Friday is Halloween, when ghosts return and make us feel something stronger than we usually do, and the eerie fear of being haunted is still a welcome variation from our mundane lives. But America does have a spiritual righteous indignation about her, it’s just weird and has some innovations in theology that make us struggle to grok how religious it really is. “American Creed” is a phrase thrown around by high brow historians and powered by some “Soul of America” which is so compelling Jon Meacham can sell a book titled that, even if his writing is the opposite of the moralist stands necessary to believe in a creed. These historians don’t take the metaphor too far, and are never willing to use words like “pantheon” or “demi-god” which would just make sense. America may be born out of a fever for rationality, but our moralistic confidence for thousands of years before us was always religious. But to the anarchist theologian who wants to kill God, your purpose was served so long ago that Nietzsche writing about it’s death centuries before him is itself so old that “God is dead, we have killed him” is as rhetorically malleable as the Bible now.
But the highbrows who made this “American Creed” idea so popular place too archaic criteria for who prophets are. The foundation of the pantheon is Washington, Hamilton, Madison, and Jefferson, but they are hardly the end of it. These highbrows struggle to recognize who has been redefining it since the 1880s, and the decline in it’s “purity” since then is due to blind spots in who is seen as able to preach it. They see Franklin Roosevelt or John Kennedy as the last manifestation of it, because our political figures no longer push the Creed’s development, they draw on the innovators, who in the 20th century became the musicians and writers who make us really think.
Today the priests of the American Creed aren’t easily categorized, drawing from so many venues that the individuals have to be viewed rather than the groups. The last stage before this further democratization of the gospel, the last time a certain class had an advantage in being heard, was the titanic rock stars. Their decline was slow and painful, and Josh Homme’s attempt to resurrect it feels blind to the reasons we fawned over them. But it is a good creed and a good variation on it, and as apathy and disillusionment sets in again, they might be some mold we can use, and chronicling their decline may illuminate why it is shown to be authoritarian today.
Rock stars were larger than life. Their iconography multiplied whatever passions society felt. 50s stars like Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe couldn’t command the power 60s and 70s stars did if only because the 50s was not gripped with revolution like what it led to. Even Elvis and The Beatles on Ed Sullivan, while overwhelming, didn’t bring about the seismic power of cultural shifts that would follow. The Beatles, The Stones, and Dylan, each powerful figures just before the chaos, tap into those rising passions in the mid 60s, and the movement from Hard Day’s Night and Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan into The White Album and Highway 61 Revisited. Their specific innovations have been exaggerated, most evident when people dub “Subterranean Homesick Blues” the “first rap song” like Chuck Berry hadn’t already had a hit with that vocal style which had been performed on streets and in prisons decades before him, but they truly did open doors everyone since has needed open. The first rock stars so unquestionably powerful I have to call them part of the pantheon, they are far from the end of it. By 1975 none will still be movers and shakers in culture, but their successors are in debt to them for breaking that mold.
America is a nation birthed out of an Enlightenment fear of such intangible types of power. Mick Jagger’s throne always rested on the hearts and minds of his followers, a Divine Right that is so reliant on the Mandate of Heaven many rock stars didn’t notice when they lost it. In this nation whose creed features an unprecedented willingness to move on those rock stars never could have grown old and kept power, and I admire those who knew that and accepted it.
All this is to say rock is dead and we have killed it. Classic Rock’s descent into being the cultural gatekeeping it defied was led by those who never really got what it was trying to say. The personnel behind the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame demonstrate this. It was conceived as a crowning achievement of a cultural phenomenon that had finally reached its goal of becoming accepted, a goal not wholly retrofitted onto it, but celebrates the least meaningful goal of the movement. Founded by Ahmet Ertegun, who I do have a love for but was an aristocrat who got into jazz and became the financier of a movement he never understood, the people assigned to it’s creation were those who had always disliked rebels after Bob Dylan’s Electric World Tour.
Jann Wenner had always been the translator of the counterculture as Rolling Stone had always been its true gateway drug, more than actual drugs. He fell off this tightrope in the late 70s and his lifestyle was a great way to deny it. Dave Marsh is a good biographer and makes his stories compelling, but after The Who hit it big, he disliked any music that went further with it. Jon Landau was so bad at being counterculture that he ruined MC5 trying to produce the follow up to Kick Out The Jams, and spent the rest of his career relishing in artists who reminded him of rockabilly. All this added up to the Hall of Fame being the final nail in the coffin rock was already in.
The Hall of Fame was founded in 1983 though, by which point rock was moldering in its grave. Power had corrupted it’s ideals and those who kept with them got quieter. Arguing when exactly it died gets stupid for the same reasons arguing when it was born is stupid, since any music connecting Elvis Presley and David Bowie clearly has too abstract a definition to pin down. However I struggle to consider anything but Tom Petty’s first three albums as the last hurrah of rock, the Irish wake celebrating what it had done. Damn The Torpedoes perfected that, pulling together some piece of everything rock had been since Chuck Berry into a romp, but the obnoxiously iconic hit off the first album is truly the eulogy for this funeral. Cause we were the American Girl raised on promises. We believed there was more to life somewhere else, we’d die trying for one little promise we were gonna keep. But 50 years later he creeps back into our memory, and God it’s so painful when something that’s so close is still so far out of reach.
Oh yeah. Alright. Take it easy baby. Make it last all night. Cause we are all the American Girl.
Elizabeth von Teig is a musician and author living in Brighton, Massachusetts. Her expertise is classic rock, folk punk, and the blues.