The song remains the same; it is our perception of it that changes
I was reading this recent joint interview in Vanity Fair with Alison Krauss and Robert Plant. As everyone knows, the duo’s music roams around in a pleasant country-bluegrass field, a far cry from Led Zeppelin’s thumping hard rock and sex bombs of yore.
“Everything has its time if you’re lucky,” says Plant in Vanity Fair. “I was 21, 22, 23 when we sang those [early Zep] songs. You’ve got to give a margin for some untoward enthusiasm. Ultimately, it becomes what it becomes. I listen to that [old] stuff now, and the energy is magnificent, [but] I don’t really know the guy who’s singing. I’ve heard a lot about him, but I don’t know what the hell his game was.”
I get it. When the artist can no longer relate to what he created decades past, whether it’s the specific subject matter or just the youthful attitude, it may be time to put those songs out to pasture. If, say, the songs seem seem self-parodic when trotted out in, shall we say, middle-age (or beyond) in concert. They’re crowd-pleasers, but not soul-stirrers. Some artists retire those song and others continue to flog ‘em, because – and I’ve heard this from many – they’re not there to please themselves, but a paying audience who wants to hear them and bask in the nostalgia.
This got me thinking about how we on the outside of the equation — the fans — respond to older music we deeply loved (or maybe just liked a helluva lot) – music that was once part of our essence, but somehow, no longer is. And, like Plant, we may think: “Who were we? Who was that band? Why did we like it so much? Why does it leave us more meh (or worse) now? Have the songs lost their meaning? Is it because we’re no longer partaking in the boy-meets-girl dance, the limitless zone where so many rock songs exist? Or, we no longer live in some imaginary rebellious danger zone of youth?”
I put up a Facebook query about this, as I am wont to do, and got a boatload of responses. A sampling:
Peter Prescott, former Mission of Burma drummer/current minibeast keyboardist/guitarist, put it succinctly, about reconsideration: “Nope, it was all some version of me, so no regrets.”
He’s got a point; one can overthink these things … a rock critic trait I am sometimes blessed/saddled with.
From Mark Pringle, writer and my editor at www.RocksBackPages.com: “Rock ’n’ Roll is specific to our youths, AND to its creators lives in a way no other artforms are. So inevitably, when we look back at who we were and what we cared about, some of it is completely mystifying.”
Carlo Wolff, a former rock critic from Boston and long an essayist and literary critic in Cleveland: “Much of it has to do with aging. What used to be rallying cries in our youth no longer resonate with the older us, more skeptical and, hopefully, wiser.”
Novelist, book critic and former rock critic/author of new rock crime novel Hold Me Down, Clea Simon: “The bad (often sexist) lyrics seem more obvious in retrospect. But so much of the music of that era still trips our circuits because of the time and the age we were when we heard it. Not just being single and/or searching, but that period of youth and enthusiasm and possibility (and the flip side – that utter certainty that any particular breakup or rejection was the end of the world). The world was new to us then, and this was its soundtrack. I can’t not respond to some of that music and I can’t hear it objectively.”
Producer/Let’s Active singer-guitarist Mitch Easter considered it, but said, “I don’t think I really move away from anything. I play old records with (sometimes) a fresh perspective. It makes them new all over again, sort of. One should become more sympathetic to, or at least understanding of the ‘untoward enthusiasms’ with time, and I like that process.”
Fair enough. I can see how recontextualizing works. I do some of that. And I hardly put everything I loved and listened to back when into a 21st century PC/Woke filter and I’m not doing that now either. I’m not going around like a member of Opus Dei, figuratively flogging my back into a bloody pulp with a cat o’ nine tails for inappropriate rock sins of my youth. But this essay prompted a time to at least reconsider what I’d liked.
As Plant once sang, “Ooh … it makes me wonder.”
You see, the song remains the same. The song’s not to blame. (Well, sometimes it is.) It is our perception of it that changes. What did I dig that makes me somewhat uncomfortable now?
And, what is it? Is it age? An “evolved” consciousness? Or do we simply say, for whatever reason: No, that isn’t really me anymore. I cannot relate to this any longer. Or relate less. Or relate only as a part of me that’s long ago and far away. Which is not to mean the songs below are banished. But if I play ‘em now, they’re heard from a different angle.
Here’s 10 choices, most of the top of my head. Now, it’s your turn.
“Highway Star” by Deep Purple
Man, this song is still a rush, a cocky, balls-out celebration of speeding down that highway – in your mind or on a real highway while this song pumps away on your car stereo. And, yet, while I was never a highway star (only in my mind), I’m now mostly a caution-first, speed limit guy, ever-wary of the distracted driver assholes on the road, the jaywalking pedestrians, the I-own-the-road bicyclists and, yes, wanna-be highway stars which includes motorcyclists. Driving is no great adventure. (Golden Earring’s “Radar Love,” Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” and Mott the Hoople’s “Drivin’ Sister” are my three top road songs.)
VIDEO: Deep Purple “Highway Star”
“Sweet F.A.” by The Sweet
A churning, sizzling hard rocker from the The Sweet’s Sweet Fanny Adams album that blasted the Brit band out of the bubblegum pop-rock world into the Hard Rock Contender Division. Everything on the album is about youthful aggro and pursuit of the young ladies – and anger if the young lady wasn’t into the pursuit. Most of the album, fine. This one, eh, not so much. Key lyric, which comes right way from Brian Connolly: “If she don’t spread, I’m gonna bust her head.” Aargh. Look, I wasn’t Mr. PC at age 17, but I winced at this the first time I heard it, but just let it zip by, because, well, it rocked like a sonofabtich. Hooks, licks, guitar solos – a six minute-plus rampage, one I can no longer indulge without guilt. Sorry, Sweet.
