IN THE SPACE BETWEEN HAIR METAL AND GRUNGE, THE DINOSAURS CAME BACK, AND CLASSIC ROCK BECAME “CLASSIC ROCK.”
By Mike Derrico
Taken from …AND THE CATHEDRAL FELL TO THE GROUND: Tales of Rock & Roll Suburbia
It’s mid August and it stinks like it. The flagrant stench is always much more noticeable in New York City than it is in the suburbs of New Jersey. The ten year old 1979 Datsun B210 dumps us off on the corner of Sixth Avenue and West 8th Street. I step onto the southeast corner where a bunch of table vendors are selling books in front of a B. Dalton bookstore. Across the street is a place called Gray’s Papaya, a takeout hotdog joint that sells fruit drinks as their beverages. How ingenious, I think; a takeout hotdog place. We don’t have those in Jersey. In fact, no fast food operations ever really gave much time, thought, or attention to the hotdog. I also think, how weird; the marriage of hotdogs and papaya juice going down my throat, into my stomach, and then back up again as I’d burp up the combined taste for the rest of the day and night. The smell of hotdogs was always part of the New York of my imagination drawn from memories of childhood trips to the city…those midtown nights wandering around aimlessly with my aunt or cousin who took me to a museum uptown and then wanted to walk around Times Square or something. That smell of hotdogs, rotting garbage, sewage, and piss had adorned the walls of my brain any time I thought of New York City, so it’s like stepping into some warped version of home from the corner of my mind as I cross West 8th Street to go check out Gray’s Papaya. I’m with Eric, my next door neighbor. I’m 19, he’s 17, and we’re both exploring the city for the first time on our own. For us, the city means the Village. Sure, we’ve been to baseball games and museums and musicals, and climbed to the tops of the Empire State Building and World Trade Center, and been to the South Street Seaport and been all around Uptown, Midtown, and Downtown all accompanied by adults, but it’s the music we’re listening to along with the Counterculture and Beatnik history that leads to our fascination with the Village, and the Village is where we need to be.
It was at the tail end of the summer of 1989 where we became suburban hippies. It was the summer of Spike Lee’s masterpiece, Do The Right Thing, and the tumult of Brooklyn couldn’t have been farther from the landscape of bridge and tunnel pilgrimages streaming in from the suburbs to Manhattan in search of the counterculture. The 1960s had come full circle, which meant that they were back in fashion, and the music was being revisited by those who had lived it, and discovered in depth by those who were too young or not around yet. It takes approximately 20-25 years for popular music to come full circle. Ten years after its heyday, it sometimes becomes irrelevant to what is currently happening, and is very often considered passé. After around twenty years, the nostalgia factor kicks in enough to make it all cool again. For example, the 1950s came back in the 1970s (think Happy Days, Sha Na Na, American Graffiti, and Grease). That was followed by the 1960s coming back in the 1980s. The 1970s came back in the 1990s, and so on and so forth. That trip in August of 1989 was the first time I explored Greenwich Village; this place that I had heard so much about through word of mouth and through legend. That day, Eric and I spent hours wandering up and down West 8th Street on a four-fold mission. First, hit the many clothes and shoe stores in search of the wardrobe that would make us look hipper than the average suburbanite. Everything we took home was covered in paisleys, flowers, stripes and mandalas, along with some Beatle boots and beaded necklaces and bracelets to go with it all. I personally went for more of an intellectual look than a hippie look, and opted for blazers over tye dyes. Second, we finally got to see the unorthodox collections of It’s Only Rock and Roll and Revolver record stores. These places were loaded with rare and out-of-print albums as well as bootlegs we never imagined existed. Holy hell, I thought. I could get a tape of The Who at Shea Stadium in 1982? Or Bruce Springsteen’s 1980 New Years Eve show at Nassau Coliseum on vinyl?
You can’t get stuff like this in Sam Goody!
