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Baby boomers: India’s old school rockers for whom music was about rebellion

As a legendary of line-up of rock and roll stars draws the crowds, we go looking for their biggest fans in India

art and culture Updated: Oct 09, 2016 11:26 IST
Aparna Alluri
A 73-year-old Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones performs on the first day of the Desert Trip festival on October 7, 2016 in  California.
A 73-year-old Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones performs on the first day of the Desert Trip festival on October 7, 2016 in California.(Dave J Hogan/Getty Images)

“Unbelievable.” That’s how 59-year-old Krishan Dhawan described his upcoming trip to the Desert Trip music festival in California to watch a legendary lineup: Bob Dylan, Roger Waters, The Rolling Stones, The Who, Paul McCartney and Neil Young in a single concert over three nights: October 7-9. That makes up a serious chunk of what defined western music in the 60s and 70s.

“To watch even one of them would be great,” said Dhawan. “To watch all of them is unbelievable.” It’s hard to imagine the debonair, grey-haired chief executive, comfortable in his plush office overlooking Delhi’s Olof Palme Marg, grooving to the defiance that was The Rolling Stones. But, he assured me, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and their boisterous crew “loomed large in one’s consciousness” when he was a college student in India in the early 70s.

Why? That was the question that had led me to Dhawan. This assignment began with my editor’s contention that the “granddaddies of rock” had an extraordinary relationship with India’s baby boomers. Would I, or my generation (I am 29 years old), travel half-way across the world to watch a current idol? Even 30 years later?

I felt like my answer was tied to the first question. To explain who I’d love to watch on stage, I’d have to find out why these ageing rock stars still held sway (It’s likely there are others going from India and that many more would go if logistics and cost allowed it). I don’t mean just the ones who are performing in California this weekend, but all those whose era of music they will inevitably represent: from rock to reggae, from punk rockers like The Clash to early metal bands like Deep Purple.

Read | Mick Jagger becomes a father at 72

In the 60s and 70s, these musicians were still rebels, not legends. Vinyl records, initially the only way to hear their music, were scarce and expensive to own in India. Their faces were occasionally found in the pages of a magazine. They released promotional videos that were never shown on television in India. Their concerts were far off, surreal events. So how did they manage to worm their way into the hostel rooms and homes of so many young people in a conservative and closed-off India?

English rock band Deep Purple at a press conference in Mumbai on their visit to India in 1995. (Sanjay Sharma/ HT Photo)

The Times They Are A Changin’

That’s precisely why they managed to worm their way in, according to Sidharth Bhatia, journalist and author of India Psychedelic, a book that tells the story of the rock-and-pop music scene in India. It was because India was so cut off from the rest of the world that young Indians sought more contact with it, said Bhatia.

The message from across the Atlantic -- snuck in via records and cassettes brought back by travelling parents or relatives -- was rebellious. So was listening to it. “You felt you belonged to something bigger,” said Bhatia.

The times were changing in India too. Rumblings of dissent weren’t uncommon among democratic India’s first generation: they were rebelling against all sorts of things from tradition to authority to the state (Naxalism first appeared in the 1960s). Rock and roll was perfect for the job: “Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command, your old road is rapidly agin’.”

Bob Dylan’s poetic anthems were catching on. The Beatles were all the rage. And rock’s bad boys were taking center stage - The Doors, The Who, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix etc. It didn’t matter that they were singing against the war in Vietnam or for civil rights in America. They were singing about love, peace, sex, drugs and revolt. That, Bhatia said, made their music universal.

“When you’re young protest comes naturally,” said Dhawan. “It seems the thing to do.” Everything about this music was a break from the old. Gone were Frank Sinatra’s ballads about the moonlight and Cliff Richards’ and Louis Armstrong’s mushy lines. All of that was hummable. Pink Floyd was not.

