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February 28, 2010

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Mirror on end of the rock music era

ROCK 'n' roll is old. The music of youth and sex and rebellion, the sound that would never die, has now entered its seventh decade, and the business that has sustained it is limping and shrunken. It's had a good long run, which means that its story can finally be told as a proper epic, from birth to death.

That, at least, is the point of view in "Evening's Empire," a rock novel by Bill Flanagan as long as a Yes concept album and as wittily observed as a Kinks song. Following the members of a second-tier British band called the Ravons, it winds through the standard historical mileposts of the last 40-odd years - the fizzy mid-1960s, the turgid and bearded 1970s, the reunion tours and charity mega-concerts since the 1980s - and leads to a sobering coda: the end of the party, the twilight of the rock gods.

Our guide is the Ravons' manager, Jack Flynn. As a young lawyer assigned in 1967 to the divorce case of Emerson Cutler, the Ravons' lead singer, Flynn points out the injustices of the band's recording contract and is immediately hired as manager, in spite of his unhipness: he thought the band's name was an allusion to Edgar Allan Poe, not Buddy Holly.

The manager is an underexplored archetype in rock lit: an insider who enables the star life yet doesn't live it, a mover-shaker as well as an abused factotum. Flanagan, a veteran music journalist who has spent the last 15 years as a honcho at MTV and VH1, is well qualified to describe Flynn's world, and much of it rings true.

When Cutler, who by the 1970s has gone solo, refuses to record a potential hit, Flynn devises a stratagem to convince him of huge radio demand for it; Cutler takes the bait, the song shoots up the charts, "and Emerson was very happy about the whole thing because it had all been his idea."

In attempting to construct a believable rock band, however, Flanagan, whose novel "A&R" took a similarly jaundiced view of the music business, hews too closely to familiar, even cliched scenes - lounging with singer-songwriters in Los Angeles in 1975, visiting CBGB a year later - and as a result the Ravons resemble lots of real bands yet have little character of their own.

Less predictable, and more broadly trenchant, are Flynn's musings on rock's cultural evolution.

The post-Woodstock shift toward pastoral themes, he notes, mirrored white flight from cities, while decades later consumer technology deadens even that most visceral musical sacrament, the live concert. Once filled with the magical flickering of cigarette lighters, arenas now glow with the cold luminescence of digital cameras, which "make the musicians immortal or, depending on your theology, steal their souls."

Flanagan reveals a generational bias here that allows him to wrap up his narrative neatly, but only at the expense of the music's present and future. As portrayed in "Evening's Empire," rock was born in the 1950s, matured over the next two decades, then grew weak. By the late 2000s, when Charlie Lydle, who played guitar for the Ravons, dies of cancer and the record labels plot to wring their last millions from a collapsing business, its story is essentially complete. Most music made since the Reagan administration is excluded or marginalized: Axl Rose, Kurt Cobain, Eddie Vedder and Nine Inch Nails are all confined to a single paragraph.

On his deathbed, Lydle is finally able to let go of his punishing hunger for fame and enjoy a moment of peace and friendship with Flynn, who has retired to a hilltop in Jamaica. "We're it, Jack," Lydle tells him. "We are the miracle" - and the story of the music fades with him. But rock 'n' roll shouldn't die so easily.


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