Rock of Ages

On the way to the Aerosmith concert at McNichols Arena on April 20, I told my beloved companion that the crowd would likely be populated entirely by guys in their forties wearing unfashionably long hair and tattered Harley-Davidson T-shirts. It didn't quite work out that way, though. True, I saw someone who precisely matched that description within minutes of entering the McNichols parking lot, and I subsequently eyeballed literally thousands more who looked as if they'd used the guy as a fashion consultant. But there were also plenty of exceptions, including the neatly trimmed thirtysomething and his two apple-cheeked sons who stood in front of me in the will-call line. (Apparently, Pop figured that the best way to get out of telling his progeny about the birds and the bees was to encourage them to sing along with "Love in an Elevator.") However, these lads were among the few teenagers in the building; for the most part, the ticket-holders were either in the presence of their guardians or they were guardians themselves.

It wasn't always so. Not so long ago, hard rock was the music of youth--the sound that got hormones sluicing through the systems of more adolescents than any other. But these days, a great many members of what was once the prime metal constituency seem to be looking elsewhere for their sonic kicks. A few heavyweights have come to the fore of late, including Tool, Korn and Marilyn Manson, but they're having trouble making the leap to arena-level popularity; in many cities, including this one, they tend to play theaters or medium-sized halls--and they don't always fill them to capacity. Moreover, their songs have not translated to radio success. Shortly after the Nirvana-led grunge breakthrough, hard-rock stations across the country dumped their formats in favor of a variation on the Seattle style. But ratings never met expectations, and within the past few years such outlets have been scrambling to re-embrace the past. KBPI-FM/106.7 is a case in point: It advertised itself as the "new music revolution" when Soundgarden was growing, but it's now back to the "rock the Rockies" slogan it used when today's dinosaurs were mere lizards.

The result of these changes is a radio hybrid that brings together yesterday and the day before yesterday. For example, a four-song KBPI set I heard on the Saturday afternoon before the Aerosmith gig was made up of "Back in Black," by AC/DC, "Grind," by Alice in Chains, "Natural One," by Folk Implosion, and Aerosmith's "Dude (Looks Like a Lady)." Sitting through it wasn't painful; after all, each of these songs is enjoyable on one level or another. But both "Grind" and "Natural One" are already three years old, and "Back in Black" first hit in 1980, when the average high-school senior was in the midst of choosing between soiling his diaper or spitting up on his mother's shoulder. And although "Dude" initially entered the singles charts in 1987, the first album by the band that made it came out way back in 1973, a full year before Richard Nixon took his helicopter ride to infamy.

Would a kid looking for a brand of music to call his or her own pledge his allegiance to a tune that has already spent more than ten years on the vine? Not if a notably unscientific poll conducted on the day of the show has any validity. To wit: My wife, a schoolteacher, asked a class of seventh-graders if they had so much as heard of Aerosmith. Only one out of nearly thirty had--a boy who is still grumbling about being dragged to a Fleetwood Mac appearance nearly six months after Stevie Nicks left town.

The programmers at KBPI don't seem overly concerned with such matters; their audience share has stabilized after a worrisome mid-Nineties slide. But this short-term strategy--one that's becoming extremely common from coast to coast--has resulted in some severe side effects. For one thing, hard-rock radio, which was once lively and surprising, is becoming as predictable and patronizing as most classic-rock stations. (In fact, there are times when it's practically indistinguishable from them.) Worse, fewer fledgling combos than ever are getting a chance to be heard--meaning that when the Aerosmiths of the world finally hang up their chaps, there'll be few to take their place. And because those who are allowed a smidgen of airtime must fit into a format in which the past is more important than the present, a majority of them will merely rehash established styles rather than invent fresh ones.

Which brings us to Spacehog, the opener on the Aerosmith date. The combo, fronted by expatriate British brothers Royston and Antony Langdon, was hyped mightily upon the release of its debut album, Resident Alien, and managed to eke out a modern-rock hit with "In the Meantime." But the disc was actually little more than a gloss on David Bowie-esque glam in which cheek was meant to substitute for inspiration. The Chinese Album, the outfit's just-issued followup, continues along this path. On it, the Langdons churn out unoriginal riffs in an utterly derivative manner in the hope of pleasing precocious listeners who never heard Spacehog's mentors in the first place, as well as longtime rock aficionados fearful of anything that doesn't seem familiar. Unfortunately, they failed on both counts.  

