The State of Rock and Roll 1991 -- Just Seconds Before Nevermind Exploded

(Argument Paper)

Unpublished screed written October 08, 1991

A few months back, a lot of publications were postulatingthe end of rock n' roll as a major societal force. It wasn't sellingvery well, and 1990 was the first year in almost 30 years that didn'thave a rock album top the charts even for a week. The Baby Boomers were getting older, and were buying more adultcontemporary (read: mellower) artists, and the kids were buying dance and rap music.

Though my first knee-jerk reaction to statements like that has always been "No way man, rock n' roll will never die!" with my fist raised high in a one-fingered salute, in the back of my mind,I sometimes wonder if they were right. After thinking for a coupleof minutes, I realize they are wrong, but maybe not for the reasons you might think. So let's look at the state of "Rock n' Roll" 1991and see why it's still pretty healthy and kicking people right in the balls.

First off, the assumption made about rock music in these situations is musically and culturally racist. It stipulates that rock is music made only by skinny white guys with big poofy hair and excludes all music made by African-Americans, even hard rock bands like Living Colour, who constantly have to stand up and shout "listen past our skin color, dickheads!"

Categorizing rock n' roll as "white" music is not just racist,it's historically wrong. Rock n' roll is a natural outgrowth of the blues meeting the brand new technology of the electric guitar. As things got louder, they got crazier. In fact, rhythm and blues bands of the 40s and people like Louis Jordan and Cab Calloway were making rock n' roll records in all but name and yet not attaining any mass popularity (at least compared to someone like Frank Sinatra) because they were still considered "race" records that appealed to African-Americans exclusively. It took a white guy with Sinatra's sex appeal, though not necessarily his singing ability, tomake it work. Hence Elvis.

Elvis Presley worked for two major reasons: he tossed the hillbilly element in the stew, and he was so dangerous and sexual that the little girls were understanding right and left, wetting their panties and running out and buying his records. Because Chuck Berry and Little Richard, Elvis' two main rivals in terms ofinfluence, were black, it wasn't nearly as safe for them to be that dangerous.

Chuck Berry, who really defined Rock and Roll as music,has been arrested several times on charges ranging from voyeurism to tax fraud, and Little Richard was such a flamer that he was always looked upon as a bit of a freak show, which tended to distractfrom his great gift. In any event, these people were far more powerful influences on the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and therest of the 60s invasion -- from whence the common version of rock derives -- than Elvis ever was.

But the real reason that this white skinny guitar guy equals rock n' roll assumption is wrong is that it ignores every single rock-related subgenre that doesn't fit into that narrow context. So goodbye to soul, reggae, country rock, folk-rock, punk rock, worldbeat, acid house, goth rock, rap, and guitar music by unpretty guys(and gals) who don't want to sound exactly like everything else. Therefore, on the racist level, they ignore one of the more revolutionary subgenres to come along in years: rap.

Now, when I say "rap," I do not mean Vanilla Ice and M.C.Hammer or New Kids or any of that stuff -- I mean real serious dope cool-rocking street hip-hop on the tip of Public Enemy, Ice-T.L.L. Cool J, or even N.W.A., who fucked everybody's minds when their Efil4zaggin album entered Billboard's charts at Number One.

Some people might say (ever notice how when George Will wants to ask a question of a guest on "This Week with David Brinkley" he always says "some people might say" than "I think,"lending more credence to his ideas, and less personal responsibility for them) a bunch of self-proclaimed "niggas" talking sex and violence stories over pre-recorded aural-collages -- not even a band-- isn't rock and roll, much less music, but they're wrong.

As music, rap is all mixed in with rock. For example, since James Brown (whose "Funky Drummer" provided the zeitgest rap drumbeat sample) was a major influence on Aerosmith (they covered his "Mother Popcorn") and Run-DMC sampled Aerosmith's "Walk This Way" in their earliest days and then collaborated with Steven Tyler and Joe Perry on a remake on said song while the Beastie Boys and Ice-T sampled the same Led Zeppelin drum beats and Ice-T also sampled Black Sabbath and had Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys do a guest rap and it all worked, then the lines are too blurry to draw distinctions.

One more point: neither rap nor rock would have been possible with out new technology. Just as the amplified electric guitar crystallized the disparate elements that gave rock n' roll its recognizable sound, the new technology of sampled beats and riffs create rap's recognizable sound.

