My introduction to music was Led Zeppelin’s Greatest Hits. I was thirteen, and it was 2003. They’d been defunct as a touring band for over thirty years at that point. One of them was dead, the rest were entering their golden years, and there was nothing hip or relevant about them at all. I didn’t know any of that, but none of it mattered when I got a hold of that CD. I played it to death. Obsessively. Over and over again. I finished it, and I started listening again. I made my parents listen to it pretty much constantly whenever I was with them, figuring it was their generation’s music, so it was probably fine. I didn’t know that they had been listening to those songs for forty years, and they weren’t necessarily thrilled to be hearing them over and over again now. But they didn’t get angry. I guess they knew it was one of those things I’d understand when I got older.
I couldn’t believe this music existed. It was raw, it was pure, it was sexual, it sent lightning rods of adrenalin up and down my spine. A lot of it was hormones, true, but that wouldn’t have lessened the impact of the experience even if someone had told me. It was like a drug, and I was deeply, deeply hooked. It wasn’t just me, either. Discovering Jimmy Page’s ability to shred had immediate and far-reaching social implications. In grade nine at a boarding school, liking this music meant older boys noticed you. More than that, they were nice to you. They talked to you like you were that little bit closer to being their equal. You could rib them on their tastes and opinions and they wouldn’t mind. You got to know that this one thought Bowie was the greatest artist of his generation, and that one thought all glam was crap, and Black Sabbath were the only band to really keep the faith of early blues-metal.
I remember sitting in the dorm room of a Grade 12 later that year, whom I have to admit I kind of worshiped from a distance, while Dispatch played in the background, he played guitar, and I talked with a few of his friends in that self-consciously grownup way that makes actual grownups smile. I did my best to play it cool, but I was so excited I could barely keep it in. I felt like I’d arrived. These impossibly cool people, who I looked up to with a devotion that’s only possible when you’re thirteen and they’re eighteen were talking to me. They were basically grown ups. They were cool. They played guitar. And they were talking to me.
All through those years I latched on to different bands like a barnacle. First Zeppelin, then the Doors, then the Who, the Stones, Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, and most intensely of all, the Beatles. It wasn’t enough for me just to hear their music. I needed to know it all. Who they were, where they lived, what was going on, why they were making this incredible music and whether they had gotten the attention they deserved for making it. That last question wasn’t really a question at all, was it? But it felt important to me. Most of the books I’ve retained from this period, and even more of the ones I’ve since lost, are about one of these classic rock legends.
The stories were often better than the music. These legends that had built up around them and the iconic images and stories that went hand in hand. Zeppelin and the Shark Incident. Keith Moon’s hotel-destroying benders. Jimi Hendrix immolating his guitar live at Monterey. Pete Townshend throwing his Gibson at a guy in the crowd at the end of Woodstock. Simon and Garfunkel’s recording Bridge Over Troubled Water without speaking to each other. Lou Reed forming a band so ahead of it’s time that you would think they recorded their best albums yesterday, and so unsuccessful their records barely sold at all when they were together. Janis Joplin giving Leonard Cohen head on the unmade bed of the Chelsea Hotel. Roger Waters spitting on a fan at a Pink Floyd gig in Montreal and coming up with The Wall. Paul McCartney making tea for the crazed fan who climbed through his bathroom window and then writing a hit song about it. Michael Jackson’s childhood. Dylan introducing the Beatles to Allen Ginsberg and pot. John Lennon getting turned on to acid in 1966 by his dentist, of all people. (True Story)
It got pretty weird with the Beatles. I knew every single fucking thing that happened to them ever, down to where they were on different days of the ’60s. I knew where they met their spouses and which one had also slept with Eric Clapton. I knew which one had gotten his legs cracked by Ravi Shankar, and which one almost threw himself off the roof of Abbey Road during a bad trip. I knew who was in the studio the day they recorded which track of which song. I knew enough that if they were all alive, and I had known as much about what they were doing right now, and I knew any of them in any way personally, they would have ample grounds for restraining orders. At age fifteen I could have written a PhD about the inter-band tensions at play while they were making the White Album and their implications for American popular culture if it had had any historical value. Hell, maybe someday I still will. These weren’t just old tabloid headlines, these felt like the sagas of Norse heroes or the eversung deeds of Achilles or Priam. Only with colour pictures and a killer soundtrack. It felt important to know somehow, and I still remember a lot of it.
They were all interesting, and their music was really as good a guide as any to the social, political and cultural currents at play in the decades before I was born. But for epic scope, nothing quite compared to the Romance of the Beatles. No band had ever made it on quite that scale ever before, and no band ever would again. There was a moment, in 1967, when they played All You Need Is Love on the first live television broadcast ever shown to the whole world simultaneously. It was the BBC’s famous One World, and they were far and away the most watched part of the program. For probably the last time in British history, the eyes of the world were on London that day, and nowhere else really mattered. It makes up for a lot of the crap that is part of Britain’s historical legacy that they chose in that moment to play a song about Love by four mop-topped Scousers. It’s real modern history that’s already become legend, and will eventually become myth. And the songs are still pretty catchy.
I got older, true, and my tastes have changed. I like what’s going on now these days, and I know where to look to find the good stuff. I really don’t listen to Zeppelin very much at all anymore, because I’ve played them completely to death, and the thrill is gone. But it doesn’t mean I love them any less, and they’ll always have a spot on my shelf. It’s not uncommon for teenagers today to be convinced, like I was then, that all modern music is superficial crap and nothing worth listening to has been made since the 80s. Guitars, bad-boy posturing, long hair and rock and roll still mattered as much to me at age thirteen as they had to kids my age when they were totally new concepts in the fifties and the sixties. A lot of them, like I did, eventually go on to discover that there’s lots of good stuff being made right now in all kinds of different styles and genres. You might have to look a little harder for it, and it’s not usually topping the charts, which has given birth to the pervasive myth, announced with great fanfare every year since 1957, that Rock is Dead.
But rock never died. It never can. People can say it as much as they want, but like Buffy Saint-Marie’s magic, the heart will not believe. It just goes away to sleep sometimes, eventually to rise again. And the same goes for disco or R and B or Hip Hop or House or any of the other musical forms that fall under the amorphous heading of ‘popular music.’ They’re all going to live forever, as generation after generation discovers not just the music, but the cultures that go along with them all, and they make it part of who they are. The hitmakers of 2050 are being born right now, and they’re going to play guitars, rap, DJ, and whatever else it takes to show us who they are. And no matter what they decide, it’ll be perfectly fine. Because we do eventually discover, if we really truly love it, down in our souls, that music is about the journey, and if you ever feel like you’ve arrived at a destination with it, then really you’re just that little bit closer to death.
But you’re still going to need to go through that phase in your teens where you live and die with the stories of icons long dead, and you feel their music the way it’s meant to be felt, with no reservations, and all the sweat, blood, hormones and tears you’ve got to spare.The way I feel about the classic rock of the twentieth century is essentially identical to the way that most western intellectuals throughout history have felt about the classical literature of Greece and Rome. Sure, great stuff is happening now, and we’re all contributing to it, but you still need a thorough grounding in the classics if you want to be able to understand any of it.
Livy and Lennon, Boethius and Bowie, Augustine and Garfunkel, Josephus and Janis. They do kind of go hand in hand, don’t they? And as long as they’re all with us, we can call all the wisdom of our ancestors to our aid. We’ve always been able to read them, but now we can hear and see them too. Keep the flame, keep the faith, and keep on rocking in the free world.