We were nasty scumbag pigs rolling around in shit for a day. Third, just off the point where 8th meets MacDougal, we finally made it to Psychedelic Solution, a store dedicated to psychedelic artwork and videos. The most shocking thing we found that really informed us of where we were, was the vast collection of head shops lining West 8th Street. Stores were unapologetically filled with glass cases of pipes and bongs of all sizes with no attempts at hiding them. It really felt as if we had entered an alternate universe that we had long dreamed or imagined could exist someplace else, but just not in our own reality. And there it was. New York City. And it was a lot closer to home than we’d realized. So we went crazy that day, knowing it would have to become a regular thing for us. Between posters, music, and clothes, we must have dumped a dozen bags into the backseat and trunk of the Datsun B-210 as it picked us up on the corner of Sixth and 8th at the end of the day.
It was in some ways a crossroads, 1989 was….a musical reckoning of sorts that culminated the past 25 years and set the tone for the next. Where the decade had been a rather dry and uncreative period for some of the biggest acts to come out of the 1960s and early 1970s, it proved to be downright embarrassing for others. By embarrassing, I mean the same people responsible for giving us “White Rabbit” in 1967 were also responsible for unleashing “We Built This City” on the world 19 years later. Yes, these were the same people who screamed “UP AGAINST THE WALL MOTHERFUCKER!” As for dry periods, I don’t necessarily mean there was no work from these bands or artists. Just not their best work. Bob Dylan entered the 1980s in his Christian phase with still two more gospel albums to turn out. In retrospect, the Christian era turns out to be a brilliant and highly respected body of work, albeit much too short-lived, but at the time, he was crucified for it, pun intended. He followed that period up with the Mark Knopfler-produced Infidels, one in a handful of albums post-1966 that was good enough to provoke the critical response “Dylan is back.” However, Dylan quickly fell into a run of disoriented studio albums and mediocre-at-best live releases (Real Live, Empire Burlesque, Knocked Out Loaded, Dylan and the Dead, Down in the Groove).
The Rolling Stones entered the 80s extremely successful, and with a run of hit songs off back-to-back albums, Emotional Rescue and Tattoo You. The latter saw a world tour immortalized in Hal Ashby’s concert film, Let’s Spend the Night Together. It was a version of the Stones, 12 years removed from Altamont, and it served as a visual documentation of what happens when a band gets so big on their name and history alone. Where rock began in its blues-on-the-front-porch embryonic stages and made its way toward the seedy clubs and dive bars, to well-promoted early rock and roll shows in theaters to the arenas and eventual science experiments known as festivals where the occasional clusterfuck situation could arise, it settled mostly for theaters and arenas once the 1970s allowed a clear definition of what rock concerts were, and what they could be. The acts of moderate popularity did the theaters and amphitheaters, while the larger acts played hockey arenas. Football stadiums were the last option before festival territory would have an audience set up in a vast sea of grass in the middle of nowhere. But football stadiums were mostly reserved for special one-off package jams such as JFK Jam, Texas Jam, or Oakland’s Day on the Green; events that saw anywhere from six to a dozen acts on the same bill. It wasn’t often that one band would headline a stadium tour with only one opening act. But that’s exactly what a small handful of acts were able to do by the late 70s and early 80s. The Rolling Stones pretty much set the precedence for this, one of several in the rock world. I personally discovered the Stones in 1973 at the age of three when the second LP of their Hot Rocks album became a steering wheel in the imaginary car I drove. It was my uncle’s album but I somehow inherited it when I went over his house and fucked it all up. My uncle was always fucking with me when I was that young. He knew “The Immigrant Song” by Led Zeppelin scared the shit out of me, so he always made it a point to play it on the long four-legged coffin stereo. I’d hear that tiny hiss at the very beginning and it would immediately send me running into the next room where I’d dive behind the door to crouch into a fetal position and cover my ears before the inevitable wailing of Robert Plant’s voice cried out that horrendous opening shriek that horrified me. But as for the Stones, I was well aware of them by the age of three, and I’d come to know many of their hits by the age of ten. Going into the new decade, the Stones were pushing their late 30s and had long been thought of as old. I was in sixth grade during the 1981-82 school year when the Tattoo You tour happened, and word was out that it might be their last. This was never officially confirmed nor denied, but the Stones did not tour again for another seven years. In between they’d release two albums three years apart. Mick Jagger would fall prey to the worse trends of the 1980s and release a couple of embarrassing solo albums, and he and Keith Richards would feud. We’d hear about it in the news. Over a period of years, it became common accepted knowledge that the Stones were a thing of the past and it was never going to happen again. At least that was the consensus among rock fans as my teenage years progressed.
