Mickey Rourke’s character in “The Wrestler” blamed it on Kurt Cobain. In actuality, Nirvana is usually given credit for dethroning Michael Jackson (the infamous 1991 toppling of Dangerous from the top of the charts by Nevermind) and L.A. hair metal bands like Poison from their lofty but irrelevant perches. And even Michael Jackson is debatable as he more or less put the cherry on the sundae of his “Wacko Jacko” rep with all that King Of Pop nonsense.
But what of those other blazing Eighties lights like Huey Lewis and the News? (Just kidding). Like Prince, Metallica, R.E.M., and Guns ‘N’ Roses? These guys were supposed to be carrying the creative torch passed on from the Beatles, James Brown, Led Zeppelin, the Velvet Underground, and numerous other Sixties and Seventies titans of popular music, They were supposed to make their own indelible marks and then, if not still producing groundbreaking music, proceed to age gracefully for the rest of the millenium. It’s what so many of we devoted music fans expected. So what happened?
Let’s start off with the easiest of these legendary acts: Guns ‘N’ Roses. They debuted with an album of exceptional power, wit, and (in the case of “Sweet Child O’ Mine”) tenderness. And these fuckers could PLAY. Slash and Izzy Stradlin still stand and as one of the tightest rhythm/lead guitar duos in rock history — up there with Richards and Woods or Jonny Greenwood and Ed O’Brien of Radiohead — and Steven Adler was the most kinetic drummer the band would ever see. Axl Rose was, of course, the archetypical rock frontman. In the tradition of Jagger and Morrison, he was both macho and feminine-sassy in equal measure. He bitched way too much to be called the strong, silent type, but boy, how wailingly well could he bitch in front of all that righteous rock and roll noise. What happened?
Axl. It was almost like watching some cliche in some movie about the lead singer thinking that HE and he alone was the reason for his band’s success and needed none of their (formidable) talents to sustain the magic they had all created together. Okay, so you can fill in the rest here. If you bought “Chinese Democracy” though, you obviously don’t get it and need to club yourself in the temple with a clawhammer a few times.
On to Prince. You gotta love Prince. His “I don’t give a shit who I freak out or offend” stance from the beginning of his career endeared him to more than a few; but to be able to back this up with Stevie Wonder-like virtuousity and Marvin Gaye-style sexual provocativeness? You gotta love Prince. He dug and absorbed Smokey Robinson as much as he did Hendrix, Santana, and Led Zeppelin. And — rightfully so — saw no contradictions or problems with mixing it all up. The quality of results varied, but let’s be honest, the Beatles’ experiments achieved about the same degree of consistency — the main difference being, well, they were the Beatles and he was some black kid from Minnesota. Purple Rain shot him into the stratosphere with its mix of funk, heavy guitar and go-for-broke strangeness. He barely took a breath between albums throughout the entire decade, but his next real milestone was undoubtedly “Sign O’ The Times”. And then, wait…. What happened?
When Dylan found Christ and decided to become a disciple it was, thankfully, just one of many phases with him. When Prince stopped flirting with God between lusty, sometimes sleazy dalliances and finally succumbed to his inner holy roller it was a career calamity. Who wants a Prince who’s not naughty? Part of his initial message and vision, after all, was sexual liberation. With him taboo was no longer taboo but fun. And all the Tipper Gores in the country could go pleasure themselves with a rolled-up printout of the lyrics to “Darling Nikki” if they were too uptight about it. He was our holy pervert. Nobody really thought he was suggesting something unnatural when he sang of wanting to transcend gender roles in “If I Was Your Girlfriend”. Nobody who shared his twisted sense of humor anyway. Prince never lost his chops (witness his Grammy and Superbowl performances, or his solo on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” at the George Harrison tribute). Chops are great, sure. Eddie Van Halen had monster chops. What he didn’t have and Prince once did have, however, was an interesting vision.
Metallica. Not a very imaginative or impressive name, but, in the beginning, a very impressive band. Forget “impressive”, impressions are dents, these metal innovators were trying to plow THROUGH you. They were young and hungry and pissed that the world wasn’t built for young, hungry, pissed young men. I was about to say young “people”, but let’s not kid ourselves here. From the beginning, Metallica was a band for and about the testosterone crowd. Murderous bikers and confused stoners alike could relate to their intricate, hyper-speed, oddly eloquent, whiplash-choreographed bash fests. But in the end what made Metallica METALLICA was the Mars factor. In astrology, Mars is the planet of war, conquest, blood, fury, and an unmitigated, violent surge to a release. Any release. The intellect is gone, so become an amimal. Sounds silly on the surface to some of us more sensitive types, but hey, pull your panties up and go home if you can’t thrash with the best hard rock band of the Nineties. (Notice I did not say metal, ’cause what is the difference?) James Hetfield didn’t have a lot of range in his rants (vocally or thematically), but at least they were consistent. They spurned making videos for MTV (until “One” anyway) and still sold millions of records despite this. They championed the rock-n-roll principle of DIY like the punks. Yeah, they were punk without the politics or quirks. They had tons of fans who adored them. So what happened in this particular case?