VIDEO: Sweet “Sweet F.A.”
“16 and Savaged” by Silverhead
A band obscure to most Americans, I was tipped off to them in the rock press (Creem, I think), and bought their first two albums cheap in the cut-out bins. The singer was Michael des Barres – kid actor in To Sir, With Love, later leader of Detective, ex-husband of famed groupie Pamela Des Barres, still actor/singer and from what I gather on social media a genuinely, sweet, peace-loving, Zen-like guy. But “16 and Savaged” – the title cut from album No. 2 – finds our singer lusting for this slutty young teen (see cover of album, streaked makeup sitting in front of mirror, bare-ish nipple) finding her not just “16 and savaged” but “so young and so ravaged.” I let myself off the hook when I was younger because, hey, I was 17 when I bought this, so 16 and savaged was a definite fantasy of me, too.
AUDIO: Silverhead “16 and Savaged”
“Christine Sixteen” by KISS
See above. Slightly more disturbing and/or lecherous coming out of Gene Simmons pie hole. This came out in 1977, when I was exiting my KISS phase, but I still liked the dumb-ass hook and since I was only 20, I was only four years older than Christine…
AUDIO: KISS “Christine Sixteen”
“Belsen Was a Gas” by the Sex Pistols
This Sid-written song was shocking first time around and right out the gate with Johnny Rotten barking, “Belsen was a gas I heard the other day/In the open graves where the Jews all lay.” (Belsen-Bergan was a concentration camp, but not a gas chamber. Small point.) A cheap tasteless joke but the punk in me kinda liked that shit. The beyond-the-pale nature of the double-entendre “joke” being part and parcel of the band’s ethos. Sid’s swastika T-shirt aside (knee-jerk provocation, not genuine neo-Nazi-ism), these blokes were in no way anti-Semitic. When it was played live, Rotten once introduced it as “sarcasm, in case you don’t get it,” but in 1996, he told Q the song crossed the line into gratuitous bad taste. He called it “a very nasty, silly little thing … that should’ve ended up on the cutting room floor.”
AUDIO: Sex Pistols “Belsen Was A Gas”
“Lay Down Sally” by Eric Clapton
Yeah, it’s a gentle, shuffling song and, sure, all Slowhand is asking her to do is lay down with him and “talk” with him all night (isn’t he?) but of what we now know about Slowbrain, I’m thinking he’s got more nefarious desires in mind (probably gonna slip her a mickey) and he’s a racist asshole, to boot. Yeah, I know, I may be projecting – this one’s on me – but Clapton, y’know, fuck him. And Van Morrison, too.
VIDEO: Eric Clapton and Friends perform “Lay Down Sally” at the 2010 Crossroads Festival
“Cocaine in My Brain” by Dillinger
Song released in 1976 but somehow came into my woin the late ‘80s, where that Bolivian Marching Powder was both everywhere and no big deal. I was seduced by the song – and yes by the drug at points – and could feel at one with that decadent late-night world. And, hey, the singer is addressing me – Jim! – and he’s rapping in a very cool seductive way about New York and “cocaine running around my brain.” That used to happen some back in the day – the vibe of that song nailed the elevated endorphin rush not frantic/paranoid end of it – but the white lady/devil’s dandruff hasn’t been part of my world for a long time and to hear about its temporary pleasures now kinda takes me back there and I’m not so sure I wanna go, even in song. (I’m better with Black Sabbath’s “Snowblind.”)
AUDIO: Dillinger “Cocaine in My Brain”
“American Woman” by The Guess Who
I was a huge fan as a teen, but that Canadian Burton Cummings could be a sumbitch, couldn’t he? Underneath a lot of the Guess Who’s hooky pop rock – a slew of Top 40 hits of the late 60s/early 70s – was a curdling antipathy toward people in general and especially those on the female side. But in “American Woman” the misogynistic rage just builds and builds toward that “Goodbye …” trail off into the abyss. In second place, “Follow Your Daughter Home,” where the singer’s trying to follow his (presumably teenage daughter) to “keep her out of mischief” but he’s also obsessed – “Is she still a virgin?” and at one-point urges “Tie her up.”
VIDEO: The Guess Who performing “American Woman” on The Midnight Special
“Dr. Jimmy” by The Who
Another damn song with my name in it from one of my favorite albums from one of my very favorite bands. I still rather love the cockiness and bravado, but I can no longer sing along with Roger at top volume when he gets to: “What is it? /I’ll take it/Who is she? /I’ll rape it.” I know, I know, it’s a character – you know, like A Clockwork Orange’s Alex is a character – and it’s one side of teenage quadro Jimmy, but the triumphant nature of this tune/sentiment makes me cringe.
AUDIO: The Who “Doctor Jimmy”
“Kill the Poor” by the Dead Kennedys
Kill the poor? You shouldn’t kill the poor, you should help the poor? Just kidding. I got the blatant satire first time around – DKs weren’t that subtle – though, truth be told, I’m sure many skinhead fuckwads didn’t.
AUDIO: Dead Kennedys “Kill The Poor”