By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 14, 2005
David Zeke -- inquisitive, artistic, analytical and vastly smarter than your average high school senior -- is failing to find the irony here. So he adores the aged song that's exploding from the speakers connected to his desktop computer. So what?
"It's just really good music," the 17-year-old from Vienna says with a shrug. This, as the snarling vocals come barreling out of the time-warp machine: "I'm not trying to cause a b-big s-s-sensation (Talkin' 'bout my generation)/I'm just talkin' 'bout my g-g-generation (Talkin' 'bout my generation)!"
It's the Who's landmark youth anthem "My Generation," recorded 40 years ago for a generation that has since turned gray, with adultly concerns and everything else that the song's author, Pete Townshend, seemed to fear when he made that famous 1965 declaration, "Hope I die before I get old."
Townshend was in his mid-forties when Zeke was born. The song itself already had reached the legal drinking age.
And yet, it's Zeke's music now. His buddies', too, as classic rock has become their idiom of choice.
Although reliable numbers are hard to come by, there are indications that Zeke and his pals may be part of a broader trend -- that "Light My Fire," "Satisfaction," "Hey Jude" and the rest of the classic-rock canon may be growing in popularity among teenagers who would otherwise be fawning over Franz Ferdinand, Bright Eyes and Kanye West.
The time-honored adolescent tradition of shaping an identity via music and fashion may well be leading an increasing number of kids to Woodstock and Winterland -- not to mention Target, Urban Outfitters and JCPenney, where vintage classic-rock tees are selling in large quantities, according to spokeswomen from the three retailers.
"The kids are discovering the old music as their own way of being unique," says Mike Engstrom, an executive at Rhino Records, which reissues and repackages oldies music. "It's a personal definition."
Meet the new rock, same as the old rock. (But not the old soul, alas, as the trend -- if it can be called that -- doesn't extend to classic R&B. Even if old songs are frequently recast and recycled by contemporary hip-hop and soul artists, currency remains king in black pop, which long ago replaced rock-and-roll as the primary music of youth culture.)
"I love classic rock," Zeke says. Never mind that it's his parents' music -- and that, in general, teenagers living at home have always had a gag reflex when it comes to the culturalstuffs that bear the Ma and Pa Seal of Approval.
While rock fans have customarily undergone something of an archaeological period, it's generally happened after going to college and/or moving out of the house, when generational differences begin to matter less. But the baby boomer soundtrack of the '60s and '70s has somehow stage-dived over the generation gap and is resonating with Zeke and other kids just like him.
Okay, maybe not just like him, given his extreme and proudly admitted level of classic-rock obsession, which has manifested itself thus: Zeke's instant-messaging screen name is "LedZeppelin" followed by four digits, and he's thinking about downloading Iron Butterfly's "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" as his cell phone ringtone -- if only he can peel himself away from the copy of Bob Dylan's memoir, "Chronicles: Vol. 1," that he's absorbing.
His home computer, the one with the John Lennon pop-art image as the background screen, is brimming with thousands of carefully catalogued classic-rock songs, including every Pink Floyd album, plus the solo projects. "I have more songs than you'll ever hear on the Arrow," Zeke boasts, referring to Washington's classic-rock radio station WARW-FM (94.7).
Last year, as a junior at the brain factory that is Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Zeke and his friend Bryce Basques formalized their shared love of "Comfortably Numb" and "Whole Lotta Love" and "25 or 6 to 4" by starting the Classic Rock Appreciation Society.
The group meets every Friday, except during those weeks when paunchy, balding rock stars spring to life from the pages of the liner notes and stop by for visits: Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson, in the area last month for a gig, came to the campus for a midweek chat about "one of the most awesomest bands of all time" (per Basques) and the meaning of "Aqualung."
"What's next, Emerson, Lake and Palmer?" sneers Charles R. Cross, author of several noted rock biographies, including the new "Room Full of Mirrors: A Biography of Jimi Hendrix." He adds: "But maybe the ultimate offense -- the new, best way to offend your parents -- is to listen to the music they were embarrassed to listen to. Like Jethro Tull. When it's Hendrix or the Beatles or the Stones or the Who or Zeppelin, no parent is embarrassed that their kid likes that stuff."
After Anderson's chat and a brief, decidedly un -rock-and-roll flute recital, for instance, the Tull frontman was mobbed by wide-eyed students, many of them holding Tull CDs and cassettes and decades-old vinyl LPs. And no, the students insisted, they were not getting the autographs for their folks.
"I'm a classic-rock guy," says John Jaskot, a 16-year-old Zeppelin-shirt-wearing junior whose CD copy of "Aqualung" bore Anderson's loopy signature. "It all started in sixth grade, when my sister played 'Bohemian Rhapsody' [by Queen] for me, and I was like: Whoa! I started going through my dad's CDs. Now I listen to Tull with him. My whole family does -- including my brother, who's 6."