The Who were also pushing their late 30s in the early 1980s. Pete Townshend, Roger Daltry, John Entwistle and Kenny Jones decided to call it quits in 1982 and announced their Farewell Tour late in the summer. Jones had been the drummer for three years since the death of Keith Moon, and it radically altered the chemistry and dynamic of the band. Daltrey wasn’t happy, and Townshend, still crawling through the abyss of drug and alcohol abuse had had enough of the rock and roll life, and wanted to do other things. But whereas the Stones seemed to embrace the stadium circuit, the cavernous venues only made Townshend more contemptuous of the whole thing. On October 12th, he’d sit in a limo on the way to Shea Stadium where the band was headlining the first of two nights, and instead of being appreciative of the opportunity to play to so many adoring fans, he’d express his disgust over how ridiculously huge and out of control rock had become. What happens when the demand gets so big that you have to play football stadiums? What happens when you lose the connection you’d normally have in a smaller venue?
Your fans pay for the ticket, they go to the concert, you perform, and you make lots and lots of money. Shut the fuck up.
So The Who embarked on their Farewell Tour in the fall of 82, and although I had heard of them and knew all about them, I hadn’t really gotten into them. It wasn’t that I didn’t like them, I had the utmost respect for them just knowing who they were, no pun intended. I knew they were legends, but I just hadn’t gotten the chance to get their albums and listen to their music beyond the obvious select songs that were played on the local rock stations WPLJ and WNEW. On the night of December 17, 1982, they ended it in Toronto. And that’s exactly where I began. I was in Elizabeth, New Jersey, sleeping at my grandparent’s house, and for some reason, turned in for bed a little on the early side for a Friday night. Just before ten o’clock as I was getting into my pajamas, I turned on the clock radio sitting beside the bed and tuned into WPLJ where Judas Priest’s “You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’” was playing. I jumped around the room playing air guitar. By the end of the song, I was no longer tired, and as the hour began, the radio station entered into the very first satellite broadcast of a live rock concert. The Who were about to play their very last concert ever, and it was going out live on the radio…in real time as it happened. Cool, I thought; an actual unedited concert in real time that I can rock out to. At around 10:10 PM Eastern Time, the Who took the stage, slamming into “My Generation.” I was immediately transformed, and decided then and there that I was going to get into The Who. Me being the anal obsessive person that I am, went into the kitchen to grab a pencil and some paper and brought it back to the bedroom where I tried my best to write down the setlist as the band played it. I successfully wrote down the first three songs either because I knew them, or they announced the title (My Generation, I Can’t Explain, Dangerous), but by the fourth song, “Sister Disco,” which I didn’t know, I wrote it down as “The Disco Song.” Of course “Baba O’Riley” was written as “Teenage Wasteland,” and little mistakes like this happened throughout the night as I tried my 12-year old best to capture the Who’s set on paper, so I’d know which songs to look for in the record store. For the songs that I didn’t know, I listened as closely to the lyrics as I could just to leave myself the best description I could. Initially I heard “Boris the Spider” as “Horace the Spider” so that’s what I wrote down. I knew “Long Live Rock” from the radio, but only knew it as “Rocky’s Dead,” only to later find out that Roger was saying “Rock is dead.”
Rock is dead, I thought.
