Rock 'n' roll is 50 years old.
It's half a century since Elvis Presley walked into Sun Records and set off the big bang. That must mean that it's also the 50th anniversary of snobs and hand-wringers announcing that this rock fad is dying and any minute now the public is going to wise up and go back to whistling show tunes.
I notice among my friends a narcissistic tendency to think that rock must be past its prime and running out of gas because we are. We assume that rock, which was born with us, will die with us, too. And maybe it will. Sometimes, I'm amazed it's lasted this long.
We still associate rock with the Generation Gap, but teenagers don't. The assumption that teenagers are going to reject their parents' music turns out to be just one case of baby boomers projecting their own experiences onto their kids.
When my kids were little, they had no interest in rock. They thought it was "old man" music. They liked pop and hip hop. But as they got into their mid-teens, they suddenly became rock fans. They started with new bands like Linkin Park and worked their way back to Lou Reed and Bob Dylan.
Fifty years gives them a lot of history to explore.
It seems to me that you can divide rock into three eras:
- 10 years of 45s
- 20 years of LPs
- 20 years of CDs
By the early '60s, it looked like rock had run out of steam, and it probably would have, but it was revitalized and expanded by the remarkable coincidence of very bright kids all over the world who should have become great novelists or painters or poets deciding simultaneously to devote their creative ambitions to rock 'n' roll.
In early 1964, the Beatles landed in America and a 20-year "golden age" began. When Dylan went electric, rock took on a social and artistic weight almost without precedent in popular entertainment. A host of economic, demographic, political and technological forces converged to create a genuine counter culture. For a whole generation you had a distinct and self-sustaining youth culture with its own fashion, movies, radio stations, and morals growing up separate from the mainstream. The grownups wore neckties and read Life magazine and listened to Dean Martin. The kids wore long hair and read Rolling Stone and listened to Jimi Hendrix. Rock music was the center of that culture.
It was such a potent period that for a lot of people, that's what rock remains. But that 20-year era is a long time gone - it's been another 20 years since. By 1984, we had Madonna and Michael Jackson and MTV, and rock, inevitably, merged back into the mainstream. Popular music reverted to being what it always had been - mass entertainment made by good-looking people who dressed up and danced and came and went pretty quickly. For 20 years now, rock songs have been featured in commercials and movie themes and TV shows. The revolution's over.
It would be easy to believe rock has lost its heart, that nothing new is as good as the old stuff. I know a lot of my friends feel that way. Sometimes I do, too.
But all it takes to change my mind is walking into a room where a great band is playing. I saw P.J. Harvey in a tiny club a couple of weeks ago and she was fantastic. She tore the place up.
I saw Wilco a few nights later in a small hall, and they were transcendent.
That weekend I took my teenage daughter to see David Bowie in a big outdoor arena. Pushing 60, in full command of his powers, he was as good as I've ever seen him.
It made me realize that my favorite rock 'n' roll moments in recent years have not come from recordings. They certainly haven't come from radio. They've come from live shows.
The best shot of finding rock that lives up to the high points of its history is to put yourself in the room with it. You feed off and feed into the energy that creates the music, you get caught up in a shared moment, and when the show is over, it disappears.
But then, that's the way it was in the beginning. Everyone who saw Elvis Presley or Little Richard or Jerry Lee Lewis play live said the records were fine, but to really get it, you had to be there.
Fifty years later, we should be grateful. We got to be there.