From there, though, they split, what with Pops having betrayed his classic-rock roots. "There was a time when our interests were perfectly aligned," John says, "but he's into country now." Pshaw!
Says Cross: "Rarely do kids ever want to admit that their parents are right about anything. So it's really surprising that kids are discovering this music as teenagers."Cool Again
Jurassic-rock concerts, for instance, are becoming ever more populated by folks who weren't alive when the bands really mattered.
And radio stations that play "-rock" prefixed by blues, prog, psychedelic, folk, hard, Southern, acid, country, etc., are recording upticks in young listenership: The percentage of 12-to-17-year-olds listening to classic rock stations increased from 2 percent in the summer of 1999 to 2.4 percent during the same period this year, according to Arbitron, which gathers ratio ratings across the country. While that might not seem like a huge jump, an Arbitron spokesman says that 2.4 percent represents the format's highest level of teen listenership since the fall of 1998, the first period for which data is readily available.
"We've surpassed the level we ever thought we could get to in the ratings, and that's primarily due to younger people making this their music," says Bob Buchmann, program director for the New York classic-rocker WAXQ-FM (104.3). The whole thing happened swiftly, he says. "Five years ago, it wasn't cool for kids to listen to their parents' music. But now all of a sudden, it is."
Says Max Dugan, program director at the Arrow: "It's really come to a head in the last three years or 24 months." He adds: "We're getting all these calls and e-mails, with stuff like, 'I heard a great song today; it started with a guitar and ended with piano and there was something about "Layla." Who is that and how do I download it for free?' " (For the 46 readers who don't know, it's a 1970 song by Derek & the Dominos, featuring Eric Clapton. But please consult your family attorney before pursuing an illegally downloaded copy.)
And the digital data are out there, too. Sort of.
Neither AOL Music, iTunes nor Rhapsody could provide any sort of meaningful demographic information about who exactly has been downloading "Back in Black," "Purple Haze" and "Behind Blue Eyes." But Yahoo Music, which claims more than 20 million users monthly, reports that teenagers, the majority of them male, make up about a third of the "active audience" that's listening to and reading about core classic-rock acts like AC/DC, Hendrix and the Who.
Yahoo cannot provide any historical context to show whether this share has or hasn't grown over the past five years. And online music consumers are generally young, anyway. But still, says Jay Frank, a Yahoo Music executive: One-third is hardly an insignificant fraction.
"When some of these [older] artists show teens reacting at rates of 30 percent or greater, it's quite out of the ordinary," he says.
Consider that teens make up only about 10 to 15 percent of the active audience for popular adult contemporary artists such as Michael Buble and Seal. "They're really responding to the cream of the crop in classic rock," says Frank. (While that cream may include Cream, it doesn't necessarily include the Beatles: The band's catalogue still isn't licensed to any of the digital music services.)
None of this is to say that classic rock is on the verge of overtaking rap or modern alternative music in popularity among teenagers. Not even close. In fact, according to NPD Group, a market research firm, classic rock accounted for between just 1 and 2 percent of CD sales among 13- to 17-year-olds last year. Comparatively, rap and alternative-rock CDs made up a combined 34 percent of teen purchases.
"And they're buying twice as much country as classic rock," says Russ Crupnick, president of NPD's music and movies division. Even sales of religious CDs, at 4 percent, lap classic rock.
But purchasing patterns don't tell the whole story. For one thing, many kids already have classic-rock libraries at home. Basques, the co-president of the Classic Rock Appreciation Society, spent considerable time recently exploring his parents' vinyl collection, which he liberated from a basement storage room -- everything from "Frampton Comes Alive" to "Led Zeppelin II."
And, Crupnick says: "Somebody who's a little bit older, like me, wants to own every Led Zeppelin album. But a teenager might just want 'Stairway to Heaven.' And they can get that off iTunes."The Tests of Time
Digital downloading, legal and otherwise, is among the keys to classic rock's resurgence, as the oldies are now a mere mouse-click away.
The recent resurgence of guitar rock has also helped, as young music fans who like the White Stripes might be compelled to check out the band's most obvious influences, such as Led Zeppelin -- in basically the same way their parents might have discovered Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry via the Rolling Stones.
There's also this: The ever-impatient and hyper-consolidated music industry doesn't appear to be developing significant, sustainable mass-appeal artists the way it once did. Corporate radio's ever-shrinking playlist and MTV's wandering eye haven't helped.
"This music is countercultural again," says John McDermott, catalogue manager for the Hendrix estate. "Kids don't think it's their parents' music; they just view it as cool music that's not sold to them by MTV. And it's not nostalgic, like something out of the '50s. It's still fresh. Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix and the Doors -- they're generation-free to these kids."
