Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The History of Rock 'n' Roll: War & Work & Sex & Death


This summer I am teaching a course entitled The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll (and Everything in It) in Ten Songs at Shalem College. Read more about the course plan here. Read more about our session on Rebellion and Fun here. And read more about Prophecy, Love, and Friendship here. The is the final entry of what's been a great run.
War: What Is It Good For?
The Rolling Stones' Brian Jones and
Jimi Hendrix backstage at Monterey

We began at the Monterey Pop Festival, enjoying recently released footage from D.A. Pennebaker not included in his 1968 feature film Monterey PopMonterey was the largest rock festival ever when it emerged in June 1967, a clarion call for the Summer of Love featuring the largest US stage yet for Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding, the Who, and Janis Joplin This is where where we found David Crosby's manifesto. 

In 1967 Crosby was still a member of the Byrds -- though soon to be booted out of the group in part due to the fuck-all attitude his Monterey speech displays. The Byrds were Bob Dylan's rock translators and messengers in a mode similar to how Peter, Paul and Mary smoothed the rough edges of Dylan's hipster folk, making "Blowin' in the Wind" ubiquitous on campuses and at campfires, protests, and concert halls with their sweet rendition of the song a year before Dylan released his own. So too did the Byrds deliver solo acoustic numbers like "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "My Back Pages" to radio as "folk rock."




Crosby paces the stage in a signature big brown fur hat, energized and focused during a rendition of Dylan's “Chimes of Freedom.” It's fun to see. Then he enters a rant about the Warren Report investigating President John F. Kennedy's assassination. (See him speak in the clip above at the 37:10 mark.) Here is the paranoia striking deep that his buddies in Buffalo Springfield -- with whom he played without his Byrds bandmates' permission in place of Neil Young at the festival -- sang about in "For What It's Worth." Here are the currents of rage and disappointment churning beneath the surface of the Summer of Love.


When we turned next to Jimi Hendrix's reinvention of the Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock, Crosby's declaration to the nascent hippie nation that "this is your country" still echoed. In both cases we asked how the youth culture represented by rock 'n' roll tried to negotiate tensions between patriotism and resistance, allegiance and anger, real concern for injustice with restless boredom of middle class white kids discovering an urge for adventure.

These themes mount in the next cut as the Rolling Stones burn through "Gimme Shelter," which Greil Marcus has called the greatest rock song of all-time. It was released a day after Altamont, the festival in which Hell's Angels bludgeoned audience members, killing one, while the Stones kept playing. Otis Redding famously called Monterey fans "the love crowd." Just two years later the Stones provided a back beat to the same audience's dark side, singing:

War, children, it's just a shot away 
It's just a shot away
Rape, murder! 
It's just a shot away 


"Gimme Shelter" claims that war, rape, and murder can be replaced by love, which is "just a kiss away" in the second half of the song. But we were unconvinced that this was a compelling resolution to a chilling and chaotic report from the front lines of youth culture. We looked for other examples of rock trying to sooth isolation and violence both in sound and lyric, settling on Radiohead's "Street Spirit (Fade Out)" from 1995's The Bends; and then, continuing on the theme of war and for good measure, we ended with Edwin Starr's "War (What Is It Good For?)" from 1970. 

Work: I Just Get Bored

We coupled two songs about farms, one belonging to Penny and the other to Maggie. "Penny's Farm," recorded by the Bently Boys in 1929 and collected on Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, tells the story of farmers hounded by unscrupulous landowners and no way out of debt. They still have humor, but also a world of hurt.

"Maggie's Farm" (1965) takes both the image of a farm and service to a corrupt master much further. The whole family is in on the ruse to keep him down - Maggie, ma, pa, brother, and sister as one. They don't only want to cheat him out of his fair share, but his very self. 

And with this, Dylan says that the same demon of boredom, the antithesis of fun which the Beatles had warned in "She's Leaving Home," is more than a teenage gripe. It can break up a family and a mind.

Well, I try my best

To be just like I am
But everybody wants you
To be just like them
They say sing while you slave and I just get bored
I ain't gonna work on Maggie's farm no more.

Chuck Berry's original images youth all dressed up and ready to rock with no place to go has become a template for seeking meaning and self-definition. A farm that grows boredom is not only boring, not only corrupt, but it has no soul. Rock 'n' roll will do anything to disrupt a place like that.

Sex: Between Heaven and Hell

The etymology of the phrase "rock 'n' roll" is probably a euphemism for sex, and as we said of love songs earlier, there is no rock music or movement without it. To explain rock and sex in one song, we went to the pinnacle of the genre's self-satisfied seventies, where rock's aspirations to be art -- as my friend and colleague Dave Bry mentioned in correspondence  when I shared our top ten with him -- came to their highest (or lowest) point. It's all there: boy, girl, paradise, and hell reflected in the glimmer of a radio in Meatloaf's "Paradise by the Dashboard Light." 

