An Open Letter to David Crosby & Bono & White Men Who Pontificate about the Death of Rock’n’roll

So this week David Crosby, who is no stranger to insulting other musicians on his Twitter feed, was asked about a Titus Andronicus video, “A More Perfect Union.” Crosby’s reply was thus:

He then doubled down by adding this:

He backed off a little when a Titus Andronicus fan suggested to frontman Patrick Stickles that they title their next LP “Loud Thrashing Around.”

So, David, here are my thoughts:

It’s interesting that you would use turns of phrase to insult Titus Andronicus that are straight out of the cliché playbook of parents like yours and mine, from the 1950s and 1960s. It is truly sad to see baby boomers turning into the generation that they rebelled against and swore they’d never become. You were probably fighting with your dad as he turned up his Glenn Miller LP and asked you to turn down your Chuck Berry or Bob Dylan. And yes, I know you come more from the folky end of rock, but hell, you played with Neil Young and there is a pretty blistering guitar solo on “Almost Cut My Hair” back in the day. So I know you can rock, or at least liked to in the past.

And let’s face it, there would have been no room for the folk rock of the Byrds and CSN if folk music had continued to be made up of earnest men in suits singing “Tom Dooley” and ladies with crystal-clear voices strumming along with “Barbara Allen.” It was people like Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs who ignited folk, and eventually folk rock, in the 1960s. Were you mad at Dylan when he plugged in? Did you attack Ochs for the gold lamé suit?

But let’s get back to Titus Andronicus. So maybe you can’t stand hearing blistering guitars anymore. Fair enough. Are you disavowing all the loud rock of “your” day as well? Are you saying only acoustic music counts? That’s pretty sad.

Is it because, to bring up another one of our parents’ clichés, you can’t hear what he’s singing over all that goddamned noise? If that’s it, I urge you to READ some of TA’s lyrics (Google them). Patrick Stickles is one of the finest songwriters of our day. The Monitor, the album from which “A More Perfect Union” originates, is a breathtaking compilation of songs that explore Stickles’s mental state and battles with anorexia and depression through the prism of the U.S. Civil War. That’s a pretty heady concept, and the fact that he succeeded in pulling it off (not just me talking; Google all the reviews when it came out) set a high bar for whatever he and the band did next.

One thing about the punk bands you disparage so much, David: They are meant to be heard live. I can’t tell you how many bands I had never listened to or was lukewarm about that I became ride-or-die for after seeing them live. That includes TA. I had heard and liked some of The Monitor before I saw them the first time (as their next album was coming out), but it took a live show, one of the best I’ve ever seen, to really appreciate this band. And every TA show I’ve seen since is a marvel of one kind or another. Stickles is a mercurial frontman: At one show he may remove his shirt and “move like Jagger”; at another he’s wearing sweatpants and sullenly complaining about his life (while taking it all out on the guitar and putting on a blistering set); at one he’s genial and erudite and another testy and combative. I arrived on time for a sound check at a show he did for a local radio station that is better known for playing and putting on shows by the likes of, well, David Crosby. Patrick trolled the waiting audience outside the venue by putting the band through some really great covers of classic rock songs from the 60s and 70s, but then did the usual TA set at the show itself (and won over many of the aging boomers in attendance), plus a Stones song for an encore. He can hold his own in a large venue like a true rock star and tear up a small one like a force of nature.

There is some social commentary in Patrick’s lyrics, which I know you used to like. Other songs are personal. One of my own favorites, “No Future (Part 3)” (which incidentally is always an incendiary singalong number live), lays out a description of recovering from depression with a clarity that cuts to the chase in a way the DSM-5 and William Styron could only dream of pulling off. Attend a TA show and stand up front (have those earplugs ready; there are often THREE guitars thrashing onstage) and see if you’re not jumping up and down yelling “You will always be a loser” 33 times at the end of that song.

