Rock’n’Roll With Me

Once again, in a tableau of social and mental breakdown, amid paranoia and prophesies of doom, comes the leper messiah with a promise of redemption. Your life is saved by rock’n’roll. Lou Reed said it as a blunt statement of personal fact. David Bowie spun the idea into an allegory, a showstopping act of musical theatre, and a lifelong literary thesis. Is he speaking of rock’n’roll as a metaphor for sex, and by extension, romantic love? Or is rock’n’roll the stand-in for all of human artistic endeavor and self-expression? It’s both, as all of those things can be life-saving and redemptive.

If there’s one thing people outside the fandom don’t get about David Bowie, it’s that underneath the feathers and the literary allusions and the messiah complex, he was a desperate romantic. Why crawl out of your cocaine batcave if not in a quest for love? Amid the apocalyptic imagery, the self-professed alienation, the theatrical alter-egos, the despair of addiction, there was always a beacon of romantic hope, the desperate desire to be loved and understood and to do the same. Resulting in an underrated oeuvre of Broadway-worthy grand love songs. (And, off the stage, the late-life reward of a grand and lasting romance.)

The other, equally important, thing about David Bowie and his genius, was that he grasped, better than most, the real-world implications of artistic disruption. The idea that Art is Important is familiar, and the idea that self-expression is redemptive is familiar, almost to the point of cliche. It’s a rallying cry for young people trying to establish their identity, and a nifty marketing tool aimed at those same young people. It is also an abstract concept of intellectual discussion; how do changes in the art world reflect or affect our real lives? What can high art do for the lives of the masses? In a broad socio-political context, does art really matter at all? That’s a conversation that happens in mostly academic circles, not so much in the world of rock music, where the question tends to be, does art get you laid? David Bowie was one of a very few who saw the role of a rock performer and of rock music in general as something more than a means of becoming a more sexually appealing and financially autonomous individual. He was also one of a very few who took an interest in what went on in less liberal societies than his own. There was a reason, besides the desire to escape the toxic environment of the American music industry, that he spent so much time hanging out in the Eastern bloc. He was interested in the role that art played in highly repressed societies, and knew that in authoritarian states, artists were considered as dangerous as any military threat or political sabotage. Art can undermine political regimes, and to treat that as an abstract concept is a privilege of living in a liberal society.

Rock’n’roll, in this case and others, may be a metaphor for liberating and redeeming yourself on a personal level, sexually and romantically. It’s also, literally, a means of liberating and redeeming yourself within the political structure of the society in which you are living. Rock’n’roll and by extension, all art, lets us be heroes. We can be heroes to ourselves, in our own little lives, and we can be heroes in the world.

Rock Me Gently

Image result for superheavy

Now it’s time to revisit one of my favorite one-off supergroups. I haven’t listened to Superheavy in a while, but it’s a record I’m always happy to pull out. Yeah, I actually went and ordered the LP, I liked it so much. I know you’re thinking “she’ll just pay for anything Mick Jagger does, even when it’s crap” and that’s definitely true. I also think that Superheavy is probably the best think Jagger has done in years, and almost certainly the best thing he’s done outside of his day job. But also, this record fills a need besides the need to be a Rolling Stones completist. There really aren’t that many albums that incorporate so much musical diversity all in one place. This is really one supergroup where each member brought their best stuff to the forefront and you can hear and feel each of their contributions. It’s not just “The Mick Jagger and a bunch of other people Show.” It’s five very different musicians working together as equals.

Rock Classics

The Knife are – were – a group known for performing in masks and/or facepaint. Though they didn’t go so far as to keep their real names anonymous, their personas were kept shrouded in mystique. However, in their own frosty Scandinavian way, their music is very intimate. Very often Karin Dreijer Andersson sounds like she’s singing straight into your head, from inside a wolf suit. With lyrics about mundane things like going out for Chai tea, The Knife’s musical weirdness becomes kind of homey. An esoteric sort of home, of course, but still cozy and full of personal touches, as a home should be.

