Dylan, Springsteen, McCartney and the twilight of classic rock
Billy Joel's and Elton John’s Face to Face tour came to Buffalo, New York, in March of 2010, and it was the first concert I ever attended. Sitting eagerly in the stands of the massive, sold-out HSBC Arena, I was 12 years old and knew the majority of the men’s discographies by heart. My parents started playing their Greatest Hits albums for my sisters and I when we were too young to understand the lyrics, but old enough to commit them to memory. Years later, we would learn their songs on the piano, each of us assuming a different anthem. For Mimi and Elizabeth, it was Joel’s “Piano Man” and “Miami 2017,” and for myself it was John’s “Tiny Dancer.”
The performance itself operated around the premise of these two legends playing individually and then in tandem. Their pianos, which would rise out from under the stage, faced each other from opposite ends where they would banter and play duets in response to the adoring screams from the audience. As it turned out, this would be the final rendition of the Face to Face tour, which had been recurring since 1994. Rumors of discontent between the artists circulated, but nothing was ever confirmed. Joel would later sign a contract with Madison Square Garden to become their resident artist and pretty much stop touring, while John, who recently announced his Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour, is heading towards retirement, but not without playing 300 stadiums across the world first.
Here are two gods, both of classic rock fame, who are careening towards the end of their careers in the way typical of our surviving rock legends — performing at large stadiums to fans who grew up treasuring their music, be them Baby Boomers or Gen-Xers. It is a popular progression of classic rock legends these days. Live albums, stadium tours and residencies seem to be the three distinguishing elements of the rock star in the 2000s. Steven Hyden points this out in his new book “Twilight of the Gods: A Journey to the End of Classic Rock,” but also adds a caveat to these characteristics: Soon, tours like these will no longer exist because the legends will all be gone. Stadium concerts are unique to our rock gods, the ones draped in nostalgia for the beat-up leather of Cadillacs and drug-addled parties in a stranger’s basement. Once men like Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen and Mick Jagger finally kick it, what will become of classic rock?
It is easy to tell that “Twilight of the Gods” is a response to the recent loss of musicians who seemed incapable of ever dying because, in truth, they never seemed human. David Bowie, Prince, Tom Petty, Gord Downie and Greg Allman — none of these stars ever seemed subject to mortality, but in the last two years alone, this is a reality the music world has had to face. But while the subtitle for this book suggests that Hyden reaches the end of classic rock, whatever this may look like, he instead acts as a catalyst for what the discussion of classic rock will look like once all of its icons are gone. For years, cultural critics have written and reflected on the effect these bands and musicians have had, but most of these conversations have occurred while the members are still alive. Now, we face the strange task of retrospectively considering the careers of all these artists in a time when young listeners are further and further removed from the tenets of classic rock. The admiration and recognition for stars like Bowie and Petty are there, but it’s difficult to truly reckon with their deaths when we are so far removed from their heyday.
At the start of the book, Hyden takes care to differentiate between classic rock and classic rock. “Classic is a value judgement, whereas classic rock denotes a particular era of music signified by bands that may or may not be shitty.” This sentence serves as a foreshadowing for both the structure and tone of the book. Stylized like a double album, the book has four sides which are split into songs — or chapters — and which follow the trajectory of a concept album like The Who’s Tommy or Genesis’s The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. A “hero” makes his way from birth to death while attempting to uncover the meaning of life along the way, be this through drugs, God or both. Except the hero here seems to be Hyden himself, and Hyden is just a placeholder for the larger category of classic rock fiends who were captivated by classic rock mythology at a young age with its tortured artists and romantic visions and who now face its impending end. Moving from birth to death, from his initial discovery of the WAPL classic rock station in the 1980s to interviewing Against Me!’s frontwoman in 2014, Hyden traces the arcs of our most beloved rockstars from Bob Dylan to Bruce Springsteen alongside the overarching decline of classic rock as we move into an increasingly digital age.