There is a lot of Chuck Berry in the spirit of Meatloaf's Bat Out of Hell -- the desire to break free with loud music and fast cars and sex. But still, there is no denying the pull of a soaring spirit even in what critics panned as an example of the most crass of hyper-produced corporate rock. The heroes' soul literally flies out of the flames of a burning motorcycle in the opening song. And where does the soul of a teen hot with desire find itself in the end? Torn between the paradise of rocking and rolling with the girl of his wet dreams as the radio plays and the bourgeois hell of a marriage without meaning or love, let alone the sex that had led to it.

So now I'm praying for the end of time
To hurry up and arrive
'Cause if I gotta spend another minute with you
I don't think that I can really survive
I'll never break my promise or forget my vow
But God only knows what I can do right now
I'm praying for the end of time
So I can end my time with you


This is a "Teenage Prayer" gone mad, sex and death, heaven and hell all in the backseat of car. That's rock 'n' roll, too.

Death Is Not the End

We knew it would end here all along, of course. Death. We chose Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young's "Ohio" to represent it. This song might have done better as a commentary on war, but the stark and all but speechless way it describes four dead in Ohio is both painfully blunt and sharp at the same time. Oren Baum pointed out how unusual the detail of this song is for the language of rock. The lyric is flat and unadorned, verse and chorus each repeated twice. "What if you knew her and found her dead on the ground?" Neil Young asks. Rock demands get no more personal or rhetorical that this:

Tin soldiers and Nixon's coming,
We're finally on our own.
This summer I hear the drumming,
Four dead in Ohio.

Gotta get down to it
Soldiers are gunning us down
Should have been done long ago.
What if you knew her
And found her dead on the ground
How can you run when you know?


And then, in the spirit of rockers everywhere, we took our ten songs and went up to eleven. Always up to eleven.

"Smells Like Teen Spirit" closes out the list. Every theme we touched upon tosses and turns in this song. Rock founders' teen spirit, Patti Smith's smashing every societal idol, Dylan's refusal to stay down on the farm that would make him bored and numb and someone else, "Ohio"'s guns and gunners, "Gimme Shelter"'s horror, and the Replacement's sense of being nowhere at all as the world turns and turns.

We did not look at the history of rock as historians, but mythologists. It's easy and cheap to say that Nirvana was the last great rock band, Kurt Cobain the last great rock star. But from the perspective of the story rock 'n' roll tells about itself, on some days it is hard to find a reason to look beyond Nirvana for anything more. 

On the path from Chuck Berry and Little Richard to Dylan and the Stones to Patti Smith and R.E.M. to Nirvana, a world of symbols, themes, and figures of which everything else in rock that would ever be was composed coalesced. While rock borrowed and stole much of this raw material from religion, art, myth, and life just as any great movement might have done, for close to forty years rock defined the most powerful narratives of rebellion, fun, prophecy, love, friendship, war, work, sex, and death that all of these elements could create. 

Every band and every fan still shares in some portion of this wild and beautiful mix of spirit and sound. It all remains to be reheard, retuned, reimagined, and remembered in voices as alive with  contradiction, longing, and joy as when these songs were born.

Addendum: And These Are the Songs

One: Rebellion and Fun*

  • Chuck Berry, “Roll Over Beethoven” (1956)
  • The Replacements, “Bastards of Young” (1985)
  •  The Crystals, “He’s a Rebel” (1963)
  • David Bowie, “Rebel, Rebel” (1974)
  • Tom Petty, “Rebels” (1985)
  • Tracy Bonham, “Mother, Mother” (1996)
  • Little Richard,“Tutti Fruitti” (1955)
  • The Beatles, “She’s Leaving Home” (1967)

Two: Prophecy, Love and Friendship

  • Patti Smith, “Gloria: In Excelsis Deo” (1975)
  • Them, “Gloria”
  • Blind Willie Johnson, “John the Revelator” (1930)
  • R.E.M., “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” (1987)
  • Aretha Franklin, “I Never Loved a Man (the Way That I Love
  • You)” (1967)
  • Bruce Springsteen, “Backstreets” (1975)

Three: War and Work

  • David Crosby (The Byrds) after “Chimes of Freedom” at the Monterey Pop
  • Festival (1967)
  • Jimi Hendrix, “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the Woodstock Festival (1969)
  • The Rolling Stones, “Gimme Shelter” (1969)
  • The Bently Boys, “Penny’s Farm” (1929)
  • Bob Dylan, “Maggie’s Farm” (1965)

Four: Sex and Death

  • Meatloaf, “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” (1977)
  • Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, “Ohio” (1970)
  • Nirvana, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (1991)

*Song in bold are the 10 main songs of the course; other songs on the list helped us understand them.