Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Rubin vs. Rubin

After looking it over a few times I’m not sure why Jacob Rubin wrote “Runnin’ Down a Dream” for The New Republic. “Why” is a very important question for me and I guess that comes from the number one rule of narrative writing. Why did we read this and not do something else with our time?

Rubin’s gripe (or compliment its sort of hard to tell where he lands on the issue) was that Tom Petty taking the stage at the Super Bowl was emblematic of rock and roll’s harsh adherence to adolescent mores. The argument, and once again I’m just guessing here, is that he does the youth bit brilliantly, but that on the whole it’s a dishonest routine. From the piece:

“It is its very simplicity, after all, that makes rock 'n' roll music what it
is. In The Closing of the American Mind, the brilliant conservative Alan Bloom
correctly identified the genre as a music of adolescence. The great lie of rock 'n' roll is that the complete range of human emotion is contained in the adolescent experience. It is a freeing lie, no doubt, and one that America, in almost every sense an adolescent country, has embraced with a characteristic mixture of denial and glee. In this sense, a rock star is a person gifted with a surplus of adolescence, a grown man or woman who can continue to delve into a teenager's disappointments and exhilarations long into his thirties, forties (and in Mick Jagger's case), eleventies.”

Let’s put aside for a moment that Rubin never actually defines what rock music is or isn’t. I’ll take it on face value that he’s talking about commercially successful music from the baby boomer crowd through Generation X and on to today. Exempt seem from this conversation seem to be genre bending acts like Kraftwerkor Radiohead

I think we all know the overwhelming proof that songs like “Blitzkrieg Bop”, “Teenage Riot”, “The Kids are Alright”, “Teen Age Riot”, “Smells like Teen Spirit” weren’t referring to inner office politics of men and women in their late 30’s.

But if that’s the lie that Tom Petty is a part of, where is the truth? Is it in another genre? Maybe dub or reggae? Jazz ? Tribal music? Western classical? Or is it in no music?

If not music why write about? If it’s such a blatant affront to the human experience why does Rubin admit that he likes Tom Petty? What exactly is a freeing lie in this instance, the music itself or the music as its written and/or marketed?


There’s an answer I’m willing to throw out there and it reflects some sentimentality but it feels right when I think about it. When rock shines above commercial excesses it hits a striking place that seems pretty unique to Americans; the feeling of playing music alone and towards no particular ends. As a phenomena, it alluded so many generations of traditional European musicians who had their craft steered towards occasion driven music in the courts of holy figures and royalty.

That’s why adolescence is so important. Because when you don’t have the talent or the rapt ear of adults you have no choice but to play for yourself. But even playing styles don’t remain static to teenage nostalgia.

Like its grandfather, the blues, rock and roll encapsulates the whole of restlessness, not just its nascent period. While teenagers swagger with resentment easily, age helps musicians channel it towards realization more than anger. The Sex Pistols become PIL. Chisel becomes Ted Leo and the Phramacists. Tsunami becomes Liquorice. Fugazi becomes The Evens. Uncle Tupelo becomes Wilco. Heatmeister becomes Elliott Smith.

It’s a sentiment that Tom Petty captured on his last solo record “Highway Companion”. On Rick Rubin's American Recordings label, Petty created a desolate record filled with insecurity and strife. The subject matter doesn’t extend to red caddys or teenage girls either. Instead Petty asks himself plainly how he can contribute any more of himself after performing his craft for 30 years. While the phrasing throughout is cliché, the poignancy of how the record is put together is fascinating and, yes, adult.


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