On St. Patrick's day, Los Angeles's last and only classic rock station, Arrow 93.1 FM (I don't count KLOS, 95.5, which is less classic and more hair-rock) threw in the towel. Everyone saw it coming, but that doesn't mean it wasn't a melancholy event. Classic rock has been in peril for awhile now, occupying a strange space between the past and future. Unlike the adherents of the oldies station, K-Earth 101.1, listeners of 93.1 are fans of artists still producing in this day and age, and have the capacity to embrace music built on the foundations of The Zep and mumbly Jew, Dylan. 101.1 listeners, on the other hand, aren't budging forward. No one's singing about meeting a guy down at the pop shop or even "dating" anymore, and so K-Earth is its own little cottage, isolated by a nostalgia that maintains its own borders. One of the moms in my Hebrew school carpool only listened to 101.1, and the memory of her car is forever drenched in the musty odor of the plush red seats of her old sedan, the crumbs that always filled in the creases of those seats, and the imaginary perfume of the songs coming out the radio, which in my child's mind smelled like death.
The oldies are a well-defined set, and those who listen to them have no reason to expect any playlist invasions, since Chubby Checker isn't busting out the new singles these days. Classic rock has never received the same reprieve. The music, so moving and influential to artists emerging past the point of the early eighties, is its own worst enemy: because it always feels incredibly close- because it avoids sounding too dated- it has never established its own sealant as the oldies songs have with their "doo-wops" and naive lyrics. Still today, the bulk of classic rock songs sound urgently relevant, and so many modern artists have based their sounds (and often "looks") upon those of their Arrow forefathers that the line has become more and more difficult to draw between what's classic and what's "not."
And especially in recent years, classic rock radio has become self conscious about its own definition of a classic era, causing it to tentatively begin reaching an epic toe into more recent offerings. If Clapton released something in ninety-nine, but it sounded like it could have been recorded in Layla days, Arrow might have given it a spin once every couple of weeks. Then, becoming even more unsure about its identity, classic rock began dabbling in guitar driven singer/songwriters that evoked the superstar do-it-all model of your James Taylors, your Elton Johns. Weirdly, this translated into a handful of Dave Matthews and Rob Thomas (featuring classic rock stalwart Santana) offerings, none of which had the capacity to rescue the format. Not knowing how far to go, and not knowing how obscure to get ("Should we play twenty-minute bootlegs of Yes songs?"), classic rock turned into a shaky notion, an unsustainable relic.
What did Arrow 93.1 turn into on St. Patrick's Day? 93.1, "Jack" radio. "Jack," which loves, loves, loves using samples of Jack Nicholson, claims to be "like your iPod on shuffle," except the truth is it's still a lot like Arrow, except with some Prince and Madonna. It's kind of like your mom's iPod-- Nirvana is about as hard as it gets, and Stevie Nicks is about as coked up as it gets. Even as I mourn the death of Arrow, which holds the dearest place in my teenage heart (while pining for Jonny Jackson, I used to light vanilla candles and listen to a pre-fundamentalist Cat Stevens sing "Oh, baby, baby it's a wild world"), "Jack" radio is still haunted by its ghosts- it's Foreigner, its Boston, its Pink Floyd- and that's somewhat of a consolation. I imagine those who linger behind at the radio station secretly carrying the classic rock torch, only throwing on the Spin Doctors' Two Princes as an offering to the advertiser gods, killing time until they can go back to spinning Bruce.