ITíS IMPOSSIBLE to look at the cover of the 1999 CD Great Zeppelin ó which shows a Hindenburg-like shark crashing into a broadcast tower, sending up flames and clouds of smoke ó without instantly thinking of Great Whiteís involvement in the catastrophe in West Warwick.
In more innocent days, the CD illustration was a fond tribute to Led Zeppelin, and its 1969 debut album. But the capsizing Hindenburg of the original cover art, although perhaps an ironic retort to Keith Moonís prediction that Jimmy Pageís new band would go over like a lead zeppelin, also suggested the growing willingness of rockers to flirt ó conceptually and in a host of other ways ó with disaster.
It was nothing new. Just as Great White plainly traced its wellspring to the monsters of British metal, Zeppelin had shamelessly appropriated the efforts of hard-living American bluesmen, whose music, fatalistic worldview, and juke joint tales emerged from the cruel soil of slavery. It was a long and curious journey from Southern plantations to the mascara-laden Sunset Strip of í80s hair bands, but a common element was the inherent undercurrent of danger in our popular music. Itís no wonder that rock íní roll emerged in the youth explosion of the í50s as a euphemism for sex, another powerfully primal force.
Naturally, the point isnít lost on those who equate rock with devil worship. In a polemic on the "rock deathstyle," the Web site www.rocktragedy.com offers an encyclopedic list of the countless musicians who have died a premature death, from Duane Allman (24, motorcycle wreck), Otis Redding (26, plane crash), and Hank Williams (29, drug-and-alcohol induced heart failure), to Zeke Zettner (25, cause unknown). And the Web site ó a self-described warning for "those who think that rock music is innocent" ó points to the Station fire, which has claimed 99 lives, in citing "the deadly consequences of sin." "Whatís even more disconcerting," a commentary on the site adds, "is the fact that many who will read this article will go to a place that will for all eternity be exactly like that flaming club ó full of darkness and eternal smoke and torment." (Itís surprising that such critics havenít seized of the image on the Great Zeppelin cover, in a backwards-masking kind of way, as an ominous indicator of the tragedy to come.)
In the aftermath of the disaster, itís hardly a surprise that those who perceive rock íní roll as something akin to a satanic cult would seek to exploit the situation. What is unusual is how few such voices exist and how ill-founded they seem. Certainly, the prevailing sentiment in Rhode Island, along with the search for blame, has been one of abundant sympathy and compassion for those most affected by the fire. In a reflection of how deeply ingrained rock music is in our culture, thereís a tacit recognition that those at the Station were regular people ó the salt of the earth, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, even mothers and fathers ó just like us.
Itís not difficult to find easy targets in the musical realm. Itís all there, from runaway egos, excessive pride, Wilt Chamberlain-like sexual appetites, and staggering amounts of self-destructive substance abuse, steadily served up more as guilty pleasure than cautionary tale on VH1ís Behind the Music. The Promethean grasp of bands, like Zeppelin, which achieved a bit of greatness before suffering its own sorrow and losses, offers steady grist for the mill of music mags.
Still, considering the opportunity for things to go wrong, itís worth noting that the number of rock concerts involving the loss of life ó Altamont, the Who stampede in Cincinnati, the Station fire, to name the most prominent ó have been few and far between over the last 40 years. A lot more Americans die from car accidents and heart disease, but weíre not likely to see religious fundamentalists go after car manufacturers or the fast food industry.
Hereís former Mötley Crüe guitarist Nikki Sixx describing on Behind the Music how, with a shot of adrenalin, he was brought back from the dead after a heroin overdose. The musician has model good looks, a laconic delivery, a self-described cleaned-up lifestyle, and, one surmises, a bevy of babes for the asking. Itís pretty attractive, isnít it? Absolutely. But even with this kind of fetishized mixed message, few viewers are likely to take it as their cue to go out and shoot smack. We enjoy a vicarious moment, shake our head, and move on.