The 1980s moved along with the underlying understanding that we’d never get to see bands like The Who or the Rolling Stones live again. And with regard to the biggest bands and artists of the previous two decades not firing on all cylinders, it wasn’t exclusive to the 1960s acts. 70s bands like Cheap Trick, ELO, Yes, Boston, Styx, and the Cars had either fallen apart, had an uncharacteristic commercial hit song or two (“The Flame,” “Hold On Tight,” “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” “Mr. Roboto,” “Drive,” “You Might Think”) and disappeared, or just disappeared without even that much. Artists like Billy Joel and Elton John who had done their grittiest, streetwise music in the previous decade had mellowed into the most unremarkable periods of their recording careers. David Bowie had a monster hit album in 1983, but spent the rest of the decade spiraling into the most irrelevant run of consecutive albums of his career. By the mid-80s, even Paul McCartney hit a bit of a dry patch. Acts that cohesively held the decade together even if it constituted patchwork were Bruce Springsteen, Prince, Michael Jackson, and Madonna along with a bunch of much smaller bands and artists and one-hit wonders .
The 80s were the decade of the American artist. The way British bands had dominated the previous decade and a half, American artists dominated the 80s. But then again, that’s always been the overall case throughout the history of rock music. Britain had the better bands and America had the better artists. Britain gave us The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, The Kinks, The Clash, …America gave us Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Michael Jackson, and Prince. Of course, there are always exceptions in both cases. David Bowie or R.E.M. anyone? But by 1989, things began to turn around ever so slightly, and just enough to give you the sense that maybe everything we thought to be concrete and absolute, wasn’t in fact written in stone. In April, The Who announced a reunion tour to mark their 25th anniversary. In August, the Stones announced a new album and their first tour in seven years. So by that fall, I had gotten to see two bands live that I never imagined I would have the chance to see. The final season of the 1980s also saw the release of the monumental Oh Mercy album by Bob Dylan. He began what would become known as the Never Ending Tour early in the summer of 1988, shortly after releasing the yawnfest, Down in the Groove. Since he was a year into that tour by the early fall of 89, with more shows planned, Oh Mercy seemed to have come out of nowhere. Truth is, he was as busy as he had ever been. Releasing Down in the Groove, beginning a tour while simultaneously juggling Traveling Wilbury sessions, and managing to travel back and forth to New Orleans to record a new album between shows throughout 1989. Oh Mercy showed up unexpectedly and was met with the most critical praise Dylan had received since 1975’s Blood on the Tracks. This piece is not the appropriate vessel to hold a review of the Oh Mercy album, but in reference to 1989, the year I’m attempting to convey, the album requires mention simply because Dylan, once again, was back.
And so was Ringo Starr. While the ex Beatle drummer had never really garnered much critical praise due to artistic merit from his solo work, he was still a Beatle, and that meant everything when it was announced that he was going on tour. No Beatle had been on tour since the mid 1970s, so the chance for my generation to actually see a Beatle was pretty fucking cool. Starr assembled what he called his All Star Band comprised of himself, Joe Walsh, Nils Lofgren, Dr. John, Billy Preston, Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Clarence Clemons, and Jim Keltner. Over the next few decades, the band would take on a few dozen more members and guests as it became a celebration of talent without any set concrete lineup. Ringo Starr, a Beatle, was back on the road in 1989.