But you may want to back off a bit if Patrick does “The Battle of Hampton Roads” for an encore. It’s easier to hear vocals if you’re not up front, and it helps if you are familiar with the lyrics ahead of time. It’s a long song (remember those jams you used to do with the guys, like “Suite Judy Blue Eyes” and “Country Girl”?) that starts out with just Patrick and a guitar and builds to a passionate crescendo that will leave you wrung out at the end. This is performance, and it is songwriting, and it is rock’n’roll. I dare you to say otherwise once you’ve seen this band live.

Of course, if you believe you’re too old and prefer yelling at clouds, go ahead. But I’m trying to give you the benefit of the doubt; maybe you haven’t been to a real rock show in a long time. Last chance, though, before you go on my Hopeless Old White Coot list for good.

My argument with Bono may be more sociological than musical, but his recent comments hit the same nerve as Crosby’s.

Bono, I think you are conflating a couple of things, for starters. “The charts” and pop are not what they were back in the 1980s and 90s. I won’t disagree there’s a lot of schlock out there, and it is easy to argue that there used to be more room for different kinds of chart hits in the old days, like during the MTV era when U2 came to prominence. But the absence of rock’n’roll in this limited sphere does not mean it is gone or dead or not any good anymore or any of the other crap I hear from older white men ALL THE TIME. Rock is back where it belongs: underground, in smaller venues, with passionate players and believers.

U2 are among the last of the great stadium/arena rockers. But frankly arenas helped “kill” rock in the first place. Henry Rollins put it best in a recent appearance. He’s from the same generation as you and I, Bono, and he went to those arena shows as a teen, hoping for transcendence. He loved the records and identified with the artists and longed to complete the circle through attending a show. Instead, he and I, and maybe you, ended up in nosebleed seats somewhere craning to see the band, surrounded by drunks who might as well have stayed in the parking lot tailgating for all the connection that had with the concert. We didn’t feel the love of either the band or our peers; it was, indeed, simply a “show.”

You posed the problem around the concept of “anger.” Yes, anger drove much of rock and is what drove many of us to embrace it. Not just “young men,” though. We young women had to make do, in many cases. We couldn’t express our anger or acknowledge it or even dare to strum an electric guitar unless we were prepared to be total warriors (and be accused of making music that was “girly”–I can’t believe you said something so openly misogynist).  So we filtered our anger through that of the “young men” you celebrate, who were expressing some of our feelings for us–lyrically or through the sound of a guitar. And for what? So Bono can tell us our presence in the scene is, was, and will ever be nonexistent or suspect, because the anger of (probably white) young men is all music is or should be about?

And you mischaracterize hip-hop, or rather you view it through the same 1980s/90s lens as you do rock. There is controversy in hip-hop over the many directions it has taken away from the “pure anger” of its origins. There are old-school rappers who don’t think much of the current generation; just as there are new innovators who are taking the work of their forebears to new heights. Anger drives some of it, but there are plenty of other emotions at work as well. And it is not solely a “young man’s” outlet either. Women in the early hip-hop days may have had to fight for the mic, as did women rock’n’rollers, but nowadays there are plenty of artists identifying as female who are standing on those women’s shoulders to put themselves front and center in the scene. If they share the mic with a male artist it is as collaborator and peer, not as a voice used to sweeten a track. And some of them are angry as fuck.

And, as I tried to express to Mr. Crosby, there are plenty of angry men and women, boys and girls, and people who don’t identify as either gender, of all ages, making some great music of all kinds that doesn’t appear on the charts or get recorded by major labels. They may be playing in basements or tiny bars or back rooms or on the Internet, and they may want to go beyond that someday but not necessarily to play Madison Square Garden or a football stadium. They know their audiences personally. They interact with them. Audience and artist are part of the same whole. You may remember that from your early days and even miss it at times.

