I hate classic rock. I just spent two months in a part of the country (the rural Midwest) where too many people still listen to the songs they made out to during their first hormonal bloom — where party mixes sound like a broken record that’s been stuck in a groove of guitar climaxes and sodden rhythms for forty years. Nostalgia is dangerous; this is also Trump country. Not only can I not bear to hear most of these overplayed ur-rock songs again — and admittedly, I loved them when I heard them as a youth myself, but I’ve discovered a zillion other great records since then that have not been so tirelessly overplayed. As a music historian, I also understand that the ’70s was not some golden age of rock. It was a time when commercially driven radio stations had inordinate power over what the country heard. Specifically, sleazy white male music directors with ugly mustaches and thinning hair picked out those songs that are now on endless repeat, their “taste” groomed by similarly attired record men pushing coke. (Don’t you watch Vinyl? I don’t.) It was a time when playlists were as segregated as my high school lunch room — the era of “disco sucks” — and when women artists were limited to one rotation per hour.
And yet there I was last night, at the Los Angeles stop of the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame tour featuring Heart, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, and Cheap Trick. The presence of two female-led acts on the bill drew me, as did the invitation of my dear friends Veronique and Jon. After all, women are a small minority in the Hall of Fame, and Jett and Heart are two of the few female artists who smashed the glass ceiling of album-oriented radio in the ’70s and ’80s. I love the fact that these pioneers have hitched their wagons together, no silly Lilith nomenclature necessary. Plus, as a former resident of the Midwest, I have a soft spot for Robin Zander.
Frankly, I wish I had gone to see Adele or PJ Harvey instead. All three acts at the Forum played newer material, trying to maintain relevance in a world where analog has gone full cycle from obsolescence to retro chic. Cheap Trick nerdboy guitarist Rick Nielsen was self-aware about the impotence of this strategy; announcing a song from the band’s four-month-old album Bang, Zoom, Crazy … Hello, he sarcastically asked, “Anyone heard it?” (Answer: resounding silence.) It was the oldies — “I Want You To Want Me,” “I Love Rock and Roll”, “Magic Man” — that got the AARP audience to its feet.
Cheap Trick opened and Joan had the sweet spot in the middle. She and her band offered the perfect bridge between the Trick’s bubblegum metal (I mean that in a good way) and Heart’s acid-washed anthems. I’ve seen Joan I don’t know how many times, and she was in great form. I’m not sure I’ve ever watched so many thousands of people go crazy for her like that; she was clearly the star of the evening. Joan ate up the energy and fed it right back to the crowd. Maybe it helped that there were more female fans at the Forum than I usually see at a classic rock show. (I do go to them. Occasionally.) The Wilson sisters and Jett deserve immense kudos for the gender barriers they broke decades ago. And they have always been clear that they were fighting a battle, as Ann Wilson said when Heart played their old song “Even It Up.”
Very few musicians escape the burden of their own success. Even Lou Reed, that crank, was obligated to trot out “Walk on the Wild Side,” or at least “Sweet Jane.” I remember seeing Neil Young introduce his great song cycle Greendale at a West Palm Beach amphitheater, and the crowd hating on him big time because he wasn’t playing “Cinnamon Girl.” Bruce Springsteen keeps it fresh because he warned years ago about the dangers of thinking about nothing but “Glory Days.” But even the Boss has taken to replaying whole albums from his past live.
I would think Joan Jett is as tired of playing “Crimson and Clover” as I am of hearing it — more so. But she didn’t show it last night. And when, as she has for 23 years, she kept the pronouns as Tommy James intended them — “I think I could show her” — yeah, it felt bold, the daring of a woman ahead of her time. Hearing an arena sing along to a woman voicing desire for a woman is a glory day I can relive, over and over.