At a time when music seems to be prized mostly for its ability to render itself harmless and leave listeners undisturbed, it's not surprising that rock audiences have dwindled. In the past few years, the indie cool patrol has effectively dogged bands by simply dubbing them "too rawk." As a result, live music has become less of an event and more of a soundtrack to people's social fantasies. Whether it's the rockabilly behind a crowd of Betty Pages, the kitschy lounge behind the tailored set, or art-pop played for a host of non-prescription vintage glasses, live music has taken a back seat to fashion and nostalgia.
Well, I hate to interrupt that Rock Hudson flick you were never in, but rock is coming back. It's loud, dirty, and you probably won't be able to talk over it.
The hottest bands on the club tour circuit this spring were rock bands. Nashville Pussy and Zeke dominated, packing out clubs while their labels (Amphetamine Reptile and Epitaph, respectively) ran behind them trying to keep their records on the shelves. Zeke even opened for Pearl Jam on a few stops of its current arena tour. This burst of rock love, however, has gone beyond the harder labels and wormed its way into the heart of such hallowed indie hot spots as Olympia's Kill Rock Stars and K Records.
Earlier this year, K released Love as Laughter's #1 USA, and it was soon all over college radio like fuzz on a peach. Its gleeful interpretation of mid-seventies arena rock found a ready ear in an audience whose experience with that genre had been limited to commercial radio's abuse of it.
"I grew up on FM radio," says Sam Jayne, LAL's front man, "and I love Steppenwolf. When everybody's flipping out, banging on their instruments and screaming about girls or money, or whatever—that's what does it for me." Jayne's band may sound more like the younger, less technically proficient siblings of some high school rock band than Steppenwolf, but the abandon that makes rock great is all there in their music; they revel in their roots rather than poke fun at them.
Another child of FM radio is Nashville Pussy's fire-breathing bassist, Corey Parks. "When I was in fifth grade, I had a thing for this friend of my brother's 'cause he was a bad-ass and rode a dirt bike. He came over one day and played us AC/DC's Highway to Hell. All I wanted, or any kid wants, is to be cool, get laid, and kick ass—and that's what I heard on that record."
Despite the resurgence of rock on independent labels, the stigma of admitting you're a fool for that kind of thing remains. Veteran Seattle tour agent Julianne Anderson says she was once asked to leave Sebadoh's dressing room after passionately declaring her love for Aerosmith. Lou Barlow, Sebadoh's wonder kid, was so upset by the sentiment that his agent felt his performance would be compromised if Anderson remained in the room.
"Sure, it's cool to like Motorhead," says Mark Felchtone of Zeke, a man who gave up caring what you think ages ago, "but admitting you like Judas Priest and Slayer—that's another thing." Zeke just spent most of 18 weeks on the road, and like Nashville Pussy, the band doesn't hate the hesher kids in its audience, and members bristle at the thought that music is only valid when it's got a stamp of approval from college art majors.
"Those guys, obviously, weren't the kids on their Diamondbacks begging their moms to let them go to the Kiss concert when they were 8, now were they?" snaps Nashville Pussy's Parks. Her band recently signed a major-label deal and took some flack from indie purists over it. "I have a 13-year-old sister," she says, "and if it's the last thing I do, that child's gonna hear some rock on the radio."
Parks may get lucky. Rock has always been blue-collar; it shops at the mall and has a Camaro up on blocks in the yard. Rock is embarrassing, indulgent, and reminds us that we are a nation that subsists largely on ranch dressing and string cheese. It's been declared dead more often than Franco, and comes back with the regularity of herpes. The beautiful thing about rock is that, at its best, it has the ability to make you care about your life. While Mercury Records' big cheese Danny Goldberg and others are urging labels to "sign rock bands now," it's hard to say what will happen. World domination aside, maybe it's just time to follow Sam Jayne's advice: "Get some tight pants, shut up, and rock out!" Zeke plays the Mural Amphitheater 7/31.