"I don't like old people on a rock 'n' roll stage. What you're pretty much doing is imitating yourself at the age of 25, and there's basically nothing more pathetic." -- Grace Slick
Finally found people even touchier than Islamic fanatics: Led Zeppelin fanatics.
No kidding. I say this after receiving a pretty heavy mailbag on my recent column about the Zep reunion concert in London. It was the "worst" column, a work of "concentrated stupidity," I must have been "stoned" to have written it, my work should be "boycotted." ("Carry your (boycott West) signs on to the streets, hang them in windows and pin them up in your work place cubicle," commented one free-speech enthusiast at the conservative Web site townhall.com.)
You see, I had dared to go for a few laughs at the expense of aging (aged) rockers and their aging (aged) fans, most of whom believe you're just not living if you're not 14, or acting like it. And not only is my anti-establishment, alternative point of view verboten, there is also nothing funny about the aging (aged) concert scene, what with Led Zeppelin settling into its set, as one account reported, as "grown men in the mostly middle-aged and male audience began playing air guitar."
Nothing funny, that is, if you happen to be a middle-aged male who plays air guitar. I heard from several such air musicians, including the one who reminded me that "the Founding Fathers fought for our freedom to play air guitar at 50."
So no jokes.
That said, there remains the more serious punch line pertaining to the phenomenon I like to call "the death of the grown-up." In fact, as some readers know, I have even written a book by the same title devoted to exploring how and why we came to a place in the progression of the species where, quite suddenly, adolescence is no longer a phase to pass through, but, in many ways, the endpoint -- the culmination -- of our emotional and aesthetic development (and why this threatens our liberty).
A "heritage rock event" such as Led Zeppelin's onstage reunion is a good place to assess the phenomenon. Here, the erstwhile don't-trust-anyone-over-30 set gathers to retool its creed for its Golden Years: Don't trust anyone who acts over 30 -- or worse, imagines there is something amiss in the pretense.
For pretense is the name of this game. As Zep fans explained to me, they have substantive jobs, they pay taxes, they hold marriages together, they raise kids. Nothing "adolescent" about such lives of responsibility and care -- nothing, that is, except their own deeply ingrained, metaphysical aversion to seeing themselves as ... adults; as the very backbone of a hidebound "Establishment"; as, in the words of a 40ish attorney who reverently reviewed the Zep concert for The Washington Post, a bunch of "corporate stiffs."
What is ironic is that the rock 'n' roll soundtrack to which these 21st-century Babbitts live their lives came into existence as the martial music of a youth revolution to overturn the Establishment; to denigrate corporate stiffs; to smash monogamy and push promiscuity; and to mark middle-class duty, whether civilian or military, as a chump's game.
So what's it all about? According to my reader comments, there's only one alternative to Led Zeppelin et al: Death by "muzak." There's only one alternative to Robert Plant: Barry Manilow. There's only one alternative to rocking out: Being "a robot."
What a choice. But such is the truncated range of human possibility as whittled down in our post-grown-up era by the forces of Hollywood, the music biz and Madison Avenue. They have convinced us to see ourselves as either wild or boring; cool or uncool; unzipped or straitlaced; at least secretly licentious or just plain dull. Give me Zep or give me death! As one 48-year-old Zep fan commented: "I'm about as conservative as they come, but conservative doesn't translate to `Fuddy Duddy'!"
Oh yeah? A great irony here is that there is nothing more conventional -- dare I say corny? -- than, after all these post-adolescent decades, still running with the Zep-loving, air-guitar-playing masses. Mavericks by the tens of thousands, they now conform to the pose of the rebel just as Babbitt once conformed to role of civic booster. In other words, the Babbittry still exists, all right; but today's Babbitts simply pretend it doesn't. Sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll rules, dude -- even in the "work place cubicle" where my columns are now boycotted.