Pondering the ineffable sound of "classic rock that rocks"
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. If, however, you believe Stone Temple Pilots and Buckcherry are where Ted Nugent would have ended up if he didn't OD on elk jerky and NRA propaganda, then you feel much like John Hinckley probably did after his psychologist let him watch Taxi Driver on DVD: deeply appreciative but still wondering what all the fuss is about.
THE SONG NOT THE SAME?
The mythology of classic rock holds that everything used to be one big fantasy sequence from The Song Remains the Same: coked-up druids, trashed Hilton suites, and roadies deep into black magic. The reality is that the vast majority of classic rock is nerdy or nonthreatening. You're more likely to hear Supertramp, Fleetwood Mac, Yes, Journey, and Jethro Tull on an Aflac commercial than see them carved into the arm of a berserker teen. The Bone has always needed to appeal to men and women, hawks and doves, parolees and nonparolees. Until the change in format, ubiquitous classic rock loser ballads like the Who's "Behind Blue Eyes" and Pink Floyd's "Mother" represented the shadow self of the average Aleister Crowley–worshiping Bonehead. After the tweak the Bone forced its aging listeners to ask themselves a fundamental and humbling question: "Am I getting too old for this I-Roc?" Bone listeners older than 40 — who weren't impressionable suckers when music, fashion, advertising, and public relations merged with movies, television, and politics in the late ’80s — had to swallow a bitter pill: it's really all the same now, just younger.
The old Bone — despite its marketing and popularity with grown men who paint their faces silver and black and dress up as Norse war gods for their children's Pop Warner football games — always played an embarrassing amount of lame music. For every "Dirty Deeds (Done Dirt Cheap)" or "Kashmir," there were two pieces of shit like "Gimme Three Steps" and "China Grove." The new Bone basically employs the same formula: Rainbow, Metallica, and Alice in Chains but now with acoustic Nickelback and blink-182 thrown in for the women and the younger sensitive guys.
This, objectively, is no wimpier than the old wimpy stuff, just more corporate and more easily marketable. The new Bone plays songs that strippers born after 1984 can lap dance to and still seem credible to their under-30 clientele. A lot of the new Bone stuff — by so-called active rock bands such as Audioslave and Velvet Revolver — easily out-rocks anything by Don Henley — and anything he ever touched.
Sometimes it's better to just sound good than appear consistent. What rocks for me doesn't necessarily rock for my next-door neighbor, unless Alice Cooper is now living in a pupuseria on 24th Street and Harrison. As for the ultimate judge, Bruce Lee's legacy, I say the Bone still facilitates a Bay Area dialogue, even if it's only seen Enter the Dragon and the first 10 minutes of Game of Death. SFBG