Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Music Memory: Steven Hyden's Twilight of the Gods

Author and classic rock aficionado Steven Hyden. (Photo: Uproxx)

Steven Hyden’s Twilight of The Gods: A Journey to the End of Classic Rock (Dey St./Harper Collins) is one of the best books about a life in music from a non-musician that I’ve ever read. His short volume is a blend of memoir, music history and criticism that is so full of wit that it’s hard to resist laughing to oneself on every other page. Here’s the first line: “For as long as I can remember, classic rock has been there for me.” Classic rock? Really? By revealing his love for classic rock albums and its famous performers, Hyden’s book is really a long-winded yet fascinating story about his relationship with music from his early years until the present.

Early on Hyden gets to the point: “This book discusses classic rock, not classic rock” and this distinction is important to understanding his argument. He writes, “Classic is a value judgment, whereas classic rock denotes a particular era of music signified by bands who may or may not be shitty. I’m delving into the latter.” For the next 300 pages he discusses the big names in classic rock including Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, David Bowie and Bruce Springsteen. He also devotes considerable time to Black Sabbath, AC/DC and Aerosmith. But it all starts for Hyden with The Beatles’ 1967 album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Hyden argues that this album expressed a maturation of the rock genre into “a self-conscious art form that was set apart from supposedly craven music for adolescents and tweens.” It is this contrast that put classic rock on the proverbial map boosted by record-company marketing that developed an audience spun from FM radio that was never afraid of playing “Stairway to Heaven.”

Hyden gets philosophical too. “I think what drew me into classic rock was the mythology of it,” he writes, citing his interest in the work of American scholar and mythologist, Joseph Campbell. Hyden considers Campbell’s ideas essential to his own understanding of rock music and its relevance as a fan. Now, I may have a superficial interest in my favourite progressive rock bands such as Genesis, but I’ve never put too much weight on the deeper psychological messages of their work, best cited on The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. I got the imaginative story put forth by Peter Gabriel et al, but I wouldn’t say that my life changed after hearing it. But for Hyden, Campbell’s ideas about mythology opened up more possibilities in rock music previously unavailable to him as a youth.

Genesis performing The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway in Liverpool, 1975. (Photo: Youtube)

For instance, after Hyden’s parents divorced when he was two, he was forced to identify a substitute for his absent father. He found it in classic rock, specifically in the story of Tommy by The Who: “Instead of becoming a pinball wizard, I gravitated to rock music . . . guys like Pete Townshend would be my father figures from now on.” It’s a powerful statement and an admission I wasn’t expecting, having being brought up in a comfortable nuclear family of five. But perhaps, like some critics, I underestimate the power of classic rock beyond its entertainment value. Hyden devotes most of his book to dispelling certain myths around the form, and how it affected him psychologically and emotionally. These passages actually give low-grade rock some credibility and demand that the reader re-consider their relationship with music from another perspective.

Hyden’s book is full of observations about bands that have sold millions of records and toured the world playing stadiums. One example, which Hyden gives serious consideration (though I wouldn’t necessarily give weight to it), is Australia’s AC/DC, a loud rock band the author says didn’t “deviate one iota” from their original sound by making the same record over and over again. I would submit that AC/DC created a sound and simply worked a variation on that sound that appealed to a lot of people over the course of their successful career. Hyden takes the point further, suggesting the band understood the power of their music and how it could reach huge audiences better than most bands. He writes, “In those cavernous spaces, AC/DC sounds like an impenetrable monolith . . . towering . . . imposing 
. . . and you will never, ever break AC/DC down into component parts.” For him, the band’s focus was always on Angus Young and his brother, Malcolm, who died this past spring.

Hyden’s astute observations along the way are genuinely funny and thoughtful: “ . . . solving Dylan songs is a pointless exercise. Dylan songs are never about the destination. If you love Bob Dylan, you come to wish that the journey would never end . . . [keeping] his music fresh over so many listens.” On the religious significance of Jimi Hendrix, he writes: “For the mythically minded, Hendrix’s performance [at Monterey] was a pornographic adaptation of the Christ story – mysterious birth, blessed life, violent death, and glorious resurrection . . . his showmanship truly set him apart as a rock god.” On the original Woodstock concert and film, he writes: “As a member of Generation X, I was trained by my peers to hate Woodstock; there was no greater symbol of baby boomer hegemony . . . Altamont is an excellent satire of Woodstock.”

Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock, 1969. (Photo: Getty)

Hyden covers the ebbs and flows of classic rock artists, reaching a really interesting conclusion about Bruce Springsteen. When Springsteen had what Hyden calls an “uncool” period in the nineties, Tom Petty stepped in to push his brand of “heartland rock” into the mainstream: “In the hierarchy of eighties heartland rock, Bruce Springsteen was president, Tom Petty was vice-president . . . if Bruce ever faltered, Tom was constitutionally required to step up.” I never thought of Petty that way before, but it makes sense in retrospect. Petty’s best years were the nineties, compared to Springsteen, who went into a quieter, folksy mode for a few years. Petty, having sold millions of albums while tapping into the growing music video productions that graced MTV and MuchMusic, flourished.

Hyden’s discussion about classic rock stars never ignores their heavy use of drugs. Rather than forgive his heroes for it, Hyden spins it in his favour. He argues that David Bowie’s lowest year was 1976, when he was snorting cocaine, but he turned out one of his favourite albums, Station to Station. “Drugs affected his appearance, his voice, and his approach to art. He sang like Dracula with post-nasal drip and made music that was both ominously dark and sinuously funky . . . " Hyden casts his net far and wide and I appreciated his unsentimental yet personal anecdotes, especially his chapter about Prince.

Similarly, Hyden diffuses most of the clich├ęs of classic rock, including an insightful chapter about Satanism as professed by one of the biggest frauds in history, Aleister Crowley. Crowley’s ideas influenced Jimmy Page and Ozzy Osbourne, the latter with Black Sabbath, a band that cornered the market on Halloween-style presentation and dressed-up decadence. But Hyden reveals his own fondness for Sabbath and their appeal: “Decadence will always be irresistible to young people, because decadence is sexy and fun, and also because doing what you want is the most visceral way to live. But once you’re older, and the buzz of sin wears off, the pursuit of being alive starts to matter . . . ” For Hyden, classic rock has a short shelf life as an effective art form and, as I approach my 60th birthday, I no longer require it to help fill some internal void, but listening to it today is more than just a nostalgia trip. That said, my continuing interest in jazz provides me with a deeper, more satisfying listening experience. Maybe some day Hyden will try jazz too?

In spite of the changing history of classic rock, which Hyden’s book excels at recounting, the genre seems to have endured the deaths of many of its founders, such as David Bowie and Gregg Allman. But Hyden hasn’t given up on it: “I want to believe that this music can still connect me to something important and immortal.” He concludes that he’ll still attend concerts as “long as the old guys and gals” continue to tour because “classic rock will always be my country . . . and the place that still feels like home.”

John Corcelli is a music critic, broadcast/producer, and musician. He's the author of Frank Zappa FAQ: All That's Left To Know About The Father of Invention (Backbeat Books).

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