Rock 'N' Roll--A Love Story

Fell in love with a band: The White Stripes
Sympathy for the Record Industry

Is it just me, or has rock music suddenly become fun in the past ten seconds? I'm pretty sure that when I passed out last night, rock sucked monkey finger and I was holed up, drunk and sad, in Box Set Purgatory with The Kink Kronikles and Zombie Heaven. (I had long since stopped asking the painful old questions: Who stole the rock? Who ordered the mook sandwiches? How did they make rap unfunky, and metal unfunny? And if this is what all the kids want, are guns in school really such a bad idea?)

Today I wake up and the air is buzzing, the canaries are braiding Maypoles with their beaks, and the sidewalks are filthy with smart rock boys (and a few girls) who just drove their cruddy vans in from Mybutt, USA, and wanna rock you down. Their hair's all right, and they make you want to smoke cigarettes the cool way. (Like a joint, but with your hand cupped around the cigarette. It's hard to explain.) The aggro-metal crisis of 1998-2001 is ending. Can you feel the magic, people?

Ironically, the new-rock morning actually broke for me while I was listening to my big dumb corporate rock station one afternoon nine months ago--the station that pretty much dictates rock radio for the country. (KROQ--I live in L.A. most of the time now.) Between Paind and Stinkin Fart I heard a new-wavy song so tight and urgent and good, it simply had no right to be on the radio. When I woke up the next morning, I turned on the clock radio just in case they might play it again, and felt so happy doing it, and also like a faker--I mean, when was the last time you did that? Junior high?

It turned out that the song ("Bleed American" by Jimmy Eat World) was 20 times better than the rest of the (overproduced, underrocking) album. Whatever. The miracle for me was that morning. You think of rock music as a nighttime thing. But, maybe more important, having exciting music on the radio transforms the nature of morning. Sunshine isn't half as annoying. You feel like you can get up and do things, make shit happen. You don't feel so alone.

Maybe it's a sign of how bad things have been in rock that the exciting "new" sounds I'm digging include some pretty derivative stuff. Maybe it's a sign that the original sources were timeless. Twenty-three years ago Lester Bangs said, "I can actually see myself 20 years from now puttering around with my beat-up old copies of Velvet Underground and Iggy and the Stooges records. I mean, it's pathetic, admittedly. [But] everybody's going to be doing it, so you might as well admit it."

He was right--everyone is fondling them, indirectly. Only a few months after my morning rock epiphany, the Strokes' trousers staged a welcome KROQ coup; the buzzy-fuzzy Hives joined the effort; and before you knew it, my favorite band of the last ten years, the White Stripes, became the number-one most requested band on the nation's biggest, most-soldest-outest-ever rock station. (Their single, "Fell in Love With a Girl," was just released last month.)

The success of that single is proof of how hungry people are for something weird, briny, and unmarket-tested-to-death. Because, to be honest, it sounds awful in a car. I mean, it sounds great--in a college-radio, Iggy-demo, specialty-show way. You know how Julian Casawhatever compresses his vocals to sound like the Strokes spent their recording budget on smack, but it still sounds artfully tarnished on a car radio? With the Stripes, I actually have to turn the radio down because the treble hurts. (You can just picture all those big-money metal producers slapping their foreheads in the SUV--this is what's in? Better pull out the old tube amps again.)

I wish there were room to discuss all the bands I'm loving, from the Shins to Weezer to unknowns like the Deathray Davies and Rooney and Lovelight Shine. Now, I know damn well that most (all?) of these bands are not the next Zeppelin--which is precisely not my point. Great bands are great, but you've also got to have a million pretty-good bands running around. No great band leaps out of a musical vacuum. They actually leap out of great pools of mere competence.

Furthermore, it nourishes the soul to have more than five new bands to like. When you like 10 or 15 bands, I mean really like them, it's the same as having 10 or 15 true friends. You have more options at night, and more companionship while running errands or doing dishes. You have more to think about, more to laugh about, more reason to suspect you belong in the world. You may even start doing things you really want to do.

That's the challenge of rock 'n' roll, even of punk/garage/whatnot revivalists. If the spirit is right--and it is with the bands I've mentioned--rock 'n' roll isn't just music. Like Lester said on another occasion, it becomes a way of living your life. It seeps into everything. I can't just listen to White Blood Cells, and then, like, make a sandwich. First, I need to swallow that singer whole, red polyester and all. Then I need to write a three-dimensional poem with a real-live buried treasure; and maybe give birth to a sparkly silver guitar; and then invent the G7 chord and see how it sounds on the surface of the sun. If I can't do all that in one day, and more, I wanna rip my hair out.

It can be exhausting. Bad days, I can't even listen to that record. It hurts, which is something my friends don't seem to understand. I know it's sick and sad--imagine, music so good it must never be played, touched--don't even look at it! Then there's the fear you get if you've had your heart busted: What if, one day, the White Stripes decided they didn't like me anymore? What if the CD refused to play, and took off with my Vines record? And what if the Hives then started sneering at me from the stereo, blasting "Hate to Say I Told You So" over and over?

I don't know. I guess I'd bleed. So big deal. I've bled for better bands than that. It hasn't killed me yet. It has made me live some.

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