You're middle-age, your hairline is receding, and when the lights go down, keeping it up for your legendary three-hour stretches is getting harder and harder. What do you do?
If you're Bruce Springsteen, you break out a large sponge.
He's traveled a long way from his intimate nightclub glory days, and likewise, his legions of Reagan-era stadium tour fans are finding their denim jackets more than a little worn in the seams. Yet during his concert this past November at downtown's American Airlines Arena, Springsteen showed few signs of flagging. His barnstorming set even featured several dramatic down-on-his-knees slides, with Springsteen taking a running start and then zipping across the full length of the stage to the ecstatic roars of the audience (excepting the wincing chiropractor sitting near Kulchur).
Visible only from a backstage vantage point, however, was Springsteen's meticulous pre-slide prep: While his band downshifted into an attention-distracting vamp, he'd retreat to the side of Max Weinberg's drum kit to catch his breath, thrust an oversized sponge into a bin of water, and then carefully soak down his pants for maximum viscosity.
It was a practiced move more suited to classic vaudeville than the presumed Dionysian frenzy of live rock and roll. But it worked. Like watching an edge-of-retirement ballplayer safely stealing home, it was all the more satisfying for its odds-defying vibe. And it's as good a metaphor as any for the state of rock and roll itself in 2002, a year when that art form -- seemingly long past its expiration date -- should have held few surprises, and even fewer moments of inspiration.
Still there was Springsteen with a show equal in intensity and sheer delivered pleasure to those he performed two decades ago. Moreover, determined not to indulge in a mere nostalgia fest, he gave equal weight in his setlist to The Rising, his Important Statement on September 11. If the album itself was stiff, and its spiritual heft too often felt forced, its live airings got over on the pure emotional charge Springsteen shot through them.
We may never receive another The Wild, The Innocent, & the E Street Shuffle or Born to Run, but then, at 53, Springsteen is a far different person from the avatar of bridge-and-tunnel bohemianism that crafted those early-Seventies records. And so are the skinny-dipping Greasy Lake characters from "Spirit in the Night" that inspired and inhabited those works. Crazy Jane is likely a soccer mom now, and Killer Joe is just as apt to have traded in his motorcycle for a minivan.
Their children, however, were out in full force just 24 hours before the Springsteen date to catch the year's other prominent rock revivalists, New York City's the Strokes. More than 3000 of the area's kinder poured into Boca Raton's Mizner Park for their own dose of mythmaking, though the icons in question were the patron saints of Manhattan's Lower East Side -- Television, Richard Hell, and Lou Reed, not suburban Asbury Park's Mitch Ryder, Dion, and Motown.
Indeed for this crop the Boss's insistent hopefulness and faith in community is downright corny. It's the Strokes' borderline nihilism that serves up the post-9/11 soundtrack of choice. And how could it be any other way?
"If you think these kids should be made to sit down and listen carefully to The Rising," the New York Times's Gerald Marzorati wrote of the Strokes' hometown following, "you have failed to understand not only the sense of possibility and transcendence at the heart of any rock song played and sung by someone sort of like you. (These kids will never love Springsteen, because he is not theirs to love.) You have also failed to understand the future-tense myopia -- the incessant, agitated attention paid to the becoming Self -- that fills the days and more vividly the nights of New York's restless young."
That's as true in Boca Raton -- or in Miami Beach, Kendall, or Coral Springs -- as it is up north. And with dozens of insouciant little bodies joyously crowd-surfing overhead, it was hard not to find encouragement in the musical wheel turning once again (at least until one precious li'l thing's flailing boot collided with Kulchur's head).
Of course, regardless of your generational allegiance, a little perspective is handy. Critics love the Strokes, and deservedly so, but pronouncing a massive cultural trend in the band's wake (Rolling Stone's "Rock is Back!" cover, MTV's rediscovery of grunge) is more than a tad premature.
The Strokes may be standard-bearers for this, ahem, garage rock renaissance, but their debut Is This It? has sold only 800,000 copies since its September 2001 release, according to Soundscan. Despite the media clamor, this movement's other figureheads have also fared similarly. The White Stripes' White Blood Cells has sold 548,000 units to date, the Vines' Highly Evolved has sold 527,000 units, and the Hives' Veni, Vidi, Vicious a mere 335,000 units. "People say, 'You really broke through,'" Strokes guitarist Albert Hammond, Jr., told Billboard. "Yeah, I guess we kind of broke through, but we didn't go and demolish anything. We're a little more there, that's all." If this is a revolution, it's one preciously short on actual cadres.
Meanwhile, over in the hip-hop nation that supplanted rock, it was business as usual with Eminem selling more than eleven million records this year alone. Ringing cash registers aside, though, it's hard to argue with Eminem's playfully inventive "Without Me" and "Lose Yourself" -- but just try to wade through the rest of the filler-clogged albums, The Eminem Show and the 8 Mile soundtrack, which spawned those singles.
To be sure, 2002 was filled with memorably sharp hip-hop songs. But lasting albums were in painfully short supply. The margins failed to offer much succor either. Full-length outings from "underground" rappers such as Talib Kweli, Aesop Rock, and the Anticon crew may have been ceaselessly championed by their backpacker fans (a milieu that not coincidentally recalls the aesthetic ghetto of early-Nineties college-rock in both its tone and demographic composition), but the actual hip-hop they fashioned sounded much more interesting on paper than on headphones: all weak beats and torrents of ill-shaped confessional verse. Clearly these are rappers who have suffered for their art. Now it's our turn.
Little wonder then that industry-wide sales were down nearly nine percent from 2001 -- which itself showed steep declines from 2000. Record companies blamed piracy, particularly illegally burned and sold CDs. As far as Kulchur is concerned, they're right. The best hip-hop CDs of the year were DJ-created mixtapes that put the focus on the genre's true auteurs, its producers -- the most skilled of whom, such as the Neptunes, could take even 'N Sync boy toy Justin Timberlake and make him, if not black, at least funky.
One personal fave, Fast Lane, came courtesy of New York DJ Funkmaster Flex, who dropped several of the Neptunes' signature grooves under a host of freestyling up-and-comers, further proving that with the right track, literally any fool scooped up off the corner could sound like a hitbound MC.
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As Brooklyn's Bad Seed took his turn at the microphone, Funkmaster Flex spun the Dr. Dre-produced "Addictive," which boldly sampled an obscure 1982 Indian film score, complete with lilting flutes and Lata Mangeshkar's exotic Hindi chanting. Bad Seed promptly launched into the familiar litany of money, Moët, and machine guns, running out of braggadocious steam just as Mangeshkar's looped voice came around again.
Bad Seed paused, sounding downright awed by the otherworldly syllables forming around him: Thoda resham lagta hai, thoda sheesha lagta hai.
"If you all know what the fuck this bitch is saying, sing along," he marveled.
Kulchur would phrase it a bit more delicately than Bad Seed did, but the general idea holds. This past year's pop pleasures came in strange places, from resuscitated New Jersey dinosaurs to Bollywood chanteuses. Best to keep your ears open.