If hip hop and rock ‘n’ roll could be represented in a football game, the Rappers versus the Rockers, the Rappers would be making touchdown after touchdown, interception after interception, dominating the game with creative plays while the Rockers try for a last-minute field goal, a desperate attempt after having their predictable moves blocked by the opposing team. After losing yet another game, the Rockers walk slowly off the field, each player shaking his head in disappointment, silently wondering where they went wrong. Is it because their best coach retired years ago, and their most famous players are dead? Is it because the Rappers have the quarterback who’s fresh out of college, whereas the Rockers’ entire team consists of athletes who are old and leathery enough to retire, but stretch out their stamina as long as possible for monetary purposes? Whatever the reason, the issue is clear: rock ‘n’ roll is on life support; if they don’t pick up the pace, their team could be kicked out of the League altogether.
In times of concern, such as when a loved one’s well-being is on the line, we often turn to old friends or family for comfort and advice. New York City’s Cafe Wha? is an old friend of rock ‘n’ roll’s and is a comforting reminder that rock once thrived and still exists at least somewhere in the city. When Cafe Wha? first opened in 1959 on the corner of MacDougal Street and Minetta Lane in the heart of Greenwich Village, it was frequented by artists, musicians, and poets of all walks of life. After contributing to the success of Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Bruce Springsteen, and other famous musicians, Wha? proved its status as a musical landmark. However, for almost twenty years, under the ownership of Manny Dworman, the space featured purely Israeli and Middle Eastern music. It wasn’t until 1987 that the late Dworman’s son, Noam, musician and current owner of the Comedy Cellar, reopened the Wha? he remembered from his childhood. To pass the time, Dworman played guitar, which ultimately led to his formation of Wha?’s House Band. Wha? immediately became a huge hit, much like Dworman’s Comedy Cellar is today; the space was packed six nights a week with a line of eager patrons pouring out the door and wrapped around the block.
Dworman contributes much of his success in running the Wha? as well as the House Band to his being a musician. This perspective proved to be necessary to fully take advantage of the musical and historical significance of Wha? by understanding the dynamic of working with other musicians and providing insight as to identifying and fulfilling the audience’s desires.
This also allows Dworman a unique point of view regarding the shifts over time in genre popularity. Dworman remembers the first time he heard Nirvana’s song “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on Nevermind in 1991, but is at a loss when he tries to think of a song, let alone album, he’s heard since then as groundbreaking in sound and style. He is not alone in this sentiment; it seems that rock n’ roll is getting closer and closer to fossilizing into a dusty artifact fit for a museum.
Based on his personal experience at Wha?, Dworman provides “empirical evidence” that rock is dead. Back in ‘87 when he first started forming Wha?’s House Band, Dworman heard many musicians audition with Beatles or Rolling Stones songs, and “it made sense.” Almost fifteen years later, when Dworman continued auditions, the musicians were still playing Beatles or Stones songs. According to Dworman, this is confirmation that there is a “classic rock ‘n’ roll songbook that has never been improved upon.” The fact that there exists a rock ‘n’ roll canon which consists of musicians mostly from the ‘60s to ’90s signifies a golden age of the genre, a wave of innovation, creativity, popularity, and critical acclaim mirroring that of which hip hop is currently experiencing. Most of today’s rock musicians are recording music that simply recycles pre-established elements of rock ‘n’ roll, without adding anything new or of their own.
With this alarming diagnosis of rock’s declining health comes many contradictions calling for a secondary opinion. If rock is dead, then how come Phish (if you consider their music quality rock ‘n’ roll) sold out Madison Square Garden for thirteen nights this past July? If rock is dead, then what should we call Jack White’s music or the Alabama Shakes’ albums? Finally, can rock truly be dead if Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger are still alive, still making and playing music? These are all questions that signify rock’s past is still alive—but where is its present or future? Perhaps (and hopefully) rock isn’t dead, it’s just dormant: quietly waiting for its chance to jump back into the game.
Illustration by Janie Peacock