"My my, hey hey
Rock and roll is here to stay
It’s better to burn out
Than to fade away"
The recent deaths of Lemmy Kilmister and David Bowie have left considerable voids in the rock music landscape. Tributes, obituaries, and fellow rock stars have flooded social media since shortly after Christmas, and for good reason. The two aforementioned deaths left me feeling sad not only for the loss of Lemmy and Bowie as creative pioneers, but because I finally came to the realization that I will get to witness the extinction of the true “Rock Star” in my lifetime.
One by one, the baby boomer generation is starting to reach the end of their lifespan. I don’t want to admit this anymore than anyone else. Our parents are not the young, healthy people that would drive across the country for 2 weeks in the summer on roadtrips that we’ll remember forever. While they are not the “old” that our grandparents were, the human body ages, and alas, it starts to break down. No matter what your attitude towards life is, death is inevitable. And with the deaths of Kilmister and Bowie, a sudden rush of panic has run through my veins: The people I look up to - both guitar heroes and family heroes - are slowly going away, and there is not a god damned thing I or anyone else can do about it.
I am here to tell you that, yes, rock and roll is indeed dying - because our rock stars are dying. And if you think otherwise, you’re in denial. Don’t believe that we long for the “rock stars” of old? Why was Motley Crue able to fill arenas after announcing this would be their last tour EVER? And why are there so many national/touring tribute acts right now? If you had told me in 1995 that tribute bands would be able to get endorsement deals just as easily as an all-original rock band, and that they would fill rock clubs across the country doing an actual “tour”, I would have laughed in your face. Tribute bands used to be “just for fun” or side projects that “real” rock bands had to supplement their income.
Perhaps it is us fans that have killed the rock star. We download music illegally instead of paying for it, and MTV spins reality shows instead of the latest video from an up and coming band. Music streaming services “suggest” music to us and radio stations are asking publicity reps for money in exchange for playing the songs of a newly signed artist. (An aside: remember payola? Did it ever really leave us?)
We can sit here and argue for hours about if rock is dead or not, and whether or not this is a great or horrible time to be in the music industry, but one thing is apparent to me - the rock star - the ones that seemed God-like and untouchable, creative geniuses and larger than life, are becoming extinct. Rock stars are people that have way cooler clothes than their fans do, drive cooler cars, play cooler guitars, and never walk in through the front door. They don’t look like they should be pumping gas, or like they could just as easily be riding the commuter train into a regular 9-5 “day job”. In my eyes, a true “rock star” has the “look” just as much as they have the talent to write songs and keep their audience’s attention. They don’t just “blend in”. They’re larger than life. That’s what makes them stars.
On several occasions, I have had the blessed opportunity to be in the presence of rock and roll icons and everything that makes them the story of legend that people of my generation are so fond of recalling. Backstage, at closed rehearsals, at a dinner table, or from side stage, I have watched how the “greats” do it. They can walk into a room or out on stage and their magnetic presence keeps their audience fixed upon them the entire time. When they are holding court, there isn't one person in the room that isn't aware of their presence. Once they are gone from that stage and retreat to their respective rides or hotel rooms, the “spark” that lit up the room slowly fades and only us mere mortals are left behind. Then we talk about it, to whoever will listen, for days. Why? Because it's magical. Because we all need heroes.
I distinctly remember the first time I met one of my guitar heroes. When walking into the room, they radiated a certain magnetism and “starpower” that is lacking in the current crop of music celebrities. I have met my fair share of these new and current Grammy nominated/winning bands, but no matter how awesome they are, it’s different. They’re accessible via social media. They dress in the same clothes that I do - even on stage sometimes. They have their own signature guitars after one hit record, and endorsement deals that they will swap for the bigger and better one that rolls around in a month or two. That’s not a criticism necessarily, just a reality of the current industry. Buying a VIP meet and greet package gets you a photo with the band, autographs, maybe even some swag. Some older bands have capitalized on this sort of thing these days too, as a revenue stream, and with the current state of the music industry, you can’t blame them.
But can you imagine Ritchie Blackmore’s Deep Purple or The Rolling Stones doing a paid meet and greet back in the 1970’s, at the height of their fame? I sure can’t. Rock stars used to be untouchable. Only the select few would be able to get backstage or happen to bump into them outside of a venue. That mysterious quality was part of what fueled the “legendary” nature of their icon status. They wore custom designed stage attire, played through whatever equipment sounded great, and fostered the relationships with those gear pioneers such as Jim Marshall, Bernie Rico, Jim Dunlop, Seymour Duncan, Les Paul, or Leo Fender himself. The stage show and presence was just as important as the music in some cases, and those album covers had us talking for months.
I sometimes wish I had paid more attention when I was growing up: to the music and the true rock stars that will leave behind a beautiful legacy of great music. It was a time of social and political changes, or economic ups and downs, and of human reactions to all sorts of events: love, life, sex, terrorism, patriotism, war, hate, liberty, pride, and creative freedom. There was no Twitter or Facebook, and you had to wait till the day of an album release to head to the record store and pick up the latest music from your favorite band, then spend the rest of the day listening to it, and the rest of the year experiencing it over and over again. I thought it would last forever, but just like everything else, it doesn’t.
When that same band rolled through town on a tour, you saved your money, bought a ticket, went to the show, bought a t-shirt and program, and told your friends all about it the next day. If you were close enough to the front of the stage, you may have caught your idol’s eye and shared a brief connection - whether through a smile, a touch of their hand, a wink, or even a scowl.
Are there bands today that deserve to be put on the pedestal that The Eagles, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, and the countless other legends that we recognize the instant the first note of any of their songs plays on the radio? Maybe. But we’ll never get to hear and see them in the same "big" way that we used to. The music industry has changed and the days of Guns’n’Roses - or any other band like them - selling over 100 million albums worldwide are done. Fans may be excited about their proposed Coachella reunion, and that’s because they know that they are one of the last group of the true “rock stars” - the ones that seemed to have personas (and problems) to match the size of their 70,000+ person audiences in arenas around the world.
I lie here listening to some of my favorite music while I write this. The Stones. Zeppelin. Guns’n’Roses. Black Sabbath. Deep Purple. Eric Clapton. The Beatles. The Eagles. Each song brings with it it’s own special memory - one that is attached to another human being that was also there to share the memory. Because that’s what music does - it connects people. But in an increasingly “connected” world, people have paradoxically become more and more disconnected from each other. Perhaps that’s why the “rock star” is no longer.
When the day comes that the last of these true, born and bred Rock Stars joins that big concert in the sky, it will be a sad day, but I am eternally grateful that I will be able to say that I witnessed and experienced the existence of some of the most talented people to ever walk the earth. The epitaph will read “Here lies an icon and a legend who lived, breathed and died rock’n’roll. He/She captured imaginations, captivated our hearts, and filled arenas.” Not iPods, YouTube channels, or Twitter feeds.
"It’s better to burn out than to rust
The King is gone but he’s not forgotten"