Rock ‘Til You Drop: The Decline from Rebellion to Nostalgia – John Strausbaugh

Written by:
Phil Freeman
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Every few years, some writer issues a flaming-arrow diatribe against some aspect or another of rock ’n’ roll. One of the great early ones was Jon Savage and Julie Burchill’s The Boy Looked At Johnny, simultaneously a justification for punk and a scabrous assault on everything else. Early in the 1990s, Joe Carducci released Rock And The Pop Narcotic, a brilliant sack-beating of everything hollow and false in the music industry, particularly the efforts of the so-called “rock press” to deceive the music’s audience, to sell watered-down pablum in place of the Real Thing he was convinced people really wanted. The latest scream from the balcony is John Strausbaugh’s Rock ’Til You Drop, subtitled “The Decline From Rebellion To Nostalgia.”

Strausbaugh’s targets are the vendors of what he calls “Colostomy Rock”: bands in their fifties who simply refuse to yield the stage, and worse, attempt to foster the illusion that they’re still young, vibrant, and exciting performers. The Rolling Stones are the most obvious example (and they take their lumps here), but the summer tour circuit is clotted with “ancient rock bands ris[ing] up from their graves and rul[ing] the nights again. Lynyrd Skynyrd, Jethro Tull, Yes, the Allman Brothers: pale ghosts of their youthful selves, they have become their own nostalgia merchandise.” Strausbaugh’s point is certainly valid, and his tone is often blackly hilarious:

When Journey’s Steve Perry is having a hard time touring because of his arthritis, it’s time for Journey to retire. When Eddie Van Halen needs to be careful how he moves onstage because of his hip replacement surgery, Eddie should sit down and become strictly a studio musician.

Rock ’Til You Drop is more than an exercise in beating up the elderly, though (as much fun as that is) Strausbaugh admits he himself is too old to be bothering himself with rock’n’roll, since he rather militantly puts the cutoff point at, effectively, nineteen. Rock is music for teenagers, he claims, and while it’s unrealistic to expect one’s tastes to move in age-appropriate directions, performers and audience alike should have some dignity when it comes to the aging process:

If Mick Jagger wants to sit on a stool at the Blue Note and croak de blooz with Keith on an acoustic guitar, I wouldn’t say a word. It’s Mick butt-shaking and pretending to be really into ‘Satisfaction’ for the millionth time that’s unseemly.

Strausbaugh also turns his sights on the mass media industry that’s sprung up to tell baby boomers that they’re ageless and eternally desirable. A long chapter delineates, in fascinating detail, the inevitable decline of Rolling Stone from a hip cultural journal to a dinosaur, putting teen-pop artists on the cover to sell magazines while relentlessly milking the ever-more-faded memories of the Sixties and Seventies to keep its publisher, Jann Wenner, happy. And the sheer bile of the chapter on the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame alone is worth the purchase price.

The book isn’t what it could have been, though. Its central tenet (rock is kids’ music, so have some self-respect and siddown, Grampa) is undeniable, but aesthetics are such a willfully blind zone that nobody is going to admit openly that Their Favorite Band has lost it. Strausbaugh admits this in Chapter One. Thereafter, fully conscious that he’s not going to change anybody’s mind and he’s certainly not going to end anybody’s career, he reduces himself to the role of sideline crank. Worse, he far too often goes back to recounting the history and rock lore of the Sixties, sounding exactly like the narcissistic boomer generation he’s supposed to be puncturing. Polemicists have their blind spots, too, it seems. While it’s an amusing read, Rock ’Til You Drop lets its flaws take over too often, and in the end it’s a pretty inconsequential book from any angle. It’s about rock ’n’ roll, after all, and if rock doesn’t need a Hall Of Fame (and it doesn’t), why ever would it need scholarly analysis?

Phil Freeman

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