These are all important aspects of rap's relationship with rock. But there is one more major reason as to why rap is part of rock and roll, and why rock is still alive and healthy: attitude.

One of the reasons that rock n' roll is one of the major American art forms (along with Jazz and Film) of this or any century is that it expresses a certain American individualistic rebellious trait. Which can be summed up in two words: Fuck You.

Rock n' Roll as attitude existed long before it ever existed as music. It's an enigmatic mix of balls and brains and street smarts coupled with the need to do it yourself and damn the fucking torpedoes, full speed ahead. The American Revolution was a very rock n' roll move, as was the rebellion that led to the Civil War. It isn't always right; it's almost never pretty, but its a walk-it-like-you-talk-it attitude.

That's why Theodor Seuss Geisel and Miles Davis -- to pick two random recently deceased examples -- are far more rock n' roll than eight million Bon Jovis and Journeys. Miles especially: he wasone of the most serious rock and roll guys on the planet, almost the epitome of a type of D.I.Y. cool and pure don't-fuck-with-me scariness that we just don't see enough of. And I don't care what the papers say: Miles died of being Miles.

And so, how is this particularly American attitude faring? Well, ironically, as our major export, it helped tear down the Berlin Wall, tear apart the Soviet Union, yet it ain't doing all that great right here right now. Between the Right's natural proclivity torestrict anything they don't like, and the Left's newfound bent towards Political Correctness, individualism and attitude are taking a serious pounding. Well they be pounded into the ground? Probably not, almost by definition -- how do you stop someone from being themselves in a still (relatively) free (and don't be tossing any Orwellian nightmares at me) society? You can't. At worst, fear of repercussions might drive it underground. Just like much of the bestof today's rock and roll music.

You see, as rock began to permeate our culture, it lost much of the fear and loathing it originally inspired. And so, even as early as the 60s, much of the most powerful rock was never exposed tothe mass audience. Indeed, the Velvet Underground -- arguably as influential as the Beatles or even Bob Dylan -- almost never got played on even the craziest free-form FM stations. Maybe radio stations thought that the audience couldn't take Lou Reed's powerful songs about heroin addiction and S&M.

And while I suppose that it is pretty inconceivable for any radio station in 1968 to play "Sister Ray," a 17-minute noiseathon about (among other things) drag queens giving head at drug orgies,they were playing 18-minute snoozefests like the long version of "Inna Gadda Da Vida," and they did make big stars of the Doors, who were sorta like the cartoon version of the Velvets. Since Lou wasn't nearly as beautiful as Jim Morrison and his songs were as blunt and to the point as Morrison's were vague and incoherent,radio programmers most likely thought the audience, when confronted with the Velvets, would, horror of horrors, tune to another station.

Of course, they were probably right.

This is the genesis of why the statement "Rock is Dead" as defined in that earlier narrow context might actually have some validity; with the aid of radio, rock attempted suicide. Let me explain. In the 70s, the powerful FM stations played almost everything that came down the pike. (Except for, of course, incredibly outre things like the Velvets or the Stooges). Formats and countdowns and rotation were for the AM Top 40 stations, not for serious radio people. Then two things happened: consultants and punk rock.

Consultants happened first. They were these seriously evil creatures who figured that since the audience for FM stations had expanded so rapidly, they could format FM rock stations the same way the AM stations were formatted. They created "tipsheets" to tell lazy, dope-addled music directors what to play. And slowly, almost imperceptibly, all radio stations became variations on one theme: the BostonJourneyForeignerStyx axis and lotsa old 60s stuff for when we were young and music was music not like this punk rock crap I mean theyevenhaveabandcalledtheSexPistolsandSexPistolswhatkindanameisthat ?

You see, Punk had happened, a true musical and cultural revolution, and these Baby Boomers, who had seen the light when The Who and Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix were creating their revolution; these Baby Boomers had grown up and turned into their parents and had the same reaction that their parents did when first confronted with Bob Dylan's voice -- ugggh, what is this crap? It isn't music, I mean, now Frank Sinatra, now that guy could sing.

The only difference was now the Boomers had control of the radio -- rock n' roll radio -- and declared that punk rock wasn't rock (even though the Sex Pistols used Chuck Berry riffs and the Jam borrowed Who drumbeats and The Clash, well, The Clash were just the world's greatest rock and roll band, having captured the flag outright from The Rolling Stones sometime in 1979) and they wouldn't play it, so there.