A piece by John Leland in the Styles section in the New York Times on Sunday, March 9, argued that "the crush of bodies, the potential for anarchy and the sense of exceeding limits are not obscure elements of the [nightclub] experience. In many ways, they are what you step over, psychologically, to get in the door. From the frisking by security guards to the overcrowded dance floor to the often blocked exit doors inside, clubs submit their customers to a level of discomfort and abuse that they would not accept anywhere else. But in a club, the crush and discomfort are, paradoxically, part of the experience."
Itís all true. Who among us hasnít raised a drink in momentary identification with our own rock gods? Found some insight with a favorite album? Gotten a little too toasted at a show by a memorable band? Taken part in a little slam dancing after passing the specs to our significant other? Or maybe even done something stupid ó with no adverse consequence, beyond a thudding hangover ó before getting up the next day and going back to work? But even with any number of seeming risk factors ó the ability of liquored-up people to behave foolishly, the past tendency of some clubs to exceed their capacity ó going to a rock show has remained a very safe thing to do. As Leland notes, the psychological toying with the perceived margins of danger does little to diminish the appeal.
Itís worth noting that the excessive lifestyle of many rock musicians was preceded by the junkie culture of jazz greats, from Billie Holiday to Charlie Parker. The respected elder statesmen of country music, like Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash, compiled their rap sheets long before Tupac Shakur was celebrating thug life. Rather than representing a particular failing of musicians, these collected flaws and mishaps (as well as the performersí artistic achievements) seem like a reflection of the innately human ability to do beautiful, compassionate, cruel, and wasteful things. "Do I contradict myself?" said Walt Whitman. "Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes."
The musicians who scandalized previous generations ó Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and the Doors ó have long since been accorded icon status. Keith Richards, the human cockroach, the man who had his blood changed in the way that cars go through oil, is a lovable survivor (Winking at his would-be foes, Keith named a special CD he complied for the British music magazine Uncut as The Devilís Music). Zeppelinís "Rock and Roll" is the accompaniment for a Cadillac commercial. An ongoing series in the New York Times celebrates the rich tradition of overlooked forerunners like Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and B.B. King.
The tragic fire at the Station stemmed from a string of critical mistakes ó the presence of the foam soundproofing that quickly spread the fire, the use of the particularly strong pyrotechnics in a low-ceilinged club. It makes sense that efforts are on to prevent a similar catastrophe from occurring. But the previous use of pyrotechnics at the Station without incident ó although certainly a bad idea ó shows that the February 20 fire was caused by a very particular confluence. The incipient overreaction against clubs threatens to quiet a vital element of live performance in our increasingly pre-packaged, formulaic television-centered culture.
The rocktragedy.com site cites references from a range of musical types and conservative thinkers in arguing that rockís building blocks of rebellion and licentiousness are fundamentally bad. Former Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren: "Rock íní roll is pagan and primitive, and very jungle, and thatís how it should be!" Allan Bloom, author of The Closing of the American Mind: "Rock gives children, on a silver platter, with all the public authority of the entertainment industry, everything their parents always used to tell them they had to wait for until they grew up and would understand later." Thereís some truth to both of these observations, of course, but they hardly constitute an indictment. Or as the Nigel Tufnel character in This Is Spinal Tap might rejoin, "Whatís wrong with being sexy?"
When it comes to our embrace of music, itís about any number of things. Itís the longevity of the Stones, the grace of Springsteen, the fresh zeal bubbling up from the underground ó capable of shaking pop culture as Nirvana did in the early í90s ó even as the utterly commercial industry veers conservative and repackages the last hit. Itís about the sound, the striving, the emotion, the expression, the desire to connect, the collective exultation of a good show, whether itís at the Civic Center or a small out-of-the-way place. It is, to cop the name of one of the current Swedish invasion bands, the Soundtrack of Our Lives.
Ian Donnis can be reached at email@example.com