Jerry Garcia in the Produce Section

So yesterday I’m going grocery shopping, and they’ve got the Dead playing “Casey Jones” on the radio.

And I found myself wondering, as I have many times before, “Do you think when Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter wrote the song, they had any idea that it would become background music for people comparing the virtues of Shredded Wheat against the granulated joy of Frosted Flakes?”

I can only imagine the answer is no.  If you walk into a major grocery store like A&P, Stop ‘n Shop, Giant, what-have-you, odds are you will hear classic rock being pumped through the aisles.  Don Henley and  Joe Walsh will back your trip down the dairy aisle with “Hotel California.” Led Zeppelin‘s “The Lemon Song” loses its sexy double meaning while wandering through racks of citrus fruits.

You might even say, “Hell, David Byrne sang about perishable goods in ‘Life During Wartime.’ ”  Fair enough, but I don’t think that he’d want the bread aisle to be your primary venue for Fear of Music.

Classic rock is probably the genre most susceptible to this sort of passive acceptance.  A major local grocery store has a wide range of employees and customers, from all backgrounds.  Classic rock is known well enough to the older clientele and employees that it keeps them calm and the dementia at bay.  It has enough edge to keep the 15 year-old grocery baggers and Red Bull tweakers thinking that they’re pretty dark.

But does it, though? (Full disclosure: I’m a really big fan of classic rock, but as I write this, I feel like I’m going to end up questioning it’s validity as the opiate of the masses.)

Lets break down that demographic of A&P that I mentioned before (Red Bull tweakers v. octogenarians).

Some young grocery-getters, those wearing skinny jeans and their hair all akimbo, will dismiss the classic rock on the store’s radio right away.  “It’s old and bad.” Okay, so let’s dismiss them.  Drag a horse to water, can’t make it drink.

Those young kids wearing Swan Song t-shirts, those are the ones we’re talking about.  Young fans of classic rock tend to hold the musicians to a legendary status.

Fair enough.

In an effort to seem wise beyond their years, these young classic rock fans may go as far as saying that classic rock is the “only” music worth listening to. (Reminds me of the YouTube comments you see reading: I’m 13 years old and I only listen to Nirvana!)

These kids, myself included, have reputed the rock musicians of the ’60s and ’70s to the extent of them morphing into tall tales. Partially thanks to “first-hand” accounts such as Hammer of the Gods and the like,  Hendrix, Page, Townshend, Allman, Clapton, Richards, and their peers all have a legendary status, for both the music they wrote, filled with speed and emotion, and the lives they led, filled with drugs and partying.  (Those are just the biggest guitarists! Once you get to Bonzo and Moonie, the stories get downright insane.)

It’s funny though.  When you talk to folks who grew up during the release of albums now considered “Classic Rock,” they obviously have deferring opinions than those born after those releases. They grew up with those albums and developed their own opinions, born in that era and brought to the present.  They don’t necessarily view their thoughts on Exile on Main St. through the same  rose-colored lenses a modern preteen guitarist would.

The people who grew up with this music have emotion attached to the songs.  They may have listened to an album during a rough time in their life.  They might have left Joni Mitchell‘s Blue on their turntable for months after a bad breakup.  They may have entered the realm of promiscuity with Rumours fueling the fire.  Hell, maybe they livedParadise by the Dashboard Light.” Either way, these songs became a snapshot of a specific time in their lives. Therefore, these songs come with baggage.

The Swan Song listeners I described before treat these songs as gospel, whereas the generation that lived through those songs did just that; they lived through it.  They heard it happen sequentially.  They went through the British Invasion and Beatlemania , then heard Led Zeppelin for the first time, then heard David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust, then heard Genesis, then heard Talking Heads.  They matured as each release came to be.  They had opinions about the Beatles before Sgt. Pepper’s, listened to the album, and adjusted that opinion accordingly.  The Swan Song listener was born into a world with a huge back catalog of classic rock, and he can cherry pick only the choicest nuggets, which leads to a sort of best-of knowledge (and opinion) of the classic bands.

My parents hate Don McLean‘s “American Pie.”  I shouted down from my high horse, “You’re crazy! It’s a song about love and life! It’s a gift Don shared with us! We should be so lucky!”

My parents remember it as the eight-and-a-half minute long cheezfest that hogged the airwaves ad nauseum through the early 70’s (and again early 90’s).  I guess if, 40 years from now, my kids told me the 1800-Kars-4-Kids jingle is a masterpiece, I’d have a chip on my shoulder too.

The rest of the clientele at the A&P could be too old to find classic rock palatable.  I once told an older relative of mine that I was going to see Springsteen in concert, and he thrust his hands out and muttered, “eh that’s too loud for me.”  They have common ground with those skinny jeans kids.

So is it the best music for satisfying a large swath of the grocery-buying public? Yeah I guess, but not in the way you might think.  Some of the older folks may honestly enjoy it, but some might hate it. “Casey Jones” may conjure up memories of driving around the lake with the top down, or the favorite song of your asshole ex-boyfriend from 1972.

The younger kids, like the older folks, are a split demographic.  Some dismiss it because of its age, and some like it for that little rush of smugness when they know a song three times older than they are.

Playing classic rock in a grocery store is like a one-size-fits-all hat; you can go to sleep at night knowing that you made lots of people a little happy rather than totally satisfying a niche market.

But did Paul and John write Paperback Writer so that you could feel cozy while deciding between Triple Decker Oreos and Double-Stuf Oreos?  Probably not.

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