Late this past July, I reminded my dad that there was an extremely significant event on the horizon. Yes, it was exactly what you might guess: I had procured tickets to witness the triumphant return of Meat Loaf to the Theatre at Madison Square Garden. I first heard Meat Loaf at a music workshop and was immediately hooked. His music had all the epic qualities that I felt were often lacking in mainstream music. The keyboard was terrifying yet sweet, the guitar was the narrative of a story that was both ordinary and spectacular.
Meat Loaf’s golden years have certainly passed. He has lost weight and the overwhelming vocal strength that marks his original records. Still, each pair of eyes was glued on his sparkly black pants, ill-fitting cape, and for the purpose of “Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” a long wig. Looking around at the sea of captivated faces, I wondered what was it about this aging, asthmatic performer that held such value to me and to the rest of the audience
A month later, my family set out again on a historical quest to see the Police at Giants Stadium. Once we made it into the stadium (after much shuffling, re-packing, and re-parking,) we were inundated by excited voices flying through the air: “I saw them in ‘80, ‘82, ‘94, 2000…they’re amazing;” and lots of, “I drove 19 hours to be here from … !” The crowd was certainly diverse.
I saw couples that must have been in their 30s when the Police were created in 1977. There were also groups of hipsters and lots of families like mine, a few introducing their youngest to some of rock n’ roll’s greats.
Compared to Meat Loaf’s exciting but somewhat enfeebled performance, the Police were in top form. From beginning to end, the music was classic and innovative; it captured that illusive capacity to transport you into the past. Most notable was a fantastic rendition of “King of Pain,” that included a whole range of chimes and a gong, a “Walking in Your Footsteps,” complete with fossil shaped lighting effects, and a perfectly bellowed “Synchronicity II”. The real man of the hour was drummer, Stewart Copeland. His rhythms and versatility totally transformed the more ubiquitous Police songs.
At the end of the show, while I was considering the groupie life, this same query popped into my head: What drove us to love these musicians? 55 thousand people, both young and old, hauled their cars out to the Meadowlands to see three old men play songs that were mostly recorded decades ago. Why do I own three Allman Brothers shirts? Why does Meat Loaf’s “Bat out of Hell,” make me my heart ache a bit when I have never stood at the “gates of heaven,” nor will ever own a phantom bike? There must be something so unique about the rock n’ toll of the seventies.
Two years ago, my dad and I went out to see his favorite band, the Who. The audience was split down the middle, equal portions of sons and fathers (and a few daughters). The same feeling permeated the room, a strange ambiguity that led more than a few people to believe it was 1967 again, and that the possibly arthritic Pete Townshend was going to slam his guitar down on the stage with a deafening roar. He didn’t, and we remained, in the end, sad citizens of the 21st century.
These aging monoliths keep playing, big names arriving from the past. They step out of limousines and badly painted vans, toting dangerous pyrotechnics, what are now considered soberly dressed backup singers, and, of course, the music that has inspired generation after generation. So what is it? Why are John Fogerty, the Rolling Stones, and Tom Petty such vigorous musical forces? Their music has preserved an astounding vitality.
For my own part, this music is a form of escapism. I love rock n’ toll, those epic guitar solos, keyboard crescendos, and thrashing drums, because they remind me that there was a time when the banal and commonplace were extraordinary. The “rock stars” of today are as distant from us as possible. Their allure emanates from the sheer impossibility of their lifestyle, the ridiculous and outlandish.
I always return to “Paradise by the Dashboard Light.” Only rock n’ roll could turn a story about getting lucky in the back of truck into a splendid, nearly Grecian tragedy of loss of innocence and the fallacies of true love. The noise and unabashed intensity of the instrumentation within 70s rock turned what could just have easily been silly 60s pop songs into ballads that awakened the world to the significance of their own daily lives. In rock n’ roll, the girl you dance with at a party could be a Madonna; one drunken night might lead to enlightenment. How nice to believe, even for only two hours in New Jersey, that the little things have meaning again.