Wednesday, July 26, 2006

The Uncredited Generation

Happy Birthday, Mick.

ROCK ON. Mick Jagger is 63 years old today. Does that fact strike anyone as remarkable, interesting or ironic? Yes, he's old and a strutting anachronism, as the following complaint from a June 4 essay in the Toronto Star makes clear:

The injustice of it all. "I've seen the Stones many times," complained Joey Kramer, drummer for Aerosmith, a few years ago. "I don't feel they play as good as we do. You've got one hard-working guy out there and the rest of them are kind of doing their thing."

He could be speaking for members of Guns N' Roses, or Black Sabbath, or Red Hot Chili Peppers, or any number of durable rock groups that have made a substantial mark over the decades. They continue to play their guts out, yet what are people interested in? Keith Richards falling out of a tree.

A bit harsh, really. I've seen both Aerosmith and the Stones in recent years, and they're both still hugely entertaining, despite the current fad of bashing Mick and the boys simply because they're old. Witness this piece by a young U.K. reporter who was forced to disembark from this particular bandwagon:

I have come here to witness the launch of the European leg of the Rolling Stones’ £120 million A Bigger Bang Tour, which arrives in the UK next month.

I have never seen the Stones perform before. Indeed, I’ve never felt the urge to.

At first blush, they’re a pretty tragic-sounding bunch, aren’t they? A national joke, some might say....

So what is it about the Rolling Stones?

Extraordinarily, and against my better judgment, the thing that makes them cool is that in the (very wrinkled) flesh, they still ooze charisma, charm and, yes, I’m ashamed to admit it, sex appeal.

On Monday, as they swaggered into the pre-concert Press conference, I found myself craning, staring and cheering like a star-struck groupie.

‘God, they’re cool,’ muttered the bearded man next to me as ‘Keef’, looking like an extra from Pirates Of The Caribbean (eye-liner, crazy hair and lashings of rather tired-looking bling), giggled and smirked like a naughty teenager with Ronnie Wood, 59... Then came Charlie Watts, recovered from throat cancer but still looking morgue-fresh in his immaculate pinstripes and crisp white shirt. And, finally, in strode Jagger, resplendent in violet blouse and eye-wateringly tight dove-grey satin suit, and sporting clean, fluffy, freshly-dyed hair.

In barely ten seconds I am utterly won over by this crumple-faced caricature of a sex god. And clearly, I am not alone.

‘Oh my God, just look at him,’ comes a stage whisper from a pretty Dutch reporter in front. ‘Oh Jesus! I’ve never seen anything like it…’

Together, the Stones are the very essence of Rock Gods — the genuine article in an industry stuffed with pale imitations.

Making fun of their age helps baby boomers, in particular, forget the significance of their age, which is what the Toronto Star essay quoted above is really about. The writer, Phillip Marchand, points a finger at several musical dinosaurs:

Paul McCartney now looks like an old lady, Bob Dylan resembles one of those unfortunates who line up at the Scott Mission, and Mick Jagger looks like his face has not so much aged as congealed, yet they remain irreplaceable icons. What would you rather tell your friends — that you had lunch with Mick Jagger or Joey Kramer?

Will we never shake off this damned legacy of the 1960s?  I saw playwright Edward Albee in an on-stage interview at the St. Lawrence Centre a couple of weeks ago, and the theatre was full of people who very likely had not seen or read anything produced by Albee in the last 40 years...

This is not baby-boomer nostalgia, even though we are talking about the '60s. Albee is not a baby boomer. Neither is McCartney nor Jagger nor Dylan nor Keith Richards — these rock stars were all born in the early '40s. They were lionized by the boomers, but they were not of them. All the baby boomers did was buy their records and attend their shows.

The real force behind the 1960s revolution was a generation born in the 1930s and, to a lesser extent, in the early 1940s. We speak constantly about the baby boomers and the "Greatest Generation," the veterans of D-Day, but we rarely refer to the generation born in-between.

It was precisely this generation, however, that transformed our culture. From this demographic cohort came the men and women who became the icons of the 1960s and who have had no equivalent successors. They cast very long shadows. [emphasis mine].

As Marchand explains, rock music is only one aspect of the dominating influence of a generation that isn't even identified by any particular name -- they're just the ones born too late to fight in World War II and too early to be part of the Baby Boom. Yet they have led and outshone the Boomers in multiple fields:

On May 21, The New York Times Book Review carried its ranking of "the best American fiction published in the last 25 years." The winning novel, Toni Morrison's Beloved, and the four runners-up — Don DeLillo's Underworld, Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, Philip Roth's American Pastoral, and John Updike's Rabbit Angstrom tetrology — were all written by authors born in the 1930s....

