Was Classic Rock a Sound, or a Tribe?

Steven Hyden’s book Twilight of the Gods argues that the appeal of the now-dwindling Baby Boomer guitar gods was only ever personal.

Mick Jagger in 2018
Dylan Martinez / Reuters

What was classic rock? The question sounds confrontational—how rude to put the Rolling Stones in the past tense when Mick Jagger is still honing his workout routine!—but, of course, the very name classic rock has always implied a was. In 1992, Nirvana jockeyed against contemporaries of their day, from Guns N’ Roses to Kris Kross, for airwave space. Today, “Heart-Shaped Box” still glowers on the radio, but often next to the pre–Kurt Cobain likes of The Who and REO Speedwagon. This process is necessarily morbid: What’s vital today will be interred tomorrow, under the euphemistic placard of classic.

So it might seem redundant for Steven Hyden’s Twilight of the Gods: A Journey to the End of Classic Rock to perch itself as a memorial. Hasn’t classic rock always been evaluated through the eulogist’s haze of time and sentiment? Then again, the urgency of Hyden’s task is clear. “I started writing this book around the time that David Bowie died, and I finished it around the time that Tom Petty passed,” writes the critic, currently on staff at Uproxx. “You want to know what happened in between? A lot of other rock stars went.”

We now live in the era of the blockbuster obituary—a Tom Petty or Wolfe drops with at least the frequency of a Disney franchise movie—largely for simple demographic reasons: The Baby Boom has reached the beginning of the end of its trajectory. And the Boomers, as seen in the very label classic applying to the soundtrack of their primes, have excelled at overlaying the mantle of myth on stories whose ink was still drying. But the overlapping public funerals of the past few years have also been a forum for intergenerational probing of legacies. Just this week, it’s been made clear how cherished Philip Roth was by the writers who came up after him. But resentments have also been revealed, linked to the notion of important white men choking off pathways to acclaim.

Hyden’s book is a cheery, surprisingly modest contribution to such relitigation in the musical arena. The author is a 40-year-old who, as a Midwestern teenager flipping through the radio dials, came to worship Led Zeppelin and Bruce Springsteen. Thus, he occupies a special spot in the march of generations: neither enthralled by the kings of the ’60s because he lived through their reigns, nor rebelling against the ubiquitously worshipped music of his parents. A converted true believer—a living testament to the influence that classic rock is always said to have—you might expect him to earnestly reassert this music’s intrinsic greatness. A book like this could have been a middle finger to all those who cheer the supposed “death of rock” with accusations of racism, sexism, and stale nostalgia.

Hyden, though, is not a fight-picker. He ends up defining down classic rock, positioning it less as an essential art form than as a slowly dissolving tribe. The driving thesis seems to be that classic rock electrified folks like him not necessarily because of the brilliance of the musicianship, the evolutionary way it expanded its form, or the grand truths it told. Rather, the connection was personal. “I needed role models,” he writes, “and while Jimmy Page was unlike me in every other way, he did sort of look like me, which was enough.” That admission comes during an admirably self-aware passage about classic rock’s racial biases, and Hyden might not be mad if you came into the book thinking that classic rock was a last hurrah of straight-white-male centrality and finished the book still believing that.

He does toy with more formal definitions of classic rock, though. Early on, we’re reminded that the term derives from radio taxonomies, and that the divide that programmers made between “oldies” and “classic rock,” somewhat arbitrarily, drew a line in the mid-’60s. But he also suggests that intrinsic to classic rock is an emphasis on cohesive albums like The Dark Side of the Moon and Tommy. As a teen, what attracted him to classic rock was that it “felt like the opposite of pop music, which was proudly disposable and all about the here and now … whereas classic rock had roots that you could trace back as far as you cared to go.” The genre, he argues, began with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967 and ended with Nine Inch Nails’s The Fragile in 1999.

