So I was sitting around with Herman Melville, author of a well-known how-to manual on whale hunting named after a better known Led Zep song, and I asked him what he’s been listening to. “You know, Mike,” he said, setting down the bong beside the manuscript of his soon-to-be-published Great American Novel on pot farming, “it’s easier to tell you what I’m NOT listening to, and that’s rock’n’roll. And that’s because rock’n’roll is finished. Kids don’t listen to rock’n’roll any more because rock’n’roll is for DEAD PEOPLE.”
The geezer was harshing my buzz, but I had to admit he was right. I have a couple of teenage relatives and they listen to nothing but hip hop, and when I suggested to the little punks that they might wanna check out the Dictators they literally laughed in my face. Kids got no respect today–try to get ‘em to listen to some morally upright music like “Teengenerate” and they just sneer like little Lou Reeds before slapping on their Turtle Beach Stealth 400 headsets and returning to their regularly scheduled video game.
Herman went on. “Hell, I knew rock’n’roll was dead the night I went to a party being thrown by a bunch of sleazoid Johnny Thunders guys and they spent the whole night playing Licensed to Ill over and over again. And that was way back in 1986. That album wasn’t a crossover, it was an autopsy, and anybody who tries to tell you rock’n’roll made some kinda big phoenix from the ashes comeback with Appetite for Destruction is full of shit. And don’t even get me started on what’s come down the pike since cuz it’s horrible. There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes his whole universe for a vast practical joke, and by that I’m talking about the first time I heard Arcade Fire.”
“Well ya gotta admit your rad and totally retro beard has Brooklyn or even Portland writ all over it,” I told Herman, “and the folks in those places certainly haven’t bought into the whole “Rock Is Dead” meme. They’re churning out all kinds of new sounds, even if I’m too lazy to listen to any of ‘em and what little I do hear makes me wish I was in an insulin coma. But there has to be some good rock and roll out there SOMEWHERE!”
“Have you listened to the Killers lately?” shouted Herman, knocking over the bong in his excitement. The man may have written Bartleby the Scrivener, upon which I’ve based my whole “I’d prefer not to” lifestyle, but he’s one sloppy drunk. “Fucking Mormons are allowed to make rock’n’roll nowadays! We should have stopped that with the fucking Osmonds! Devout Christians! Better sleep with a drunken cannibal than a sober Christian, I always say.”
“There’s lots of better shit out there than the Killers!” I shot back. “Name a band,” said Herman, smiling complacently. “Well, well, there’s Lambchop. They’re–” “You’re the only Lambchop fan in the world!” gloated the old naysayer. “I’ll admit Cows and Killdozer kept me interested for a while. “Hamburger Martyr” still makes me laugh, and laughs are always in short supply. But nobody liked those bands either. There are hardly five good ears in America, and several of them are asleep.”
I’d had just about enough of Herm’s nattering nabob of negativity shtick, so I shot back: “So I ask you again; what the hell ARE you listening to? Hip hop? Drake? JAY-Z? Kendrick Lamar? Lil Uzi Vert? Ice JJ Fish said Uzi’s music is trash and anybody who listens to it should be slapped! And I agree!” I was just winging it, of course, dropping a couple of names my fiancee’s son is always slinging around, but I figured I had him.
“I’ll bet you listen to Lil Pump,” said Herman with an evil grin. Now I know just enough about hip hop from my rapscallion teen associates to know Lil Pump has the rhyming skills of a trout and is the worst thing to happen to rap since Kevin Federline, so I shot back, “I bet YOU listen to Nicki Minaj!” But Herman just laughed like a guy who’s been living off the royalties from Typee for the past 150 years and said, “I’ll meet your Nicki Minaj and raise you my Jake Paul.” The old fucker just doesn’t give up.
I said to him. “Rock is Kaput, okay, let’s get out our spades and bury it in an unmarked grave in Dion’s backyard for the dingos to dig up and be done with it. But name me one song, one song that gives you hope that even if rock is deader than Mark E. Smith there’s SOMETHING out there worth going on for. Otherwise us old fuckers might as well put out our eyes like the Angry Samoans recommend in “Lights Out” and wander the desert eating honey and thistles, or whatever it is desert prophets eat out in the desert.”