The Black Album. Their biggest seller, and, I’ll admit, the one that first made me want to dig further back into their catalog. Their core fanbase was screaming “Sellout!” when it came out faster than a naked girl running out of a penitentary full of horny men. Justified? I don’t think so. There is plenty on the so-called Black Album that holds up to anything off of Master Of Puppets or …And Justice For All. But let’s remember the Mars factor. Metallica had never before stooped to doing BALLADS! Sure, sometimes the tempo had gracefully, purposefully slowed in the past (they weren’t barbarians after all) but never before had they resorted to such tripe as “Nothing Else Matters” or “Unforgiven”. To me, the biggest problem wasn’t that these were love songs, because love songs, silly or not (thank you Paul), make the pop world go round. My problem was that they were such dreadfully dreary love songs!Actually, I’m not even certain they weren’t a dialogue between a prison inmate and the smaller prison inmate he’s about to rape for all the joy in them. The point is, it was perceived as a betrayal by may of their earliest supporters. Sure they sold gazillions of the album, but most of those gazillions were to the fickle majority who had nothing invested in Metallica emotionally. Song good? Buy! Song not so good? Buy new Candlebox! And on it always goes. Metallica’s mistake, besides getting old and un-hungry like Rocky in Rocky 3, (the Napster stuff didn’t help their image either) was to think they should, or even could evolve. Stick with what you know and leave being innovative and original to groups like……
R.E.M. I leave the hardest one for last because, good gracious, pound-for-titillating-pound, they are the biggest heartbreakers in their fall. Again, as with all of the acts I have mentioned, you have that sense of attitude and rebellion. With R.E.M. however, none of the rebellion was spelled out in such a way that you could pump your fist to it. U2 cornered that market with War anway. No, Michael Stipe didn’t care if you knew what the hell he was mumbling about, and that in itself made him like Marlon Brando in the Godfather. Okay, a gay, gawky, awkward kid from Athens in the Godfather, but with a strange authority nonetheless. Together he, Peter
Buck, Mike Mills and Bill Berry put out chiming, chugging, churning, adventurous albums year after year, and made a conscious (and usually successful) attempt to make every single fucking song unique and an entity unto itself. Driver 8 and Wendell Gee off the same album wouldn’t even sound like the same band if not for Stipe’s distinctive, tart baritone. Things got big with the superb, all-time classic, Document. Things got bigger with Out Of Time and Automatic For The People a few years later. They were being compared to the Beatles in the sense that as they grew artistically, the sophisticated portion of their audience grew as well. Wanna know what happened? Well, I’m gonna tell you anyway.
An anti-supergroup if there ever was one, R.E.M. made it clear, from the very beginning, that they did not want to be perceived as rock stars. Sounds noble, right? Problem is, if you are a popular rock band who don’t want to be rock stars, then who the fuck are you? Mozart? Eazy E? You have to pick a side. Even though Bono gets tons of shit for it, this is what he and the rest of U2 have always understood, and it’s why they still have something resembling a career. I can understand not wanting to be Madonna or Mick Jagger, but at some point you have to sell yourself as SOMETHING. Can anybody tell me the image they get in their heads when they think of what R.E.M. represents? Get back to me if you come up with something. Anyway, that’s why they have been doomed to has-been status. Departure of excellent drummer Bill Berry didn’t help, but they could’ve still been great had they chosen to BECOME GREAT. This one is the hardest for me because, personally, to me, they are great. But who am I? How the hell would I have ever discovered the sublime wonders of Revolver or Are You Experienced? had the creators of those masterpieces been afraid to announce themselves as the rock stars they surely deserved to be and shoved it in all the skeptics faces?
In closing, I have every hope in the world that these artists, each and every one, find some satisfying path back to relevance. Hell, maybe they already have — maybe I’m the one out of touch. My love for these acts was (and still is) so deep that for me that it’s like criticizing the stretchmarks on the girl you lost your virginity to. But I’m perverse that way I guess. I still got the hots for this girl I saw at my high school reunion and she still seems to have her shit together. Her name is Radiohead.