Thursday, March 10, 2011

Burn Out or Fade Away

Summer - Buffalo Tom (mp3)
So Fast So Numb - R.E.M. (mp3)

Why do successful bands refuse to die?

In the annals of humanity, few stories are as repetitive and inevitable as this: that we rage, rage against the dying of the light. We’ve romanticized the notion so heavily that, even when we don’t have any energy left in us, and even when we don’t have any rage left in us, we still refuse to embrace the Grim Reaper.

One of my coworkers’ mothers is 78 years old and just underwent septuple bypass open-heart surgery. The doctors and family pondered over it for a day or two. Sure, the surgery might fail, or it might kill her, but she had a 75-80 percent chance of making it.

A decade earlier, she had just wanted to see her dear grandson get married. If she could just see him get married and happy on his wedding day, she would die a happy grandma. But he went and got married while she was still plenty healthy, three years ago. So the deal changed. Now she wanted to see that first great-grandchild. If she could just see that, she could die happy.

I’m a spry 40. It’s easy for me to look at people who have lived almost two of my lifetimes and proclaim that they should accept death as an inevitable part of life and get right with their divine creator rather than finding massively expensive medical measures just to delay what cannot be stopped.

My mother turns 70 this year. My cavalier and callous attitude towards death upsets her greatly. “I guess I used to think that way. I know I did,” she’d say, shaking her head. “But now that I’m getting closer and closer to death’s door, I guess I’m just not all that excited about opening it yet. There’s more to be done. I want to see my granddaughters graduate high school. And college. And maybe if I’m lucky I can see my great-grandchildren born. And I still have a lot to contribute to our church, and to our family. I’m just not ready yet. Not nearly as ready as I thought I’d be 30 years ago.”

In other words, when death is a distant relative in a foreign land, we’re cool with him. When death is a next-door neighbor, we rally the association and do our best to get his ass removed from the premises at all costs. Even if we know damn well he has a right to live there, and even as his dog continues taking regular shits in our rhododendrons.

Perhaps it’s unfair of me to expect bands to approach death differently.

Beady Eye is Oasis Minus Noel Gallagher. It’s a band trying to sound like a band whose entire raison d'ĂȘtre was to riff off and amplify THE band of all bands. Or, put another way, it’s a band that just doesn’t want to accept that maybe they were already better off dead several albums ago.

R.E.M. has a new album out. The critics are all praising it and claiming it’s the best thing they’ve done in 15 years, since their vastly under-appreciated New Adventures in Hi-Fi. But if you look closer at these critics’ statements, it says the following: this album is a compilation of some of their biggest highlights over the last two-thirds of their career! In other words, what they do great with this album is to sound a lot like they already have previously. In other words, why not just compile a Greatest Hits 1997-2011? (Same exact things were said by critics when U2 came out with All That You Can’t Leave Behind, by the way.)

If the best you can do, as a band, is skillfully simulate a sound and a feeling you already created, aren’t you a zombie or a Xerox machine already and just don't know it?

But the story of rock, the story of successful performers, is similar to old people in general. Mick Jagger and my mother say the same things with different words. The closer these bands get to death, the more they want just one more milestone, just one more little reminder that they’ve lived the good life and fought the good fight.

I bought that Beady Eye album. I’ll probably buy the R.E.M. album. I’ve purchased recent albums by the Hooters, the BoDeans and Buffalo Tom, too. The more like family they’ve been in my music collection, the more my babbles about accepting mortality fail to match my actions of helping to keep them alive.

When the fit hits the shan, nobody likes saying goodbye to a loved one.


Daisy said...

Are you sure you're 40?

troutking said...

Like this post. You're on a roll.

So, guess I'll see you at the June 9th Riverbend Huey Lewis and the News show!

Billy said...

Saying I'm 40 is no different, numerically, than saying it's 500 miles to the French Quarter when in reality it's more like 486. Besides, telling people I'm 40 gets a much better stunned reaction than telling them I'm 39.

Bob said...

A different perspective: if writing songs is what you do, why should you stop writing them and stop trying to record them and perform them and make money from them?

I know bands run out of gas and, like you, I've certainly got plenty of CDs to prove it, but I admire their attempts to "keep on keepin' on." Consider the awful alternative, which isn't retirement. It's playing those greatest hits you mention at casinos in Tunica, Mississippi and the like.

Listening to REM live from Dublin, I remember Michael Stipe's comment before one of the songs: "This is one of the first songs we wrote of the new songs. It's a beautiful song, I believe, and it's called On The Fly." That tells me that this band sees a new song like we might see a newborn child, sharing physical traits of the children we already have, but still a special, unique creation on its own terms.

cinderkeys said...

If the best you can do, as a band, is skillfully simulate a sound and a feeling you already created, aren’t you a zombie or a Xerox machine already and just don't know it?

But you can't win. If you churn out the same style of song over and over again, you're boring. If you branch out in a different direction, you alienate a lot of hardcore fans.

My advice to artists and listeners is the same: Do what you want. If you want to keep playing, keep playing. If you don't want to listen anymore, stop listening.