whom Radiohead is still a thing of novel exotica, will surely damn his new enterprise before they see an issue. They will castigate him for pandering to the parents of their audiences while flogging dead dinosaurs in the process; to them, what makes life worth living is the Next New Thing, The Sounds of Today. But some of us happily await the first issue of Tracks, if only so we can open a music magazine and read about someone whose CD we didn’t just listen to and forget in the time it took to put it back in its plastic coffin.
“You mean you’re not listening to The White Stripes?” asks Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham, on the other end of the phone line to discuss such hazy concepts as “timelessness” and “nostalgia.” I tell him I liked the White Stripes’ Elephant the first time around, when it was called Paranoid by Black Sabbath.
“To some degree, that’s the way I feel about it, too,” he says. “I appreciate a certain thing that goes on and what they’re not doing, but, yeah, in some ways, God bless them, it’s sort of [the rock critics’] latest rage, you know? But it’s hard to find things that are new, you know, outside of what’s going on in hip-hop…In some ways, the young artists, they’re drawing from the echoes of something that was already an echo of something else to some degree. And without the perspective of time or maturity of craft.”
Face it: We live in sorry times, as desperate and disposable a period in pop-music history as there’s ever been—worse, yes, than even the Disco Seventies or the New Wave Eighties or the Hair-Metal Nineties. At least those moments were unique and not merely echoes of echoes of echoes; at least Starland Vocal Band and Adam and the Ants and Poison were pioneers. Today what sells are karaoke versions of cemetery-bound oldies (American Idols singing Paul Anka), twice-recycled scrap metal (Staind, Deftones), banal balladry sung like nothing means everything (Evanescence), old women in tattered drag (Cher, still Top 10) and cobbled-together soundtracks to sinking-fast films (The Matrix Reloaded). Look at the Billboard Top 50 albums and ask yourself if these are the CDs you’ll want in your collection 10 years from now; would you really run into your burning house to save your Toby Keith and Linkin Park discs? ‘Tis now as it’s forever been, of course: Rare is the Quality Act that sells, and you should know right now that the Beatles will be the exception to every argument forthwith.
And critics are no better, overrating The White Stripes and Yeah Yeah Yeahs and the Sounds (meet the new new wave, same as the old new wave) because no one likes to look like the geezer too winded to catch the bandwagon. The CMJ charts are clogged with alt.country veterans whose best albums grow smaller in rear-view mirrors, reputable geezers coasting downhill in second gear and seventh-gen punks pretending that fourth chord is of their own invention. Writers give this lot a free pass; better Pete Yorn and Blur than Kelly Clarkson and Live, they figure. So what if they’re right. Jimmy Page’s hammer of the gods would destroy them all.
This isn’t intended as a damnation of all things new—or New Pornographers, pushers of a highly addictive brand of pop narcotic. There are a hundred songs released each year worth a hundred spins apiece, a dozen albums per annum that wind up perched on the “essentials” shelf. Today’s no different from yesterday: Crap always outnumbers quality a thousand to one, but enough survives to make the journey enjoyable, especially with the windows down and the stereo cranked up.
Still, Alan Light—and the Brits behind another new magazine, Word, with covers featuring the likes of Elvis Costello and Morrissey in an effort to make nostalgia “present tense”—are on to something. In the culture’s rush to find the next thing, we’ve been forced to accept the notion that the old things no longer matter. We’ve turned “classic rock” into a disparaging term, an insult—a refuge for the mullet-headed nostalgist, the burner who never grew up. Being someone who spends a small fortune paying import prices for the latest Mojo recommendation, I’ve usually subscribed to this theory; it’s all about the new, the now, the wow of discovery. But in recent weeks, a handful of new releases—from Steely Dan, Fleetwood Mac and Led Zeppelin—spun me back around, till I couldn’t stop looking backward (and, perhaps, turning into a pillar of salt) and pulling from the shelf CDs that have grown dusty, in more ways than one.
Led Zeppelin’s just-released How the West Was Won contains “lost” live recordings of songs you’ve known by heart since before you had a heartbeat: “The Immigrant Song,” “Stairway to Heaven,” “Black Dog,” “Rock and Roll” and on and on. Surely, you think, even these “new” recordings can spark no added interest or proffer no bonus pleasures; surely they’ve been played to death on classic-rock radio, where everything once great goes to die in constant rotation. But don’t be fooled: This is music that does not come with an expiration date, that doesn’t need some extant memory of a first lay to keep it on the respirator. These songs sound as viable today as they did a thousand yesterdays ago; they’re louder than you remember, faster than you recall, more powerful than whatever excitement your yellowing nostalgia can muster. The CD—and its attendant DVD (that’s its simple title), which provides our very first opportunities to watch Jimmy Page play guitar and will thus spawn a generation of slavish imitators fresh out of junior high—is a thrilling trip forward, not a single step backward.
