Tell Us 5 Things About Your Book: Drafting a Eulogy for Classic Rock
Posted June 17, 2018 4:12 p.m. EDT
By the end of this year, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards will be a combined 150 years old. While it might be foolish to bet against the Rolling Stones touring in, say, 2025, there’s little doubt that the genre of classic rock — its practitioners, its fans, its clout — is in steep decline. To write “Twilight of the Gods,” Steven Hyden, who was born in the 1970s, spent time immersing himself in the music he loves. He listened to albums, attended concerts, read canonical books on the subject and generally mused on questions like: “Why is classic rock a lifestyle as much as a form of music? Where did these traditions come from, and how did they become so ingrained? And when did all that mythology come undone, sending classic rock from the cultural penthouse to the funeral parlor?” Here, Hyden talks about how the Who helped to inspire the book, the connection between music and mortality, and more.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Q: When did you first get the idea to write this book?
A: It was 2012, when I saw the Who perform. I write about that in the first chapter of the book. Going into it, I was obviously aware that half the band was deceased, and that the two surviving members were in their 60s. But there’s something about being a classic rock fan, especially someone of my generation — I’m 40 years old — who started listening to them well after their heyday. Even if you’re aware that they’ve gotten older, in your mind they still exist as they did in 1971. Because of the nature of classic rock radio playing these songs over and over again, these artists are frozen in amber in a certain way. Then you go see them live, and you see that the passage of time has affected them. They’re not vampires.
There was something about that show and realizing that a generation of artists is going to start retiring or passing away. Five years ago, I put together a proposal to write a book that really didn’t go anywhere. The problem was, people weren’t really thinking about this yet. We were so used to Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones and Neil Young being around. Flash forward to 2016 and a series of high-profile people who passed away: David Bowie, Glenn Frey, Prince. And it’s continued since then. Tom Petty, Gregg Allman and on and on. Something that was on my mind was on the mind of many more people just a few years later.
Q: What’s the most surprising thing you learned while writing it?
A: The depth of my love for classic rock, and how important it is to me. I realized that the connection I have to this kind of music is the closest thing I have to religion — which is a very classic rock thing to say, a very over-the-top, bombastic statement. There’s something about the continuum, the idea that you can listen to a band that put out their first record in 2018, and you can draw a line from that band to a band that existed 20 years ago, and from that band to one 20 years before that.
Also, I expected the book to be a little more irreverent than it is. I have fun with the excess that’s embedded in a lot of the stories about classic rock. But as the book went on, I realized that the text deals with music but the subtext is mortality. When people mourn pop stars, what they’re really mourning is a piece of their own past. Younger fans, like Gen Xers or millennials, had never known a world without David Bowie. You could say the same thing about Prince and Tom Petty and all the others. The thing you think will always be there for you will not always be there. This is a fun book, it’s not a heavy, death-obsessed book, but it’s something the book ultimately deals with, deep down.
Q: In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?
A: I wanted to write about the generation from the ‘60s and ‘70s that has stayed around for a really long time, in a way that rock stars don’t typically stick around. Before classic-rock radio, you were on the radio because you had hits, and once you didn’t have hits you were gone. Classic rock introduced this idea that you could stay on the radio forever without having any new songs. It created this situation where classic bands were competing with new bands. It was like rock history being split in two. I knew I wanted to write about that. But the book was also dictated by what was happening as I was writing it. I went to see AC/DC in 2016. The singer was Brian Johnson, who was their frontman for a really long time. He replaced Bon Scott in 1980. Two weeks after the show I saw, Johnson had to retire, because his doctor said he would go deaf. And the band replaced him with Axl Rose. That’s something I could never have predicted when I started writing the book. So I addressed this idea of bands melting together as they get older.
Q: Who is a creative person (not a writer) who has influenced you and your work?
A: Jeff Tweedy, as much for the way he carries himself as for his art. I’ve always respected the career arc Wilco has had. They’ve always been good, they’ve always been respected, but they’ve never been at the center of the zeitgeist. Some of that probably has to do with being based in Chicago, which is something I relate to being from the Midwest and still living there. Tweedy’s always been able to do his own thing and not be impacted by what’s happening in the moment. I find that really inspirational. I remind myself that whatever’s going on right now, the only thing you can do is put your head down and do what you think is best. It’s hard to have faith in your own inner compass. I feel like he’s always been able to do that.
Q: Persuade someone to read “Twilight of the Gods” in 50 words or less.
A: There have been a million books written about classic rock. But no one I’ve read has written from the perspective of Generation X, as if they were an archaeologist digging up bones. But why should people read the book? There’s a lot of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, baby.
‘Twilight of the Gods: A Journey to the End of Classic Rock’
By Steven Hyden
Dey St./William Morrow. $25.99.