The aspects which drew Hyden to classic rock in the first place — its mythology, radio play, tapes, concept albums, drug-use and unwithheld need for excess — are all qualities that are no longer present or desired in the 2010s. While there are and always will be fans flocking to live shows to see their favorite artists, there aren’t any bands that will command stadiums after all our beloved classic rockers are dead and we won’t necessarily want there to be. And while vinyl has experienced a revival, with teenagers and adults flocking to the nostalgic memorabilia, playlists dominate listening platforms, not albums. Streaming services like Spotify and iTunes allow us to pick and choose. The Who’s Tommy skids right into Pink Floyd's The Wall and we never reach any narrative conclusion. We simply move from one song and one genre to the next. Most notably, there no longer seems to be a desire for classic rock’s excess either. Hyden points to the failure of Martin Scorsese's HBO show “Vinyl” as one indication of this. No longer do we want to hear about cocaine lined up on the rails of Mick Jagger’s tour bus bathroom or Jim Morrison’s hedonism. We have Lil Pump and Lil Xan instead.
Hyden’s balance of the personal and the factual is what ultimately makes this book so engaging. He ingratiates his experiences with certain bands and albums and lays all of his biases on the table for us to see. We know he’s a Sgt. Pepper and the Lonely Hearts Band skeptic (he thinks The White Album is better), and he doesn’t even try to disguise his contempt for The Eagles. But with each point he makes, he challenges himself and the reader to listen and learn more. With his challenging of Sgt. Pepper comes a numbered list of why it may not be the best Beatles album, but it certainly is the most important for the band and for classic rock as a whole. And while he hates Don Henley, he does assert that The Eagles are the definitive classic rock band. They encompassed both the wild drug use and, later, syndicated stadium rock in arenas across the world.
And then there’s his ability to easily stretch from the past into the future and back again. While talking about Bruce Springsteen, he manages to weave in Arcade Fire and The National into the conversation about how his albums in the early aughts were responses to younger bands changing how rock sounds. It’s seamless and flows naturally.
Hyden brings us to the present in the final chapter of the book with his assertion that in the modern age, singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett is the best writer of modern day rock songs. Her darkly comic humor and musings on the interior and exterior lives of herself and strangers make her songs cut to the bone. Alongside Barnett, Hyden places Will Toledo of Car Seat Headrest. Their album Twin Fantasy is the modern incarnation of the concept album and fictionalizes a relationship Toledo was in after high school. But while both Barnett and Toledo are founded in classic rock, the day will never come where they sell out stadiums. And maybe, just maybe, that’s not a bad thing. Maybe classic rock is meant to stay in the past. Maybe its legends are meant to pass on. They were always otherworldly.
“When the twilight of the gods finally turns to darkness,” Hyden asks in this closing chapter, “what will the world look like the next morning?” This question requires the envisioning of a world where all the mammoths who built the contemporary music landscape are gone — a world where Paul McCartney doesn’t turn up on the Bonnaroo Music Festival lineup and Pearl Jam isn’t playing Coachella. It requires us to envision a world where larger than life figures are finally brought back down to earth.
I saw The Rolling Stones perform at Buffalo’s Ralph Wilson Stadium in 2015. It was the first time they performed there since their Bridges to Babylon tour in 1997. I wasn’t a huge Stones fan at the time. I’d heard their music, could sing along to “Wild Horses” and “Start Me Up” but other than those, I was restricted to a passing familiarity. But sitting in the stands of this 71,608 person stadium, cheering as Mick Jagger and Keith Richards took to the stage, I was overcome with a feeling of giddiness and nostalgia I wasn’t exactly entitled to, but couldn’t restrain. There’s something inexplicable in the way Mick Jagger commands the stage, his thin body channeling more sex appeal at 71 than I could have ever hoped to embody at 17.
Repeatedly in “Twilight of the Gods,” Hyden akins a classic rock concert to church. I attended Catholic school and went to church on Sundays for 14 years, but never have I experienced religious sensation that even comes close to seeing the Stones that night. Fifty thousand people gathered to recite the prayers they know by heart while sitting in front of their gods. But unlike the perpetual hold religious thought has over public imagination, it is possible, even if we don’t want to, to imagine a day when these gods are no longer taken to church.