March 13, 2010
Roll Over, Roy Orbison
Roy Orbison died a few years ago. He did not die prematurely with groundbreaking music going with him to the grave. Nor did he die from his own excesses or cruel fate. He just passed away, his body old and tired and his impact on the culture long faded away, though some of his music is timeless.
There is irony in a rock and roll icon dying of old age. A long list of performers lived and died young; that does not endear old age well. It starts with Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper, and the list is too long to peruse here.
Don't trust anybody over thirty, said Roger Daltry during the Viet Nam War, rock and roll's cultural heyday. Roy Orbison lived to almost twice that age. Because of this, there is no shrine to him and his music, no ashes from some mystical funeral pyre, no self-imposed martyr status. No, he passed away from heart failure, like many his age when they have outlived their cultural usefulness.
Time always shows the music almost runs dry, and Orbison gracefully stepped aside following personal tragedy in 1966. When he died in 1981 -- the first rock and roll icon to die from old age -- he signaled an end to the genre.
There will be no other phenomenon like rock and roll. The music itself is an ill-tempered aria with built-in imperfections. The term comes from an earlier colloquialism for a one-night stand. Double entendres are mixed throughout. Thrills are found on Blueberry Hill, and Miss Molly sure likes to bump. It has an easy beat, two guitars and three chords, and is not meant to appeal to a "civilized" nature. Later, rock and roll -- any rock and roll -- became an anthem for a disillusioned youth.
It almost defies reality that only a handful of years after Roy Orbison came disco music. Once anathema, established acts take on corporate sponsors. Soon, mindless music videos become part of the recipe for "success." When Roy Orbison died, rock and roll simply morphed into rock music with loud, big-haired, pencil-thin, drug-obsessed performers. And with rap music to follow, prison time came to be considered a career step toward stardom.
Since WWII, music always targeted a teenage audience. It used to rely on payola, but now the recipe includes hype and angst, real or contrived. The music today has little to do with quality or that other word that seems lost these days: art.
Nobody will ever define art satisfactorily. As a cultural phenomenon, art is culture's willingness to be led. It is not the universal voice from within, but the clamor of culture -- otherwise, Skid Row would be full of aspiring artists. If Elvis Presley had introduced his music a generation earlier, he would have been hit over the head with his guitar by unruly Teamsters and gone to work in the local foundry. Only his mother would have thought of him as creative. For the "artist" today, the craft follows only the postmodern motif of passing off bad art for good, all for a buck.
If art mirrors reality today, then we are a dim view of ourselves. With each passing year, each passing morphing, music resembles music less and less. Executives fret over dropping record sales when they need to realize that the music today sucks. Worse, we who have turned from the popular culture are no longer just old; we are the enemy.
There will be no more Roy Orbisons, no more British Invasion. There will be no more Woodstock, although it didn't stop the media conglomerates in 1994 and 1999. Karl Marx apparently had Woodstock in mind when he said that history comes about first as tragedy, then repeats itself as farce.
Anathema of anathemas, a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame now exists -- another irony of going mainstream. Roy Orbison was elected there in 1987. He died a year later from a heart attack, probably from the shock that there was such a thing.