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Robert Hilburn's memoir: If rock is to remain vital, the young must lead

October 13, 2009|By Robert Hilburn | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
  • A SIGN: Bono spreads a message at a concert in San Diego in 2005. With Robert Hilburn, he considers rock's future.
A SIGN: Bono spreads a message at a concert in San Diego in 2005. With Robert… (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles…)

Former Times pop music critic Robert Hilburn writes in his new book "Corn Flakes With John Lennon (and Other Tales From a Rock 'n' Roll Life)" that after John Lennon's death in 1980, he focused on artists who carried on in Lennon's tradition, including Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, U2 and Kurt Cobain. But in the second half of the decade, the music began to drift and widespread piracy threatened to throw the recording industry into collapse. Looking for some answers about the future of rock, Hilburn sat down with Bono, a visionary from one generation, and Jack White, the most captivating musician from a newer generation.

Bono was in town to address the Women's Conference 2008, and we talked over breakfast about why U2 has remained such a compelling force for so long. He stressed the importance of keeping your sights set on artistry, something they learned from Dylan, Lennon and Springsteen, among others.

"Bruce is probably one of the only people in the world who understands how to survive in this kind of a life, how to get through all this without dying or walking with a limp or with one eye -- the way so many of these great people we've known and met did, these musical geniuses who didn't make it through the fire," Bono said. "They gave us beautiful music, and they were left exhausted, empty. It's heartbreaking. You've got to be tough, and you've got to avoid being self-conscious.

"I certainly went through a self-conscious phase, and it makes you ugly. . . . And it can change the way you walk and think because you don't want to let people down. . . .

"I am much more recognized now than I ever was, but I don't notice it anymore. People come up to me all the time, and I don't care if I've washed or if I'm crawling on my hands and knees out of a night club. The artist's journey is away from self-consciousness. That's where you've got to have tenacity. Bruce certainly has that. Lennon had it. I had that," he said. "It's like we are locked into something and we will not let go of it. If your drug of choice is that song that's never been heard before but feels like it's always existed, then you'll do anything to protect it."

Despite the struggle he outlines, Bono doesn't feel rock is at the end of the line. "It's still the most powerful art form," he said.

"Rock brought together rhythm, harmony and top-line melody: rhythm for the body, top-line melody for the mind, and harmony for the spirit. That's a very powerful concoction. Classical music has harmony and top-line melody, but it didn't have rhythm. That's why rock 'n' roll surpassed it."

So why do young bands seem to be afraid of massive stardom or contemptuous of it?

"I think one thing is they are suspicious of fame because fame is now associated with 'celebrity,' and that has become oppressive in our society. The bands don't want to become part of this thing which is crawling all over us. But when they pull down the shutters and block out the light, they lose their curiosity. I've never seen art improved by someone who has double-locked the door, turned off the light, and found a little cupboard in the back of the house where no one is going to find them. There is something about the spotlight that keeps you sharp."

Jack White was in town on business, and we met at his hotel. One of 10 children of working-class parents in Detroit, he told a story of being inspired by rock 'n' roll that was similar to those I had been hearing from musicians for years. Music was, he said, the only thing that made sense to him, and it left him with a desire to use that music to touch others in the same way he had been touched.

"The area of Detroit I came from wasn't the golden age of Detroit in the 1930s and 1940s," he said. "It was the 1980s, and nothing seemed to work. The potholes wouldn't get fixed, and the garbage wouldn't get picked up. If you went to the store to get something, they'd be out of it or they wouldn't have enough change. It wasn't like a real city anymore. . . . So like a lot of artists do, you go to your room and you shut it all out. You look for something that makes sense to you and makes you feel good, and I don't think you really pick it. It picks you. It's like you don't get to pick who you fall in love with, it just happens. For me it was the drums. As soon as I started playing, it meant something to me immediately, just the pleasure of playing."

His duo the White Stripes moved to Warner Bros. Records after four albums on minor labels, but I wondered if he still clung to the widespread indie notion of fearing too much success.

"I never said, 'I don't want to be famous,' or 'I don't want to be the best I can be at what I'm doing,' or 'I don't want to share my music with millions of people instead of a roomful.' I was willing to do whatever I had to do to reach an audience.

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