It’s probably too late to mention this, but I think there’s still a way to save rock and roll. All we need to do is invent a time machine, go back to July 22nd, 1972—immediately after the release of “Never A Dull Moment”—and shoot Rod Stewart in the face.
Additionally, I move we travel to May 21st, 1971, for Joe Cocker; and to March 26th, 1974, for Elton John. I don’t really care how we kill them—machine gun or piano wire or acupuncture needles rubbed against the skin of poison dart tree frogs—but kill them we must, and starting with Rod.
You have no idea how much you would love him if we did.
I know what you’re thinking. That Rod Stewart? The “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” Rod Stewart? With the pink silk shirts and the feathered blonde ‘do? Or worse: the “Great American Songbook” Rod with his pinstriped suit and his vest, looking like an extruded-plastic Tony Bennet melted to a shelf in Goodwill? Would you rather have a Rod Stewart who sings about statutory rape (“Hot Legs”) or a Rod Stewart who sings about building a ladder to the stars (“Forever Young”)? Here’s the thing: there is a third option. Listen to this track, which he recorded for “Gasoline Alley” in early 1970 with Ronnie Wood on guitar:
“It’s All Over Now”:
Or this track, which he recorded in the spring of 1972 for “Never A Dull Moment”:
“Mama You Been On My Mind”
This Rod—young, lean, able to project longing and wistfulness and a triumphant sort of sad in one barbaric yawp—bears no resemblance to the lounge lizard of the 80s or the complacent crooner of the 90s and beyond. This Rod is still within sight of bars, soccer fields, the occasional oil change done yourself: in short, ordinary English life. You can hear it in his voice.
And what a voice. This Rod, at only twenty-seven, was able to take a song written by Bob Dylan at the very peak of his power and make it sound uniquely his, adding delicacy and regret and a certain abashed quality, as if he were equal parts embarrassed and proud of his vulnerability. That would be a tall order for Leonard Cohen; for Nina Simone; for Nat King Cole or Frank Sinatra or Amy Winehouse or any of the other all-time great vocalists. The fact that Rod Stewart was singing like this at the very beginning of his career means we should all think of him in the same breath as Cohen, Simone, etc. So why don’t we?
Because immediately after the release of “Never A Dull Moment”, Rod Stewart entered a decades-long creative nosedive which he never really pulled out of, because it never stopped making money. It wasn’t just the disco, either. To hear his “Great American Songbook” records, of which there were four, is to be subjected to the limpest, safest, least inspired arrangements of classics ever committed to tape. His voice isn’t the problem; it never was. What made Rod Stewart unlistenable from the mid-seventies on were the instincts that lead him unerringly to the safe high center of every road; to platitudinous lyrics and treacly production values; to endless inspirational chimes and backing instrumentals not produced by instruments. Listen, if you can, to this track, off 1991’s “Vagabond Heart”:
“Broken Arrow” (Stewart cover; 2008 remaster):
Now, I’m going to admit something that’s going to make you lose respect for me: I’ve listened to this track a lot. In fact, it’s my breakup track. Rod Stewart’s cover of “Broken Arrow” is my go-to when I want to feel sort of vaguely romantic in a soft-focus kind of way, like I’m looking at the world through a shower door. It’s soaring and inspiring and doesn’t challenge me in any way.
But just for reference, this is what that track is supposed to sound like:
“Broken Arrow” (Robertson original):
This is Robbie Robertson’s original recording of “Broken Arrow”, on his eponymous solo album released in 1987. It won him a Juno Award. I think we can agree it’s better, and furthermore that it’s absolutely not because Robbie Robertson is a better vocalist. It’s better because Robertson made more interesting choices with the song than Stewart did; because he aimed for a more complex emotion than just fist-in-the-air triumph; because he layered his vocals over an instrumental background that also had something to say. For his part, Stewart stopped making music that spoke in 1974; everything since then has been pretty, plastic, and vacant.
Speaking of which, what’s Elton John been up to lately?
“Hello Hello feat. Lady Gaga” from the “Gnomeo and Juliet” soundtrack
Oh sweet Jesus make it stop.
“Candle In The Wind 1997”
That should be enough. If you didn’t have the fortitude to sample all three, I don’t blame you. Besides, the titles tell you everything you need to know. Blandly commercial, sentimental as Hummel figurines and twice as twee, these songs race through the brain like Taco Bell through a digestive system—leaving much the same byproduct behind. For most people listening to new music today, this is what Elton John has always done. Songs for bad children’s movies, wine tastings, and dead princesses.
But here is what Elton John used to produce:
Listen to how easy he makes it sound; how casually he tosses off that piano line, even as he runs circles around the beat of the song. Billy Joel said of him that “Elton knows what his instrument is capable of. The piano is a percussion instrument, like a drum. You don’t strum a piano. You don’t bow a piano. You bang and strike a piano. You beat the shit out of a piano.” You can still hear that pugnacious attitude in John’s playing, right up to “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”, an album that goes right to the summit of his abilities—and starts the descent down the other side. There is the immortal banger “Bennie and the Jets”, one of the most remorselessly economic grooves ever laid down; but there is also the mawkishly sentimental “Candle in the Wind”. There’s “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting”, a song that could revive drowning victims; but then there’s “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding”, which is exactly as unlistenable as the title suggests. The rest of John’s career is not worth sticking around for—sure, there was the occasional glimmer of his old self (“I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues”; “Someone Saved My Life Tonight”) but the vast majority of it is treacle. “Nikita.” “Can You Feel The Love Tonight.” “Circle Of Life.” Pre-chewed food for easy swallowing.
