Rock & Roll

The May 2016 Harper’s features a review of some books about the rock band called Guns N‘ Roses. I find this a bit odd, though perhaps reassuring, since I think I am too old for Guns N’ Roses, and yet Harper’s seems pitched at people who are at least as old as I. During the former editorship of Lewis Lapham, the magazine ran cigarette ads; now it runs ads for retirement communities, hearing aids, and mobile phones with large buttons.

Guns N’ Roses performing at the Los Angeles Street Scene, September 28, 1985 © Marc Canter

Guns N’ Roses performing at the Los Angeles Street Scene, September 28, 1985 © Marc Canter

Harper’s also runs ads for books from university presses. It’s a real intellectual magazine. But then there was this review of books about Guns N’ Roses. The review is by Karl Taro Greenfeld, who was born the year before I was. Apparently Greenfeld was not born too early to have enjoyed seeing the band in their development. His review is illustrated by a bitchin’ photo from 1985, credited to Marc Canter.

The year before that, I drove out to attend the Santa Fe campus of St John’s College as a sophomore, with two friends from the Annapolis campus. We all met up in Cleveland, at the home of one of us, who had a younger brother whose life revolved around rock & roll. I thus made acquaintance with the latest hair-metal videos on Youtube. I particularly remember We’re Not Gonna Take It by Twisted Sister. It is embarrassing to have been close to, if not part of, a demographic group being appealed to by that song. How fitting, if Donald Trump is really using the song as a theme.

Within the next few years, I must have become aware that there was this band called Guns N’ Roses, featuring performers with the names Axl Rose and Slash. If I ever heard any of their music, I forgot it. Greenfeld’s review suggests that the music was something special. But I look at a Youtube concert video of Paradise City, and I think, Is this a joke? Performers running around on stage, arms of the audience beating out a tedious rhythm, vapid lyrics screamed out: rock & roll is very good at self-parody. For some relief I tune into—Led Zeppelin, playing Stairway to Heaven. That is honest music! It is still children’s music, as Tom Lehrer said of all rock & roll. Nothing wrong with that: Lehrer himself wrote the great tunes like Silent E that I grew up hearing on the Electric Company.

Actually I did hear a snatch of Paradise City in the 1990s; but it was from the version by Pat Boone. His album In a Metal Mood had been featured in the Washington Post, and you could dial a telephone number to hear excerpts. This was true for all music being reviewed in the paper: you could hear it over the telephone, along with advertisements for vinyl siding. Perhaps this method of delivering promotions did not last long.

The Pat Boone video is accompanied with comments left by horrified visitors. Some people are convinced that what they like is the best, and all else is bad. But I myself confess to being horrified by a 1970s video that I was recently exposed to, of Up With People performing in part on the Santa Fe campus of St John’s College.

I am a performer myself. It is my job. I regularly mount a stage in order to draw the attention of people in an audience: mostly young people, as in a rock audience. Everybody today learns to pose for the mobile camera snapshot. I ended up in a nice one of those.

five-in-kitchen

We could almost be in a rock band, except we are smiling too much, and we are not smoking.

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3 Comments

  1. Posted June 2, 2016 at 1:22 pm | Permalink | Reply

    David, as your picture shows, Van Halen were in their hayday when you were a grasshopper at St. John’s College.

    • Posted June 2, 2016 at 4:51 pm | Permalink | Reply

      Thanks for reading, Bill! Van Halen came on the scene even before I was in high school, with songs like “Runnin’ with the Devil.” I did listen to that stuff, before I mostly switched over to the jazz on WPFW.

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