To Be Entertained, Or To Be Inspired?

Very interesting BBC piece on Robert Plant’s refusal to re-form Led Zeppelin to enrich himself and his ex-bandmates at the expense of a rabid fan base. (He was the lead singer, for those of you who don’t listen to Stone Age rock or who are church music-only geeks.)

I could imagine rock nostalgia tours raking in lots of money with today’s ticket prices. And I’m sure the musicianship and presentation is fine. My wife has a dvd of one of Eagles’ farewell tours. She thinks their vocal chops are better today than yesterday. Me, I think losing Randy Meisner smooths out the sound and drops the twang. Some of the new musicians are fine. The new guitarist nails most of Don Felder’s work. Maybe a little too note-for-note. And after I heard their new cd, I was actually glad they stuck to the traditional–new Eagles material is definitely a cut below the classic stuff.

I wonder why. Is good rock music essentially at odds with success? Bands like the Rolling Stones rake in nine-figure grosses on tours, so I’m sure they dictate playing conditions like they didn’t half-a-century ago. They take their time snaking through a few cities in a few days, rather than playing 300 gigs a year.

Back to Robert Plant. He certainly doesn’t need his ex-bandmates to create good music in his pre-retirement career. Indeed, his work with Alison Krauss and T-Bone Burnett was more than a pleasant find; it was exceptional and fresh.

BBC Culture writer Greg Kot muses:

Part of his response suggests that it would be difficult to do anything Zep-related on his terms; that is, to create and perform new music rather than rely on rehashing the past. Even if Plant, Page and Jones reunited to make a new album, would fans want to hear them play it in concert at the expense of Whole Lotta Love and Stairway to Heaven?

Let me give you a long-winded answer to that question.

When my wife pulls out Farewell I, I sometimes pull out my guitar and jam with “her boys.” There are no surprises with musical nostalgia. The notes are perfect and predictable. The experience is not-bad and occasionally slides into quietly pleasurable. For people in their fifties, maybe that’s all some of us want to handle on some nights.

And for Eagles, if I had sparse new material that matched up to the 70’s, I’d likely stick with what got me there, too.

Mr Plant seems to have a continuing stream of inspiration. So if he’s bucking the trend and keeping artistically happy, more power to him.

Would I be happy leaving nostalgia to the tribute bands? When I caught Beatlemania in ’79, I was entertained. I think that was largely true of my rock concert experience in 1978-83. These days, I find myself looking for a different level of existence at a music concert. Whether I attend a recital of a student friend, or a classical or jazz performance, I want to be inspired. I often find it, though in two different ways.

One cover experience I did find inspiring was Ann and Nancy Wilson’s cover of “Stairway to Heaven.” I suppose if rock goddesses were doing the tributes, that’s a big, big leg up on Paul McCartney lookalikes. Still, that performance had surprises. When I saw Heart in 1979, they did a Zep cover, so I would wager these women know the material inside and out.

I wonder if personal inspiration is more Robert Plant’s approach. I could feel sated watching  a classic band perform classic songs. But I might classify it more as entertainment than music.

When a true artist is at the top of it, entertainment is part of the picture, sure. But I also detect something luminous when I experience true artists creating original and impassioned work. Robert Plant is supposed to have said a Zep reunion would be like sleeping with your ex-wife without the sex. Even though I haven’t experienced rock stardom or divorce or trashed hotel rooms, I think I see where he’s coming from on that point.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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