You ever go see a rock band and they only play for a paltry ninety minutes? Yeah, me too, and it always infuriates me. A rock n' roll performance should not be something you merely phone in, a basic set with a coupla encore tunes and a sweat barely broken. In my view rock is all about heart, conviction, tenacity and a level of unbroken commitment that by end of the show leads one close to physical exhaustion. It's an initiation by guitar, bass and drum, and both band and audience should be spent and exorcised by the end of a really good show.
Admittedly I might've been ruined in my view on this by seeing Bruce Springsteen in 1992 when I was nineteen years old. I'd seen a few rock shows already, but seeing Bruce was revelatory. Shocking. Transformative. Springsteen played for upwards of three hours and every single song, every note, every throat strained vocal was delivered as though it was his last. Total commitment. And huge amounts of joy. It was a rock n' roll baptism by sweat drenched fire, and I felt invigorated beyond belief. Electrified. I believed. I wasn't sure in what exactly, but I felt a current moving through the building that I've been on the track of ever since.
Last week in Helsinki, at the age of 63, Springsteen played his longest ever concert on record, clocking in at 4hrs and 6 minutes. In a review of the show Charles Landau writes, "With his pick of the Detroit Medley [in the encore], Bruce highlighted another goal for the evening, mainly to squeeze every iota of energy out of the city of Helsinki if it took all night and caused a blackout in the process". No retreat, no surrender. In a recent article in The New Yorker called 'We Are Alive- Springsteen at Sixty-Two', author Dave Remnick writes this about seeing Bruce live:
His style in performance is joyously demonic, as close as a white man of Social Security age can get to James Brown circa 1962 without risking a herniated disk or a shattered pelvis. Concerts last in excess of three hours, without a break, and he is constantly dancing, screaming, imploring, mugging, kicking, windmilling, crowd-surfing, climbing a drum riser, jumping on an amp, leaping off Roy Bittan’s piano. The display of energy and its depletion is part of what is expected of him. In return, the crowd participates in a display of communal adoration. Like pilgrims at a gigantic outdoor Mass—think John Paul II at Gdansk—they know their role: when to raise their hands, when to sway, when to sing, when to scream his name, when to bear his body, hand over hand, from the rear of the orchestra to the stage.
Now the obvious question becomes, how does Bruce keep this sort of thing up, especially at his age? One substantial part of the answer is that Bruce works out; lifts weights; keeps fits. This is noted in the same New Yorker article- "He’s followed more or less the same exercise regimen for thirty years: he runs on a treadmill and, with a trainer, works out with weights. It has paid off. His muscle tone approximates a fresh tennis ball. And yet, with the tour a month away, he laughed at the idea that he was ready. “I’m not remotely close,” he said, slumping into a chair twenty rows back from the stage."
The key point I'm going to make in this edition of the Saturday Night Jukebox is that something has gone wrong in indie rock. There's been a trend toward skinniness that's not only negatively affecting the musician's health (more on that in a moment), but in my view the music too. I want to try and unpack what's going on here from an explicitly integral perspective. But first let's pause and watch a recent live clip of Springsteen and the E Street Band, doing Shackled and Drawn from their latest album Wrecking Ball:
Next, let's turn to the case of Neil Young.
The spark that really got the ball rolling for me on this topic was an interview Jian Ghomeshi did on CBC Radio with Neil Young after the release of his 2010 album Le Noise. The final question and answer really stuck out for me. The exchange went as follows:
Jian- This is a raw record, at times a pretty aggressive record. It sounds like it’s a rock record, even though it’s just you and a guitar. Neil, we’re told that a trajectory normally for people or for musicians, is that you get mellower with age. Seeing your last tour, listening to this last record, you don’t seem to be mellowing, it seems like your going in the opposite direction.
Neil- Well I’m stronger than I used to be, so now I can create more havoc than I could before, I can do more you know, and I don’t because I’m very reserved now, I’m in control of it you know, but I have the energy for it. Before when I was twenty-five I was pretty weak, I only weighed a hundred and thirty pounds, and I was weak. When I was thirty years old, I couldn’t lift my guitar over my shoulder, because my body was really emaciated. So I spent the last thirty or forty years working on getting strong; so I just turned that around. So I’m stronger now than when I was younger.
