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.

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