When it comes to soft rock for soft people, however, Elton isn’t even close to the king. That crown belongs to someone a little… hairier.
“You Are So Beautiful”:
Joe Cocker’s career, much like Rod Stewart’s, can also be bisected neatly into two parts: about six years of the best blues rock on the planet, and then about five decades of mom-pleasing nonsense like this. The auditory equivalent of a white pillar candle and a bedspread strewn with red rose petals, “You Are So Beautiful” is a cue that you are in for an overplanned and ultimately unsatisfying romantic experience.
Let’s just try for a quickie instead:
“Cry Me A River – Live At The Fillmore”
Hot damn! If this track were a vehicle, it wouldn’t be a Maserati or a Ferrari—it would be one of those long, swinging arms they strap astronauts into to simulate G forces. At least eighty percent of the credit has to go to the backing band Cocker surrounded himself with: when your backup singers are Rita Coolidge and Claudia Lennear, you’ve done something right. But Cocker himself can stand in front of a band where Leon Russell is just the piano player and not seem ridiculous. Listen to that voice, like a match struck off an old boot. Doesn’t it sound like he could light fire to the roof with that thing?
He was twenty-five.
The 27 Club is a figment of our collective imagination. There’s no statistical spike in musician deaths at that age; we just perceive one, because there are a few big deaths clustered together: Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones. Later on, Amy Winehouse and Kurt Cobain. But the idea makes sense, beyond the upsetting similarities of the club’s actual, highly self-destructive members. For most people, twenty-seven is a godawful year. Their parents are starting to noticeably age; their last surviving grandparents are dying off. They are just far enough out from college to be disillusioned in both their careers, and in the first romantic partners they thought would sustain them beyond college. Many of us can easily imagine an alternate reality in which we did not survive twenty-seven, and thank heaven that we lived to see the calmer waters of our thirties. But the flip side of gratitude is forgetfulness—we shudder to think how close we came to self-erasure, then get busy prettifying the memory. We forget our inertia, our selfishness, our self-absorption: we reminisce endlessly about the cheap apartment in which we learned to make soup stock; to roll a joint; to feed ten people on as many dollars. And the farther away we get from that free, indolent, slightly shiftless version of us, the more we romanticize the potential of that person, and forget the pain.
The members of the 27 Club serve as avatars of that remembered, mythical version of us: frozen in amber, fists aloft, as brilliant and self-extinguishing as fireworks, they are everything we tell ourselves we were—or could have been—when we dig up the half-completed novel from the dresser drawer, the acoustic guitar from the back of the closet. Our fascination with them isn’t mourning: it’s envy. By dying at an age when most of us haven’t yet committed to anything more permanent than a bad tattoo, the 27 Club members get to inhabit forever the what-if world that the rest of us eventually leave. They will never have a mortgage, or an aging parent to care for, or a permanently busted knee—or voice. They will never be locked into a career path; an underwater mortgage; a nursing home. They will never confront a gradually diminishing number of possible pathways and options, until the last choice gutters out. So we study their tiny catalogs for clues, imagining the musicians they would have become if granted the chance, pressing down on the bittersweet bruise of our own lost potential. There’s a certain consolation in listening to “Back to Black” at thirty-five, an age Amy Winehouse will never get to be. We may never open our mouths and summon a thunderstorm, but we get to sit on a warm bedroom floor and be consoled by Amy Winehouse, a trick she never managed.
But it’s not all about us. The 27 Club confers certain posthumous benefits on its members. Jim Morrison was talented, but does anyone really believe he would be taken seriously as a rock god if he’d died at sixty-eight, with a softened jawline and a non-existent six-pack? Ditto Kurt Cobain, whose appeal was inextricably tied up with his stringy, blonde-Jesus look. Janis Joplin’s voice might have improved with age, but could it have survived middle-aged contentment? Does anyone really need the collaborative album Jimi Hendrix would have inevitably made with a past-their-prime Aerosmith—or Eric Clapton? (Remember Carlos Santana’s “Supernatural”? Remember how inescapable that fucking album was in 1999? We should all be thanking God nightly that Jimi didn’t live long enough to play backup to Rob Thomas.) Early death saves artists not only from the ravages of time, but from the chance to sell themselves short. And no three have put themselves on the auction block for quite so cheap a price as Stewart, Cocker, and John. It’s difficult to describe to the uninitiated how much we’ve all missed out on as a result. (Though Greil Marcus did, in a 1979 essay on Stewart so good it nearly made my suggestion of time-travel/assassination redundant.)
By burying their best years under a thick layer of sonic mulch, all three betrayed their own legacies, guaranteeing that no one under the age of sixty would ever discover the tiny handful of albums, made by each, that stand among the best and most human works of art ever produced by voice, piano, drum and guitar. No one did this to them—there is no dastardly producer to blame, no flood in a record company basement, no arson amongst the master tapes. Stewart and Cocker and John did this to themselves, and everyone with ears is the poorer for it. It is a reflection of the magnitude of the crime, that I suggest the ultimate penalty.