It is "startling to see how thoroughly American writing is dominated by this generation," wrote the author of the article, A. O. Scott. "Startling in part because it reveals that the baby boom, long ascendant in popular culture and increasingly so in politics and business, has not produced a great novel." ...

Other legendary figures of the 1960s were of this generation — Mohammed Ali [sic], the last athlete to attain mythic stature, was born in 1942. Ken Kesey, who attempted to smash open the doors of perception, and his chronicler, Tom Wolfe, who helped revolutionize journalism, were both born in the 1930s. So were Gloria Steinem, Warren Beatty, Dustin Hoffman, Jack Nicholson and Clint Eastwood, who made cinematic history in the '60s. Martin Luther King, born in 1929, and Albee, born in 1928, were also virtually of this generation.

Marchand goes on to offer four reasons for the ascendancy of the in-betweeners. 1) Their generation, raised during the Depression and wartime was smaller and, though he doesn't say this specifically, perhaps more disciplined by parents and circumstances. 2) They were the last generation to grow up without television, which may have prevented them from acquiring the passivity of their successors. 3) They accomplished their early successes in a much more monolithic media environment, which gave their careers more attention and momentum. And 4) they were the first generation since before WWI to come of age in a time that had the (post-war) prosperity affording the luxury of profound cultural rebellion. They were free to plumb long postponed doubts and new ideas their own forebears were simply too busy surviving to explore.

Now do you find Mick's age interesting or ironic? He's not simply a superannuated kid like so many of the graying boomers who attend his concerts. In more ways than one, he's actually an elder, an opportunity to experience the genuine inspiration that has outlived -- both physically and artistically -- multiple generations of his disciples. Rock stars come and go, and frequently die of their imitative excesses, while this Ramses the Great of Rock and Roll goes on, prancing and sneering on the graves of his figurative grandchildren. McCartney and Dylan have survived too, but they really are old. No one would say of them that they -- how did the young U.K. reporter put it? -- "ooze charisma, charm and, yes, I’m ashamed to admit it, sex appeal."

Marchand's list of factors doesn't account for this particular phenomenon. I'd like to propose a fifth -- humor. The easy wisdom of the baby boomer music critics has it that Dylan and the Beatles were the genuine article, while the Stones, though great, were lesser artists who succeeded as much by self-promotion as by talent.

Having lived through the radical sixties, I always had a different view of it than that. Yes, Dylan and the Beatles reflected their times beautifully, giving voice to the angst and the doubt and the sincere search for something new and transformational. But the Stones, and Jagger in particular, did them one better. They stood above the times in which they were nonetheless major protagonists, looked at the goings on with a razor-sharp eye, and laughed out loud. The real triumph of Jagger's output was its embedded mockery -- sometimes musical, sometimes lyrical, sometimes vocal, sometimes sartorial, sometimes contextual, sometimes overt, and sometimes concealed. His Satanic apostrophe in Sympathy for the Devil was, regardless of the (too) obvious political satire of its lyrics, an extremely subtle satire of the burgeoning cult of pop star gurus like John Lennon and Bob Dylan. He was making fun of it all -- his own image, the quasi-religious overtones of the British invasion, the hubris of musicians who thought they were sages, the naivete of pot-smoking kids who thought they could remake the world with shocking fashion statements, and the eternal appetites that lie in wait to corrupt the self-righteous.

The  mockery has been there throughout the Stones' long career, manifested brilliantly in dozens of different ways, so pervasively and almost casually that I have wondered for decades whether Jagger's genius is conscious or unconscious. But it's undeniably there.  His falsetto is the signal of the jester getting down to work, and he doesn't have just one falsetto voice; he has four or more, all in the service of a continuous wry commentary that, whatever his stated political views may be, rolls out against every possible constituency that takes itself too seriously.

On one of his single albums, he has a song called "War," which begins with the lyric, "I was born in a war."  Needless to say, that war was the same war Roger Waters's persona from "The Wall" was born into. They were both in-betweeners, but they took different lessons from the experience. Waters has become a metronome, tapping out the exact same beat for every turn in world affairs. Jagger chose instead to laugh, and he became -- oxymoron of oxymorons (how perfect!) -- the Evelyn Waugh of rock music, one of a tiny handful of gifted satirists popular music has produced in the last 50 years. If the baby boomers still can't see that they have been one of his perpetual targets for derision, well, that's par for the course for a group that has never had a sense of humor about itself or its countless affectations. But Jagger is still laughing. Maybe there's a lesson there for the next generations. The ones that will have to pick up the pieces after the curtain finally comes down on the Baby Boom farce. But until we get a new star of this magnitude, we'll have to make do with the old one. Shidooby.

Many happy returns, old man.

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