I have the pleasure of teaching a course in public high school these days called Rock School. About 25 students between the ages of 14 and 18, with widely varying levels of experience in formal music training as well as rock, meet every day to discuss, hear lectures about, write, practice and perform rock music. While the course and the students are a pleasure to teach, I must admit to a small, niggling ambivalence about the course. The first source of those mixed feelings comes from a long-held belief that the best, most successful rock musicians are self taught; if you're not a committed do-it-yourselfer, you won't be thinking far enough outside the box to distinguish yourself as a rock artist or have the drive to work in a job that requires so much self-direction. I'm comforted by growing evidence to the contrary and the challenge of devising this course so that the independent spirit of a self-taught musician is preserved in all students, even if the students' experience is otherwise. The other source of my ambivalence is a little tougher to remedy...
As I've mention in a previous blog, I often encounter students who dig 'old' music. The fondness for Vivaldi, Mozart and Debussy doesn't worry me; it's the love of Billy Joel, Beatles, Floyd, Zeppelin, Rush, Sublime, AC/DC and Metallica that does. When I ask students about their interests in such antiquated music, they inevitably mention that their parents turned them onto it.
In some ways, I should be overjoyed by this phenomenon. The younger generation likes a lot of the same music I do? Not only does that keep me from being an irrelevant old geezer in the eyes of younger folk, it makes this course easier to teach – I know so much of that 'old' music intimately, its origins and every note. In some ways, the challenge of this course for me is less about coming up with material and more about knowing when to shut up already and let the students play and make their own investigations.
However, there seems something slightly amiss. This class environment is positively Utopian compared to the cultural environment of my own musical development.
My parents did not like Rock music. My dad, in fact, saw Rock as degenerate, a sure sign of a declining civilization. I kept my first electric guitar hidden from my dad for two years (needlessly, it turned out; when I finally showed it to him, he immediately and happily tried to play it). Dad was not alone in his antipathy in those days. In the popular press, while the hipper media outlets embraced lighter or older forms of rock like Elvis and the Beatles, there was a pronounced whiff of disdain if not outright boycott where current, hard rock was concerned. It bugged he hell out of me that 'rock' music on TV was inevitably soft and wimpy if present at all, buried in brass and strings arrangements, denatured and pathetic. The mainstream press (which, back then, was the only game in town) pretended Led Zeppelin, Kiss, Van Halen and AC/DC didn't exist, and it only stoked my appetite further. Kiss made a television movie back in 1978, which portrayed the boys in the band as superheros. To this day, even the otherwise-shameless Gene Simmons himself is embarrassed by that horribly misguided platter of rotting ham, but as a ten-year-old rabid fan, I was enthralled. Why? I'd simply never seen the band in motion. I'd only heard the records and seen the photos. Sure, the movie was indeed crap, but the concert footage gave me a taste of what I craved. Ironically, the Hanna-Barbera-produced movie was the start of Kiss denaturing itself, trying to appeal to a family audience at the height of the Disco era. Kiss certainly didn't seem dangerous anymore. My mom watched the movie with me, and determined that Kiss was about as harmful to me as the Flintstones, if somewhat less intelligent.
The generation gap was quite apparent back then. While those born before the Second World War reacted to Rock with disgust, those born in the first generation after the war liked their rock soft and inoffensive by the late 70's, and my generation's tastes were treated as irrelevant or beneath serious consideration. Generation X just didn't have the demographic numbers to garner much media patronage until we were old enough to start running things ourselves.
The Generation Gap, of course, was that much more pronounced a decade earlier. When there was only the pre-war and post-war crowds, all Rock music polarized its audience along generational lines, opinions were very sharply-held and expressed in militant, belligerent fashion. It probably didn't help that a great swath of parents at the time were post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) sufferers from the Second World War, Korean conflict and the poverty and labour unrest of the Great Depression. After going through all that, it's no wonder that they scratched their heads when their kids rejected all the predictability and stability of quiet suburban culture in favour of something much more primal and raucous.
I read a fascinating book recently by Steven Pinker entitled “the Better Angels of Our Nature” (thanks, Peter!) that documents in very unambiguous terms how the human species has grown less violent over the last couple of millennia. In any trend there tend to be outliers and aberrations, and in this great, general trend away from violence, the biggest aberrations of the last century are World War II (many historians contend: “no Hitler, no Second World War”)...and the Baby Boomers. The explanations about and for these findings would take up many more blogs, but to encapsulate: the Boomers were an unusually violent generation, and as the men (women tend not to be violent in any generation) of that generation grew past the age when men are typically violent, the general trend away from violence resumed its steady curve. This conflict-prone generation was bound to butt heads against that of their parents, and while a small amount of inter-generational conflict appears to be normal, what we saw in the 60's and 70's was probably unusual in its intensity. That rebellious spirit that fuelled rock music from its birth into the 70's was, therefore, likely a once-in-a-millenium event. This may also be why the Boomers were quick to discount any harder-edged rock that appeared after, say, Cream. If your watchword used to be “don't trust anyone over thirty”, you don't want anything to remind you that you're now over thirty yourself, getting steadily older, and quite worth rebelling against. The generations that followed never suffered such ageism, and therefore don't discriminate against any music on the basis of its recording date or the age of its practicioners.
Certainly there are plenty of shock-rock bands and artists today that make great use of violent imagery and primal appeal, but they're now far from the mainstream. The days when a Pete Townshend can smash his guitar on national broadcast and polarize the vast audience along generational lines as a result...are long over. It's been done, and for better or worse, the youth of today don't have the focused anger (or violent tendencies) of Pete's g-g-generation. Ironically, today's youth probably have much more cause to rebel than the boomers ever did, and the boomers themselves deserve most of the blame for that – but again, that's for a much longer blog on a different website. I certainly don't miss the nasty generational wars of the '60s, or the weirdly mid-life-crisis-flavoured media of the '70s...but I do miss the spirit of rock that was mainstream in the 60s and early 70's – rebellious but with musical acumen, hedonistic but with a core of civility, ably drawing on outside musical influences while retaining a rock and roll heart, with a touch of humour...as opposed to tunes designed merely to get toes tapping in the car or drinks flowing at the bar. Is any of this something that can be formally taught?
I guess I'm about to find out.