The Songs Remain the Same

Rejecting young talent in favor of dinosaurs with proven track records, classic rock radio rakes in the ratings and the cash A along with a severe case of geezer burn

Hack critics and weathered promoters will all tell you the same thing about Bob Seger. Seger, they'll say, never had it easy. Abandoned by his daddy at age ten, he shared a one-room dive with his mom and brother during junior high school and cooked off a hot plate. By fourteen he had a band, the Decibels, and a part-time job. The Bob Seger System came next. Then Teegarden. Then VanWinkle. The day job he never quit.

Seger's canny blend of hard rock and soul brought him fame in Detroit, but he remained a hometown prophet for nearly two decades, legendary for rasping his voice on the bar circuit. Only with the release of Night Moves (1976) and Stranger in Town (1978) did his Silver Bullet Band began to win national radio airplay. It would take another five years, however, for Seger to hit his zenith.

More precisely, it would take Tom Cruise's tush. The young actor set female hearts aflutter during the 1983 film Risky Business, when he lip-synced Seger's "Old Time Rock & Roll" while prancing around in butt-hugging briefs. That single scene lent the veteran troubadour previously unimagined cache. His song, though five years old, raced up the charts.

More than a catchy tune, Seger's anthem reflected a nascent movement in American radio. All over the nation, FM programmers, sure that punk and new wave would never sell, were beginning to follow the singer's simple prescription: Just take those old records off the shelf/I sit and listen to them by myself/Today's music ain't got the same soul/I like that old-time rock and roll.

And boy, were they making money.
Ten years later they're still pulling those old records off the shelf. And they're making even more money. The genre dubbed classic rock has become FM's dominant format, the meta-Muzak of our time. Songs once confined to K-TEL record sets are now the bread and butter of rock radio. Lynyrd Skynyrd. Led Zeppelin. Pink Floyd. Rush. The Stones. Steve Miller. And that unfortunate geographic triumvirate: Boston, Kansas, Chicago.

South Florida, once a bastion of FM's underground, has become a Styx-aholic's paradise. Petrified of alienating their sliver of the market, Miami's two remaining rock stations are content to play the Top 10 of ten to twenty years ago almost exclusively. How did it happen? What does it mean?

Snobs, cynics, and audiophiles argue that the ascendance of classic rock represents all that has gone wrong in FM radio, the transmutation of a rebel medium into a corporate asset. Disc jockeys who once prided themselves on spinning the most daring new records have been reduced to airing an endless tape-loop compiled by demographic consultants who couldn't find the heart of rock and roll with an amped stethoscope.

But this appears to dismiss classic rock for what it is: an antidote to such weighty contemplation. The whole concept, after all, is designed to harken back to the halcyon days of Vietnam and Kent State, to the glory of the Carter administration, when the nation was long on gas lines and short on fashion sense.

Take the line: On a dark desert highway/Cool wind in my hair/Warm smell of colitas/Rising up through the air. It doesn't matter that we live 3000 miles from the nearest desert, or that most Floridians have no idea what the hell colitas is. The lyrics alone cast a mood inexorably linked to the rise of classic rock. Of longing, that is, for a past that probably never existed, of memories filtered through the misty aperture of nostalgia.

Because in the end, as any classic rock fan knows, it always feels like the first time, even if time keeps on slipping, slipping, slipping into the future, and there really is a lady who's sure all that glitters is gold, as well as a big wheel in the sky that keeps on turnin', carrying me home to my kin, and, well, you get the point.

As for Bob Seger, classic rock has bestowed upon him fame as durable as his obscurity once seemed. Hits such as "Night Moves" and "Against the Wind" continue to enjoy heavy radio rotation. Of course, few remember the dark warning Seger issued in 1975. He was just past 30 back then, his seventh album languishing, his career nearly kaput. "If the day comes when nobody wants to hear me play," he sighed, "I'll probably become a disc jockey."

There are ferns in the heart of South Florida's classic rock headquarters in North Dade. An alarming number of them, actually, sprouting from planters that float incongruously on a sea of green carpet. The executive offices of ZETA-4 (WZTA-FM 94.9), a mile west of Joe Robbie Stadium, are scattered around this flora, and in one of these offices dwells program director Neil Mirsky.

Like most who survive more than five years in radio, Mirsky is a terribly nice guy. He is also in a permanent state of denial, stuck defending the current state of mass-market radio even as he fawns over the days when there was some purity to the endeavor.

"Back in the early Seventies, it was a matter of walking into a studio with 10,000 albums and four hours to fill," says Mirsky, a fortysomething mensch who has grayed in a distinguished, Richard Dreyfuss manner. "I'd go from Zeppelin to Stevie Wonder to Chuck Mangione to the Stones to Bob Marley. It was all fresh. I consider myself blessed to have worked in that environment.

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