Dreams of rock stardom don’t sit well with the conservative mindset of our society. Today’s young are more likely to take out life insurance policies than waste time noodling on a second-hand guitar, which is a necessary but far from assured precursor to becoming a rock star. And if one lucky noodler does attain musical greatness — which in India means six gigs a year and an online album release — there’s still enough cause for worry. The guitar god then has to wonder: “How can I keep this up?” What happens, for example, when one runs out of steam? What will I do, goes the rocker’s Shakespearean soliloquy, when age with his stealing steps hath clawed me in his clutch?
What happens in such cases usually is a grand reunion. Seeing a group of old buzzards gyrating on the stage while trying to relive the days of glory past has become a familiar sight for music fans around the world and especially in India. And this is something unique to our age. People in the ’60s didn’t have to put up with these tiresome second acts patched together by septuagenarians — the kind of folks I’d happily offer my seat to in the metro — because rock and roll and all its future variants are the products of the ’60s.
I refer here specifically to the British heavy-metal band Black Sabbath, the return of which I witnessed a few years ago in a small town in Europe. When we were growing up, Sabbath (it was always just that to us, Sabbath) was already over. Their best work was behind them. And we listened to those early albums with nothing short of reverence. We were keenly aware of being in contact with a group of pioneers: Tony Iommi’s guitar tones, weighed down by the heavy ballast of electric distortion, had engendered a sonic revolution of sorts and Ozzy Osborne’s vocals had elevated shrieking to the level of an art form (Axl Rose of Guns N’ Roses — another antiquated show — remains a pygmy in comparison).
I bought an exorbitantly priced ticket for the Sabbath reunion concert — with Ozzy as front man — without quite realising that my purposes were similar to those of the performers. Both Sabbath and I wanted to travel back in time on a wave of nostalgia: they wanted to live their past, I mine. In this respect perhaps a reunion concert places the audiences and the performers on the same plane, whereas generally the stature of the musician during a rock concert is elevated to the level of gods, while those watching constitute a mesmerised, hollering mass of worshipers. I like the egalitarian spirit of a reunion gig.
Cashing in on the past is what every band reunion is mainly about. In the last few years alone, we have seen names like Iron Maiden and Led Zeppelin make a comeback on the world music scene. Sometimes these reunions can get dramatic. Like that Pink Floyd gig in London which brought David Gilmour within spitting distance of his bête noir Roger Waters.
What I dislike is the musicians making a hash of it, which is something that invariably happens at such concerts. The Sabbath gig I attended was an embarrassment to watch, even though I, along with the 20,000-strong crowd there, tried hard to keep up the appearances of being in a state of hypnotised trance — the ideal state for a concert goer to attain (alcohol here is a big help). We applauded Iommi even when he missed the right notes; especially when he missed the right notes. We cheered encouragingly, indulgently, when Ozzy (now 60) began to lose his voice. We were telling the members of the band that they’d got it still, that we loved them still.
This is something that every artist, especially in his or her waning years, wants to hear: your mojo is not over yet. The novelist Martin Amis once talked about how writers die twice — they suffer a creative death before the final physical extinction. All have to contend with this reality but few manage to gracefully bow out. Philip Roth is the sole exception to this rule in recent times. After his final novel, Nemesis (2010), Roth decided to call it quits. “To tell you the truth,” Roth told an interviewer, “I’m done.” Some believe, or hope, that he’d still make a comeback, throwing caution and high creative standards to the wind. But imagine if Roth decided to go on a world reading tour, reciting passages from such early classics as Portnoy’s Complaint and Goodbye, Columbus. Quote On
Cashing in on the past is what every band reunion is mainly about. In the last few years alone, we have seen names like Iron Maiden and Led Zeppelin make a comeback on the world music scene. Sometimes these reunions can get dramatic. Like that Pink Floyd gig in London which brought David Gilmour within spitting distance of his bête noir Roger Waters. They sang the same worn-out classics and made them sound even older and more washed-out than before.
Serious artists usually regard their early work with suspicion. It’s common to hear writers or poets speak dismissively of the things they wrote long years ago. There’s a distancing mechanism at play here, and what’s implicit is the notion that an artist gets better with time, rather than the other way around. Thus, one often senses a stark disparity — of tone, of style — between an artist’s young and old compositions. Similar standards, alas, can’t be said to apply to the genres of rock and heavy-metal music.
I’d like to see these musicians — whose sounds accompanied me through my formative years — coming to terms with their age, and responding to it as an artist would; by channelling their changing sensibility into their art — into new works of art. If you must have a reunion, record a new album and tour on that. And if there’s nothing new left to say, follow Philip Roth and exit stage right.