Tuesday, July 03, 2018

They All Shine On

You think there's nothing left to say about rock and then comes a book like Uncommon People: The Rise And Fall Of Rock Stars by David Hepworth.

It's a collection of short pieces--none longer than eight pages--about various rockers. One per year, from the mid-50s to the mid-90s.  It's mostly names you'd expect--Elvis, The Beatles, Dylan, The Stones, Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Bowie (he's on the cover), Springsteen, Prince, Madonna, Kurt Cobain, etc., with a few surprises thrown in.  Each essay is a snapshot of a particular moment, usually a turning point that illustrates something bigger about the world of rock.  (And each essay ends with a playlist of ten items representing that year's music.)

To Hepworth, the rock star is a figure of the past.  They've been around since the 50s, of course, and by the 70s, the term was big enough to include anyone who's special, or really good at something. But things have changed in recent years--not just the music, but how it's sold, how fans consume it, how people network and learn about stars, how the stars are developed and maintain a career, and so on.

Hepworth, who's been writing about music for decades, looks at the glory years of rock stars, with a learned and cynical take on this rarefied world.  He actually doesn't talk that much about the music (and when he does, it's often in a slighting way), but the book doesn't promise that.  This is about the meaning of being a rock star, and how they're different from us normal humans.

He takes you inside the lives these people led.  How did someone as weird as Little Richard make it so big?  Why was it necessary for Buddy Holly to take a plane to the next gig? Why did Janis Joplin exaggerate her sexual exploits?  Why did a band called Earth change its name to Black Sabbath?  What was Michael Jackson trying to prove, anyway?

Even if you feel you already know these stars, Hepworth comes up with fresh insights.  Uncommon People (not a great title--he could have taken a lesson from Black Sabbath) is an easy book to read in parts, or to binge on.


Anonymous Lawrence King said...

Most rock bands have histories that are only of interest to their fans. At best, there are one or two anecdotes that might be worth repeating to non-fans.

There are exceptions of course -- most of whom you list here. Michael Jackson, Bob Dylan, The Beatles are interesting to everyone (but everyone likes their music anyway). Ozzy Osborne is so weird that he's interesting even if you don't like his (vastly overrated) music.

But I agree that the rock star "is a figure of the past". Whether it's Led Zeppelin's antics in hotel rooms, or the romantic triangles of Fleetwood Mac or The Mamas & the Papas, or Emerson Lake and Palmer each arriving in a separate limousine because they weren't speaking to each other, the classic "degenerate rock star" stories always involve the band as a group that believes it's above the rules of society.

By contrast, it seems that today's stars are part of some extended dysfunctional social group. The stories that People Magazine tell about Taylor Swift and Kanye West and Lady Gaga always focus on who goes to parties with whom, or who insulted whom on Twitter, or who is writing a song expressing her anger at whom.

In other words, in 1975 the rock musician's dream was to be onstage, adored by thousands of screaming fans, and then head backstage to take advantage of groupies. In 2015, the pop musician's dream is to be seen at parties with their colleagues.

6:01 PM, July 03, 2018  
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