Ringo Starr (R) and George Harrison (L) from The Beatles on a visit to Delhi in 1966. (HT Archives)

Comfortably Numb

GV Prasad was in college in Chennai in 1973 when he fell for Floyd. The album was Dark Side of The Moon. Then came his favourites: Wish You Were Here and Animals. These weren’t fleeting affairs. Three decades later, he explained that he loves Floyd for its “dark sarcasm, social commentary...and deeply meaningful lyrics.” And that he can still “smell the moist earth, the green shoots and the...seasons,” when he listens to Jethro Tull’s folksy Songs From The Wood.

Read | Bob Dylan's announced a new album in March

“It became yours in a different way,” said Prableen Sabhaney who went to college in Kolkata in the mid-70s. “The world was not such a small place.” By that she meant you couldn’t pull up their songs (and everything ever written about each song) on your phone while sitting at a table. Rather you sought out this music and you heard it intently. You had no way of knowing, Sabhaney said, if and when you would hear the next album.

They weren’t drawn to this music because it was “great.” It was something far more specific.The Stones were “raucous,” The Who was “just out there,” Jethro Tull was “whimsical,” Jimi Hendrix was “electric,” Pink Floyd was stirring, The Doors were a strange mix of cheery and tortured, and Dylan was gently compelling.

They heard them without necessarily knowing much about the singer, the band or why they wrote the song. The album cover was the only hint and they’d read it again and again. This was a world before cable TV, forget YouTube. So they didn’t know of the Stones’ riotous concerts. Or that Keith Moon would wreck his drums after every set and that Roger Daltrey madly swung his microphone around. Or even that the wild Jim Morrison was so shy in the early gigs that he sang with his back to the crowd.

Huddled over turntables and cassette players at friends houses, in hostel rooms or college lawns on warm summer nights, so many Indians fell in love with these bands -- not with their performances or their personalities but with their music. And they stayed in love.

Long Live Rock

In 2016, these men still attract crowds. The concert in California, dubbed “Woodstock 2016” for its historic cast, is expecting around 150,000 people. Even though the average age of the top performers is 72. The irony perhaps is that Woodstock was cheap because the fans were young and nearly penniless. Desert Trip tickets range from $199 to $1599 and the estimated average spend is $1000: proof of wealthy, older fans.

“Though we liked the songs because they denoted the fight against the establishment, somewhere along the way, we became the establishment,” said Prasad. But they are still chasing those memories -- of rebellion, of discovery, of scratchy records and cassette players that crooned the latest from Dylan or Hendrix.

“When you hear particular music, it will remind you of a particular time,” said Dhawan.

I couldn’t help but smile. It’s easy to forget that Jagger’s slick moves, which inspired a song as recently as 2010, belonged to an older, particular time. A time when young people would turn up at Berco’s in Connaught Place, Delhi, or HMV on MG Road, Bangalore, or Stereovision on Mount Road, Chennai, and pretend to buy music just so they could listen to precious records. A time when cassette players were “liberating,” and a mixed tape was the closest thing to a playlist. And listening to music was an active, almost pure, experience.

Read | India before 1991 was so different, it was another country

“I had a few close friends who were into rock in a very deep way and we used to listen together,” said Prasad. Partly because the music itself was so hard to come by that people would gather with different albums. I heard this so often: friends would get together and spend hours listening to music. Who does that anymore?

Krishna Dhawan (R) who travelled to California for the Desert Trip Festival poses with friends in front of a Bob Dylan poster at the festival. (Krishna Dhawan)

Get No Satisfaction

In a music documentary, Anne Hilde Neset from The Wire said, when she was younger, she’d buy records and listen with “pure concentration and joy...to every little bit and looking through the vinyl and watching the vinyl turn around with the needle in the groove.” Now, she added, “I always do something else while I listen to music.”

As do I. It’s impossible to ignore the glitzy, hyper-produced videos that come with today’s albums. Each is a performance, often with a long list of choreographers, producers and writers. Even superstar Beyonce does not write all of her music because it’s as much about the music as it is about the artist. Back then, I was told, it was all a mystery.

Who would I pick if I have to hop on to an international flight to hear them? Bob Dylan probably. It’s too late to hear Jim Morrison.