Lou Reed’s metal machine face is on the front of the NME again. You could say his death marks the last time his face will be seen there but you’d probably be wrong. There’s something vaguely sad about a magazine with New in the title having icons of a vanishing era on the cover every other week. It will only increase though. The most shocking thing about Lou Reed’s death was that he was an old man. Maybe not really old, but old enough for him not to be classed with the Cobains, Joplins and Hendrixs. Dying of natural causes at 71 isn’t rock ‘n roll, it’s bad luck but it’s not abnormal. This is the first of many. This is the event horizon, from now on in the history of rock ‘n roll is a funeral procession. From The Rubinoos to Marilyn Manson people claiming rock to be dead is one of the oldest tricks in the book. Every music critic manifesto ever written was a call to wake the lion from its slumber and return to its former potency. Soon though, calls to resurrect the dead will be replaced with mere mourning. Editorial meetings at the ghost-ship music press will be filled with heated discussions about which late star is worthy cover space. Frayed tempers and surly looks as inter-office factions develop when Joni Mitchell and Charlie Watts pass-on within the same week. By then though the idea of a cover maybe antiquated, Joni and Charlie will both get their two hours as top story on the website and everyone will be melancholy.
The dominant mode of current rock discourse wavers between eclectic and apologetic. Modern rock writers seem unsure of their place in the scheme of things. They peer over into other genres that have no real family resemblance and try to tell their stories but mainly come up short. The writers whose predecessors were once meant to be the vanguards of pop-culture are stuck in the awkward position of venerating the past and pretending the present can hold a candle to the sainted pantheon. It’s an uneasy combination that leads to intellectual defensiveness and PR-man blandness. It’s easy to tie yourself in knots defining what rock is or what rock was (so, watch me do it now!), but it was never just about the music (man). The music – which tended to involve guitars and drums – was surrounded by a network of supplemental and parasitic elements. Rock was a conversation with music – for the most part – setting the topic of discussion. The music press was once a force that almost functioned as a rival to the real, grown-up press. In the UK, at the peak of its circulation the NME alone was selling 300,000 copies a week with Melody Maker and Sounds hot on its heels. It is easy to forget though that this phenomenal success was based as much on ads – for gigs, bandmates, pen-pals, as it was on journalism.
The scarcity of access to both the music itself, the people making it and other fans meant rock to some extent was shaped by the broadcasters of the press. The world of the inkies was one where you could state extreme opinions without censure, a world where you could tell the people paying your wages they had terrible taste. Outside the ivory towers of academia writers were able to throw French philosophy at teenagers who just wanted to know when Simple Minds were playing Wolverhampton. It was this culture that today means Lou Reed, with his commercially minor impact, could be mourned – in some quarters at least – as a monumental figure in music history. Writer Mark Sinker, in a piece for The Singles Jukebox, made the astute observation that whilst Reed did not invent rock in its modern form, he was one of the reasons rock criticism existed in the way it did. Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground were one of the first critic’s pets. An artist and band ignored by the common consumer but secret knowledge for the enlightened connoisseurs. If there was a reason people got paid for their opinions that they had heard White Light / White Heat and you hadn’t was as good as any. It’s a lot harder to keep secrets these days, once you’ve seen the list of the 500 Greatest Albums you can dial them up in seconds and make your own decision about their relative merits. The press moves slowly, so the forums and social networks have the jump, myths and legends are formed by fans as much as critics.
Rock itself was a thing of comfort and a (anti) socialisation tool. David Bowie grasped that early, the anthemic ending of Rock ‘n Roll Suicide proclaiming:
“Just turn on with me and you’re not alone
Gimme your hands cause you’re wonderful.”
Rock had a knack for telling the lonely and confused that they too belong but now, there are so many ways for kids to connect with one another that a song, for all its potency, is less of a comfort than a digital conversation with a fellow outcast. It’s probably why not many people write protest songs these days – always five hundred words in that one for a writer with a looming deadline. It’s easier and probably as edifying to call David Cameron a dick on Twitter as it is to write “Between the Wars” or something. A fairly successful journalist told me I didn’t understand music when I suggested – via Twitter – that kids calling themselves “Piss Hitler” and being unruly and offensive to their supposed betters may have something in common with the anti-authoritarian spirit of much classic rock.
The spirit of rock has left the music. The music itself carries on in a functional fashion, and yes people still write about it but sites like The Quietus, Drowned in Sound or even Pitchfork can hardly claim to be particularly close to the centre of culture. It’s dubious to claim that there is such thing as a “centre of culture” but the biggest, certainly the most commercially successful, youth cultural products tend to be games, apps or superhero movies not records. Sure, a million articles were generated by Miley Cyrus’ VMA antics but it was mainly an excuse to talk about issues rather than music, but then maybe it was always that way. The joy of rock writing was the portals the bands enabled you to access, the ideas and agendas that could be put into play. The writers who would once be the gatekeepers of the secret kingdom of rock now don’t need to talk about it at all. Vice magazine’s Clive Martin is probably the best old-school rock writer in Britain right now, despite not really talking about rock very often, his columns occupy that place once occupied by the music press, kinda cool, kinda jaded – suburban streetwise, late-teen wise. Writers like Caitlin Moran and John Harris used the music press as a launch pad for careers spent talking about the world beyond albums and songs – today you don’t really need that launch pad. Just talk about what you want to talk about anyway without the pretence. It doesn’t matter if it’s not that good or important ‘cos someone, somewhere may read it, even if it’s just your mates or your mum. Get a blog, get on Twitter, get on Tumblr – do it yourself.
Maybe that was always the key contradiction of the rock ‘n roll era. We thought it was about rock ‘n roll stars when it was actually about individuals, about how the listener responded to their heroes. Figures like Lou, Patti Smith, Morrissey were possibilities; illustrations of paths that could be taken, lives that could be lived. The music and the personalities were the start but it needed an infrastructure to make sense of it all, to unpick the poetry and turn into instruction. In 2013 there are new structures: the internet has decentralised the rock-industrial complex. Some of these ideas are similar to what Simon Reynolds wrote about in his book Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to its Own Past, but I think – to some extent – he overstepped the mark. What is happening is not an endless cycle of repetition but the passing of a broadcast culture into something more unruly, more fragmented. Whether this is a good thing I am not sure, it is probably a small symptom of sweeping changes in the world that are happening high above the small concerns of pop songs and teenage angst. The heroes of the rock ‘n roll era will – like Lou – vanish into the past but they will probably not be replaced, because we- as people, as a culture – may not need them anymore. We’re set free to find new illusions.
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