Essayist Clarence Page Discusses the Longevity of Rock and Roll

April 11, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT

CLARENCE PAGE: Rock music has always been self-conscious about its own mortality. Danny and the Juniors raged against the dying of their light in 1958. "I don’t care what people say," they sang.

SINGING: Rock and roll is here to stay; it will never die.

CLARENCE PAGE: Twenty-one years later, Neil Young cried out.

NEIL YOUNG SINGING: My, my, hey, hey — rock ‘n roll is here to stay.

CLARENCE PAGE: Maybe not, but a half-century after its birth, rock has seen better days. Album sales, concert tickets and radio play have slumped, badly in recent years. Rock is disappearing from the airwaves of stations across the country

In the nation’s capital, the new slogan at WHFS-FM — "Siempre de fiesta" — always partying. Yes, the new growth engine in radio is the urban sound. It’s Latin-flavored or black- oriented hip-hop and R&B.

NAS: Can we please have a moment of peace? For every G that fell for his flag in the streets…

CLARENCE PAGE: More than 60 percent of the top 100 pop music hits on radio last year were urban, 8 percent more than in 2003. No need to panic, I say. Reports of rock’s death have been exaggerated before. But for now, rock’s bubble has burst.

SINGING: There’s a lady who’s sure all that glitters is gold and she’s buying a stairway to heaven…

CLARENCE PAGE: My generation re-listens to old-school rock — Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, Pat Benatar. We buy our "Stairway to heaven" and defy the tastes of our children in the way we used to defy the tastes of our own parents. Our kids, meanwhile, aren’t waiting for radio to tell them what to hear.

Their downloading new sounds directly off the Web and other sources onto their MP3’s and iPods. As a result, their musical tastes appear to be more eclectic than ours were. They may not have as many shared experiences like Woodstock to remember, but they are listening to a greater variety of music.

SINGING: Come on —

CLARENCE PAGE: Already we see unlikely collaborations to boost sales. Like last year’s rock and rap album by Linkin Park and Jay-Z, weaving rap mixes into Linkin Park’s hard-rock guitar riffs.

SINGING: If you grew up…

CLARENCE PAGE: But what about the calm yet compelling hit "Over and Over," a collaboration by rap star Nelly and country star Tim McGraw? It’s all in my head I think about it over and over again.

What do you call this tune? Rhythm and blues? Country soul? A rock ballad? How about all of the above? Reaching back to the roots of today’s music with voices hard to tell apart, they reconnect themselves and the rest of us to emotional threads that America’s urban and rural life have very much in common: The blues. What is the blues, after all, but the deeply felt pain of loss and regret, illuminated by a faint-but-defiant spark of hope for better days.

SINGING: In a booth in the corner with the lights down low; I was movin’ in fast she was takin’ in slow — uh-huh…

CLARENCE PAGE: Rock, like all art, must reach out for energy and inspiration. White stripes’ Jack White, a young Detroit punk rocker, reached out across generations to country music legend Loretta Lynn…

SINGING: Well, sloe gin fizz works mighty fast…

CLARENCE PAGE: …a Kentucky coal miner’s daughter, to win a Grammy this year.

ELVIS PRESLEY: Well, it’s one for the money two for the show three to get ready now go, cat, go…

CLARENCE PAGE: Rock itself was produced by a cultural marriage of white and black America, and it influences other music forms throughout the world. Rock as we have known it may never be the money machine that it used to be, but it’s not dead yet. As long as kids get together with drums, guitars, open ears and open hearts, they’ll sing:

SINGING: Hey, hey, my, my, rock and roll can never die.

CLARENCE PAGE: I’m Clarence Page.