So, too, did the masterminds behind this bill. They likely viewed it as a cross-promotion waiting to happen: Hard-rock and classic-rock radio could pitch it to Aerosmith boosters, while modern-rock could flog it to the younger generation. But in Denver, at least, music lovers refused to cooperate. Considerably less than 10,000 tickets were sold, and even though the house was papered with giveaways, McNichols looked a lot like it had during some Nuggets games this season. Furthermore, Spacehog enthusiasts were in very short supply, despite the efforts of KTCL-FM/93.3, which put the act's latest stuff into heavy rotation to pump the concert. Obviously, those naive few who view the four-piece as something other than a one-hit wonder likely chose to wait until the band returns as a headliner instead of paying top dollar to hear a truncated set by their heroes in the presence of thousands of people who were probably shocked to discover that Spacehog wasn't a character from The Muppet Show.

As a result, the Hogs found themselves in a difficult situation, and even the desperate decision to play "In the Meantime" as their second selection didn't make matters any better. Royston bellowed out ditties such as "Space Is the Place" in an affected croon midway between Bowie's and Freddie Mercury's, while the band's studio-crafted lifts dissolved into completely flavorless aural mush. ("Anonymous," the title of one ditty Spacehog performed, cut a little too close to the bone.) The biggest response the band received was when Antony asked, "Are any of you here to see a band called Aerosmith?" By roaring so energetically, the crowd seemed to be saying: If this is rock and roll's future, give us the good old days.

That's exactly what Aerosmith delivered. Its stage setup was pure Seventies, with the requisite phallic symbols (lots of cobras) side by side with Egyptian cats meant to remind consumers of Nine Lives, an album that's been lingering on the charts since the first half of 1997. Then, when it came time for the headliners to start the show, three tapestries dropped from the roof in front of the performance space, serving as a theatrical scrim that turned the musicians into silhouettes. The emblematic poses that their shadows struck were a harbinger of things to come: over-the-top, silly, and casually contemptuous of postmodern cool. Everything about Aerosmith is thoroughly secondhand, from lead singer Steven Tyler's Jaggerish pout to guitarist Joe Perry's Keith Richards swagger. But for Aerosmith, questions of uniqueness have long since been beside the point. Last long enough and you can rip off whomever you'd like.

Just who Tyler was trying to emulate via his choice of clothing wasn't clear, but he certainly hasn't made any concessions to his fiftieth birthday, which came and went in March. His attire--a sleeveless top, a sheer orange housecoat and Lucy Ricardo stretch pants--was ridiculous yet somehow appropriate to his stage sprinting, belly flashing and fondness for standing in front of giant fans to simulate that windswept look. Even between songs, he found it impossible to calm down: He either screamed and shrieked like a chimpanzee auditioning for a Tarzan movie or made dorky declarations like "You make me feel so stoned!" Perhaps Steven's craving for smack hasn't quite left him.

Shtick like this helped prop up material from Nine Lives; "Falling in Love (Is Hard on the Knees)," "Pink" and "Taste of India" may not have the spark of Aerosmith's best stuff, but Tyler's exertions generally kept admirers from noticing until they'd run their course. Nonetheless, it would have grown tiresome if Aerosmith had not had good songs to play. Whereas KISS, another aging combo that found gold on the nostalgia circuit, has two or three surefire numbers to its credit, Aerosmith boasts well over a dozen, and the players weren't too proud to haul them out of mothballs. "Sweet Emotion," "Walk This Way" and "Draw the Line" were all given a spin, as were comparative obscurities like "Sick as a Dog" that held up just as well. Post-comeback smashes also worked, in part because Aerosmith refused to embalm them. Rather than render "Janie's Got a Gun" self-importantly, Tyler, Perry and their workmanlike supporters (guitarist Brad Whitford, bassist Tom Hamilton and drummer Joey Kramer) pounded it out as if it were just another double-entendre-filled rocker. Then they followed this tale of a girl who shoots her abusive father with "Rag Doll," which sports the lines "Hot tramp/Daddy's little cutie.../Baby, won't you do me like you done before." That's called covering both ends of the demographic.  

Aerosmith also threw a bouquet to the younger generation by playing several soundtracks to the Alicia Silverstone videos it made earlier in the decade. Still, I couldn't help but wonder what anyone raised on such MTV fodder would have thought of the abundant rock-god accoutrements on display: the flashpots that went off every thirty seconds or so, the showers of sparks, the simulated fireworks. Maybe they liked them and found themselves wishing that Smashing Pumpkins or Pearl Jam would loosen up enough to offer something similar. But even if they did, they probably felt weird watching scores of graybeards digging it, too. Hell, I had the same reaction when I saw a guy who looked as old as my father holding up a Bic lighter through the entire rendition of "Dream On," and my folks haven't had to wait up for me at night for quite a while now. What good is rebellion if your parents are doing it too?

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