I love rock. So, I’m always eager to find rock’s next great band. And it’s as hard as finding a spouse. In the studio, the only band pushing the envelope is (yawn) Radiohead. In concert, the only ones that can make FedEx Field feel like the 930 Club are Springsteen and U2. Meanwhile, many acts that rock pins its hopes on, like Arcade Fire, are good but not great. You know, Entourage with a guitar.
Like so many fans and critics, I had high hopes for Kings of Leon. The boys from Nashville had a lot going for them: the Southern Rock thing, the family thing, the grassroots popularity thing. No, they didn’t grab rock by its throat like Nirvana. But KOL seemed to understand rock’s higher calling in a way that divas like The Strokes never did. Above all, great rock bands have to be reliable. Fans pay to know that, no matter what, the band will carry them to that stratospheric place that drove them to love drums, bass, two guitars, and lyrics about cars and girls in the first place.
Now, in the the wake of this week’s gossip rag rumors that the band is kicking frontman Caleb Followill out—which came in the wake of last week’s tour cancellation for “vocal issues and exhaustion”—it’s obvious that KOL doesn’t get it. And maybe KOL never did, actually. So the joke is on me. In the same way that the 49ers continue to believe that Alex Smith will develop into a Pro Bowler, I had defended KOL.
When my friends compared their early stuff to the Killers, I argued that at least KOL was trying to do something original. When my friends compared KOL’s recent stuff to Creed, I argued that you can’t knock a group for producing Top 40 hits—at least when those hits are surrounded by awesome tracks such as “No Money,” “Pickup Truck,” “Closer” and “Cold Desert.” I even defended KOL to, well, myself. After seeing the band this past winter at Madison Square Garden, I was shocked at how big their anthems sound in studio and how small they were in an arena. A band whose music is built for large venues couldn’t transcend one. U2 can make MSG feel like CBGB’s; if anything, KOL made MSG seem bigger. Still, performing is a skill that can be honed, and I figured KOL would improve.
That lasted until last week, when Caleb quit a Dallas show because he was too hot, or too dehydrated, or too something else. Within hours, the tour was cancelled, with rumors flying that Caleb has a drinking problem. According to Rolling Stone, there’s a moment in KOL’s upcoming Showtime documentary, Talihina Sky: The Story of the Kings of Leon, when drummer Nathan Followill confronts Caleb and yells, “You don’t realize—you get drunk and you talk shit to everybody who makes you who you are. You’re a piece of shit and your band cannot fucking stand you! … I sing every goddamn song for you because your little pussy-ass voice gets hoarse! Fuck you—we have made you.”
Yesterday morning, in response to the rumors that Caleb was toast, Nathan tweeted: “BREAKING NEWS: Kings Of Leon has kicked Caleb out and Jared and Matt will be taking over lead vocals. Where do people come up with this s—? Hilarious.” Answer: Probably from bassist Jared Followill’s Twitter feed, which has recently featured such gems as, “there are internal sicknesses & problems that need to be addressed” and “there are problems in our band bigger than not drinking enough Gatorade.”
Of course, rock band infighting is as classic as classic rock itself. But what’s separated rock from other types of music—country, rap and pop—is that the great artists overcome their own shit for the greater good of rock and roll, for the liberation it inspires in themselves and their audience. (Or they die at age 27.) The human tragedy in Kings of Leon’s tour cancellation is that Caleb has serious alcohol issues. But the rock tragedy—my tragedy, our tragedy—is the scare that KOL, unlike the Stones, U2, Pearl Jam, and others, can’t transcend its own dysfunction. And that realization arrives at a damning moment, both for rock and for KOL. Rock and roll has never been weaker. Most of the Followills, meanwhile, are in their mid- to late-20s—their creative peaks. Instead of rocking us to high hell, they’ve veered into the world where TMZ and US Weekly dog them for dirt.
The signs were there. Last summer, the band cancelled its St. Louis show due to pigeons shitting on them. I mean, Bono hit the stage at Sun Devils Stadium in the mid-80s despite death threats and played “Pride.” So I wonder: Did Kings of Leon ever possess that rock-at-all-costs magic—or are we so desperate for a legendary rock band that we projected greatness onto them?
Kings of Leon, after it figures itself out, will certainly one day make another good record. And it’ll sell out arenas, no doubt. But when it bailed on this tour, it bailed on its mantle as rock’s next great rock band.
Gaslight Anthem, anyone?