All hail the end of arena rock! It’s tough for fans of you or Springsteen because we know we are unlikely to see you in the kind of venue that would give us the transcendence we seek (although Bruce is trying to do that onstage in New York now). It’s probably tough for you in some ways as well. I doubt I’ll ever get to shake your hand, Bono, or tell you in person how much I love “All I Want Is You” and “Desire.” But I get to shake Patrick Stickles’ hand instead, and hang out with some of my other favorite bands, and know that if I drop them a fan-girl email they’ll probably respond patiently and kindly (and gratefully). Sure, I’m kicking myself I didn’t see you in the 80s because I’d sworn off arena shows. I spent a 20-year exile from live music because I fell for the fallacy of charts and arenas and rock as mainstream entertainment at football games. I went back in the basement some time ago, and life and music have never been better.

The only fly in the ointment, Bono and David, is I occasionally run across white men there who identify themselves as “old” (whether they’re in their 30s or my contemporaries at 60), who want to lecture me on what rock is or should be or how there’s an age limit or a time limit or gender limit or how much better the scene was in 1968 or 1979 or 1985 or 1997 or even 2004. Not coincidentally they also have strong opinions on what “counts” as rock or hip-hop or pop or punk. It’s fine if they want to narrow the parameters of their own lives, but when they try to limit the rest of us, it’s time to speak up. I’m starting here.

Chapter 14: Stacy, 2007

2007. Arboria Park is 56 years old; Stacy is 52. She and Greg are happily living in New Jersey, near Philadelphia where they both work. Stacy has found a wonderful job, and she loves her home. But Arboria Park is never far from her thoughts.

Sophie is attending college and living in the Arboria Park house with friends when she lets her mom know some bad news: The state highway department is planning to put a road though the neighborhood, to benefit the increasing population west of town living in the luxurious subdivisions that Evelyn coveted and envied. The neighborhood association (led by Mr. Jennings, the man who helped Sophie when she was bitten by a dog) is fighting the proposals. Stacy rallies her family to help out, but as they plow through the various highway studies a friend of Autumn’s is surreptitiously passing along, they realize things do not look good for the neighborhood.

This chapter centers around a song by Living Colour, “Open Letter to a Landlord.” I played the song on repeat constantly as I wrote the final three chapters of the novel. It had popped into my mind as I drove down the street in Rodney Village, looking at the houses that had been boarded up and marked for demolition. Though the song was written about an urban environment, I think many of its lessons apply to what happens to Arboria Park in the novel, what happened to Rodney Village in real life, and what is currently occurring in my own neighborhood and our area of the county. (We are losing our last significant green space; the county had an opportunity to buy it for parkland, which we lack, but did not do so.) Vernon Reid of Living Colour was writing about racism and classism in this song; these things are the reason why some people and some neighborhoods have more clout than others and can fight off things like road projects or development (and fight for them if they affect areas other than their own). Urban neighborhoods are destroyed in favor of gentrification; or the needs of aging suburban developments are pitted against those of newer, wealthier enclaves; farmland and wilderness are sold to the highest bidder despite the preponderance of vacant, unused commercial and industrial properties and empty houses in existing neighborhoods. Who benefits? Usually not the people who are already there.

Once again I thank Vernon Reid and Living Colour for the privilege of using some of their lyrics in the book. I have had the pleasure of seeing this song performed live from the front row and talking to lead singer Corey Glover about it a couple of years ago as I was writing the book. My respect for them as musicians and commentators on issues of racism, poverty, class, and the power of music knows no bounds.

Chapter 13: Stacy, 1999

As the 20th century draws to an end, big changes are afoot for Stacy and her family. For one, her widowed mom Evelyn has been “living la vida loca”—she’s become a hoarder who isn’t taking care of herself. The family finds her an assisted-living facility that provides a lot of choices for its active residents, but Evelyn isn’t cooperating and spends all her time closed up in her room.

