II was born at roughly the same time as Rolling Stone magazine. Jan Wenner's baby will turn 40 only a matter of weeks before I do, and I'm sure the magazine's birthday party will feature a lot more high-powered networking and dubious trips to the lavatory than mine. Other than that, we're in pretty much the same shape.
Rolling Stone is throwing a party for itself by releasing three commemorative issues around its entry into middle-age. Talk about milking your birthday!
The first of these arrived in my mailbox over the weekend, and it's a pretty snazzy affair. Its cover is smartly designed in metallic cardstock, platinum and ruby colors colliding quite stunningly, and there is nary a three-quarters-naked actress in sight.
The cover is one thing, but the meat of the book is quite another. The editors have taken the opportunity to gather the greatest cultural minds of the Rolling Stone era and interview them in the present day. Invariably, the epicenter of these interviews -- all of which are about as good as these kind of interviews can get -- is a sort of "compare today to 1967" ethos. This was a great idea, I think, and a useful barometer of the time between the Summer of Love, rock's greatest pinnacle, and the long, strange downward spiral we've been navigating ever since.
What a bummer this issue turns out to be, as beautifully put together as it is. For, when read through in one sitting, the 40th birthday issue scans like a requiem for a dream.
This isn't, however, your standard "everything was better in the past" bit of navel-gazing. Would that it were, for then it would be easy to write off. (Bono said it pretty well: "You glorify the past/and the future dries up.")
No, the folks interviewed for this think-piece aren't dissing the new generation and fading into the warm, fuzzy goodnight of nostalgia. They're simply conceding, to greater and lesser extents, defeat. "The race is over, and the bad guys won," they seem to collectively sigh.
What exactly has been lost? The '60s -- and though 1967 is the year in question here, what we're really talking about is the expansion of consciousness through culture that started with the Beats in the late '50s, and ended, for the purpose of clean (if arbitrary) closure, with Altamont -- have become a bit of a watchword for people with varying purposes. Those on the political and social right define them as the era of irresponsibility and hedonism, and lament the fact that the unwashed (long-haired) masses actually took over for a little while and effected some legitimate change. Those on the left recall the Garden of Eden aspect of it all, when drugs, open-mindedness and a cross-pollinization of vital art forms had all the markings of a full-on movement.
It may be a reductive argument, but it's tough to see the last 40 years as anything other than a battle between the political/social/cultural right and left in this country. Who won? It's tough to tell, because it's unclear who is actually counting the ballots. Or maybe it's not that tough to tell. Do you feel like a winner?
So here's the Rolling Stone 40th anniversary roll-call.
*Bob Dylan gives Wenner a wonderfully curmudgeonly interview, in which he essentially asks: "Why are you looking at me? I play an archaic form of music that means a lot to me, but really has nothing at all to do with the present day. I'm just here to entertain doing my little thing." Dylan has been attempting to shed the whole "voice of a generation" albatross forever, but with this interview, he actually seems to succeed in doing so. "Modern Times" is a brilliant record, but really, it has nothing at all to do with these specific times, any more than the Bible or "Ulysses" do. Dylan has been telling us we're on our own pretty much from the beginning, but this time, it's hard not to believe him.
*Jackson Browne gives the most troubling interview, for the writer of such great administration-pricking songs during the Reagan era of unchecked Latin American meddling confesses to feeling unable to write a new song that will reach a new audience. Browne laments the fact that he will be, in essence, preaching to the choir with a new song criticizing the current dastardly doings of the Bush administration. That would be fine, but it doesn't seem like too many new artists have come along to carry on the sort of work Browne was doing.
*Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead and Ratdog points out that, for all the good ideas the counterculture of the '60s introduced, "Everybody took a big snooze after that. . . . (A)nd very few people woke all the way back up."
The thing is, as these cultural icons inevitably bend to the aging process, we're not seeing too many fresh-faced artists rushing in to fill the vacuum. There's plenty of entertaining music around now, and much of it is artistically sound. There is, however, a paucity of music that matters, that resounds long after it stops playing.
Like it or not, Rolling Stone's 40th anniversary signifies a time for the changing of the guard. Who's ready?