Former Times pop music critic Robert Hilburn writes in his new book "Corn Flakes With John Lennon (and Other Tales From a Rock 'n' Roll Life)" that after John Lennon's death in 1980, he focused on artists who carried on in Lennon's tradition, including Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, U2 and Kurt Cobain. But in the second half of the decade, the music began to drift and widespread piracy threatened to throw the recording industry into collapse. Looking for some answers about the future of rock, Hilburn sat down with Bono, a visionary from one generation, and Jack White, the most captivating musician from a newer generation.
Bono was in town to address the Women's Conference 2008, and we talked over breakfast about why U2 has remained such a compelling force for so long. He stressed the importance of keeping your sights set on artistry, something they learned from Dylan, Lennon and Springsteen, among others.
"Bruce is probably one of the only people in the world who understands how to survive in this kind of a life, how to get through all this without dying or walking with a limp or with one eye -- the way so many of these great people we've known and met did, these musical geniuses who didn't make it through the fire," Bono said. "They gave us beautiful music, and they were left exhausted, empty. It's heartbreaking. You've got to be tough, and you've got to avoid being self-conscious.
"I certainly went through a self-conscious phase, and it makes you ugly. . . . And it can change the way you walk and think because you don't want to let people down. . . .
"I am much more recognized now than I ever was, but I don't notice it anymore. People come up to me all the time, and I don't care if I've washed or if I'm crawling on my hands and knees out of a night club. The artist's journey is away from self-consciousness. That's where you've got to have tenacity. Bruce certainly has that. Lennon had it. I had that," he said. "It's like we are locked into something and we will not let go of it. If your drug of choice is that song that's never been heard before but feels like it's always existed, then you'll do anything to protect it."
Despite the struggle he outlines, Bono doesn't feel rock is at the end of the line. "It's still the most powerful art form," he said.
"Rock brought together rhythm, harmony and top-line melody: rhythm for the body, top-line melody for the mind, and harmony for the spirit. That's a very powerful concoction. Classical music has harmony and top-line melody, but it didn't have rhythm. That's why rock 'n' roll surpassed it."
So why do young bands seem to be afraid of massive stardom or contemptuous of it?
"I think one thing is they are suspicious of fame because fame is now associated with 'celebrity,' and that has become oppressive in our society. The bands don't want to become part of this thing which is crawling all over us. But when they pull down the shutters and block out the light, they lose their curiosity. I've never seen art improved by someone who has double-locked the door, turned off the light, and found a little cupboard in the back of the house where no one is going to find them. There is something about the spotlight that keeps you sharp."
Jack White was in town on business, and we met at his hotel. One of 10 children of working-class parents in Detroit, he told a story of being inspired by rock 'n' roll that was similar to those I had been hearing from musicians for years. Music was, he said, the only thing that made sense to him, and it left him with a desire to use that music to touch others in the same way he had been touched.
"The area of Detroit I came from wasn't the golden age of Detroit in the 1930s and 1940s," he said. "It was the 1980s, and nothing seemed to work. The potholes wouldn't get fixed, and the garbage wouldn't get picked up. If you went to the store to get something, they'd be out of it or they wouldn't have enough change. It wasn't like a real city anymore. . . . So like a lot of artists do, you go to your room and you shut it all out. You look for something that makes sense to you and makes you feel good, and I don't think you really pick it. It picks you. It's like you don't get to pick who you fall in love with, it just happens. For me it was the drums. As soon as I started playing, it meant something to me immediately, just the pleasure of playing."
His duo the White Stripes moved to Warner Bros. Records after four albums on minor labels, but I wondered if he still clung to the widespread indie notion of fearing too much success.
"I never said, 'I don't want to be famous,' or 'I don't want to be the best I can be at what I'm doing,' or 'I don't want to share my music with millions of people instead of a roomful.' I was willing to do whatever I had to do to reach an audience.