Meanwhile, Stacy is busy fixing up Evelyn’s house for sale and finds that she loves selling her mom’s unused possessions at the local flea market/auction. Close friend Mona also has a table nearby, and Don and his new wife sell antiques and clothing there as well. Stacy loves the multicultural hustle and bustle of her weekly days spent at the flea market.

After a busy day selling junk and defending the local Amish from the complaints of upper-middle-class interlopers, Stacy arrives home to find 11-year-old Sophie has been bitten by a loose pit bull and needs medical attention. Afterward, Stacy and Greg meet Mr. Jennings, a neighbor who helped Sophie, and try to find the dog so their daughter will not have to undergo a series of painful rabies shots. Sophie shares her awareness that part of the neighborhood has been overrun by drug dealers and other shady characters, whose landlords turn a blind eye to their activities. Stacy worries about how to sell Evelyn’s house in such a climate.

The director of the assisted-living facility shares a bit of good news: Evelyn joined in a bridge game and later had tea with one of the other participants, a doctor’s widow. Stacy is excited for her mom and offers to help Evelyn reciprocate with an elegant tea party of her own. But Evelyn is strangely reluctant to follow up on her new friendships—and when Stacy finds out why, it shatters their relationship.

Meanwhile, other bombshells are going off: Mary and JC are moving away, and Greg has a tempting job offer in Philadelphia. Stacy fears everyone, including her own family, is abandoning Arboria Park in its hour of need.

The auction house where Stacy is selling Evelyn’s household goods is based on Spence’s Bazaar, a local institution in Dover, Delaware. Unlike Evelyn, who sees the farmer’s auction and flea market as dirty, my parents were huge fans of Spence’s, and biweekly trips there were a staple for our family for many years. I still own and use a lot of housewares my mother and I bought there during my early adult years. Along with basics and junk, you can stumble across some beautiful and even valuable items. During the spring, summer, and fall, there are always tables full of fresh produce. Inside, you can find fresh meat and baked goods, as Stacy does. These pictures show Spence’s as it is nowadays:

And this one, taken by a photographer friend of my mother’s, shows the original Spence’s building, which burned down not long after the photo was taken:

spences3

Spence’s remains a hub of diversity in Dover; many races and nationalities are represented as customers and sellers. You will often see horses and buggies hitched up in the parking lot, as the local Amish and Mennonite communities are a strong presence. There’s not much you can’t find there, if you look hard enough. But local fans of the business often worry about how much longer it can keep going, as more and more area farms go out of business and are developed for housing and shopping.

Music isn’t discussed too much in this chapter (though Sophie has followed in her mom’s and cousins’ footsteps and started playing guitar). But a few songs from 1999 will suffice to illustrate Stacy’s confusion, as she navigates the hard changes confronting her family and neighborhood,

her own fight-or-flight desires,

and even the loss of her relationship with her mom.

Chapter 12: Ruby, 1993

It’s 1993 in Arboria Park, but although 16-year-old Ruby has learned from her dad to love all kinds of music, she’s not really into grunge, like her peers, or hip-hop, like her brother Jason. Like her older sister Autumn and Aunt Stacy, she likes to go to basement punk shows. Her life changes when new neighbor Duke (an older man who has been making noise complaints about Ruby’s favorite basement venue, Syrup Space) is invited to catch a show featuring a punkabilly band.

The show turns into a late-night jam session with Duke, who turns out to have been a 1950s rockabilly artist who toured with country with the likes of Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins. As Ruby sings and plays guitar with the other kids at the show, Duke singles her out and compliments her voice. Soon Ruby and her pal, Chris, are spending all their free time with Duke and his wife, soaking up lessons in music and history. She’s especially interested in women singers like Janis Martin, Wanda Jackson, and Lorrie Collins.

But as Ruby dives deep into the 1950s scene and introduces Duke to her family, she realizes that he is a product of the racism of that era. Musicians of color and women’s voices were exploited for hit records, but ultimately white men ruled the charts and reaped the benefits. She realizes she can’t face Duke again until she and her dad have researched the real roots of the music she loves and figured out her place, as a mixed-race woman, in the scene.

