- The Washington Times - Friday, February 15, 2008

When people reach a certain age, observed the British essayist William Shaw in GQ magazine, they quit keeping up with changes in fashion, after which point they will dress in the same clothes until they die.

Rock star “Little Steven” Van Zandt, the Bruce Springsteen sidekick and erstwhile “Sopranos” moonlighter, recently reminded us that the phenomenon is equally true of tastes in music.

While promoting a middle- and high-school curriculum developed by his nonprofit Rock and Roll Forever Foundation — a series of lesson plans and multimedia material for teaching the cultural and social history of America through the prism of rock music — Mr. Van Zandt, 57, made it a point to lament contemporary popular music.

“It just doesn’t resonate with the same degree of depth” as classic rock, he told USA Today. Or, as New York Times columnist David Brooks paraphrased Mr. Van Zandt, most new bands today “stink.”

Now, there’s much to applaud in Mr. Van Zandt’s educational mission: It would be a pity if young Americans weren’t exposed to the roots of one of America’s greatest cultural artifacts, as well as how it has intertwined with many other important stories, including slavery, urban migration and the rise of electronic media like radio and television.

However, Mr. Van Zandt protests too much when he denigrates today’s young rock talent. Granted, indie-rock bands are often an insular, sniveling bunch. But it is through no lack of skills as composers or performers that they have failed to amass the kind of popularity associated with the Beatles.

Mr. Van Zandt need only consult his boss for recommendations: Mr. Springsteen, 58, has successfully delayed the onset of geezer-nostalgia syndrome and publicly embraced a number of new, cutting-edge acts.

In the December issue of Spin magazine, Mr. Springsteen appeared on the cover with Arcade Fire frontman Win Butler. The two are mutual fans, and, at an E Street Band gig in Ottawa last October, Mr. Springsteen invited 27-year-old Mr. Butler and wife Regine Chassagne onstage for an electrifying performance of the Arcade Fire tune “Keep the Car Running.” (I heartily recommend the YouTube video, in all its shaky, amateur elation.)

Mr. Springsteen also has guested on albums by the likes of young roots-rockers Marah and singer-songwriter Jesse Malin, appearing as well in the latter’s video clip for “Broken Radio.”

In a 2002 interview in Rolling Stone, he even copped to liking the rapper Ludacris.

“I’m a curiosity buyer,” he explained to Spin magazine’s Steve Kandell.

Raising three teenagers, too, has helped Mr. Springsteen stave off the cobwebs. “My oldest son listens to a lot of political punk, like Against Me!” he said. “And I’ve gotten into bands that have a bigger pop sound, like Apples in Stereo and Band of Horses — it’s very dark, romantic music.”

There are a few other eminences grises (David Byrne and David Bowie spring to mind) who eagerly keep tabs on who and what is bubbling to the surface of mainstream music. (Mr. Byrne is legendary for showing up to Manhattan clubs, alone, to check out up-and-coming acts.)

Still, it is in the nature of things for artists to succumb to crotchety close-mindedness. The composer Irving Berlin, for instance, was “appalled” by Elvis Presley’s rendition of “White Christmas,” according to the biographer Laurence Bergreen.

This is true not just of musicians. Pablo Picasso, a staggeringly restless experimenter in his prime, grew to become quite ungenerous toward the drip-painting method of the abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock.

Tellingly, as the impresario of “Little Steven’s Underground Garage,” a weekly radio program found on the Sirius Satellite network, Mr. Van Zandt does evince a soft spot for youngish bands like the Hives and the Urges. Here, however, the exceptional soft spot only proves the rigidity: He favors these outfits only inasmuch as they sound like the spirit of garage rock circa 1966 reborn.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this — with liking what you like.

It is quite another thing to tar an entire generation of bands as historically illiterate.

To be sure, Mr. Van Zandt’s gripe is not born of narcissism: He’s not slagging indie-rockers for failing to pay fealty to Steven Van Zandt; he’s slagging them for not paying fealty to what came before Steven Van Zandt.

Fair enough.

But what Mr. Van Zandt doesn’t get about contemporary indie-rockers is that, while they may not be devotees of Muddy Waters and Little Walter, they are nonetheless, in their own way, tradition-minded. The difference is that, unlike Mr. Van Zandt, who was steeped in blues and R&B;, today’s indie-rockers employ a later grammar — namely, the punk and new wave of the late-‘70s and early-‘80s, genres that are roughly the same chronological distance from them as proto-rock was from the young Mr. Van Zandt.

Again, the example of Mr. Springsteen — who in 2003 performed a Grammy tribute to the recently departed Clash founder Joe Strummer and in 2005 inducted U2 into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — is instructive.

Mr. Springsteen utterly perplexed some fans on his ‘05 acoustic solo tour by concluding each set with an extended, transfixing cover of the ‘80s electronic-music duo Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream.”

This means one of three scenarios is true: Rock is dead or dying. Steven Van Zandt’s best friend is a mediocrity-enabling heretic. Or the sky isn’t falling.

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