But it didn't go away. Unlike The Velvets, who were one ofonly a handful of bands, the punks were part of a semi-popular revolution. What nobody realized until that point was that the audience for rock had expanded almost exponentially. The audience was now so vast that bands could have entire careers, sell enough records and gain enough respect to keep going -- yet, still have most people never even hear them.

Of course, the consultants weren't aware of any of this, they just didn't want any of this punk shit clogging up their airwaves,challenging their listeners and maybe lowering their all-important ratings. They drew a line as to what was acceptable and what wasn't. And so rock n' roll was ripped in two -- an overgroundand an underground.

The only problem with the overground was that the maincriteria was that you sounded like someone else in the overground. This was all codified in Sammy Hagar's vile and fascist "There's Only One Way to Rock," i.e. his way. The implication being, ofcourse, that if it didn't sound like Sammy's particular moronic variation of heavy metal (the one rock subgenre that has been mistaken for the whole ball of wax), then it wasn't rock and roll. Hummph. Personal to Sammy: believing that there is only one way to rock is exactly equivalent to believing that there is only one wayto fuck, and if you believe that, you must have a very boring existence and no wonder you ruined Van Halen.

This song was the unofficial anthem of rock radio stations. Oh sure, every once in a while a band like U2 or R.E.M. would filter up from the underground and add some spice (and if youheard U2 or R.E.M. for the first time on rock radio, really liked them, I mean really really liked them and went out and bought all of their albums, even the early ones that your radio stations wouldn't let you hear and you really liked those albums -- didn't you feel cheated that it took you so long to hear this music? Or do people care?? Do they automatically assume that they are going to be screwed by radio stations), but the upshot of this is that there is an endless parade of Cinderellas and Motley Crues and god knows what elses that is just plain boring and so the audience got bored and went elsewhere.

And that's why if the most exciting new rock band in the world 1990 was the Black Crowes, whose major claim was that they sounded just like the Rolling Stones used to sound like,then the revolution is very very near and rock is dead and please shut out the light when you leave the room.

But that isn't true. And while the major record labels (which, by the year 2000, will be just one all-powerful and god-likelabel -- Sony/Warner) are as much to blame as anyone -- because they wouldn't sign offbeat bands or would and then barely promote them and then use the failure of the band to sell any records as anexcuse not to sign and promote other offbeat bands -- there is still great rock n' roll. And while college radio did its best to imitate the big guys and screw up the underground by adding formats and rotations to the last bastion of free-format radio in the entire universe, there is still great rock and roll.

And it's still pretty popular: Van Halen, Metallica, R.E.M.,N.W.A. and Guns N' Roses have all had number one albums this year, and hooray. The underground is still thriving -- Sonic Youth,The Pixies and the perennial Replacements. And the attitude lives on, especially on "Yo! MTV Raps." So what's the problem? Let's rock.

-- Jim Connelly

This was right after SPIN had run their "Search for the Heart of Rock and Roll" cover with Paul Westerberg, and obviously, I was venting. Now, it seems kind of disjointed, and -- even worse -- I'm hardly the expert on rap I set myself up as. Here, however, is a good rule: a major pop explosion almost always follows the "rock is dead"stories -- mostly because rock isn't ever dead, just resting.

Of course, I didn't know it at the time, but the payoff for all of those years in the underground was just about to kick in, bigtime. In fact, unbeknownst to me , Nevermind had already come out as I wrote the first draft of this. Of course, dozens upon dozens of records came out during that time In fact, within weeks of writing this, several albums came out that pretty much defined the next couple years of my life, Besides Nevermind, and the already released Use Your Illusion II, there was U2's Achtung Baby!, The Pixies' Trompe Le Monde, Teenage Fanclub's Bandwagonesque, Matthew Sweet's Girlfriend , and Pearl Jam's Ten.

Of course, none of these had the impact on my world, my mindset, and indeed my life that Nevermind had. Everything changed. Everything. By the time Nevermind finished having its way with me, the only thing that was the same in any aspect of my life was where I lived. It isn't the first time that has happened, but, somehow, I suspect its the last. At this juncture, I cannot imagine any record having that sort of impact -- being such a focal point --in my life.


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This document created on 1 July, 1995
I was listening to Marshall Crenshaw -- Downtown and
The Wedding Present -- Watusi.