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May 10, 2018

Steven Hyden's Playlist for His Book "Twilight of the Gods: A Journey to the End of Classic Rock"

Twilight of the Gods: A Journey to the End of Classic Rock

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Steven Hyden's Hammer Of The Gods is part memoir, part testament to the power and longevity of classic rock.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"Hyden's critiques are consistently on target...he has created a hilariously opinionated personal history of classic rock that should resonate with his fellow genre enthusiasts."

In his own words, here is Steven Hyden's Book Notes music playlist for his book Twilight of the Gods: A Journey to the End of Classic Rock:

My book is about classic rock, and classic rock mythology, and what it's like to see larger-than-life heroes you imagined were immortal fade away. There have been a lot of books about classic rock, and there will be many more after this one. But I don't recall ever seeing a book that looks at this music from the perspective of someone who wasn't there to witness it unfold in real time. I learned about the legends of Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Keith Richards, Stevie Nicks, and Pete Townshend from classic-rock radio and the Rolling Stone Record Guide. When I was kid, these musicians weren't really people to me; they were like comic-book characters. Hammer Of The Gods was my Batman. I actually think that's how the majority of the people who still care about this music first experienced classic rock. We're not baby boomers who went to Woodstock. We're Gen-Xers who watched Oliver Stone's The Doors and wanted some of that overcooked mythology for ourselves.

If you relate to any of what I just typed, Twilight Of The Gods is for you.

Pink Floyd, "The Great Gig In The Sky"
Perhaps you've noticed the subtle Dark Side Of The Moon homage on the cover of my book. Along with Led Zeppelin IV, Dark Side played an absolutely pivotal role in turning me into a classic-rock head when I was a teenager in the '90s. This song makes death sound sexy, and sex sound like death, which is exactly how teenagers already feel about death and sex.

Peter Frampton, "Do You Feel Like We Do"
I love live albums. I feel like that's probably a contrarian opinion, but I really valued the documentary aspects of records like Frampton Comes Alive! as a kid who came to classic rock 20 years after the fact. I like hearing the crowd, and imagining what it was like to be at the SUNY Plattsburgh college campus on Nov. 22, 1975, when this version of "Do You Feel Like We Do" was recorded. When the song gets quiet during Frampton's endless talkbox solo, you can hear the stoners buzzing in the distance, like lightning bugs.

Bruce Springsteen, "Wreck On The Highway"
A lot of my book was written in 2016, when Bruce and the E Street Band was on The River anniversary tour. I saw three gigs on that tour, which was amazing, even though the setlists were mostly the same. At the start of each show, Bruce did this rap about how The River was ultimately a record about the passage of time, which is a theme that definitely influenced Twilight Of The Gods. My book talks about classic rock but it's really about how to reconcile your own eventual death. But since that's a heavy subject for a rock and roll book, as well as a rock and roll album, you have to make sure the audience is having a good time first before you hit them with the death stuff. The River has so many great party jams, and then it ends with this heartbreaker.

The Allman Brothers Band, "Ramblin' Man"
I love "life on the road" songs. My book has a chapter talking about the paradox of "life on the road" songs, which is that they're cautionary tales that actually make being in a band seem awesome. Bob Seger's "Turn The Page" is the no. 1 "life on the road" song, but "Ramblin' Man" is probably a better example of my thesis, because the guy in this song is clearly an irresponsible S.O.B., and yet Dickie Betts' exuberant vocal and incredible guitar runs make the guy's life seem like the freaking best.

Ozzy Osbourne, "Mr. Crowley"
One of my favorite topics to research was Aleister Crowley. All I really knew about him going into the writing of The River was 1) Jimmy Page loved him so much that he bought his spooky house; and 2) This lovably cheesy track from Ozzy's solo debut, Blizzard Of Ozz. But Crowley really was the original rock star. So much behavior that we associate with rock clichés originated with Crowley — at least he was the one who justified his decadent behavior as a path to spiritual enlightenment. If he had been born 50 or so years later, Crowley would've been a member of the Doors.

Neil Young, "Computer Cowboy"
One of my favorite chapters in the book is about good "bad" albums, which are the records in an artist's discography that everyone tells you are terrible but over time you convince yourself that those are actually the best records. Fans do this because you can only listen to acknowledged classics and respectable second-tier releases for so long. Eventually, you have to dig into the material that's largely misunderstood. Trans by Neil Young is a quintessential good "bad" album — it's as personal and idiosyncratic as Tonight's The Night or Rust Never Sleeps, but it has way more vocoder.

REO Speedwagon, "Keep On Loving You"
Fredric Dannen's classic 1990 book about payola, Hit Men, includes a chapter about how REO Speedwagon's Hi Infidelity became a priority for Epic Records over the Clash's Sandinista! because the band gave out Rolexes to the label's promotional staff. It helps to explain how so many faceless middle-American arena-rock bands sold millions of albums on the backs of power ballads in the early '80s. But then there's also the fact that my mom loved Hi Infidelity; it was one of the only tapes she owned, along with the Dirty Dancing soundtrack. The lesson is that a lot about classic rock is a scam and also transcendent.

The Rolling Stones, "You Can't Always Get What You Want"
Politicians have tried to co-opt classic rock songs for their campaigns for decades. But the twinning of classic rock and the Trump campaign in 2016 felt different. When the RNC held its convention in Cleveland, they actually put a guitar in its official logo. And then there was the bizarre use of "You Can't Always Get What You Want" at the end of Trump's bombastic nomination speech. This wasn't like Reagan trying to use "Born In The U.S.A." in 1984. That was an old guy trying to reach kids. Trump was an old guy talking to other old guys. Trump is actually a few years younger than Mick Jagger.

Phish, "The Squirming Coil"
I became a big Phish fan in mid-30s after hating them for 20 years before that. One day I realized that I hated this band without knowing much about them. When I checked them out, I realized that Phish was a post-modern classic rock band – they display equal amounts of reverence and irreverence for classic rock history and mythology. If you worship guitar solos, Phish is the rare modern rock band that will indulge you. But when Phish covers "Free Bird," they do it A capella style. That's when I realized that Phish was precisely the band that I had always been waiting for, even though they had been under my nose all along. My relationship with Phish basically has the same dynamic as Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in You've Got Mail.

Wilco, "Either Way"
I knew I had to write a chapter on dad rock, which is a term I loathed for a long time before I learned to accept it, kind of like how people from the south learned to embrace the term "redneck." Dad rock generally is supposed to be a putdown, as dads have a terrible reputation in rock and roll, whether you're Harry Chapin or Kurt Cobain. In my book, I tried to trace the history of the term, and the best I can tell is that it derives from the British press of the mid-'90s. But it was popularized in America, I believe, by Pitchfork's negative review of an album I adore, Wilco's Sky Blue Sky, written by my friend Rob Mitchum. That album came out 11 years ago but I still bring up the review any time I talk to Rob.

Courtney Barnett, "An Illustration of Loneliness (Sleepless in New York)"
The overwhelming straight white male-ness of classic rock, which was enforced by gatekeepers in radio and music criticism for decades, becomes a major theme of the book in the back half. One of the great things about rock right now is how that stranglehold has been broken by a younger generation of women, people of color, and LGBTQ musicians. As I write this, the best writer of rock songs on the planet is Courtney Barnett, and this is her heartbreakingly sad (and hilarious!) take on the "life on the road" song.

Steven Hyden and Twilight of the Gods: A Journey to the End of Classic Rock links:

excerpt from the book

Portland Mercury review
Washington Post review

Beyond the Pond interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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