Rock music's rough, confident spirit of rebellion has gone. Some of us can't help feeling nostalgic for itby Salman Rushdie / May 20, 1999 / Leave a comment
Published in May 1999 issue of Prospect Magazine
I recently asked Vaclav Havel about his admiration for the American rock star Lou Reed. He replied that it was impossible to overstate the importance of rock music for the Czech resistance during the years of darkness between the Prague Spring and the collapse of communism.
I was just relishing the picture of the leaders of the Czech underground grooving to the sound of the Velvet Underground playing Waiting for the Man or All Tomorrow’s Parties when Havel spoke again. “Why,” he asked me, with a straight face, “do you think we called it the Velvet Revolution?”
I took this to be an example of Havel’s deadpan humour, but it was a joke of the sort which reveals another, less literal truth; a generational truth, perhaps, because for popular music fans of a certain age the ideas of rock and revolution are inseparable.
“You say you want a revolution,” John Lennon sneered at us. “Well, you know,/We all want to change the world.” With the passage of the years I had also come to think of this linkage as little more than youthful romanticism. So the discovery that a real revolution had been inspired by rock music’s glamorous snarl was pretty moving. It felt like a sort of validation.
Because now that nobody smashes guitars or protests anymore, now that rock is middle-aged and corporate, and the turnover of the top mega-groups exceeds that of small nation states, now that it’s music for older people remembering their salad days while the kids listen to gangsta rap, trance music or hip-hop, and Bob Dylan and Aretha Franklin get invited to sing at presidential inaugurations, it’s easy to forget rock’s oppositional origins.
Yet rock ‘n’ roll’s rough, confident spirit of rebellion may be one reason why this strange, simple, overwhelming noise conquered the world nearly half a century ago, crossing all frontiers of language and culture to become only the third globalised phenomenon in history (after the two world wars). It spoke to the free spirits of young people everywhere and our mothers didn’t like it. After she became aware of my fondness for Bill Haley, Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis, my own mother began to advocate the virtues of Pat Boone, a man who sang a ballad to a mule.