This chapter was the most challenging and the most fun to research and write. If I had time to become part of another scene, rockabilly would be it. Like Ruby, I especially enjoyed learning about the women and black musicians whose names are no longer household words but who helped build rock’n’roll from the ground up. Starting with Rosetta Tharpe:

Ike Turner, with his Kings of Rhythm band (credited on the record as Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats), made what was arguably billed as the first rock’n’roll record:

Janis Martin, the “female Elvis” was a teenage girl who wrote and sang rockabilly in the mid-1950s. Her career was wrecked after a secret teen marriage led to pregnancy and exile from the business.

Wanda Jackson is still going strong as a rockabilly singer:

Lorrie Collins performed with little brother guitar whiz Larry as the Collins Kids and as a solo artist:

Ruby discovers black performers like Ruth Brown:

And Ray Sharpe:

And of course there would be no rock’n’roll without Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Little Richard, and Fats Domino. Ruby confronts Duke with her research, and he acknowledges the debt owed to all these musicians—and his regrets about the past.

Ruby and Jason begin to build their own musical alliance when he makes her a birthday mixtape containing his loves and hers, along with all the music their parents have taught them about through the years. Ruby’s still ready to take on the rockabilly world—but on her own terms.

 

Chapter 11: Stacy, 1987

Stacy’s happily married now and expecting a child. She and Greg have moved to the section of Arboria Park near the creek, the area that was Evelyn’s dream back when Stacy was a child. But now Evelyn’s upset because Stacy isn’t living in the elegant new neighborhood Olga has moved to with her wealthy second husband.

It’s hardly the only thing Stacy and Evelyn are at odds about. Matt and Jeff are together, also living in Arboria Park. Evelyn blames Stacy, and right when Stacy would most like her mom’s help and guidance, they’re not getting along.

Stacy has found a new friend and mother substitute in neighbor Mona, JC’s aunt, who teaches Stacy how to garden. And she continues wandering the neighborhood and making new friends, so she’s not lonely. But it still stings that she can’t count on her mom.

On a walk one day, Stacy finds herself drawn to passing by the old Ramsey farm. She stops to admire a riot of colorful azaleas, when out marches Edith Ramsey, the “witch” who chased Stacy and her friends away nearly a quarter century before. But this time, Stacy finds yet another mother figure and true friend in Edith, whom she helps with plans to keep her farm from ever being developed.

Stacy’s new friendships help pass the time until her eagerly awaited daughter, Sophie, is born. And she wants Sophie to grow up knowing the area’s history, appreciating the farm, and ready to try anything.

This chapter was based a lot on the real farms around Dover, Delaware, that I wrote about in a previous post. Many of those local farms ended up being developed for housing or commerce, a few still exist as farms, and even fewer are being preserved.

Music doesn’t play a huge role in this chapter, although Stacy is still dropping in on the latest local punk house and presumably trying to expose Sophie in utero to her favorite songs. 1987 ran the gamut from debuts by Whitney Houston and Guns’N’Roses to U2’s The Joshua Tree and The Replacements’ Pleased to Meet Me. Here are a few songs from the year Stacy might be listening to that reflect her life during months of waiting:

Take a ride down the road that inspired Arboria Park!

The road that inspired Arboria Park recently opened in Dover, Delaware. It’s called the POW/MIA Parkway. This gives me mixed feelings since my late father was a POW during World War II. He’d be happy that he and his fellow POWs were being honored but dismayed at how the project destroyed part of our former neighborhood.

Here’s a video that takes you from Rt. 13 (“the highway” in the book), past the shopping center (in the book, the road project was more elaborate and the shopping center was torn down). You next pass the neighborhood that inspired the book. On that road used to be 13 houses, two of which I was familiar with as a child (one a home of schoolmates and the other of my mother’s best friend). It then passes a farm I used as inspiration for both the Ramsey and Oakley farms. The road terminates at an existing road near the Kraft Foods plant (Fine Foods in the novel). It was General Foods when I grew up, and our air often smelled like chocolate.

