If there were a gravestone shaped and chiseled every time someone proclaimed that rock 'n' roll was dead, you'd have to bulldoze Yosemite just to plant the memorials in the ground.
The assertion is at least as old as the 1959 death of Buddy Holly, and it was revived by the fall of The King in 1977. It's been bludgeoned into the cultural consciousness by fleets of critics since. The Doors, Marilyn Manson and Lenny Kravitz have all penned anthems anchored on some "Rock is Dead" variation (irony of ironies, no?), and Sufjan Stevens has called rock "a museum piece." (Ditto.)
Even the counter-arguments of the truest believers have been turned against them. Silver Jews' David Berman, always one to rain on a parade, sang "Punk rock died when the first kid said/ 'Punk's not dead, punk's not dead.'" Call it punk, call it indie, call it post-, or call it Southern: For a lot of listeners, it's toast, and the people who won't accept as much are simply kicking the corpse.
For Steve LaBate and Scott Sloan, though, that notion is less of a fact, more of a challenge. For 40 days this summer, they'll take to the road with video cameras to capture the spirit of live music all across America in an attempt to prove that rock 'n' roll isn't dead, not even asleep. The evidence will eventually form the film 40 Nights of Rock & Roll. But for now, it's one night of music at a time. In Chapel Hill this week, they'll hook up with The Moaners and Spider Bags—two bands that have a handle on rock's relentless pulse.
"They are as cool and good and badass as anything I've seen or heard of in a while," says Sloan of The Moaners.
LaBate echoes him emphatically: "Plus, they just fucking rock."
Sloan is an independent filmmaker who's made shorts and documentaries since high school. LaBate is a prominent music journalist who, as an associate editor at Paste magazine, penned cover stories on artists such as Ryan Adams and The Avett Brothers. The film—for now, subtitled A Fearless Journey Through the Dark Heart of Rock & Roll Music—will take them across the country, into dives and theaters, onto festival grounds and backstage at ballrooms. It'll throw them in the path of bands as diverse as '80s glam overlords Ratt, Swedish indie pop misfits the Shout-Out Louds and Dirty Southern rockers the Drive-By Truckers. The 14,000-mile celluloid snapshot of today's music will be, they think, brutal.
"Everyone is worried about me," Sloan admits.
Luckily, Sloan and LaBate have known each for years, and their friendship was born of extreme circumstances. "I met Scott when I was, I believe, 16 or 17 years old, and he made me drink till I puked," LaBate explains, noting that Sloan, who was the older brother of one of his best friends, was also "really the first person to turn [him] on to Hunter Thompson."
After bonding over booze and gonzo journalism, the two kept in touch and grew to be close friends. Several years ago, Paste sent them to film the Monolith Festival at Red Rocks. And it was only when they both, in what Sloan calls "a tremendous fortune of circumstance," found themselves unemployed, the opportunity to collaborate finally presented itself again.
When LaBate and Sloan explain the process that led to 40 Nights, you're inclined to doubt every thing they've ever said. They spin a yarn about initial intentions to hunt pumas or stage a coup in Central America. Those plans fell through.
"[That] would have been so much easier than this," says Sloan.
Harping on how rough the trip is bound to be is a top-notch shtick for these two. They explain that they aimed for 40 nights not only because 30 was too few and 50 was too many but also because of their number's biblical ties. Sloan ponders if their vehicle of choice, a 2001 black Jeep Cherokee dubbed Black Betty, is the metaphorical ark in Noah's flood.
"No one's ever done anything of this scale before in a documentary," Labate says, "and I can tell you the reason why: It's a huge fucking pain in the ass with all kinds of potential for fuck-ups and disasters."
For months, they've been arranging bands, dealing with handlers, checking on legal fees, procuring the proper equipment and all the while trying to stay afloat as freelancers long enough to make the film happen. Even now, the itinerary is full of holes—some by design and meant to allow for an element of indeterminacy and some, to be honest, simply because of bad scheduling. But if they manage to schedule every night, there's no guarantee that Black Betty will even make it.
"We talked about renting a car," says Sloan. "The jeep won out because it's more rock 'n' roll to drive around in a shitted-out jeep than it is a brand new car."
"It's black as the cover of Spinal Tap's Smell the Glove," adds LaBate.
Despite the harrowing days ahead, Sloan and LaBate are resolute. They see this as more than an egocentric joyride. It's a philosophical vendetta. "You always hear about how rock'n'roll is dead and rock 'n' roll is dying. Our hypothesis is that rock 'n' roll is alive and well and thriving," says LaBate.
That's not the only hook, either: In a world where the average consumer is bombarded by advertisements and sounds and songs and having to say no to things competing for attention, this film is about 40 consecutive nights of saying yes to live music—and seeing what happens.
"We are gonna listen to a lot of stuff. I'm going to see some stuff that I don't love and Steve might not either," says Sloan, "but I think that's all part of rock."
"This trip is really the antidote to cynicism," says LaBate. "We're almost trying to get at the true possibility of what you can accomplish in America just by having a small dream and seeing it through."