Next week, Steely Dan releases Everything Must Go, its first disc since Walter Becker and Donald Fagen’s 2000 Grammy-winning comeback Two Against Nature. It sounds like all Steely Dan, which is to say a fusion of Becker and Fagen’s lifelong love for Charlie Parker, Horace Silver, ’60s movie music, urban blues, slick funk and pop radio. Though it swaps out familiar themes of old men trolling for young sex for more somber concepts of loss and tragedy—some of it was recorded in New York in the shadow of the smoldering World Trade Center in fall 2001—the music remains a familiar, comforting constant. Which isn’t to say it sounds old. Just the opposite: Old Steely Dan, be it Countdown to Ecstasy or Katy Lied, still sounds brand-new. The music hasn’t aged, grown one gray hair or sported one errant wrinkle. “This music,” novelist William Gibson once wrote of Steely Dan, “manages (as it always has) to transcend the duller registers of the cultural calendar.”
“I hope it doesn’t all sound like old Steely Dan,” says Donald Fagen, whose nasal voice has become as familiar over the decades as any singer’s. “Sometimes before we record, we think we’re going to do something really different—we’re going to change the instrumentation and work with the synth stuff. But when we get into writing, the song takes over and the instrumentation doesn’t seem to matter as much, so we just kind of default to, like, what we’re good at, you know? Shock art never appealed to me. Maybe I’m too rigid. But there’s just something about guys playing in a soulful way that it always has a dimension that makes it timeless. You could do the cleverest trip-hop record with clever uses of samples and combining this and that, but at the end, it always sort of becomes like a heap of trash in a certain way.”
Timeless—Fagen pegs it. Steely Dan is timeless, just as Fleetwood Mac, at its best, remains timeless, free of history’s callous advances. Steely Dan and Fleetwood Mac, among the leading AOR squares of the ’70s, endure because their foundations lasted: They were constructed atop hearty influences that were absorbed but never quite imitated. They were insular bands, never slaves to fad; they made music that sounded like nothing else, that couldn’t be duplicated, that existed inside a bubble you could penetrate but never burst. They made music that can exist without nostalgia, songs that don’t need a good memory—your first backseat screw, your first joint—to keep them alive. Nostalgia keeps the new Lynyrd Skynyrd album on the pop charts and Styx and REO Speedwagon on the loose-change tour circuit, but it doesn’t keep Fleetwood Mac or Steely Dan fresh. The bands managed that by themselves.
Fleetwood Mac’s brand-new Say You Will may not prove as immortal as Rumours or even Tusk; it’s an incomplete picture, really, a Buckingham solo album plus the band minus Christine McVie. But its best moments, chief among them the wondrous title track, evoke a classic sound—that, yes, timeless pleasure of hearing a great singer and a great guitar player and a great bassist and a great drummer playing great songs with great production. (And sparkling production is perhaps the most significant requirement for a “timeless” song; history doesn’t forgive a muddy sound.)
“I remember getting a lot of questions before the Rumours album, after the Fleetwood Mac album came out, people saying, ‘Well, did you guys sit down and just decide that you were going to make commercial music?'” Buckingham recalls. “I said, ‘Well, no, this is just what we are. This is our sensibilities, this comes from what we all listen to, it would never occur to us to do anything else.’ That’s what it is.
“One of the things we deal with now, as a band who’s been around as long as we have and also a band who’s trying to present an album that’s new and challenging, is getting people on that page when what they want to hear is the thing that was playing when they were fucking in the back of a car in 1977. It’s a whole other dynamic. The way I listen to much of the music that influenced me, it’s the same thing; it sort of kicks in endorphins and things that make you wax nostalgic or at least reflective.”
So how do you tell whether a CD is any good these days? Nick Hornby, in his recently published Songbook, provides one answer, albeit with a scoundrel’s grin. He suggests looking for “evidence of quiet good taste”—somber cover art, ironic song titles, classy cameos, stickers touting four-star recommendations from music journals of note. “And, of course,” he writes, “you stop listening to music made by shrieking, leather-trousered, shaggy-haired men altogether.” Hornby penned this by way of explaining his love for the song “Heartbreaker” off Led Zeppelin 2, a song he rediscovered after realizing his musical diet had become short on carbs and that “the rock riff is nutritionally essential.” Too many years of aspiring to good taste—Joni Mitchell once, say, or Radiohead now—caused even the most die-hard fan to forget what brung him; in looking for signposts of “art” he lost sight of the pleasure of sound.
The music of Zeppelin, and Fleetwood Mac and Steely Dan, endures most of all because no one ever figured out how to copy it. Because it makes you grin when you hear it. Because it swings. Because it has lost no muscle mass. Because it still sounds great when played loud. Because, as Donald Fagen explains, “they really do have a great groove,” perhaps the most enduring trait in all of popular music. “Forward motion is contagious,” Fagen says. “It has never failed.” Not even when taking a moment to look, and listen, backward.