"But it was a fight all the time because it was the music scene around me in Detroit who would go, 'Oh, I don't know if you should be on the cover of Rolling Stone' or 'I don't know if it's a good idea to sell your records in Starbucks' or whatever. That's the reason I finally had to leave Detroit and move to Nashville, where you don't run into that thinking. I appreciated it when Edge and I did this film together [the 2009 documentary 'It Might Get Loud'] and he said, 'Thanks for having ambition.' "
Though Jack said he could never picture himself in Bono's or Springsteen's "spokesman" role, he does share some of their values. "There was a period when I thought I was just making music for myself, but I sometimes feel it's bigger than that," he said. "I feel like I'm an antenna and I'm being used -- by God or by whatever -- and I want to be that antenna. I'm not going to stop it. I've never thought, 'I'd better slow this down because there's too much ambition or too much passion coming out of me.' "
Jack, who turned 34 this year, wasn't so fast to answer when I asked if young rock audiences were as passionate about music as they were in earlier decades.
"I'm not a negative person, but I'm very realistic, and it doesn't look good right now," he said. "I hope it gets better. I hope that children of the next generation are going to be shown there is more beauty and romance in tangible, mechanical things than in invisible, digital things. The artists of the past all had their rebellion. Elvis was rebelling against sexual repression, and Dylan was rebelling against immorality, and I feel like I'm rebelling against technology and the death of romance. I would pick this as the absolute worst time to connect with people through music. Today's generation takes a lot for granted when it comes to music. It's like, 'I'm going to play video games, and when I come back to rock 'n' roll it's going to be there waiting for me.' They don't buy the CD, but they'll download it and give it to their friends."
As Jack spoke, it occurred to me that a common strand ran through the voices of Jack, Bruce, Bob Dylan and Bono: a trace of idealism and commitment -- or, as Bruce's aunt had once described him, a touch of preacher.
On the way home, I passed the Sunset Strip -- the section of Los Angeles that was immortalized in the Buffalo Springfield youth anthem "For What It's Worth." Stephen Stills wrote the song after seeing hundreds of young people protesting the closing of Pandora's Box, a music club.
I had driven down the stretch of Sunset Boulevard hundreds of times, especially at night when lines of fans stood outside the Roxy, where Springsteen played on his "Born to Run" tour, and outside the Whisky a Go Go, where I first saw Elvis Costello and Tom Petty. I also passed Tower Records, where I'd spent hours looking through the bins for some hidden album or import single. The Roxy and Whisky were still there, but they no longer represented the pulse of the city's music scene, and Tower was boarded up.
I wondered again about whether rock's golden age was ending. If it was in danger, it wouldn't be critics, musicians, record companies or radio stations that would save it. The future belonged to young music fans -- as it always has.
Even with the charisma of Elvis and the ringing guitar of Chuck Berry in the 1950s and the idealism of the Beatles and Dylan in the 1960s, the rock 'n' roll revolution was never just about a sound; it was about an ideal. Historians speak about a convergence of forces rising up against such issues as sexual repression, social injustice, growing conformity and the threat of nuclear annihilation. Even more than all that, the music was an article of faith -- which helps explain why some of the most enduring anthems spoke about a better world, whether it was in Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" or John Lennon's "Imagine" or Bruce Springsteen's "The Promised Land" or U2's "Where the Streets Have No Name."
One of the strengths of music is that it speaks to each of us in such a personal and affecting way. Many of my favorite artists over the past 35 years have been described as cult figures because they reached only a tiny fraction of the mass pop audience. Still, they helped me celebrate treasured moments and cushioned disappointments in my life. But my greatest joy was in finding artists who could speak to millions with the same intimacy and grace. I believe there is something about that massive, communal celebration that helps lift our spirits and aspirations.
I'd love to see rock 'n' roll continue to be the force that inspires new generations. If the young, including my two grandsons and two granddaughters, turn to another art form or a different style of music, I only hope it serves them as profoundly. May they always stay forever young.
Excerpted from "Corn Flakes With John Lennon (And Other Tales From a Rock 'n' Roll Life)" by Robert Hilburn. Copyright Copyright 2009 by Robert Hilburn. Permission granted by Rodale Inc., Emmaus, Pa. 18098.