By the time rock journalist Steven Hyden was born, in 1977, the Beatles had been broken up nearly as long as they’d been together. The Rolling Stones were in Paris recording “Some Girls,” the band’s last essential LP. The Who and Led Zeppelin would soon lose their drummers to pills and booze and would stop recording new music by the time Hyden was old enough to buy it for himself.
And yet Classic Rock, like The Dude, abides.
That’s the big question driving “Twilight of the Gods,” Hyden’s fleet-footed quest to understand the fascination — his and ours — with the boomer heroes who still hold an outsized place in the culture even as they’re once again dying like it’s 1969. While his first book, “Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me,” examined petty but humanizing rivalries among music stars, this follow-up investigates our compulsion to gaze upon these figures as gods.
“Of course, those people weren’t gods at all,” Hyden writes, “but rather mortals who would grow old, make comeback records with Don Was and/or Jeff Lynne, and take money from beer companies for their overpriced, nostalgia-driven concert tours.” But if we can will ourselves to see the limber, virile, long-ago iterations of these bands in their latter-day selves — the way Hyden describes having done at a 2012 concert by the Who — what sort of veneration will we grant them in, say, the 2030s, once they really are all dead?
It’s a question fans with drawers full of faded concert tees and hard drives full of bootlegs will find irresistible, which is to say, unavoidable. Because even the mighty crowd-surfing, knee-sliding, curfew-busting Bruce Springsteen (b. 1949) is statistically likely to kick the sweaty, all-American bucket eventually.
In a book that’s structured like a double LP — 19 “tracks,” or chapters, apportioned over four “sides,” Hyden dissects the traditions and punctures the myths of rock fandom (and rock criticism) with a specificity that can only be called love. He’s like a kinder, married-with-children version of Rob, the record-shop proprietor who narrates Nick Hornby’s “High Fidelity.” Or rather, Rob wishes he’d grown up to be Steven Hyden.
Hyden considers the radio-format-driven creation of Classic Rock as a genre, identifying its Alpha (“Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” 1967) and its Omega (Nine Inch Nails’s “The Fragile,” 1999). And he has so much fun chewing over the question of what will become of this genre that it almost comes as a surprise when he gets around to a few speculative answers. “When you can’t actually view Mick Jagger or Ozzy Osbourne or Neil Young in the flesh, loving classic rock will require a process of animation not unlike a religious ritual,” he says. “Also: holograms.”
The Stooges’ “Raw Power,” to use Hyden’s example, will never be Classic Rock, no matter how many experts proclaim that 45-year-old rock album a classic. REO Speedwagon’s “Hi Infidelity,” meanwhile, is Classic Rock through and through, though aesthetes like Hyden will object should you proclaim it a classic. That’s your mom’s music, Hyden explains — or rather, his mom’s music.
After his parents split up, Hyden’s mother favored the syrupy-but-grounded balladry of REO Speedwagon’s 1980 blockbuster over, say, Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours,” the more venomous 1977 breakup album that Hyden’s dad played in the car on their weekend visitations. This section, wherein the author extrapolates his parents’ emotional states in his seminal years based on the music they liked is the book’s most moving. At least until he returns in the late chapters to Springsteen and discusses how the Boss’s candid 2016 memoir “Born to Run” (now a sold-out Broadway show!) has affected him as a father.
Mercifully, Hyden’s affection for vinyl and rock documentaries does not mean he’s a cultural reactionary. “The old classic-rock myth about the white-male superman who pursues truth via decadence and virtuosic displays of musicianship has run its course,” he writes. “The time has come for new legends about different kinds of heroes.” He even nominates a few, such as Australian singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett, transgender musician Laura Jane Grace and recent Pulitzer Prize-winner Kendrick Lamar.
The crumbling of the monoculture means that you probably won’t ever have to squint to make out any of these artists from the other side of a football stadium, but that’s a good thing. Hyden’s warm and witty scholarship is, too.
Chris Klimek is an editor with Air & Space/Smithsonian magazine and a freelance critic.
By Steven Hyden
Dey Street. 305 pp. $25.99