“Rock died,” said the codger, “for lack of epic scope. There’s ‘Stairway to Heaven’ which I love, and Quadrophenia which is far freaking out, but what came after that? The Soft Bulletin? Gimme a break. To produce a mighty song you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring music can ever be recorded on the flea, though many there be that have tried it.” He paused to take a swig of Jack Daniels, sparked a Marlboro Red, and proceeded to cough himself silly. He held up a finger. He wasn’t done lecturing me yet.
“I have the same problem with today’s hip hop artists. I love some of the music, but where is the majestic sweep? The titanic sway? The glory of the spheres and the spinning of our godly orb? I just don’t hear it in Sean Coombs.” He paused to take a swig of beer. “But!” he went on, prophetically, “I have heard it! Oh, it was divine! But who hearkened to this otherworldly music?” He paused to spit out bitterly, “Prepubescent girls.”
The ancient mariner was sounding like your standard Old Testament prophet/wackjob now, and I was wondering whether I should offer him a couple of valium lest he break out in liver spots. “This was way back in 1997,” he continued. “It was a sound ne’er heard since Licensed to Ill swallowed American music whole, and I have been pursuing the echo of that sound, like mad Ahab his white whale, ever since!”
He paused, took a bong hit, and added, “I’m talking of course about Backstreet’s Boy’s “(Everybody) Backstreet’s Back.”
The words were those of a cracked actor, but he was as becalmed as the Pacific suddenly, and sea birds floated serenely in his disarmingly blue eyes. “It has everything; it is as great a song as any swinging epic of the sea, and as defiant as Ahab when he cries, ‘To the last I grapple with thee; from Hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.’”
“Are we talking about the same song,” I asked, “where the boys sing, “Now throw your hands up in the air/And wave ‘em around like you just don’t care/And if you wanna party let me hear you yell/Cause we’ve got it going on again?”
“Mock on!” road the author of Omoo, almost sending me from my chair. “The goddamn song makes me want to dance! It forges fierce joy like a mighty hammer ringing down upon fiery iron on the anvil of my heart! That world-shaking beat! And that riff! And those vocals that shout “We’re back!” even though they never went away! The sheer hubris of it! No wonder it won Best Song at the Nickelodeon Kid’s Awards!”
“What you don’t realize,” he went on, “you close-hearted, narrow-minded, pseudo-sophisticate, is, is… turn the fucking song on! Right now!” “I don’t own it,” I snarled. “YouTube the fucker!” So I did. And, and, and–something uncanny happened. I felt that Max Martin and Dennis PoP production KICK IN, and I’ll be damned if I didn’t, to borrow a phrase from my close personal friend Dylan Thomas, sing in my chains like the sea. “Have you seen the closing of This Is the End?” cried Herman, up and busting some pretty sick boy band moves. “AJ Carter and Company spark this bad boy in HEAVEN and every goddamn angel in Heaven starts to dance, including Seth Rogen and that totally dope fat black guy from Hot Tube Time Machine! Name me another goddamn slab o’ vinyl that can do THAT!”
Herman went on to play the damn song about ten times straight before finally passing out on my sofa where he snored like a monsoon. A couple of days have passed and while I’ve had plenty of moments when I think the old harpooner’s full of shit I can’t stop listening to “(Everybody) Backstreet’s Back.” And I’m coming to the horrible conclusion that he was right–here a meteor of total brilliance went flashing across the nightmare sky of the moribund American music scene and all the little girls went “Awww!” while the rest of us were too busy looking for saviors in the form of Smashing Pumpkins, Green Day or, God Help us, the fucking Foo Fighters.
In short, we missed it! Every blinkered one of us! Our one chance to throw our hands in the air and dance like we just didn’t care! And we’ll never see another one unless Herman decides to get off his big, fat Melvillian ass and write the Great American Song for us, with Max Martin and Dennis Pop producing, of course. And no, this whole review is not a joke. I love the goddamn song, and you should love it too.