And so was Paul McCartney. The subtext to McCartney’s late 1989 effort, Flowers in the Dirt, was actually the true headline. The ex-Beatle was going to tour again for the first time since 1976. Let’s be clear in these astonishing facts. While the Beatles are undoubtedly by far the most popular band in the history of pop music, most people never got a chance to see them live. Their touring history from touching down at JFK to Candlestick Park only spanned two and a half years, so those who got to see them were the only ones who got to see them. For the anal retentive, I fully acknowledge the band’s existence pre-February of 1964, but let’s face it…there’s the story and there’s the Story. The story begins in Liverpool, but the Story begins in America and without America, there’s no Story. So while most people didn’t get to see the Beatles, the Baby Boomers finally got a chance to see McCartney in 1976 when he toured with Wings. People had had prior chances to see other Beatles with sporadic performances or brief appearances from John Lennon, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr, mostly in New York City, while Harrison had done an entire tour in 1974 to scathing reviews due to his Hare Krishna thing. McCartney, the favorite Beatle of many, at long last went out on the road in 1976, and by 1989, had not been on tour since. That however, was not uncommon. None of the Beatles had really been in the public eye aside from the occasional new album release. Harrison, after 1974 would never tour again. Lennon who continued to have albums released in his name although not to his knowledge, could not tour because he was dead. So when McCartney went out for the first time in 13 years, it was yet another chance for the Boomers to see him if they had missed it in ‘76 or perhaps ‘66. And it was the first chance for my generation to see him. It is quite something to think how I graduated high school believing that era of rock and roll was a thing of the past and that these guys in their mid-40s maybe were too old to do it anymore, while lamenting over the thought that I would never get to see any of them except maybe Dylan or the Grateful Dead who never really seemed to go away. Two years later, I had seen The Who, The Rolling Stones, and two Beatles.
Even Neil Young returned to the fiery vitality of his 1970s work by way of a new album called Freedom. After a decade of experimentation with synth pop, new wave, rockabilly and country, Freedom reached back to the sound of 1979’s Rust Never Sleeps, balancing melodic acoustic ballads in minor keys and raucous celestial grunge. In the same way that Rust was bookended by acoustic and electric versions of “My My Hey Hey” and “Hey Hey My My,” Freedom was bookended by acoustic and electric versions of a new song called “Rockin’ in the Free World,” which held a mirror to a worldwide American reputation ravaged by the Reagan era and the beginning of the Bush post-script.
The 1980s decade was the Baby Boomers in their late 30s and early 40s. It was the 1960s counterculture generation coming to terms with not just adulthood (that came somewhat earlier), but with the knowledge that their way of life, the work they did through music and art, and the mark they left, may not always be relevant and may actually at some point be considered out of touch and out of time. Some such as Townshend believed this to be true early in the decade, which is why he took The Who off the road and ended the band as a recording entity. By decade’s end, most musical midlife crises had come to an end, and a new era had been born where these artists would enter the next decade as elder statesmen. This was something new. The term classic rock would seep into pop culture looked upon suspiciously, but eventually become a legitimate label, wrapped in reverence initially, although some despised hearing those words together…and gradually losing recognition with youth as the 21st Century would send it all to plunge inevitably down into the compartmentalized categories of dinosaur and grandfather music. Several years into the 1990s, we’d see the awakening of even more acts of rock’s second generation. Jimmy Page and Robert Plant would reunite to play Zeppelin music and even record an album of new material under the name Plant/Page. The Jefferson Airplane would reform without Grace Slick and The Kinks and Pink Floyd would return. Even Steely Dan, a mysterious ever-changing outfit of studio musicians with only two official members, Donald Fagan and Walter Becker holding it together over the years without having toured since 1974, would assemble an actual band again that would hit the arena circuit to much demand and success. The Eagles would play again after 14 years. We’d watch these artists cross over into their 50s and it would be unprecedented in rock and roll. With that obvious exception of those we had lost, many were still very present on the scene, and it was very easy to take that for granted. Within another decade or two, they’d be that much older, and the uncertainty of the future of rock would be that much more a reality.
And then came the dinosaurs.
Given that this sentiment has largely occurred during the first two decades of the third millennium, it is rather safe to say that as rock fans there were several things we just never considered would happen:
One, that our rock music, whether it be 60s, 70s, or even 80s, would one day no longer be the center of the world. The world would no longer revolve around rock and its glorious, celebratory, hedonistic, culture-informed self. What we once thought to be concrete, absolute, and eternal would run its course and fizzle out.
