Song du jour: A Personal History of Rock

My first exposure to Rock and Roll came through a radio my parents bought me when I was maybe eleven years old. It was a 6″ X 9″ blue radio with a square, silver speaker face that took up most of the front, the whole thing being maybe 2″ thick. It sat there on my dresser like a talking brick, or maybe like the obelisk in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The dials were underneath the speaker. I think it was just an AM radio.

The first two songs that really stuck with me: CCR’s “Proud Mary”:

And Jethro Tull’s “Bungle in the Jungle”:

And then a friend of my father’s who worked for CBS records let his daughter pick out some albums for me. She was 12, I was 12. She started me out on Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road:

So I spent most of 1976 listening to Elton John, Lake, and a 70s band called Seal (not the artist known for “Kiss From A Rose”). Later that year my friend Niall told me to ask my parents for Aerosmith’s Rocks for Christmas. They got it for me. Instantly changed my life — my life’s ambition (for my 12-13 year old self) became to grow my hair long and play guitar, mainly because of this song:

I said earlier that if somehow you don’t understand Rock and Roll, watch Pirate Radio. The film doesn’t explain it, of course. You don’t have to understand Rock any more than you have to understand eating ice cream. The whole point is having fun. But it elevates fun to something that engages all of your senses — your whole body. Rock and Roll is transcendent fun, a fun that pushes your mind and body to its limits. It’s erotic in the ancient Greek sense: sexual but not just sexual. It’s fully bodily, fully sensory. That’s what “Rock and Roll” means, by the way: the term is early twentieth-century African-American slang for sex, but performers like Ted Nugent say it’s better than sex: Rock goes beyond sex while taking sex along with it all of the way.

Rock and Roll is who we are defined by how we feel. That’s why it resists authority. It’s the assertion of feeling over restraint, the demand of the self to be what it is, immediately, right now, to feel what it feels, and to affirm and validate those feelings with every ounce of energy it has. It is the loudest, most passionate cry of the individual at the moment of his or her greatest individuality.

It’s a party that our senses are having until the body transcends itself.

The history of Rock and Roll is the history of our emotional lives. It’s become a business and an industry, like a wife faking orgasms after ten years of marriage (or really far sooner than that), but while this energy may be channeled through precisely defined demographics that yield generally predictable sales, the energy itself can’t be tamed. It couldn’t be repressed (see Pirate Radio), so it was channeled and packaged.

The greatest danger to Rock and Roll today is that it’s polite. It’s accepted and has a place in this world. What saves it? Miley Cyrus offending everyone? That might be it, but I worry that she’s just more packaging: Madonna was an original, so now Miley is probably just one more marketing strategy. Madonna was a marketing strategy too, but she was one that might have failed. That’s the point. There was risk involved.

In Pirate Radio, this energy overwhelmed itself and sank the ship being used to illegally broadcast Rock from off the coast of England. Rock and Roll is the Sex Pistols and Amy Winehouse: one, maybe two bright, raw albums and then you flare out and die.

But now the ship is fully insured and accompanied by a team of handlers to make sure it arrives at its destination safe and on time.

So what’s it going to take? Maybe Bruce Springsteen and Tom Morello writing songs together. Maybe another Marilyn Manson, but Christian baiting isn’t what we need — that plays into another predictable strategy, another line-drawn-in-the-sand-showdown with the usual sides lining themselves up against each other for airtime: another marketing ploy. I’ll make a work of art called Piss Christ if you promise to protest it. See? Everyone’s happy. Anything as mindless and stupid as “Gangnam Style” is a step in the right direction, but that’s so mindless and stupid that it’s no threat to anyone.

Led Zeppelin could rise again if Robert Plant hadn’t been emasculated by a three foot tall girl with a fiddle (okay, yes, they made some great music. I don’t have to be happy about that). Zeppelin needs to relisten to their BBC Sessions album and step back from arena rock, back from heavy metal, back from the late 70s, and produce one more rock album so raw it sounds like punk again. Record it live in the studio. That would be a swan song indeed.

I don’t think Patti Smith cussed even once on her new album.*

Buckcherry has a lot of potential, but they’re so good at this that they don’t have anything to say.

So what’s it going to take?

Intense feelings, a vivid imagination, a good bit of well-placed anger, unselfconscious originality, and an electric guitar.

Then step up to the plate and reinvent this:

*I stand corrected by my friend Sherry. After reading through the lyrics in the album book (an effective work of art in itself), I see that Patti Smith cusses exactly once on the album Banga, at least according to the reprinted lyrics, in the title song.

 

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