Here's a scene outside of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio. Whenever I visit Cleveland, I make it a point to visit the hall and see what's new, or more accurately, what's old in rock music. I always enjoy the trip since it makes me think more deeply about something that wasn't intended to be thought about too deeply. It raises questions like, “just what is rock and roll?” and “how's it doing these days”?
Rock and roll supposedly comes out of the depths of teenage frustration and confusion. Every generation creates its own version that only they understand, and that their parents can't stand to listen to. Maybe that's a good working definition for rock and roll – “music I like that drives my parents nuts”. I think a generation should conspire to really freak out their parents and get into something unexpected like polka or pan-flute (no offense to polka and pan-flute fans). But they almost always create or pick up on something new. And usually when they become adults, they package up their own unique rock collection, give it a sub-genre name, and carry it with them for the rest of their lives until it eventually gets called “oldies” or “classic”.
I think that because the music originates with frustration and confusion, it is appropriate that rock itself can appear a bit frustrated and confused. For instance, Neil Young sang that “rock and roll will never die”. The Who, on the other hand, sang that “rock is dead”. Which is it then? It's probably both. The old rock dies and makes room for the new stuff that a kid's rock and roller parents can't stand to listen to.
Even the rockers themselves are sometimes confused over their existence. Remember how The Who sang “I hope I die before I get old.” Today, Roger and Keith may have changed their minds on that one. I'm sure they are just as happy to still be kicking it on stage in their 60s than to have fulfilled their musical death wish. Paul McCartney was dead once. Some say he still is and was actually replaced by a new Paul that's been doing the job for all these years. I watched two family members argue this one for hours. For a good time, go ahead and search “Paul McCartney death conspiracy”. Whoever he is, the current Paul is still in the running for longest-surviving Beatle. Rock and roll lives.
I'm sure you're already thinking that my own song and artist references are dating me and my rock generation. You would be almost correct. I actually claim to have been born late for the party I was supposed to attend. I gravitated to the music from about ten to fifteen years before my time. I think that may have something to do with seeing parents or older siblings connecting with their music. That seems to be happening more often now as father, son, and sometimes grandfather come together at a Bruce Springsteen or Rolling Stones concert. I guess that makes a case for rock never dying. But again we have a rock conflict... if you and your dad like the same rock music, is it still, according to our definition, rightly called rock and roll? I'm confused and a bit frustrated by the question, and that alone may make it OK to call it rock. And even though father and son attend the concert together, there is sure to be music in each one's iPod that totally disgusts the other.
After something like rock and roll has been around long enough, and has a following that spans several generations, it's bound to get a museum or hall of fame. So not surprisingly, rock and roll has a beautiful hall of fame and museum in downtown Cleveland. But here is another irony... the very thing created as a means to stick it to the man, now has, or in some way is, its own man. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has a foundation to support its operation and a nominating committee that votes in new inductees every year. The idea is that a person or group that is rebel-enough with their anti-establishment rock music can be considered for induction into the hall's time-honored institution. As a bonus, if the artist works hard to insure that they don't “die before they get old”, they can attend the ceremony, give a speech, and perform for all the distinguished guests – maybe even dress up nice and wear a tuxedo for the event.
The hall of fame has its own rebels though. Some artists like the Sex Pistols and Axl Rose refuse to have anything to do with it. Is this confusing? Well it should be, “it's rock and roll man”. It's only fitting that rock lives on with a museum and hall of fame that, on one hand keeps the memory of its past alive, while on the other hand gives some of the old rockers something to rebel against. It's all good then.
In my opinion though, the poster child for the whole rock thing is one of its founding members, Bob Dylan. Do I like everything good old Bob did? No, but that's the point. When too many people liked what Bob did, Bob rebelled, stopped doing it, and did something else. Whenever he was labeled, he'd rip the name tag right off his jacket. “You're the voice of our generation, Bob!”, they would scream. “I don't think so!”, he'd reply.
Bob started by rebelling each year in the 1960s with the good people at the Newport Folk Festival. When that got “too heavy” and people wanted him to lead their causes with his guitar, he jumped ship and went electric, lost some fans and then got some new ones. When those fans expected to hear their favorite songs in the familiar way, he'd play them differently or not play them at all. Being in his band could best be described as a game of “what's Bob gonna do next?”. Check him out in Martin Scorsese's rock-umentary The Last Waltz, and watch The Band struggle to keep up with him as they try to guess what song he'll launch into next, and when they think he'll end the song he's playing. No matter what he was doing, it came with a side order of confusion and frustration – rock and roll at its best.
So next time you're in Cleveland be sure to visit to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It's the one museum where you're not supposed to think too deeply about it. Take in the confusion and let yourself feel a little frustrated. But be sure not to let your rebel side get out of control and start throwing things. After all, the building is made of glass.