It’s odd that after so many years of construction that the road is only one lane in each direction (there currently is a discussion of this on a Facebook page I belong to that is about downstate Delaware–everyone thinks it’s a mistake). It seems like a project designed to relieve congestion and that no doubt will spark more excessive development along its path should be four lanes, at least. My guess is that within a few years, it will need to be expanded and there will be more disruption and destruction along the route.

http://www.doverpost.com/videos/48334DE0-6A15-4323-9CC4-91B1D77E1638/A-quick-trip-down-the-new-POW-MIA-Memorial-Parkway,-formerly-known-as-the-West-Dover-Connector?utm_content=bufferff157&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer

Chapter 10: Stacy, 1983

It’s a happy though stressful year for Stacy, who is finally fulfilling her childhood dreams of planning a wedding. Though there are still a few holdovers from her days as a nine-year-old spying on her sister (like a tall, tiered wedding cake), she’s adding some updated, personal touches (inviting some punk friends, for instance). And naturally Evelyn is not happy about them.

The rest of the family are excited about their own lives: Tommy has recently married a photographer, and Autumn lands a scholarship to film school. As the family celebrates the latter event at a premiere of her latest movie at the local punk house, it becomes evident that Autumn’s success has triggered her dad Don (who has mostly patched up his life but periodically falls off the wagon). He and Stacy have another one of their knock-down, drag-out arguments/heart-to-heart talks that ends with Don both sorrowful and reflective–and Stacy realizing once again she has to make some changes of her own lest she end up like him.

Stacy and Greg meet one of Autumn’s fans at another house show, a gay journalist named Jeff who uses a wheelchair after a sports accident. On impulse Stacy decides he and her brother Matt might hit it off (and they do). So when Stacy invites him to the the wedding, Evelyn is beside herself. As Stacy’s “dream wedding” unfolds, full of music and dancing and love, Evelyn punctures her joy by accusing her of staging a “spectacle” and humiliating the family. Though hurt, Stacy responds in her own way–fulfilling another dream by having her wedding party “parade through the village” of Arboria Park. Everyone joins in, even her dad and Greg’s family–except Evelyn, who is left alone by choice.

As the festive part of the day ends with a champagne toast, Stacy and Greg end up on the playground gazing at a sunset, their honeymoon and  new life ahead. Like Matt, who is now “out of the closet” despite his mother’s dismay, she chooses to move on ahead rather than dwell on the one blot on her “perfect day.”

Stacy has hired a DJ for her wedding reception to play a wide variety of songs for family and friends to listen and dance to, and they have all made their own requests. Autumn and the punks organize a mosh, and even Don (happily attending with a girlfriend and hanging out with ex-wife Mary and JC) arranges a dance with Stacy to “I Knew the Bride.”

If the DJ wanted to draw from the top songs of 1983, he would have a lot of interesting choices. The MTV era is in full swing, with all kinds of songs and videos hitting the charts. Michael Jackson is at his best with “Billie Jean” and “Beat It.” There are one-hit wonders with fun videos, like Men Without Hats, Dexy’s Midnight Runners, and After the Fire; ’80s heavy hitters like Duran Duran, the Human League, Culture Club, and the Eurythmics; classic stalwarts like David Bowie, Joe Jackson, Hall & Oates, and the Kinks. Eddy Grant dances down “Electric Avenue”; Don Henley airs some “Dirty Laundry.” Thomas Dolby blinds us with science, and the Police have the number 1 hit of the year with the anthem of the stalkers, “Every Breath You Take.” There’s something for everyone, and with one sad exception, Stacy’s wedding succeeds in providing a universal good time both for her invited guests and the larger neighborhood.