Rock & Roll

 

“‘Rock and Roll’ is about me. If I hadn’t heard rock and roll on the radio, I would have had no idea there was life on this planet. Which would have been devastating – to think that everything, everywhere was like it was where I come from. That would have been profoundly discouraging. Movies didn’t do it for me. TV didn’t do it for me. It was the radio that did it.” – Lou Reed

Lou Reed has the final word. His life was saved by Rock & Roll, and he paid it forward with so many lives saved. Rock music is the message that life doesn’t have to be what it is. You don’t have to live, or be, or believe, the things you were born into; there are other ways of being. You can create another life, another self. Of course movies and TV don’t do that for you; those mediums are explicitly fiction. They are fantasy, they are escape. All they offer is the pretense of being someone else. Rock & Roll isn’t fiction. It’s real life. It’s a way of being. Rock musicians are the opposite of movie actors; they can only be themselves. Even if that self goes under a stage name and a drag revue’s worth of glitter, it’s still just that person telling their own story. And you can do that too. You might die doing it, but at least you life will be saved.

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Roadhouse Blues

Let this be the only driving lesson you’ll ever need, and a lesson in living too. Take care in taking life lesson from Jim Morrison, who succeeded at living straight into an early grave. But, really, all you need in life is a firm hand on the wheel and a morning beer. You can just live one roadhouse to the next. Isn’t that the blues man’s classic life? We all want to be a bluesman, to be worthy of the blues. We want to live the kind of life that’s inspiring and conducive to art, and worthy of it. Even Morrison wanted that. He wanted to be more than a pretentious college kid with mystical aspirations; maybe all of the mayhem and self-abuse and falling out of windows was a quest for an authenticity and richness of experience that Army brat white boys don’t come born with. Or maybe it was just your garden-variety alcoholism coupled with megalomania. But it does make you think about what kind of experiences fuel great art. Do people who’ve had relatively easy lives need to go out of their way to break something within themselves in order to become great artists, or do people with shitty lives become great artists in order to heal themselves? Is it both? Or is the concept of being a ‘great artist’ just a social construct designed to sell products? Did Jim Morrison do all of the crazy stupid shit that he did because he was cracking open the well of greatness within himself, or was he sad and out of control and in need of help, and the greatness was just incidental? Or are we still talking about him only because he looks good on a t-shirt? Either way, it does seem to be a thing that the most creative people are the ones who drink beer for breakfast rather than the ones who rise at dawn to practice mindfulness.

Ride a White Swan

“Wear you hair long, baby, can’t go wrong”

Riding a white swan is symbolically not the same as riding a white horse, just so you know. Swans represent grace, beauty and refinement. Marc Bolan had a vision of himself as a mythical character, a warlock warrior prince with a guitar. A swan was the perfect mode of transportation for such a fantastical personage, though he had a taste for nice cars as well. With that image, Bolan took his phantasmagorical collection of interests and rode to stardom. It was a harbinger of future fashions, the first glam rock hit from the first glam-rocker.

Quinn the Eskimo

This is something that doesn’t get touched upon very often – a really dumb Bob Dylan song. At their best, Dylan’s cryptic verses fell just on the right side of silly. This is one time he clearly overshot the line, and he knew it. It’s like he started out in his usual vein of poetic seriousness, then said ‘fuck it’, scribbled down a random chorus and wandered off. However, it also happens to be one of his catchiest songs, so it’s enjoyed a life of its own. It’s best known as a novelty Manfred Mann hit, but it’s been covered by a variety of notables. Sing-along choruses have never been Dylan’s bag – he’s not a crafter of pop hits – so this may well be the singiest Dylan chorus ever. Which he still, gleefully, performs in concert. Perhaps he really wanted to contribute something to the culture that was just silly and fun. Wearing the voice-of-a-generation hat all the time gets wearying, you know.

 

Queen of the Highway

I’ve always thought that The Doors were the most perfect road trip music. Obviously they thought so too. I’m not just talking about consciously driving songs like L.A. Woman or Roadhouse Blues, though those were both clearly designed with the open road in mind. You can’t just play the hits on your road trip – that’s boring! – you need to play all of all of the albums. It won’t get you across the country, but you can get across a fair sized state, at least. And it’s the quieter songs like this one that allow you to just glide along and watch the clouds roll above you. Preferably in a desert landscape with a clean horizon and an endless sky. There’s just something hypnotic about it.

Pop Star

In 1977, shortly before retiring from pop music, Cat Stevens would write a song called (I Never Wanted) To Be a Star. His gripes with the music industry were genuine and he took his retirement a lot more seriously than most others who threaten to do so. But for the time being, in 1970, he was happy enough to speculate about stardom. By that point, of course, Stevens had already experienced pop success, and the stress of it nearly killed him. Being a teen idol was decidedly not for him, but he was still willing to pursue the spotlight as long as it was on his own artistic terms. I’m not sure if there’s an element of irony here, but the song paints the game of chasing success in pretty┬áinnocuous terms. Nor was Cat Stevens ever much of a one for irony, anyway.

Please

File under obscure favorites. If I may┬árecommend a must have album that never shows up on any of those circle-jerk best-of lists, please take the time to discover John Cale’s Vintage Violence. Cale is still best known for using the viola to produce a vicious haze of electronic feedback with The Velvet Underground, and he’s carried on being forbiddingly weird throughout his solo career. Unlike Lou Reed, Cale’s walks on the wilder side never fluked their way onto the radio, and he’s never gotten up there with the big boys in terms of record sales and accolades. Which might be just fine as far as he’s concerned. He does what he wants, and if it’s not always easy to enjoy, that’s fine. But, despite a reputation for being even grumpier and more avant-garde than anyone else in his circle, he is also a master of stately emotional ballads. Which is his most accessible side, and where this particular album makes a great introduction. This is some truly underrated work, and it’s an injustice that John Cale isn’t widely accepted as one of the best songwriters and composers of his time.