Rock and Roll Book Club: Steven Hyden's 'Twilight of the Gods'

Steven Hyden's 'Twilight of the Gods.'
Steven Hyden's 'Twilight of the Gods.' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

Of course I devoured Twilight of the Gods: Steven Hyden and I are basically the same person. I don't claim to have his expertise, but demographically, we're both 40-ish white guys who grew up in the Midwest and now work professionally as music writers in Minnesota. His perspective on classic rock is basically the same as mine: we were just coming into our own music tastes when Rolling Stone surveyed the greatest albums of the rock era and put Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band on top. We weren't born when the Beatles broke up, but we showed up in time to see them canonized as rock gods.

Hyden, the author of Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me, has written what amounts to a requiem for classic rock, told from the perspective of a gen-X fan who's watching the idols of his youth die off one by one. It's formatted into short chapters with titles that might be songs on a concept album — and this being classic rock, it's a double album, which means the book is divided into four sides.

Although the book is titled "a journey to the end of classic rock," it's less about imagining a world without the Beatles and the Stones than it is about surveying the world they made. The classic rock era, as defined by Hyden, runs from Sgt. Pepper (1967) to Nine Inch Nails' The Fragile (1999). Essentially, it's the era when Serious Albums by guitar-based bands were the lingua franca of music criticism and, to a varying extent, consumption.

Today, Paul McCartney is 75 and Trent Reznor is 52. If we're now in the twilight of the gods, we have been for almost two decades: many of today's most popular musicians have little or no memory of the classic rock era as thus defined. What was once taken for granted now seems increasingly dated: the idea that the world's most popular artists would be white men playing guitars and making LPs, plowing through drugs and maintaining groupie harems.

If one audience for the book is people like me, and older readers who remember even more of the classic rock era, another might be younger readers in search of a primer on The Way It Was. Or, those readers might feel like they know way too much about classic rock already.

The concept of this concept-album of a book is the hero's journey, as elucidated by Joseph Campbell. (You may be familiar with the work of one of Campbell's biggest acolytes, George Lucas.) Hyden sees classic rock as music that was consumed in quasi-religious terms: the stars were gods, their music was sacred, the rituals were ironclad, and the Rolling Stone Record Guide was the Bible. It was the pre-streaming, pre-tweeting era, where a heavier mist of myth lay over music stars. You can read Twilight of the Gods as a sort of anthropology of that culture.

Of course, it's a culture that's already been exhaustively documented, so Twilight of the Gods feels less like an essential read than an enjoyable one. Hyden embraces the way that true believers love to debate this music, and — in true classic-rock journalism style — he's open about his biases.

He argues that radio is narratively compelling in a way that streaming will never be. He argues that the Eagles are the quintessential classic-rock band, not because they're the best but because they're the most ubiquitous. ("Hotel California" still gets spun on American radio once every 11 minutes.) He breaks down the specific reasons why Tom Petty eclipsed Bruce Springsteen in the '90s, and argues the merits of live albums (it's hard to imagine classic rock without them) and drug use (ditto).

He elucidates the idea of the good "bad" album: a record that's fascinating because of what it reveals about a genius working at low ebb. (Think the Rolling Stones' Black and Blue, Bob Dylan's Down in the Groove, Neil Young's Earth.) There's a whole chapter on bands that survived a lead-singer transition, AC/DC being the shining example. There's a chapter on the power ballad, typically purveyed by bands in the "underclass" of classic rock (Journey, REO Speedwagon, Kansas). There's a detailed exploration of dad rock.

Hyden doesn't make much of this point, but he observes that since the end of the classic rock era, the term "guilty pleasure" has fallen out of currency. If you were a believer in the rock gods, it was easy to tell what qualified as a guilty pleasure: it was anything that wasn't a Serious Album. Now, Carly Rae Jepsen gets Pitchfork raves.

Notice something about Carly Rae Jepsen that's different from the rock gods Hyden lists in the second paragraph of the book? ("Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, the Beatles, the Stones, Dylan, Springsteen, Neil Young, the Who, Black Sabbath, AC/DC, David Bowie.") That's right: she's a woman.

As Hyden acknowledges, maleness and whiteness were overwhelmingly prevalent qualities in classic rock, despite the fact that rock and roll itself was invented by African-Americans and, yes, women. Like me, Hyden had three favorite stations when he was a teenager in the late '80s and early '90s: a top 40 station, a classic rock station, and an oldies station. By far and away, the classic rock station had the whitest, most male playlist.

The book's most important chapter comes near the end of "side three": a chapter titled "You Can't Always Get What You Want." That's the Rolling Stones song that Donald Trump loves to play at rallies, despite the objections of the band members. Hyden notes that "the election-year tradition of rock stars battling Republicans goes back at least as far as 1984," when Ronald Reagan tried to sell "Born in the U.S.A." as the patriotic anthem it decidedly wasn't, but the 2016 instance was different. Trump is a baby boomer, as are many of his supporters. This is their music, no matter what the musicians themselves say.

Although "You Can't Always Get What You Want" could be interpreted as an unflattering song about Trump supporters, who from the outside resembled an unruly mob of petulant screamers refusing to take responsibility for their own problems, I suspect that Trump's explanation can also be taken at face value: he likes Mick Jagger, and he likes "You Can't Always Get What You Want." And the people who voted Trump probably like that song, too. For them, the specific meaning of the words matters less than the way Jagger's voice evokes the past. For anyone who believes that the world has gone to hell, the song is a comforting reminder of how things were when you were younger and more hopeful. Even as seemingly everything else about this country has changed, you can still hear the Stones on classic-rock radio, and there's something comforting about that. "You Can't Always Get What You Want" represents stability — and it's also resolutely white and male, as much of classic-rock radio is, and for some people that's comforting too.

Hyden goes on to tie this scenario to the infamous 1979 "Disco Demolition Night," in which fans invited to bring disco records to trash at a Chicago White Sox game caused a near-riot in their enthusiasm. Ask a white guy what that meant, Hyden notes, and you might hear that it was simply "an act of rebellion against an overbearing pop trend." Ask a woman and/or a person of color, and you're more likely to hear that it was a manifestation of entrenched racism, sexism, and homophobia.

That institutionalized bias is still preventing most women from becoming rock stars in the sense of getting airplay and high-paying gigs, even as critics converge on an agreement that it's women who are overwhelmingly responsible for most of today's most exciting guitar-driven music. As Hyden notes, the end of the classic rock era isn't the end of rock: after all, there was little that classic rockers liked better than to declare rock dead. "As I write this," argues Hyden circa 2018, "the best writer of rock songs on the planet is a funny and keenly observant Australian named Courtney Barnett."

The kings are dead. Long live the queens.

Steven Hyden will be at Magers and Quinn on May 30 to read from Twilight of the Gods.

Enter The Current's Twilight of the Gods giveaway

Use this form to enter The Current's Twilight of the Gods giveaway between 7:45 a.m. CDT on Wednesday, May 2, 2018 and 11:59 p.m. CDT on Tuesday, May 8, 2018.

One (1) winner will receive one (1) hardcover copy of Twilight of the Gods: A Journey to the End of Classic Rock. Three (3) back up names will be drawn.

Prize retail value: $25.99

We will contact the winners on Wednesday, May 9, 2018. Winner must accept by 10 a.m. CT on Thursday, May 10, 2018.

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This giveaway is subject to Minnesota Public Radio's 2018 Official Giveaway Rules.

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