An ageing rocker

Rock music's rough, confident spirit of rebellion has gone. Some of us can't help feeling nostalgic for it
May 19, 1999

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.

But I was trying to imitate the curl of Presley's lip and the swoon-inducing rotation of his hips, and boys from Siberia to Patagonia were doing the same. What felt to us like freedom looked to the adult world like bad behaviour, and in a way both things were true. Pelvis-wiggling and guitar-smashing are indeed liberty's childish fringe; but it is also true, in ways we have learned as adults, that freedom is dangerous.

Freedom, that ancient foot-tapping anarchy, is a higher and wilder virtue than good behaviour and, for all its spirit of hairy late-night rebellion, less likely than blind obedience to do serious damage. Better a few trashed hotel suites than a trashed world.

But there is that in us which doesn't want to be free; which prefers discipline and patriotic tunes to the wild, loose-haired love-music of the world. There is that in us which wishes simply to go along with the crowd.

"Don't follow leaders," sang Dylan. Yet we still want to follow murderous ayatollahs and nationalist brutes, or to suck our thumbs and listen quiescently to nanny states insisting they know what's best. Tyrants abound from Belgrade to Mumbai, and even those of us who are notionally free are no longer, for the most part, very rock 'n' roll.

The music of freedom frightens people and unleashes all manner of defence mechanisms. As long as Orpheus could raise his voice in song, the maenads could not kill him. Then they screamed, and their shrill cacophony drowned his music, and then their weapons found their mark, and he fell.

Screaming against Orpheus, we too become capable of murder. The post-cold war world, formless and full of possibility, scares many of us. We retreat behind smaller iron curtains, build smaller stockades, imprison ourselves in narrower definitions of ourselves, and ready ourselves for war.

Today, as the thunder of such a war drowns the sweet singing of our better selves, I am nostalgic for the spirit of idealism which, set to music, helped to end another war-Vietnam. Now the only music in the air is a dead march.