Okay, here’s one you probably all know. It’s one of Bob Marley’s most popular songs. I’d say that for many of us, it’s been part of the wallpaper of our lives since childhood. It’s just one of those songs that’s about as universal as a composition can be. It’s nice to see a little video and get a sense of who made the music. Funny how Bob Marley and the Wailers were rarely asked to appear on Top of the Pops-type television shows. It’s probably because they didn’t look much like most of the artists who appeared on those shows. Ahem. Well, they probably didn’t love miming in front of a blank studio screen either.
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.
As a policy, I have to state that I am firmly against cattiness, gossip, judgement and self-expression shaming, in all of their forms. It is wrong. Oh, who am I kidding? There’s nothing in the world more fun than being catty at someone behind their back. We all do it. With relish. All the time. No matter who we are, or what our station in life is, we will never hesitate to eviscerate a total stranger’s choice of clothing. Just yesterday I heard a homeless man go into a rant about people who wear knitted hats; he was offended by a hipster in a bright orange knitted beanie. He was right. It was a terrible hat. So yeah, making fun of the poorly dressed, the pretentious, the basic, and the try-too-hards is one of life’s great joys. This Blondie song is the ultimate anthem and the ultimate send-up for anyone who’s ever enjoyed the sport of talking shit about people. If that stings coming from someone as impeccable as Debbie Harry, just remember that she left the back of her head its natural color because she sucked at dyeing her own hair.
Blondie’s music is always such a shot of vitality. It’s music to listen to in cold weather, because it gets the blood pumping. And on the dance floor, of course. I’m sure that Debbie Harry with her attitude and glamour was like a bolt of lightning in the dark, coming into the punk scene in the seventies. That attitude and style hasn’t aged in the intervening years, and the neither has the music. Like I said yesterday, things that have achieved classic status are immune to changing fashions.
Cold War dreams of nuclear annihilation, contaminated generations. Maybe some of you are too young to remember the fears that struck people’s hearts throughout the Cold War decades. Some of you may have been weaned on modern fears like global warming and super-viruses and the impending Singularity. Some of us don’t worry about those things because we’re lying awake at night waiting for the air raid sirens. (Some of us have epigenetic nightmares about air raids.) And many of us still break out in cold sweats when certain words are invoked; radioactivity, Chernobyl, Hiroshima, Plutonium, atom bomb, meltdown, nuclear winter. We were taught that the world would end in mushroom clouds and uncontrolled cell division. Those fears may not feel relevant, not die Angst vor dem Tag, as it were. The members of Kraftwerk were all born in Germany in the immediate wake of the Second World War – a particularly traumatic spot in space and time, obviously – making them members of a uniquely scarred subgroup in a scarred generation. The fears and angers that haunted humanity in the decades after the war must have been a hundredfold for children born and raised in its still-smoking epicenter. Some of them responded by making art about what it means to be human and what it means to be a machine and what ends celebrated scientific progress can be turned to. That certainly hasn’t become any less relevant, and even if the specific keywords have been pushed to the back burner of our collective nightmares, the warning still hits home. And, yes, that nuclear arsenal, though it may not be a popular headline anymore, it still exists, and is still likely to end us all well before super-AIDS or mass famine have the chance to.
It was 1976 and Ian Anderson already felt like a grumpy old man. Apparently. Jethro Tull were very much still in their prime, despite being nearly a decade old as a unit. But Anderson wanted to make a concept album about an old and out of touch rocker struggling to comprehend the changing times. Perhaps not actually being that old or out of touch is why the concept of Too Old To Rock’n’Roll didn’t really work. Should’ve tried that one in the 80’s or today. It was a nice break from grumbling about the church, I suppose. The thing is, though, when Anderson criticized the stranglehold of the church and other crusty, abusive institutions he had grown up with, he then got to enjoy watching those things change and grow weaker. People who grew up caned and deprived in the postwar years may have some satisfaction that their grandkids are growing up in a more secular and permissive world with far less corporal punishment. On the other hand, when Anderson took aim at the entertainment industry, with all of its shallowness, narcissism and exploitation, as he did with this album, he had no idea the monster that was only just awakening. Sure, there was a lot going on in the 70’s that a veteran such as himself could raise an eyebrow at: television was on the rise as a cultural influence, allowing no-talent-having nobodies to earn both money and notoriety; glam rock had crested to such a degree that even Dylan was onstage wearing eyeliner; high and low culture were rubbing shoulders like never before, etc, etc. I guess that in 1976 the idea of finding a second shot at fame by winning a quiz show was a pretty unexpected plot twist – Too Old… was an alright story but it didn’t really resonate. It was unintentionally prescient, though. That story is a lot of people’s lives now. What Warholian fever dreams we’re living in!
Despite my admiration for Patti Smith, I have to admit that I’m not much of an expert on her. I mostly listen to the Land collection aka the hits. Smith is a difficult artist, though. Her highs are fierce, without doubt, but her more boundary pushing material can be more unpleasant than interesting, and she’s overly fond of sad dirges. I can’t remember the last time I’ve sat and listened to her divisive Radio Ethiopia. Heck, maybe I never really have. It’s a not-fun album to listen to, at least according to a lot of critics. Or it’s uniquely challenging and rewarding, according to others. Either way, this song is a highlight. It’s got that feral energy that Smith became famed for, the combination of hidden soul and aggressive loudness.