These criteria—radio classification, album-length ambition, and an awareness of tradition and legacy—clearly aren’t watertight, though. Other genres have meaty, purpose-driven albums, as seen lately with Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar (both of whom Hyden acknowledges). Other genres self-consciously evolve from old traditions and aim for lasting listenership, as seen, again, in Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar. Moreover, if the album matters so much, why is classic radio—which divorces song from track listing—still the practical arbiter of the canon? Why is the most widely owned release by the Eagles, named by Hyden as the platonic classic-rock band, a collection of singles? Why is there a chapter on Phish and the Grateful Dead, whose appeal is concert improvisation rather than studio recordings? And what classic-rock station is playing “Starfuckers, Inc.”?

The book feels designed to inspire quibbling such as this because it is, more than anything, a 289-page exercise in the joyful rock-fan pastime of bullshit theorizing. If you’re someone who loves debating whether AC/DC is still AC/DC when Axl Rose is singing, or whether Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen briefly switched places as the top dog of “heartland rock” in the ’90s, Twilight of the Gods will be a feast. Ditto if you’re game to rehash the big stories: the simmering rivalry of Levon Helm and Robbie Robertson as seen in The Last Waltz, the unspeakable things Led Zeppelin are alleged to have done with a mud shark. Hyden purports to write about the concept of mythology, but he often ends up just basking in the ephemera rather than saying much new about it.

If the book is a corrective at all, it is to the rock criticism typical of the music Hyden writes about. Lester Bangs’s gonzo pyrotechnics aren’t to be found, but neither is the analytical sobriety of academics who dissect Bob Dylan. Hyden writes unfussily, enthusiastically, like a fan, and the only pretense on display is a not-entirely-convincing affect of barstool jocularity. Justifying why he’s not going to try to describe the sound of Led Zeppelin IV, he writes, quite unfortunately, “It’s like explaining why oral sex is an enjoyable pastime—don’t blowjobsplain, dude.” He then spends a bit of time hashing out which songs on the album are overrated and underrated, and finishes, “But that’s just the music. What really sold me on Zeppelin was the mythology.”

The mythology, bigger than the music? It’s a common knock against classic-rock fans that Hyden gleefully pleads guilty to. To hear him tell it, dishy biographies and salacious lyrics had a serious effect on his own life. The legendary hedonism of Jim Morrison is “(at least partly) to blame for all that time I spent in my 20s staring vainly into barroom mirrors while I drank and drugged myself into oblivion.” Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, he says, was his teenage self’s first encounter with female subjectivity: “As dumb as this might sound, I had never even considered that a woman could be as into sex as a dude is.” Of Springsteen’s storytelling, he writes, “For those of us who have never had a good father-son talk with our real dads, these are more than songs—they’re the closest things we have to patriarchal advice about how to be a grown-up.”

Eventually, he acknowledges that it may be no coincidence that his idols were almost entirely straight white men. In one fascinating riff, he imagines a classic-rock canon that included black artists who’d been segregated away as “soul” singers. But his fixation on identity—the rockers’ and his own—helps explain the mentality that led to such sameness in the first place. And it doesn’t account for the imaginative form of listening that fans who don’t so easily see themselves in Jimmy Page undertake all the time—or that classic-rock diehards might want to try when approaching, say, hip-hop. Thus he’s still blinkered enough to write a paragraph about how “all rockers” set out to attract women to their concerts because, among other things, women “look glamorous when they’re sweaty—unlike men, who just look sweaty.” (Joni Mitchell, Elton John, and Queen, all of whom he acknowledges get short shrift in the book, might have a different take.)

On the big question of classic rock’s demise, he extends the argument that music is mostly a proxy for the listener’s own life.“When a rock star dies, what people are mourning is their own mortality,” he writes, and certainly it’s hard to argue against him: Whether you’re Bowie’s age or have simply lived a few decades in constant awareness of him, his loss throws time’s march into perspective. But something else might be dying out with the classic rockers, too: the uncontested dominance of straight white males as culture’s anointed overseers. Of course, it’s long been clear that the same transition animating America’s political fights is playing out in pop culture, and Hyden, to his credit, makes no calls for rock to be great again. He only asks we not forget what made this music so great to people like him, and offers hope that others may still find the gods they need.