Two, the era we speak of would become just that…an era…and fall into place within history like anything else that gets classified as an era or a period, involuntarily lying down to accepts its inevitable fate of becoming irrelevant and obsolete to the next few generations and beyond. Historical significance notwithstanding, it would no longer have a stake in the future and vice versa.
And three, nobody would care.
How arrogant and self-important each generation is to insist theirs is the end-all-be-all…the absolute optimum of any given subject or situation. Each generation however, is on the cutting edge. After all, we’re moving forward, not backwards. There is only right now, the present, and the present at any given time in history is as far as technology has come, politics has come, sports has come, and the arts has come until the present becomes the past and the next generation pushes it all even further.
But does the passage of time necessarily always mean progress?
Do periods of stagnation exist?
And to what extent can the answers to such questions be objective?
A song that lends itself in some small way to these thoughts is Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” It climbed the charts during the last months of 1989. It traced a mere 40 years of history as seen through the eyes of the Baby Boom generation; a generation, again, coming to terms with its own mortality and possible irrelevance to the big picture. By no means did they start the fire. It was burning long before them, and it will burn long after them. Same goes for my generation. But from my own personal viewpoint, much closer to Generation X than to the Boomers, I didn’t philosophize and break it down to such a level in analysis as I sat in my car in the parking lot of Metro Park Train Station hearing the song for the first time on the radio. All I thought was hey Billy Joel is back with a new album! And while my friends and I (possibly a microcosm of the larger concern for the state of rock and roll throughout the rest of the world?) often lamented about the state of rock and roll at the time, along with the drought of anything significant happening, we still spoke about good things ahead in the future. We didn’t know the what, when, or who, but we knew that rock was going to get better. We had many of our classic artists active and vital again. Were they going to lead the charge into the future? What did the 1990s have in store for us? Would it take the old and decrepit bands now in their late 40s to turn it all around and give it the swift kick in the ass it so desperately needed? Or would something totally new and unexpected shake up the rock world in its own modern day revolution?
Back in the present day for a moment, we assess the barren landscape of music, devoid of much originality or blood, sweat, and tears soul. Without harping on the synthetic, airtight sound of the 21st Century and gutless Autotune that would-be artists rely on, I can’t help but be reminded of two critically –acclaimed albums that were released in consecutive years 2014 and 2015. One was called 1989, and the other was called 1989. The first 1989 was done by Taylor Swift, one of the more respected artists to come out of the new millennium. Unlike most of her millennial peers, Swift actually writes most of her songs and knows how to play actual instruments. There is enough talent to insure that unlike most of her millennial peers, she was not processed and manufactured in a lab. Swift named the album 1989 after the year she was born, as well as the pop music that supposedly inspired it from that same year. That however, is where it ends. While the songs have some artistic value within today’s musical standards, which are several notches below having actual talent, none of it remotely resembles the sound of 1989. With respect to Swift, the biggest pop music of that year was breaking color and religious taboos with political and social undercurrents driving the motivation of artists. Madonna’s Like a Prayer and Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 come to mind. But even considering a host of other pop acts that released albums that year…Prince, Richard Marx, Gloria Estefan, Stacy Q, Jody Watley, Debbie Gibson, Neneh Cherry, Tears For Fears, Taylor Dayne, Terrance Trent D’Arby, Queen Latifah, Milli Vanilli, or Technotronic…as brilliant, disposable or fraudulent as some of it was, it was still recorded in an era that could deliver a somewhat organic sound and feel to a pop song…something that could never be comprehended by the people behind the production of today’s records. That 1989 won the Grammy for Album of the Year is far more telling of the state of music today than of Swift’s album. Like her other albums, it is a collection of break up songs that so inspired one of the other respected artists of current times, Ryan Adams to remake the entire album song for song just one year later. Adams version of 1989 bears little resemblance to Swift’s, and again, the supposed inspiration for the album other than the year of Swift’s birth, has no weight on either project. So it is in name only that the recent 1989 albums come to mind when reflecting on the real 1989. Long before 1989 became a punch line, the real 1989 looked and sounded much different. And it was much different. Things were happening.