Arts & Culture » Book Feature

Rock Bottom

Roll Over, Beethoven. Please.

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Another album, another tour. It's a rock 'n' roll dictum, one that the Rolling Stones have been sleepwalking through for decades. In their case, a popular opening act always tags along--usually someone who can't remember where they were when JFK was killed, in hopes of getting the kids to come out. A few years back that lucky performer was none other than Sheryl Crow. Stones frontman Mick Jagger and Crow crowded the airways to promote the event and Crow beamed for Katie Couric or Kurt Loder, telling them what a thrill it was to open for the three-chord relics. But Jagger took another tact. He used every televised moment as an opportunity to engage in a drooling, nudge-nudge, wink-wink flirtation with the 30-something songstress. For viewers, it was as painful to endure as a root canal.

Like the recent public appearances of Hugh Hefner--whose texture these days resembles that of a scrotum--and his bevy of surgically-perfected blondes in tow, Jagger's strained posturing as a sexual dynamo is all about living up to an image that should have been put to sleep a generation ago.

Even as you read this, Jagger and Co. are in the midst of yet another tour--this one promoting not an album, but a greatest hits package. This may mark the height of the Stone's cynical apathy. Now they tour to sell music that stretches back four decades. Music that has been packaged and repackaged to death and has made everyone involved phenomenally wealthy several times over.

Don't take my word for it. New York writer John Strausbaugh details every arduous detail in Rock til You Drop, which has just been released in paperback. To Strausbaugh, the Stones are not "the greatest rock 'n' roll band in the world," as they first boasted in 1969, but rather they are the Board of Directors of Rolling Stones Inc. And--just like the executives at the Gap--every move they make is a calculated, market-tested bid at the bottom line.

But it's not just the Stones who are guilty. Strausbaugh nails the hides of many aging, bloated, sacred cows to the wall. The Who, Fleetwood Mac, the Eagles, Bob Dylan, CSNY, Springsteen, Patti Smith, Sting--the list of graybeards goes on and on. Even future has-beens, such as the monotonous Lenny Kravitiz--whom Strausbaugh calls "possibly the lamest man in rock 'n' roll"--get gutted.

Strausbaugh admits right up front he too is an aging baby boomer, but he isn't angry with his former heroes for getting old, he says. It's the fact that they are doing it so gracelessly that sickens him.

"There's no nostalgia worse than rock nostalgia," he writes. And he makes a strong case by tearing into such industry by-products as the celebrity-oriented Rolling Stone magazine and Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

At 250 pages, it gets to be a bit much. He makes his point early and often. And at times he comes off like a bully picking on the crones at a retirement home. Worse still is Strausbaugh's crowing over the summer-of-love sell-outs that turned their back on "the revolution." Please. Those of us who cut our rock 'n' roll teeth in the 1970s harbor no such illusions about our pop stars. All along we knew they were in it for the money.

Still it's an amusing if not occasionally depressing look at the business of rock and roll. If nothing else, it will make readers think twice the next time they have the urge to mourn those famed rock stars who drank, drugged and airplaned themselves to death. Maybe they were the lucky ones for getting out when they did.

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