Rock Til You Drop: The Decline From Rebellion to Nostalgia

By John Strausbaugh(Verso Books; 306 pages; $25.00)

A few weeks ago, in Chicago, I wandered into one of those cheese-and-toothpick parties that the entertainment industry likes to throw for itself. The event itself wasn't much, but the musical guest of honor was: the superannuated Eric Burdon, fronting an accomplished if Spinal Tap-ish quartet called The New Animals and turning in solid enough versions of hits by The (Old) Animals: "It's My Life," "Monterey," "We Gotta Get Out of This Place," and, of course, "House of the Rising Sun."

With a few cocktails under his belt, to judge by appearances, Burdon seemed happy enough doing what he's done for nearly four decades. Happiness doesn't fit a blue-eyed bluesman, though, and so Burdon closed his first set by unburdening his soul. "Men are all dogs," he said. "Yes, they are. You know that." Pause a beat. "But that's 'cause you women are all fucking bitches."

At that, the crowd, just moments before solidly on Burdon's side, backed away and retreated to the bar and its inviting Cheddar cubes, leaving the bard of Newcastle to howl out his anguish in private.

Reading John Strausbaugh's magnificently vituperative, full-tilt attack on the music industry, nostalgic baby boomers, and rock stars who refuse to grow old gracefully won't please the likes of Mr. Burdon, but the book could have been scripted with that night in mind. Strausbaugh, the fiftyish editor of New York Press, gives a rebel yell on page one: "Rock," he cries, "is youth music." But if that's so, he continues, then why is an entire industry -- conglomerate labels, VH1, moldy-oldies stations, reunion-tour packagers -- devoted to diverting entertainment dollars away from young luminaries such as Britney Spears and Eminem and into the pockets of the doddering, drooling stars of old, the ones who, way back in the last century, drew in dollars aplenty singing anthems such as "Walk This Way," "Roundabout" and "Crimson and Clover"?

The answer, Strausbaugh writes, lies with forty- and fiftysomethings who refuse to acknowledge that their youth is a thing of the distant past, rather like Strausbaugh's Exhibit A, Kim Simmonds, guitarist for the '70s British blues-rock band Savoy Brown, who has been touring recently and who, Strausbaugh writes, looks "about 75, with one of those terrifyingly runny melting-cheese faces old British guys get from a lifetime of hoisting pints." For every Simmonds, for every Gene Simmons, for every Paul Simon, for every Patti Smith, there's a crowd of boomers cheering in the stands, egging their heroes on to dance and prance like barely pubescent lads and lasses in some collective exercise to wish away the advancing years.

You have only to think of the latter-day Mick Jagger, a horrible melting-cheese specter himself, to see Strausbaugh's point.

Is there a remedy? Yes, Strausbaugh says: Let Jagger and company follow the lead of the gentlemanly David Johansen, late of the New York Dolls, and turn to acoustic roots music, seated on bar stools and singing the blues. (Never mind the matter of wealthy melting-cheeseheads appropriating the music of the underclass.) Let the young have their music, he counsels, and let their elders turn to history, to Stephen Foster and Duke Ellington.

He'll wound plenty of sensibilities with such talk, and he tends toward shrillness. Still, Strausbaugh is right to indict what he calls "colostomy rock," the unholy music of the undead, which tends to subvert the business of adaptation, natural selection and evolution. This book is a fine bit of punk journalism, and plenty of fun.

 
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