In this chapter, "The Drugs Don't Work," aging rock star Emerson Cutler and his manager, Jack Flynn, are seeking inspiration — and desperately trying to jumpstart his career:
Emerson had not written a song for two years. There was no prospect of getting him into the studio to work. He was not even interested in firing up his assembly line. I had experience sitting out his dry spells, but this drought was becoming a desert. If he didn't come up with something soon, our orchard would wilt. Worse than the record company calling me to complain was then they stopped calling. They did not care about Emerson anymore
The problem was greater than his depression over the end of this third marriage. The bigger issue was that as the twentieth century limped toward its finish, Emerson had fallen out of love with contemporary music.
I knew the list of grievances. He hated the sound of new music, the icy digital production like jackboots marching on breaking ice, keyboards like heart monitors, bass like the rumbling of a subway train through a basement wall, and mewling keyboards stuffing aural rugs and blankets into every open space, leaving not a breath of air between the instruments, suffocating every note.
Still, he contended, he might have overcome all that if the lyrics contained one original thought. No one understood better than Emerson that rock songs speak to adolescent concerns — first love, lost love, frustration, rebellion, and an inchoate longing for justice and a better world. The reason the best rock songs were written by people in their twenties was because after that age you knew how unoriginal these ideas were. Declaring clichés with passion and conviction demanded a lot of naïveté. You had to not know they were clichés.
What wide-eyed kid could tell Emerson anything he did not know? What new song could move his heart of stone?
So he went backward into old music, music he had missed or misunderstood when he was younger. He went deep into the country blues he had brushed past as a trendy boy in London, into esoteric R&B from forgotten southern labels, into jazz, into the sort of early bluegrass that he had dismissed as corny before he was old enough to know better. In his fifties and orphaned, Emerson was looking for elders, looking for wisdom, listening for anything he had not already heard.
Everything that had ever been out on vinyl was now out on CD, often in expensive box sets that included lost treasures that a record collector would have spent years trying to find. As much as Emerson relished this discovery, archaeology can only look backward. I knew that if Emerson did not keep up with what was new in music, he would fall behind forever. Across the radio and retail landscape, rock was in retreat. The latest generation of guitar heroes had abandoned the field. Kurt Cobain had killed himself. Eddie Vedder, Sinéad O'Connor, and Axl Rose retreated from the spotlight. Nine Inch Nails declared war on the conglomerates that distributed CDs. Unwilling to sully themselves with the taint of commercialism, rock's new leaders raced toward self-inflicted obscurity like nuns fleeing a brothel.