As with Springsteen, Neil lifts weights. He's strong. Fit. This enables him to be still be putting on powerhouse performances well into his late sixties. I saw him two years ago and it was mind-blowing, like watching a giant electrical storm dance around the stage. His fierce commitment was deeply inspiring, and I'm still getting juice in my life from having witnessed that soul igniting performance. But the opening band was the indie rockers Death Cab For Cutie, and as much as I like the band (and own albums), the contrast between the vitality of the two acts was a chasm. Now, I know some will object that Death Cab is just simply a different kind of band/sound than rock Neil, and that's fair enough, but there's something else going on here in my view, something I'll try and capture in a moment. But first, here's Neil shredding his way through a version of Rocking in the Free World in 2009, at the age of 64:
Skinny men are a staple of postmodern (hipster) culture. You only need to visit your local baristas or indie record shop (at least in North American cities, where the culture is alive) to see this on display. And this has seeped into indie rock as well. So much so that it's become an epidemic of sorts, what one writer for Spin called 'Manorexia'. Caleb Followill of indie rock sensations Kings of Leon broke a code of silence recently by admitting he was anorexic, something Kurt Cobain apparently struggled with too. What's going on here? Why are these artists wearing skinny like a badge of honor, to the point of ill health, and in my opinion, some very pallid rock outcomes? Why is it that, as one writer put it, "it's impossible to have gone to an indie rock concert in the past five or ten years and not notice that a certain skinniness was the romanicized male ideal"? [image- The Strokes]
Here's where I think an explicitly integral view can be helpful. Let me throw out a possible explanation from that vantage point. If we study the evolution of culture we can see that new emergent values and worldviews often push off of or reject what's come before. For instance, Enlightenment thinkers from Bacon to Voltaire were explicit and defiant in their rejection of magic, superstition, the dominance of the church and other strongholds of traditional culture. In postmodern culture, it seems to me there's been a rejection of muscle-head culture, whether it showed up in sports or frat boys or militarism, or maybe some combination of the three. Big muscle bound dudes were synonymous with a lunkhead, war-like culture that was to be rejected. And thus skinny was a visual and overt rejection of all this testosterone filled barbarism. I'm not sure how conscious all this was, but that's my sense for at least some of the source for this obsession with skinny. Or as another article put it, why "hunk is out, and skinny is in".
But the thing is, an integral perspective starts to make another move with regards to the values and expressions of our past. It begins to recognize two things- firstly, that all former stages of our cultural history are still latent within us, ready to be reactivated at any moment. Thus, we can't fully get rid of these things even if we want to, they don't just disappear once we reject them (*). And secondly, that there are always dimensions of past cultural forms that are still valuable, that we want to preserve (or incorporate) within our lives and cultures today.
And I think one thing that's unnecessarily been rejected in toto in indie rock/postmodern culture, is our warrior past. This gets overly related with aggro, machismo, war loving culture, and is thus understandably distanced from. But listen to some of the positive potentials of this ancient warrior sensibility. Steve McIntosh writes that, "An important part of the dignity of warrior consciousness can be found in its motive force, its energetic focus and determination" (1). In his book Sources of the Self, the philospher Charles Taylor writes, "There is a warrior (and later warrior-citizen) morality, where what is valued is strength, courage, and the ability to conceive and execute great deeds, and where life is aimed at fame and glory, and the immortality when one's name lives for ever on men's lips" (2). Can you imagine rockin out while channeling that warrior spirit?! I can, and I'd sure as shit be buying tickets for that show!
The thing is, to embody a warrior spirit- and to workout and become strong in our bodies as a vehicle for it- doesn't mean we have to become a douchebag, or drive an oversized truck, or want to bomb Iran. Bruce Springsteen uses his fitness to bring joy to his audience, and to consistently assert a political message in support of those who suffer under tyranny and political corruption. Neil Young has never lost the thread of hope for a better future in his life, and is, as he wrote in his song Big Time, "still living the dream we had, for me it's not over". Everytime I see Neil this soul burning intensity of his get's inside me.
I think we need to peel apart the one-to-one identification of muscles and men with barbarism and violence, and reintegrate warrior power within a new or higher order. Or to use a Freudian term, we can sublimate this ancient energy into new positive incarnations of courage, determination and fortitude. We can remember those immortal words of Beowulf as he steps off his boat and announces to the people of Hroogar, "I've come to kill your monster". Well, there's a few monsters out there to kill today, and we need the strength and vitality of fit and healty bodies to do that work. Indie rock needs to bring back the warrior, and in doing so take a tip from Henry Rollins about how powerful a life-practice weightlifting can be. As the new sensation of CrossFit has it, "strong is the new skinny".
Surely there's other aspects of postmodern culture that are leading to the obsession with skinny, but hopefully I've gotten at some of it. But either way, it's a trend that's very unhealthy for musicians, and as a life long devotee of rock, I believe it's negatively affecting the potential power of the music too. As a fan of many of the young indie rock bands, and someone who goes to a lot of live shows, I'm always feeling like someone has turned the dial down a few notches over much of the rock of old. There's often a certain listlessness, a vitality that's been lost. But not when I see Bruce or Neil play; and not when I see someone like Jack White, who's got some beef to him and plays with a singular intensity whether on a slow burner or a scorching rocker. And someone like Win Butler from the Arcade Fire seems to also be bucking this trend as well. He's a big guy to begin with, but he and his band blast with a fire that brings the warrior spirit. If you know of others that fit that bill, please let me know.
In closing, here's a famous clip of Springsteen playing with the Arcade Fire, doing Keep the Car Running. It's not the best footage, but it was a great meeting of generations and kindred spirits, and I think it's got an energy that transcends the shaky video.
(*) see the section 'Neotribalism Is Not A Regression' in my Neotribal Zeitgeist (+ Companion Notes) article for a more detailed explanation of this point.
(1) Steve McIntosh. Integral Consciousness and the Future of Evolution. p. 41.
(2) Charles Taylor. The Sources of the Self- The Making of the Modern Identity. p.117.