Rock & Roll, R.I.P

Article excerpt



When, at the end of the first winter of the first year of the 21st century, John Phillips, the Mamas and the Papas' Irving Berlin, expired, those members of the 1960s youth generation who had remained hooked on his music felt an understandable pang, though they were well into middle age. A pensive mood becalmed them. Even I was not immune, and to me the Mamas and the Papas had begun to sound like grocery store music halfway through the first Reagan administration, which was a long time ago. A rock troubadour from my youth was returning to dust, but for me there was consolation. This popinjay from the pontification period of Rock & Roll had died at age 65-nine and a half years short of the average life expectancy for a white male!

Yet for many 1960s indigene there was no irony. They were flattened. Think of it! John Phillips, composer of the Summer of Love's national anthem, dead, gone. His 1960s voice had been broadcast on the "oldies" stations for decades, and when it rang out in its perfectly preserved youthful impetuosity, it triggered in many of the aging 1960s indigene the fantasy that they were Forever Young. That, too, was one of their anthems. Phillips' Summer of Love hit song, San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair), performed in the touchy-feely voice of Scott McKenzie, his collaborator, had been flowing from oldies radio stations for over three decades and persuaded increasing numbers of graying, fattening 1960s youth that they had been part of that historic summer, though most had not. Most had been following the more traditional hum and drum: summer jobs, summer school, acne treatments. Fantasy was one of the hallmarks of the 1960s: the fantasy of endless youth, the fantasy that the Summer of Love had captured an entire generation.

Phillips' stunning demise vanquished the first fantasy, for though his mellifluous voice preserved on the oldies stations never changed, the singer himself had aged horribly. He was no longer young on the day his dock stopped. Truth be known, by then he was a grizzled old bird and had trouble holding his water. Rock & Roll's apologists make great claims for the music's power to heal and edify, but it is murder on the physique, the central nervous system and all vital organs. Even its claims to moral uplift are suspect, if police records are to be believed or the various public statements from the rock singers' shrinks and swamis.

Phillips, the pontificating composer of rock madrigals to "peace" and "protest;' hardly made it to retirement age. Meanwhile, many of his contemporaries who had engaged in what we might consider the rougher trades lived on: Jackie Stewart, the former world-champion Grand Prix driver; Muhammad Ali, the former heavyweight champion; Joe Namath, star of the New York Jets; the Hon. Jerry Brown, existentialist presidential candidate; Lt. William Calley, controversial GI; Miss Squeaky Fromme, presidential stalker. So much for the second fantasy that all 1960s youths were dreamy participants in the Summer of Love or even adepts of Rock & Roll or Peace & Freedom. Later marketers of the 1960s made these claims, but Lt. Calley was living proof that the claims were bunk. More evidence of the bunk was the existence in 1967 of thousands of members of the Future Farmers of America and thousands of Young Republicans and virginal girls who would never dream of smoking a cigarette in public.

Nonetheless, whatever one's role in the 1960s and whatever one thought of Rock & Roll at the time, the music did figure ever larger in popular culture as the generation aged. For some of the young men and women of the generation it seemed to take the place of religion. They treated its singers and its songs as a holy noise. Not surprisingly, rock's earliest critics were those who might perceive this holy noise as competition, that is to say, the old-time, gospel-spouting clerics of the American hinterland. …