The Right To Reunite?

I used to feel allergic to reunions. For each band I’d seen in its prime, I had an image in my mind and thought it worth protecting. Worse yet, I grew skeptical of bands as they moved past the 20-year mark.

But those shows over the last few years by the reunited Pixies and Stooges, they were loud and rude and fantastic. And they were judicious. Through their set lists, they located the potential excitement in the task of explaining what the bands had been all about.

I didn’t write those words, though I could echo them with hand on heart, right down to the specific groups. No, they’re part of an extensive essay by Ben Ratliff in this Sunday’s New York Times Arts section, defending the right of not just The Pixies and The Stooges to reform, but also of Genesis, Rage Against The Machine, The Police, The Jesus and Mary Chain and everyone else on this year’s list.

Iggy Pop with his reformed Stooges at LITTLE STEVEN’S INTERNATIONAL UNDERGROUND GARAGE FESTIVAL, August 14, 2004. Full review here.

As I suspected, part of Ratliff’s belief system comes from his background in jazz music, a genre in which ‘reformations’ are rarely much more morally complicated than ‘a new opportunity to play music with old friends.’ This is something I’ve recently been learning for myself in studying (finally, after all these years) the jazz world, and it’s affected my previously cynical view on the rock reunion. Why shouldn’t ageing musicians long to play once more with those they thrived alongside in their twenties and thirties? After all, argues Ratliff, a band is merely

“made of musicians who are considered young for a while, and then become older. They play in a club, then maybe a stadium, and then maybe a club again. They have money disputes, or they don’t want to look at one another for a while, and they stop. Then the market changes in their favor, and they play again.”

But because so many bands mean so much more to us than that, Ratliff somewhat contradicts his simple hypothesis by searching for a higher meaning:

“We’re seeing the winnowing of the live-music era in America, as well as the end of belief in the album. Any crisis of belief leads to sanctification and orthodoxy; people want to see the saints work their magic.”

I’m not sure I buy the idea that “the reformation concert” has become a bigger event than “the new album.” I just think that the longer rock music sticks around, the more high-earning consumers there are who desire to relive something they experienced (or indeed, that they missed) in a previous era. Yes, the musicians themselves are partly inspired by the opportunity to make money (that often passed them by during their so-called heyday), but show me an audience member who turns down a pay raise for doing what he or she loves and, well, I’ll show you an equally rare musician.

Ultimately, I’d like to believe we all have a built-in Bullshit Detector that can sense when the line is crossed between artistic creativity and financial speculation. And if it turns out we get fooled (again) occasionally, let’s not pretend we don’t prove equally gullible in rushing out to hype any number of new bands – many of whom, frankly, will never need worry themselves about any future demand to reform.

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December 2021