Says rock historian Dave Marsh: "These kids are looking for something that directly relates to their kind of life but that they don't perceive as being available to them in today's music. It's become increasingly hard to disagree. Who are they going to listen to, the White Stripes? The White Stripes don't provide that. If the merchants of mass marketing in the record business have a function, it must be to help create a vital mass culture in music. And it seems to me that they've failed. And they've failed badly."
And now for the dissenting view, from Ahmet Ertegun, founding chairman of Atlantic Records, the lifelong home of Led Zeppelin. He acknowledges -- and even applauds -- a time-warp trend in rock. But Ertegun also says: "It always looks like the current crop isn't up to the masters of the past. However, sometimes what we overlook in the current crop may emerge as masters of tomorrow. In their prime, Led Zeppelin was not considered a serious band by rock critics. The rock critics generally put them down as a passing fancy. It took time to realize that the music was of lasting value." In other words: Maybe the Atlantic act Death Cab for Cutie really is a neo-master. (But maybe, and probably not.)
"The music industry has turned into a factory that's just churning out stuff," says Zeke, who's dismissive of most of the current crop. Some of it's okay, he says, citing Bright Eyes and Wilco. He has Rage Against the Machine and Red Hot Chili Peppers posters on his bedroom wall, and Interpol and Yo La Tengo on his computer.
But the rest of it? Feh.
Emo? Lame-o! "We make fun of our friends who listen to that," Zeke says of bands like Dashboard Confessional and early-model Jimmy Eat World.
Says John Sigman, a 17-year-old senior from McLean who serves as the classic rock club's veep: "It's just good music."Banding Together
Zeke, Basques and Sigman are in a band together. Zeke plays the bass; the two others are guitarists. The group has performed at school, and a particular highlight, apparently, was a 20-minute version of "Freebird" built around a verse, a chorus and three decades' worth of solos.
They're called the Johnson Logging Company. Or not. "We don't really have a name," Sigman says.
They also don't have a mutually agreeable artistic direction.
"Everyone likes classic rock," Zeke says. "But we're all in different corners of it."
They do agree on this: The band Chicago rules. The three students have even gone to a Chicago concert together.
Also, Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon" is AWE-some . And yes, they know all about the kooky things that happen when you begin playing that album as the MGM lion roars for the third time in the opening credits of "The Wizard of Oz." (Like, you know, how the Floyd lyric "look around" presages Dorothy doing just that. And how she checks the Tin Man's heart as "Dark Side" ends with the sound of a heartbeat.)
The Classic Rock Appreciation Society did the whole Dark Side of Oz thing at a meeting once. Indeed, Pink Floyd seems to have become the focal point of the club -- so much so that a school administrator recently needled Zeke and Basques about the need to branch out. (The club's sponsor, English teacher Emmet Rosenfeld, holds no sway over the student society. Not that he minds the direction: "I'm like, 'Hey, we used to watch Pink Floyd videos in high school!' But not actually in school.")
When the club was founded at the start of the 2004-05 school year, hopes weren't particularly high. "We didn't think anybody would show up," Zeke says.
The first meeting, though, was packed, as 40 students rocked out to a Zeppelin DVD, and the club has been a hit ever since. On a recent, rainy Friday, when even more Floyd was played, Room 222 (for real) was just about standing-room-only, with about two girls and 36 boys sitting in for the session.
"We're not the minority," Zeke says.The Kids Are Alright
And don't think that the brains behind the old bands don't know it.
"The kids have been coming to this music over the last couple-few years," says Jeff Jampol, manager of the classic-rock band the Doors. "They're discovering it, and they're finding the bands interesting and relevant again."
And, Jampol says, he's doing his part: Mindful of the fact that "Light My Fire," "L.A. Woman" and such "have been exposed to basically the same audience for 38 years, and there's this huge, swelling group that doesn't know the band and the music," Jampol and the band's surviving members began making a youth push a couple of years ago, niche-marketing the Doors through media that might attract young culture consumers.
"Break On Through (to the Other Side)" was featured in the video game Tony Hawk's Underground 2. A remake of "Riders on the Storm," on which Snoop Dogg added his laconic, singsongy raps to Jim Morrison's vocals, was featured in another game. A "Peace Frog" remix was used in promotional spots for ESPN's X Games. The rappers Jay-Z and Mos Def were given clearance to sample the band's music, and various TV shows used it as well.
"It's working, because we're seeing all these new Web sites go up," Jampol says. "We're seeing enrollment on our message boards skyrocket." The manager -- who says the surviving band members "are excited and happy to get that artistic validation again" -- estimates that about 2 million Doors albums will be sold this year. And forget what the sales research might show, he says: "It's not just the old Doors fans buying the stuff."
But it's not Zeke, either.
He's already gone through his Doors phase. Even read a biography about Morrison, the band's charismatic singer, who died in 1971.
The serious kid with the serious classic-rock jones has since moved on to more important things. Like finding a way around the rule against playing R-rated videos during his club's meetings. After all, he says, there's a very important classic-rock film he really wants to show: "This Is Spinal Tap."