When pressed to define obscenity, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously opined, "I know it when I see it." For me, a more honest answer would go something like "I know it when I masturbate to it."
Rock music, like smut, offers an equally simple metric for discerning authenticity: if listening to a band inevitably leads to a stoned argument about the fighting prowess of Bruce Lee, then it is probably real rock. I've debated so many Bruce Lee combat hypotheticals while listening to Black Sabbath — Bruce Lee versus genius hammerhead shark, Bruce Lee versus Loma Prieta earthquake, one-armed Bruce Lee versus Willy Wonka — that I never question their place as the supreme suicide-inducing, vengeance-advocating rock band.
The biggest Bay Area radio station that claims to rock is 107.7 the Bone. The Bone consciously sells itself as "classic rock that rocks." When I moved to San Francisco in 2001, it was the only station that reliably got the Led out. It played a ton of Judas Priest, Led Zeppelin, and Black Sabbath — all the bands that scared me as a small boy because I knew in my heart they possessed evil powers and could, with their music, summon from the soil of the Amazon rainforest an army of cloned Adolf Hitlers. The Bone always comforted me, because it — along with Madalyn Murray O'Hare, pony kegs, bringing M-80s to school, and backward masking — inhabited the same demon-haunted rock-metal world I lived in as a frightened but fascinated child.
FLIRTING WITH DISASTER AND LADY REEBOK
So I'll never forget where I was the first time I heard the Verve's "Bittersweet Symphony" on the Bone. It was 2 a.m. earlier this year, and I was driving west on Fell Street at 60 mph, my 1986 convertible LeBaron catching the timed lights one second after they turned green (Fell's timed lights work at 30, 60, even 120 mph). I wanted rock and prayed for the Bone to twist me up a threefer of Ronnie James Dio. Instead, I found myself thrust into a Lady Reebok ad: vaguely self-infatuated and optimistic about everything but nothing in particular. I defensively smashed my car into a parked Cooper Mini, did a hundred push-ups and sit-ups next to the twisted wreckage, and ran off into the night. As with all time-bifurcating events — 9/11, the Kennedy assassination, being told my seventh-grade "sweats" were actually parachute pants — it's often hard to remember what life was like before.
Joe Rock, the Bone's most metal-friendly DJ and assistant program director, told me recently that the station tweaked its format following a 2004 listener-driven "Classic Rock A–Z Weekend" that saw requests for bands like Pearl Jam and Temple of the Dog supplant classic-rock lifers like Derek and the Dominoes and Bad Company. The switch from "metal-oriented classic rock," the station's previous Arbitron-monitored format, to "heritage rock," a mix of old metal, new guitar-based grunge and post-grunge, and both old-school and contemporary Reebok rock, elicited a mild-to-moderate shitstorm from old-school Boneheads.
Why change the formula? I think the economics of commercial radio came into play. Few listeners in the 18-to-34-year-old demographic really care about Deep Purple deep tracks anymore, so the Bone started dropping in Staind and Godsmack amid Jimi Hendrix and Ozzy Osbourne. If you're an old-school Bonehead, the change means that now you only hear KISS once in a while, unless you count all the time you and Strutter, your albino python, lock yourselves in your room and listen to every single KISS song on tape, vinyl, CD, CD box set, digitally remastered CD, and digitally remastered CD box set.