Anyone who reads this blog on a moderately regular basis knows I read a lot of books about rock n’ roll; the most recent is Evening’s Empire, an intriguing new novel by Bill Flanagan, editorial director at MTV Networks and a regular on CBS News Sunday Morning. Written as a fictional autobiography, the story follows Jack Flynn, a flawed lawyer-turned-band manager as he spends 40 years plotting the course—and perpetually righting the ship—for the careers of Swinging London also-rans, The Ravons.
Epic in its sweep, the book carries Flynn everywhere, from behind the Iron Curtain during fall of the Berlin Wall, to the desert during an African revolution, to backstage at 2005’s Live 8, the one constant in all these cases being that he’s a bundle of self-medicated nerves. While Evening’s Empire has plenty of laughs, though, it also somberly views the music industry as a distorted fun-house mirror of the Baby Boomer generation, and dissects the smart moves and deluded missteps of both with precision. As a result, while the story is theoretically about business, it’s really about feelings and relationships in all their sloppy glory—the stuff that novels are made of (and rightly so).
One of the more surprising stops along the way, then, is the Winter NAMM show in Anaheim, CA, circa 1985 or so. The short chapter sticks out like a sore thumb because it has nothing to do with relationships and everything to do with ideas. After some scene-setting preamble, out of nowhere, ex-Ravon drummer/perpetual pitchman Fin passionately explains the importance of Hip-Hop, and in the process, Flanagan brilliantly reduces 100 years of musical evolution, economics and technology down to three tidy pages:
“People tell you that rock and roll was the big revolution in popular music in this century, Flynn, but it’s not true. Rock and roll was just a shift in technology, from acoustic to electric instruments. Rock and roll was just jump blues with an electric guitar taking over for the horn section. It was technological and it was economical—suddenly a four-piece band could make as much noise as a big band. It was cheaper, that’s why it caught on.”
That alone blew my mind. Who knows–perhaps I’m late to the party on this concept, but for me, reading it was one of those rare moments where you suddenly see something you took for granted in a whole new way. But then Fin continues:
“The real revolution came before rock and roll. It was when swing came in, when big bands and jungle rhythms replaced a ponce with oil in his hair singing ‘Bicycle Built for Two.’ European music was all about music and harmony. African music was all about rhythm. European America in the early twentieth century was sitting around the piano singing ‘I Dream of Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair.’ Rhythm hardly even came into it. Rhythm was a slight technical concern, like intonation. It was all melody and harmony.”
Fin (and Flanagan, really) races from early jazz to rock and roll to soul, tracing the expanding influence of the beat, before landing at the door of Hip-Hop:
“Rap is the logical continuation of James Brown’s innovation. Let’s grind that rhythm down to pure power—let’s not just play drums and bass, let’s play steam shovels and pistons and turntables and pile drivers. Let’s play bombs going off and gunshots in the middle of the night. Let’s play reality. And let’s make the voice a percussive instrument, too.
“So you see, Flynn, when you ask me if I really like rap, that just tells me that you missed the point of this whole long experiment we call twentieth-century popular music. The European values have been on the wane since 1918. The African values have been expanding since the doughboys drove the Kaiser out of France. You might not like it, that’s your business. But if you’re going to try to continue to work in rock and roll, it would probably do you good to at least attempt to understand it.”
Whew—them’s fighting words, but they’re also a well-structured argument. So what do you think? Is he right or wrong? Going with the ‘economics reduced the band’ concept, are we replacing rock groups with acts like Girl Talk–one guy who only uses a laptop to rock the house? And, if you read Evening’s Empire, what did you think of it? Share your thoughts below.
Evening’s Empire on Amazon