Rock and Roll Music

The Beatles recorded quite a few covers early in their career, and it always felt like it was a bit beneath them. Those guys could write mega-hits in their sleep, sometimes literally. The Beatles doing other people’s material is like Rene Redzepi busting open a box of Easy Mac. Even when the original writer is a luminary such as Chuck Berry. I’m in no way comparing the quality of Chuck Berry’s songwriting to a boxed macaroni product. If Chuck Berry’ music was a food item, it would be something deceptively simple and invigorating, like a perfectly grilled steak. However, master songwriters don’t need to lean on material that’s not exactly up to their own level of sophistication. The Beatles in 1966 were way past writing three chord rock songs about the joys of rocking, as was Chuck Berry himself. None of which really detracts much from the basic fun of a basic song about dancing, just as most us never stop enjoying Easy Mac.

 

Rock and Roll Heart

I don’t like opera and I don’t like ballet
And new wave french movies, they just drive me away
I guess I’m just dumb, ’cause I know that I ain’t smart
But deep down inside, I got a rock ‘n’ roll heart

– Lou Reed

Lou Reed had already written the ultimate testimony to the power and importance of rock music with his earlier song, but he wasn’t done. He still had more to say. Rock & Roll was a song about the way rock music opened a gateway to a different world. For the young Lou Reed, and for many many other young people, it was a glimpse of the person they could become and the life they could go on to lead, very different from what they’d grown up expecting for themselves. Rock and Roll Heart is a song about how, as you get older, that same music isn’t just entertainment or a teenage fad. It’s a culture, and it’s your culture. In the years when Lou Reed and his generation were growing up, there was the high culture of opera and ballet and things you learned about at college, and there was trash culture. Rock music (along with comic books, detective novels, television series, etc.) was trash culture for juvenile delinquents and the barely-literate proletariat. Today it’s hard to grasp that distinction, but back then it was a cultural divide. You couldn’t have both, and you couldn’t live in both worlds. You couldn’t be a college educated intellectual and claim that rock music was valid and culturally important, unless you were making an argument that it was corrupting our youth and hastening the fall of Western civilization. Lou Reed, an educated intellectual, said “Fuck high culture, rock and roll is the culture now.” Thus hastening the demise of Western civilization as his generation knew it, and ushering in global pop culture as we know it now.

Rock and Roll

Led Zeppelin represents the appeal of rock and roll at its most base, a transporting assault on the senses. It’s an art form that has, obviously, the capacity to be thought-provoking, but if it doesn’t first make you feel, it’s not doing its job. That’s what the essence of a good rock song is all about, and you can see that it doesn’t take a lot of props to present a memorable spectacle. Led Zeppelin on stage in their prime made some of our most iconic cultural images, and they didn’t need pyrotechnics or catwalks to do it. It’s all about the energy and attitude, killer riffs, and a nice ass. That might sound like a pretty simple formula, but a lot of people have tried following it and didn’t come close to capturing the magic. You can have the biggest hair and the tightest pants, but you also need to have good songs. A sexy image is the icing on top of the musicianship and songwriting, that’s what makes an iconic group. So the formula is actually not so simple, even for the basics. Good music is ineffable, I guess. There’s no formula for why puttingĀ  Led Zeppelin IVĀ on the record player is still the quintessential rock fan experience.

Rock and a Hard Place

The Rolling Stones, circa 1989, doing what they do best – swaggering, aggressive rock’n’roll. You could say that this sound and posturing has become calcified, and it has, but still, nobody does it better. The Rolling Stones didn’t start out as a band that writes songs for stadiums, because they’re older than the stadium era, but that’s what they’ve become. They helped invent stadium rock, and you can blame them for a lot of other people’s shit music as a result of that. By 1989 they were already a well-oiled machine selling sex and attitude as a futuristic mass spectacle. Some fans gripe that the band has sold out its soul, but we all know that Mick Jagger exchanged his soul for the promise of an eternally fawnlike physique sometime in the mid-sixties, while Keith Richards picked up the vampire virus in Marrakesh. The Rolling Stones have no choice but to carry on writing hard-riffing rock songs and filling up stadiums; they signed a blood oath with the devil to go on being The Rolling Stones for all of eternity. The Rolling Stones are going to be playing when the world melts.