Rock and Roll, Philip Marlowe, and George Washington’s Hatchet

Ran across an article at NRO this morning that piqued my interest. [Side note: I’ve noticed that “peek/peak/pique” has fallen into the category of “to/too/two” and “your/you’re”, as a word that students know, but for which they often pick the wrong form. Anyway…] It’s Scot Bertram’s review of Steven Hyden’s Twilight of the Gods: A Journey to the End of Classic Rock, and it addresses a phenomenon I’ve thought about from time to time myself — and one that (to me, anyway) ties in with a literary discussion on Twitter this week.

Musicians are similar to people in many ways (says the guy who bought a used, beater-level drum kit for $100 yesterday — thanks, Gus!), and one of those similarities involves the ravages of time. (Of course, rock musicians are notorious for inflicting additional ravages on themselves, but that sort of falls under the same heading.) After all, rock as a genre is drawing near to its eighth decade — there will be casualties. And of course, a lot of the groups that fall under the heading of “classic rock” (however defined) have been in the game since the 1970s — forty or more years, in many cases.

One of the consequences of this is a phenomenon that Hyden calls “shrunkgroups.” Bertram offers the example of AC/DC:

Longtime drummer Phil Rudd was sentenced to eight months of home detention after pleading guilty to threatening to kill a man. Cliff Williams, the band’s bassist since 1977, announced his retirement from music. Brian Johnson, vocalist since 1980, stepped away from touring due to hearing problems. Co-founder and rhythm guitarist Malcolm Young left to treat his dementia, and then passed away.

It appears that Angus Young, the band’s lead guitarist and sole remaining founding member, is undeterred. He will soldier on to create new music and tour with replacements, including Guns N’ Roses frontman Axl Rose. After all, there’s still a strong demand for AC/DC music and a limited supply of lead guitarists who look good in schoolboy uniforms.

He goes on to speculate, “Will Rick Nielsen be lending his signature five-necked guitar to [a] younger version of himself to keep Cheap Trick’s legacy (and money-making prowess) intact?” That actually cracked me up, as it’s already essentially happened, with Nielsen’s own son having replaced Bun E. Carlos on drums several years back.

But all this raises Bertram’s titular question: How many members of a band can be replaced before it’s really some sort of Baudrillardan simulacrum? And it’s a question I’ve asked myself before. For example, one of my favorite bands is Blue Oyster Cult. I’ve seen a lineup of the band that included three of the original five members (Eric Bloom, Buck Dharma, and the late Allen Lanier.) [Another side note: Original here should be taken in the sense of “Band member on the first album,” not “Some guy who played some early gigs but whose girlfriend wouldn’t let him go on the road.”] I feel comfortable saying I saw a real version of BOC. On the other hand…

Some years ago, a friend of mine and I went to see “The Kingston Trio.” None of the original three members were present, but one or more of the musicians had actually been in the group longer than any of the three original guys, and the people I saw had been approved by the act’s founder. There was a bizarre moment when the senior member of the lineup told the story of how “Mary Travers [of Peter, Paul, and Mary] taught us ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone?'” The audience enjoyed the story, but I sat there, thinking that none of the people on that stage had been in the band when that happened.

And there’s the problem of Yes. The band has seen innumerable lineup changes over a 50-year run, and saw significant commercial success with many different members. The only absolute constant was bassist Chris Squire, who died in 2015. But they’re touring with two guys who have been in the band since the 70s, one who has been an off-and-on member since the 80s, and two relative newcomers. I’ve seen several of the different lineups over the years. But now, without Squire or original vocalist Jon Anderson, I’m not sure if I’d be at a Yes concert, even though the band would have many members I’ve seen at prior shows.

Other acts are linked so strongly to a particular member or personality that the lineups may not really matter as much. A group like Motorhead or King Crimson is so tied into a founder’s particular musical vision or process (The late Lemmy Kilmister or the still-extant Robert Fripp, respectively) that the loss of either guy spells the end of the enterprise, and turns it into a sort of tribute band, even if the musicians who recorded the tracks are the ones on the stage.

Well, you see the issue, and I think my friend who runs Shabby Road had a pretty good answer over at the Book of Faces:

I think it depends on who’s gone. None of the Beatles could be replaced because they were all essential to the personality of the band. The Stones could lose Jones, Taylor, and even Wyman, but without Mick, Keith, or Charlie they’re simply not the Stones anymore. If Ray and Dave Davies want to call themselves the Kinks, that’s fine, but either one alone can’t do it.

Still, the discussion remains open.

And this in turn leads us to that literary discussion I mentioned earlier. In a few weeks, Only to Sleep by Lawrence Osborne will hit the market. It’s an adventure of one of the most important characters in detective fiction — Philip Marlowe, created by Raymond Chandler. It’s raising questions I’ve asked before, along the lines of “When we read Ace Atkins’s continuations of Robert B. Parker’s Spenser series (or Parker’s own continuations of Marlowe’s adventures), or the various hommages of Sherlockiana, how does this differ from fanfics, if it differs at all?”

Not surprisingly, Lawrence Block had a really good point about this on Twitter:

[H]owever good a job the later writer may do of sounding like his predecessor, the original writer wasn’t trying. He was writing in his own voice, not imitating a dead man’s. All the difference, innit?

But as a writer and musician — even if only of the sometime variety — I find myself wondering about these issues. Are we living in a derivative world of fanfic and tribute bands? And for the audience, other than some sort of Benjaminesque “aura”, does it even matter? We don’t consider the experience of a Shakespeare play somehow defective because Richard Burbage isn’t in the cast. So does it matter that Chris Squire is dead, if there’s an assemblage designated as Yes on the stage performing the songs we associate with the band?

Once again, we run into the old joke about the hatchet George Washington used to chop down the cherry tree (pace Parson Weems). You see, I own it — it’s been in my family for years. Well, in the Civil War, the head was melted down to make bullets, and was replaced during Reconstruction, and then the handle broke, so my grandfather put a new one on there. But it occupies the same space.

What occupies the same space as Yes? Or Raymond Chandler? Or you and me? This is probably why it’s best that I’m in academia.

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About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
This entry was posted in Culture, Literature, Music. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Rock and Roll, Philip Marlowe, and George Washington’s Hatchet

  1. ScottO says:

    Some of us wonder about these things.

    And some of us just…occupy space.

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