Rock is dead, they say

"Long live rock!" is an appropriate response (and the next line in the song). But "rock and roll will never die"? Perhaps not. Nothing lasts forever. Still, certain musical forms persist. People have been writing symphonic and chamber music for hundreds of years. Jazz ensembles have been around for many decades. People play folk music, either modern versions or the actual songs passed down from centuries ago. And if we (some of us anyway) are still listening to ancient Indian classical music, why should rock and roll not still be a viable music form?

Rock was certainly on display at the Middle East Downstairs last Sunday night. The backline consisted of a drum kit, a bass amp, a Marshall half stack on one side, and an Orange half stack on the other. The fanciest piece of equipment that night was a looping pedal that Carrie Bradley used to play solo guitar and violin (I really enjoyed her opening set). There was nothing resembling a synthesizer, and I didn't see any laptops. This was guitar night.

Not that I have anything against keyboards or even computers. I played piano and Vox Continental organ on old recordings, and although I haven't used keys recently, I might. I also know and like bands that are basically made up of synthesizers, computers, and vocals. And with a creative DJ telling a story with ebb and flow, I can dance to EDM all night.

I also love all kinds of music, including reggae, folk, old school country, and some hip-hop, especially the hard-edged political kind. My musical taste is quite eclectic. But anyone who loves music probably has one kind that they really connect with on a visceral level, something that thrills their bodies and sets them on fire, and for me that's the various incarnations of rock and R&B. Garage, surf, punk, post-punk, maybe metal--as long as it's fairly stripped down and not too fancy (no, I am not a prog rock fan).

It's getting a bit tougher for rockers these days. I read that the big draws at the Pemberton and Squamish festivals this year were EDM acts. I know a small club in Vancouver that at this point books only electronic combos. The place fills up. And on the other side, "rockist" has become kind of an insult in music criticism, denoting a dinosaur (like me) who doesn't automatically take pop stars such as Lana Del Ray and Katy Perry as seriously as we do artists such as the New Pornographers or Sonic Youth. I confess to a weakness for Taylor Swift, and I do think that artists like Beyoncé create excellent music. I just can't live on a steady diet of EDM or pop. I need the rock. I can admire clever computer programming, but I would rather see and hear people playing actual musical instruments made of wood and steel.

Even though younger people flock to pop and hip-hop and EDM, there are always those who, like me, get off on playing guitar, or bass, or drums. They dig out their parents' old records. They delve into the past. They follow a form that at its core hasn't changed since the 1950s, and yet they reinvent it. Within the last year or so, I've seen young bands doing their own reinventions: Savages, Silvergun and Spleen, La Luz, PINS. Coming up, I'll see the Pack a.d. and punk band White Lung. I've bought great music recently by Ume, Screaming Females, La Sera, and TacocaT. Kids are still picking up guitars and whacking on actual drums. Someone in every generation seems to do that, whether rock is popular or not.

Frankly, even though it's harder to get bookings or listeners, I think it's probably better for rock to be a somewhat underground phenomenon. Rock gets bloated in the limelight. It thrives in the demi-monde.

So long live rock, in Boston and Vancouver and everywhere in between, in Manchester and Rio de Janeiro and Melbourne and even Angola (where there is a thriving death metal scene). For me, there's no feeling quite like holding an electric guitar against my body, putting my fingers on the strings, and making sweet and nasty and outrageous sounds come out of an amplifier. And some people continue to feel the same way. Maybe not forever, but I don't see an end yet.


You can go home again

Photo by Paula Worsley
This past weekend, my most successful band from when Sweetie and I lived in Boston had its first ever reunion almost 30 years after we last played together. We were on the bill of the final night of 13 shows spread over several weeks celebrating the 25th anniversary of Pipeline, a popular program on the MIT campus radio station. Bob Dubrow, the show's host, organized an incredible array of reunions of Boston bands from several eras, starting in the 1960s.

I've been in a few bands in my time, but none that ever reached the point where, years later, someone asks the band to get back together for a reunion show. Since we had done OK but weren't hugely popular, I really never expected to be asked. But then we were asked. And once we were, there was no way I was going to say no, even though it involved two return flights from Vancouver to Boston. I wasn't sure what to expect from a band reunion, especially after so many years. What I got was a beautiful, wonderful swirl of music and memory and emotions.

Sweetie and I had never lost touch with our former band mates. We lived in Boston for several years after the band broke up. After we swapped coasts, first there was email, then later Facebook. But people's lives change. Kids, new jobs, sometimes new bands, sometimes no bands. But there was never animosity as with some breakups. The band just came to an end for various reasons after about a three-year run.

When I heard we were invited to play a reunion show, I did hesitate a bit. As you know if you are a regular reader, I love playing music more than anything else in the world. And I had loved that band. But as the main songwriter, producer, and principal instigator, sometimes I felt as though I was carrying most of the weight. Everyone was committed, but I felt (rightly or wrongly) as though it wouldn't run unless I did most of the running. And that can wear you down.

But with the reunion, right away it became apparent that this was a team project, and my hesitation evaporated. Our singer, the first to be contacted about the invitation, was all in, and really putting in most of the effort—an amazing effort. And our drummer and a guitarist who had played with us during our final year were enthusiastic. Much as I am used to running things, I was happy to let our singer keep this moving along with her still considerable energy. In fact, I started to feel guilty that I wasn't doing enough! But Sweetie and I were 3,000 miles way from where things were happening, and there wasn't much we could do.

Photo by Scott Ferguson
The anticipation was intense. Walking into the practice space and seeing our singer was a wow moment. So good! And then our guitarist. And then our drummer. Like it was the most natural thing in the world, just showing up for a regular practice. We had three hours booked, and we used the time well. Better than ever really. We ran through the songs we were planning to do, and if one wasn't quite working, we figured out what needed to change, played the song again, and nailed it. This kept happening. Our singer and drummer's son, also a drummer, came by, since he was going to sit in with us. He ripped through two of our fastest songs with us as if he'd been playing them all his life. It was such a joy! I don't think I've ever practised as hard in my life, but it was the absolute best. When we were done, I knew I needed to go over some things myself, but I felt really good about where the band was.

It took us a while to say goodbye. It was just too good hanging out together again!

The next afternoon, we gathered at the club. Six acts were scheduled, so we were fortunate to be allowed an actual sound check. That let us get a feel for the stage and the rented equipment. We had never played that room, and I had never been there, so I was surprised to see how big it was. A capacity of 575 people! It reminded me of the Biltmore in Vancouver in a lot of ways. After the sound check, we went to the restaurant upstairs and shared a bunch of Lebanese food at a booth that was too small for five of us (minus guitarist, plus a very instrumental fiancé). Coziness, good food, a friendly and cute server, and we had ourselves a pre-show party.

Photo by Scott Ferguson
Our guitarist and special guest drummer arrived. We hit the stage early in the evening, but there was still a good crowd. Although I know I flubbed some of the solos, overall I think this was possibly our best show. The energy was fantastic, especially from our singer. And there is nothing better than seeing someone in the audience singing along to a song you wrote. In a way, it was good to play early, because then we could relax and enjoy the other bands. It was a great night!

And it was hard to leave at the end of it. To say goodbye again to people I love not only as musicians but as people. I still feel the buzz from the weekend. I have also cried a few times. Reunions are powerful things! I hadn't known that until I finally got the chance to experience one. We said this was our first and only time. It's difficult and expensive to get us all together. And this was certainly a singular experience. But with all of us feeling so good about it, I have to wonder if there might be more.