Rock Til You Drop
Reviewed by Bill Mithoefer
Sunday, December 2 2001, 8:40 PM
"Members of [Gen X and "Gen Y"] never saw hippiedom firsthand, for instance, or experienced the era when certain hippie ideals impinged on the music industry. Their only personal contact with something resembling hippie idealism interacting with the marketplace has been the hip capitalism of Jann Wenner, Virgin's Richard Branson, the ice cream moguls Ben and Jerry or The Body Shop's Anita Roddick. This might seriously warp their impression of '60s ideals toward the sarcastic and the skeptical, might it not?" -- John Strausbaugh
Reading Strausbaugh's Rock Til You Drop reminded me of the year I spent in Santa Cruz, California during the mid-eighties. In my late teens, I developed a very negative disposition towards the city's hipper than thou forty-something year-old middle class because I couldn't stand the distinctions which existed between their enlightened moral sensibilities (multicultural, ecological, anti-war etc...) and what the nature of of life was like in Santa Cruz at the height of the Reagan era. For a community primarily populated by students, rents were intolerably high, homeless people were routinely driven out of downtown by local business owners, and indigent encampments out by the San Lorenzo River were constantly being raided by the police. I couldn't help but point an accusing finger at all the pot smoking home owners lounging in their hot tubs after work. My friends and I couldn't help but call these people "Fascist Hippies."
Pouring through the confrontational pages of Rock Til You Drop persuaded me that not every baby boomer is so sickeningly reactionary. Strausbaugh convincingly dissects the culture industry that grew out of the hippie scene in the nineteen sixties as though it were a metaphor for everything that remains wrong with his generation. His targets include rock musicians, the music magazine industry, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. A former underground musician himself, Strausbaugh moves on to criticize the first wave of cooptation of punk rock in the late seventies. Throughout, Strausbaugh maintains a damning critique of post-1960s free market ideology, as various boomer businesses mined the radical chic in order to push product to Strausbaugh's own generational demographic, not to mention those post-Vietnam era adults like myself who were spoon fed 1968 as though it were the birth of a higher state of consciousness.
Mick "Street Fighting Man" Jagger receives a fair share of criticism. As an upper middle class student at the London School of Economics, Jagger, his friends Keith "Satisfaction" Richards and Brian "Get Off Of My Cloud" Jones formed the Rolling Stones, originally a band dedicated to covering African-American rhythm & blues songs. Strausbaugh shows us the cool business side of Jagger and the increasing wealth enjoyed by the upwardly mobile group as they portrayed a cynically revolutionary public image. Rock Til You Drop implies that the 'Stones deliberately instigated the violence at Altamont in 1971 by refusing to play for hours after the opening band left, whipping the crowd into a violent frenzy with their primadonna attitudes. They doggedly continue to tour into their fifties, increasingly aping themselves as youngsters, orchestrating ridiculously simplistic tunes lacking any kind of artistic value.
One of the most memorable parts of Rock Til You Drop is Strausbaugh's account of the rise and fall of Rolling Stone magazine. The author shows how founder Jann Wenner masterminded the first large "Rock" periodical of the sixties. Incorporating Hunter S. Thompson's unique political writing with a knack for the zeitgeist of twentysomething hipsters, Rolling Stone, Strausbaugh argues, was initially a revolutionary idea. As the publisher grew up, becoming more and more concerned with making money than creating culture, the magazine declined in quality with the occasional late flashes of brilliance by political commentators such as William Greider. However, despite the presence of such voices in the magazine, Rolling Stone continued its devolution into its highly irrelevant and egregious current state, replete with cover stories on Limp Bizkit and military recruiting advertisements.
Finally, Rock takes on the "fascist hippies" I invoked earlier. Ben & Jerrys was able to make people feel even better about eating gourmet ice cream than the experience itself because it promoted an ethos of social responsibility through the consumption of their products. As the company grew however, Strausbaugh shows some of the contradictions inherent in Ben and Jerrys marketing ideology. Donating leftover ice cream to local Vermont pig farmers resulted in pigs dying young from arteriosclerosis. Exposure of the company's attempt to cover up the debacle compounded the damage. Rainforest Crunch was conceived as a flavor that would use Brazil Nuts sustainably harvested by downtrodden Amazon rainforest natives. Eventually the demand was so huge that the company obtained its supply from large multinational agribusinesses who began to buy out the land from small scale farmers.
Rock Til You Drop's bitter insights wouldn't be so thoroughly upsetting if it were not for the fact that Strausbaugh's conclusions were not restricted to boomer culture. Indeed, this is where the criticism of aging rock stars like the Rolling Stones really shines through. Though this book is largely focused on a particular reading of the nineteen sixties, its lesson about rebellion's surplus value is something that "hipsters" of every generation can learn from.
Rock Til You Drop is available from Verso