I hate winter, even in cosy old Britain, so I certainly don’t know what I’m doing here, sitting in a motel room in Birmingham, Michigan, watching U.S. football and piles of dirty half-melted snow. This city, the whole U.S.A., has the most tired collection of radio stations I’ve ever heard. The only one I can stick with is the country station ‘ cause most country songs are mopey and I’m pretty mopey too.
I’ve been reading the CREEM poll results and what sorry reading they make. All the old farts I thought had been fingered in 1977 as terminally boring turn out to be teenage heart-throbs still and I guess teenage hearts will go on throbbing now until these grand old men die. I’ve seen the future of rock ‘n’ roll and it’s Robert Plant, a corset-strapped 63-year-old, bleached and browned and staggering through his moves forever. Aging rock stars like to compare themselves to B.B. King and Muddy Waters, men whose music has grown up with them, but the real comparison is John Wayne, still playing the romantic lead even as his bones get as still as his boots.
Back in the office, people are jumping and phones are ringing. Record of the day is “Please, Please, Please!”: “Let me be the one to cover the Pistols’ visit. Let me be the one to use your tickets. Let me be the one to look Rotten in his beady little eye. You promised me and I’m their oldest fan and whaddya mean there aren’t any tickets and I’ve got to pay? I’m a rock critic; if it wasn’t for people like me, there wouldn’t be any Sex Pistols!”
Other phones, other calls: “Don’t you just love Elvis Costello, isn’t he a sweety? In L.A., you know, some guy was hustling a woman and Elvis attacked him with a bottle. What a man!”
And that’s what’s so weird about this trip. I’ve never experienced before such a gap between what excites rock people and the music that is droning on through the lives of the average fan. Grand Funk is always cited as the band that had to become a phenomenon before anyone heard it but these days American radio, American charts, are dominated by grand funk of one kind or another. What have the following bands got in common: Kiss, Kansas, Foreigner, Styx, Foghat, Meatloaf, Mandrill, Brick, Pockets, Odyssey, LTD, High Inergy, Debby Boone? I don’t know, I’ve never heard of any of them.
And this gap between me and the masses works the other way too. I haven’t read a bad American review of the Sex Pistols album, except in CREEM’s letters file (and there are lots of rude remarks there). The other night we were sitting in a plush Michigan restaurant/bar – you know the type, built in the middle of a suburban commercial development so that you can walk from your car to your drink without having to worry about getting mugged or seeing anyone poor, and inside, the staff are so polite that I feel a little queasy. The place is full of pleased-looking thirty-five year-old couples, the Michigan kind, hip but not enough to read Rolling Stone, people who get noisier as they get drunk but also get friendlier as if they can’t hold back all their affluent bonhomie.
Anyway, we’re sitting there, blending easily enough into the scenery, when suddenly we realize that the music that’s been getting steadily more urgent is the Sex Pistols’ Bollocks album! No one else has noticed and when we ask the waitress about it she looks startled, like we’re talking about some arcane perversion – she’s never even heard of the Sex Pistols. We ask the floor manager instead and he tells us the tape was brought in by a hairdresser. My evening is complete: never before had I thought of the Pistols as background music for a barber’s salon in the American Midwest. I’ve had the punk thing wrong all the time. And I go back to my room and ponder the fact that I’ve never met an American under the age of 25 who liked Elvis Costello (except my friend Linda’s boyfriend Don and I reckon he’s cheating). Over here, I decide, punk isn’t all a teenage music at all.
This column was going to be about my New Year’s Resolution: how to be a cooler critic. But it isn’t because I’ve concluded that I’m pretty cool already. A few aberrations sure, but can I help liking the Bee Gees and ELO? It’s a medical problem, not a critical one. I’ve always gone shivery when the Brothers Gibb put their noses together in close harmony, and shit. I’ve never been able to resist any record with a cello on it. And I like Abba and disco, as long as it’s made by machines not people. But that’s another story, like not liking the Muppets – bad politics. These are minor aberrations. I keep thinking about some poor sod of an American critic who doesn’t like the Sex Pistols – who does s/he talk to?
What I want to do now is see the Pistols here (especially as by visiting this place I’ve managed to miss their secret British tour – as I type this very word, they’ll be on stage in Coventry, where I live, goddam it). I’ll probably never see them now, but if I do, I’d like it to be in Tupelo, Tennessee. There won’t be any teenagers there (the local kids will be on the road with Foghat). But there will be a bunch of middle-aged music people. And I do wonder what the Pistols are gonna make of that.