Roll Away the Stone

Don’t forget Mott the Hoople. It may be impossible to write about them without bringing up the glitter rock tide they became famous on. When your biggest hit was written for you by David Bowie, that’s almost as much of a curse as a blessing. Glitter rock wasn’t really a genre as such anyway, more of a state of mind, but Mott the Hoople actually made some of the most recognizably glam-sounding singles. They really need to get played more, because they embody archness and eccentricity. And, obviously, they’re really fucking fun.


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.

Rince Philib a’Cheoil

Here’s a beautiful Irish folk song by Irish folk revival band Clannad, sung in Irish Gaelic. I literally have not an inkling what it’s about. Gaelic is interesting because it’s almost completely unrelated to English, despite being right next door geographically. It’s not even in the wheelhouse of Germanic languages. For a non-speaker, there’s no shared roots or common vocabulary that would allow them to understand at least a basic gist. English speakers can’t even grasp the phonetics. Which explains a lot about why the English were so eager to wipe out Irish language and culture; it’s much harder to colonize your neighbors when you can’t eavesdrop on their conversations. They failed, of course.

Ride Sally Ride

“Ooh, isn’t it nice, when your heart is made out of ice?”


Lou Reed wrote about cold-hearted people as if he envied them. He was a pretty rough person himself, of course. He was notorious for heckling his own audiences, as you can see below. See also, being a dick to journalists, being a dick to admirers, etc. etc. The asshole rock star who wrote beautifully sensitive songs was a persona he created, one that was especially nasty and performative in the mid-seventies. He was under a lot of pressure to somehow maintain his unexpected popularity with glam rock audiences, and to live up to his reputation as the baddest, most dangerous, most authentic street hustling junkie poet to represent the New York City underground. Hence the garish bleach job and see-through t-shirts. A lot of people died prematurely trying to be the baddest and the coolest. Lou Reed actually was the baddest and the coolest, and managed to live a good long solid life, which is how you know he was for real. The hardest guys all lived, the wimpy ones dropped dead.


This is more military terminology all in one place than has ever been written into a pop song. Why has Sparks been the first and only band to discover the tongue-twisting wordplay delights of that particular jargon? Who knows, but it’s right up their alley. All I know is, I wouldn’t want to play scrabble with these guys. They know how to spell potentate and subterfuge, and use them in a sentence.

Rebel Rebel

With that David Bowie blew our heteronormative minds wide open. Again. It was shocking. It still is. There are still a lot of kids out there today – though hopefully not quite as many as there were in 1974 –  who desperately need to hear the message that it doesn’t matter if you’re a boy or a girl or if you can’t commit to being either; there’s a place for you and someone to love you. And Quaaludes. Dudes and Quaaludes all around for the kids who walk all over the boundaries of gender. Rumour has it that Bowie wrote this sweet love missive for a flame: Jayne County, punk singer, Warhol superstar, cult icon,  transgender activist, and very much still alive. I don’t know if that’s true, since County apparently isn’t the type to pursue fame-by-association with someone better known than herself. I’d like to think so, though. Either way, it’s well established that Bowie wasn’t just posturing when he promised to love you no matter what kind of a freak in the eyes of the world you were. He’s the man who knowingly torpedoed his career in America in solidarity with a movement that was just beginning to dare speak its name.

Rebel Music (3 O’Clock Roadblock)

It’s always a good time to delve deep into Bob Marley’s classic catalog. Natty Dread is one of the must-have classic albums of all time. (Don’t take my word for it; Rolling Stone says so too.) A classic is a classic, perennial for many reasons. What makes Bob Marley’s classic albums so remarkable, besides the surfeit of shoulda been smash hits, is how relevant and on-point they’ve remained. Marley wrote about the world as he saw it – sometimes beautiful, frequently filled with injustice. The things he wrote about haven’t changed much since his passing, unfortunately. Just for example, getting frisked (and worse) by the police in the middle of the night (or in broad daylight) is still a fact of life for many people. Disproportionately mostly black people, as always, of course, but also anyone else unlucky enough to walk into a roadblock with the wrong kind of plant in their pocket. That kind of oppression not only hasn’t gone away, it appears to be on the rise again. Does writing songs about it help much? Well, if it *actually* did, then Bob Marley would have solved all of the world’s problems by now. Some problems might be unsolvable, like the problem of people exercising power over one another, or the problem of festering hatred as a political ideology. There’s no song that can fix that. The only thing a song can do is lift people’s spirits enough to get them through the day, to inspire and motivate them to carry on chipping away at the problems of the world, enough that maybe after generations of dedicated chipping, the world may start to change for the better. That’s the only hope, really.