If you live in Los Angeles, Coachella isn’t just an annual three-day-music festival in the desert, it’s an event you prepare for all year. It’s the kind of thing you need to buy silly bohemian chic clothes in advance of, and detox for, and do yoga for, and steam your labia for, and stock up on drugs for, and so on and so on. Coachella is such a big deal out here that even people who don’t go get to experience some of the joy the festival brings being that, for two full weekends, it empties all the hipster douchebags and vacuous “Young Hollywood” celebutards out of L.A. and makes going out around town downright enjoyable. The places that are typically overflowing with these kinds of people get to be appreciated minus the crowds and the general pretension. Coachella hasn’t really been about the music for years. Sure, it’s a big deal when they announce the line-up, but to be honest a lousy bunch of bands is hardly a deterrent to the hardcore Coachella contingent, the people who treat the event foremost as a place to see and be seen on Instagram. The organizers could book Susan Boyle and Barenaked Ladies and Kendall Jenner would still be there dressed in something deeply stupid.
It was really only a few weeks ago that Coachella wrapped up for this year, trotting out a reunited Guns N’ Roses, now featuring not the lean, mean Axl Rose of 1988 but the bloated, botoxed, broken-footed Axl Rose of 2016. I already went into some detail about my thoughts on the necessity of a GNR reunion — spoiler: there was none — but one point I left out of that lengthy piece was what the return of the one-time biggest rock band in the world says about the tragic state of rock-and-roll today. I can’t even begin to tell you what it feels like to see the giant GNR logo towering over Sunset Blvd. Where Guns N’ Roses were once the scrappy, sleazy upstarts that set the Strip on fire, their return is now “important” enough that it merits the entire side of a building painted black and adorned with the familiar golden circle featuring two pistols and a string of flowers. GNR’s return to L.A., as heralded by this giant signifier, feels less like an exciting homecoming and more like an oppressive symbol of how desperately Sunset has needed a GNR return to pop culture. For so long the Strip was the center of the rock-and-roll universe, but that began to die right around the time Seattle pushed L.A. aside and now it’s almost impossible to imagine the anarchic, hyper-masculine rock of decades ago ever returning to prominence — along the Strip or anywhere else.
Rock, you see, is pretty much dead. This isn’t to say that there aren’t still bands out there playing rock-and-roll to decent-sized audiences. It’s simply that rock as a kind of music and a way of life — three chords and the truth — no longer holds a place of preeminence within our culture. What was the rebellious spirit of rock and the mythological canon of the bands and artists who performed it has morphed into something painfully banal, easily accessible, thoroughly inoffensive and not the least bit dangerous. The very fact that GNR’s return was such a big deal merely proves the point that our culture is now starved for rock-and-roll, or maybe a better way to put it is that it simply doesn’t hunger for it anymore. There will always be those who miss the sound and fury, but they’re aging out and for whatever reason a new generation of kids simply feels no need to rebel, or feel angry, or seek out solidarity in the confusion of youth, and so they eschew the kind of music that’s traditionally provided sonic solace. Most pop music now, even “alt-rock,” either revels in the joys of youth or at best manufactures prepackaged melodrama where none is necessary. I realize I sound like an old guy bemoaning “kids these days,” but the overall sound and spirit of youth-oriented popular music truly has changed because the youth itself — its concerns and emotions as it confronts the world — truly has changed. Pop, EDM and hip-hop reign now. Rock is your dad’s thing.
Nowhere will this reality be made more abundantly clear than at an upcoming festival that promises to be the ultimate rock-and-roll concert. If you haven’t heard a lot of hype about this thing right now, well, you’re probably below retirement age. It’s called “Desert Trip,” likely in a bid to once again remind aging Boomers of the glorious hallucinations of their youth, and it features a line-up of rock-and-roll greats that is admittedly unmatched. The Stones, Dylan, Paul McCartney, The Who, Neil Young and Roger Waters will all be there — in one place, at one time. The whole thing is happening at the same venue Coachella is held, out in the middle of the Southern California desert in Indio. Both weekends predictably sold out in about five hours but you can still buy tickets from the, ahem, “secondary market” for anywhere between a grand and two, with the average going rate seeming to be somewhere around $1,300, a far cry from the fence-smashing spirit of Woodstock. You know what also wasn’t around at Woodstock? VIP tents, an area cordoned off where some of the best chefs in America will be preparing high-end meals for concertgoers, and luxury hotel rooms in nearby Palm Springs. Bottom line here: Like Coachella, Desert Trip is strictly for those who have enough money to be able to blow the cost of a weekend in Europe to see a massive outdoor show. Unlike Coachella, however, this thing is aimed squarely at Boomer nostalgia in the name of bilking Boomer bucks. Desert Trip won’t be wall to wall Millennial hipsters. It’ll be their parents and grandparents.
What it will also be, unfortunately, is maybe the clearest reminder possible that the era in which bands and artists like the ones performing is utterly finished — as is that kind of music itself. No offense to the genius of every act playing and infinite respect for the iconic path each forged through pop music history, but at this stage of their careers, seeing all these artists together on one stage feels like a memorial service for rock-and-roll. Most of them are now in their 70s, certainly well past their prime and there’s little doubt that for the audience there has to be a sense of one-stop-shopping to say a kind of final goodbye to these guys before they finally start departing this earth. More than that, though, the show functions as a reminder of a time when the brand of music the Stones and Pink Floyd played mattered. Because it simply doesn’t anymore and there’s something a bit tragic about a bunch of millionaire dinosaurs coming together to stoke the nostalgia receptors of wealthy retirees. It’s the least rock-and-roll thing there is, despite the quality of the musicians and the fact that quite a few of them still sound pretty good, despite their age. (It’s difficult to imagine how Roger Daltrey can still sing My Generation without laughing himself to death, but at least he can actually sing it. Long Live Rock, however, will be a joke no matter how good it sounds.)
What you have with this show is both a reminder of the absolute pinnacle of rock-and-roll and its last gasp. Maybe it’s fitting that the people who once took the genre to its highest high are the ones who show up together decades later on the same stage to serve as its ceremonial end. The fact is there are no more Stones or Neil Youngs or McCartneys or Dylans out there. Not only has the music industry destroyed the spirit of rock-and-roll by making it nearly impossible for upstart bands with a dream of shaking the world to its core to achieve that dream — because in the age of streaming it’s so hard to make any sort of living playing music — but so much of the passion has gone out of music anyway. Admittedly, Dave Grohl and the Foo Fighters, much to their credit, have been actively carrying the torch of rock-and-roll forward by continuing to make good music and by paying tribute to what came before them via their Sonic Highways project. But Grohl’s still in his late 40s. The Foos are Gen-Xers. Millennials have already shown they have little in the way of need for or appreciation of rock-and-roll and the fiery rebellious quality that made it such a vital art form for so long. It was the music of youth, but today’s youth have no real need for it. And that was always the thing about rock-and-roll — it was something you needed. It expressed a gut emotion that nothing else could.
Rock-and-roll was once the music that pissed off your parents. Now it’s the music of your parents. And your parents are probably excited as hell about Desert Trip. Their children and grandchildren, meanwhile, will continue to be excited about Coachella. Because rock truly is dead.
Chez Pazienza was the beating heart of The Daily Banter, sadly passing away on February 25, 2017. His voice remains ever present at the Banter, and his influence as powerful as ever.