Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Mythology of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen III: Dreams and Visions

This summer at Shalem College I am teaching a course entitled New Skin for the Old Ceremony: The Music and Mythology of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. I am posting key songs, texts, and comments from each of the eight sessions on this blog. 

Read about previous topics Creation Myths here and Masters and Teachers here

Masters and Teachers, Too
In comparing previously how Dylan and Cohen relate to the theme of masters and teachers in the previous conversation, an important difference emerged. Dylan identifies himself with a variety of teachers in his careerfrom Little Richard in his high school yearbook to John Lennon most recently in "Roll On, John. In the "Property of Jesus" period he is an adamant follower of a teacher and "Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie" stands as one of the great modern odes of praise of a disciple for a sage. 

Still, Dylan's most consistent commentary on discipleship follows the line of "Don't follow leaders/watch the parking meters." He pushes back on either "working on a guru" or being one. His greatest educator is the world, filtered to understanding and a kind of personal control through his work. As "Jokerman" says:

Well, the Book of Leviticus and Deuteronomy
the law of the jungle 
and the sea are your only teachers

Leonard Cohen fervently seeks teachers—from early poet days of figures like Irving Layton to Roshi, master teacher of the Zen community in which Cohen has served on Mount Baldy. Closeness with teachers is one of Cohen's disciplines, honing his ability to simply, confidently, and humbly address the divine as a servant of a master in "Show Me the Place" and elsewhere.

Having touched on myths of origin and purpose as well as their perspectives on guides for their paths, it's time to turn to the heart of the mythic message Cohen and Dylan bring. First, visions and dreams.

American Dream
Dylan and Cohen are masters at showing society visions of what it does not want to see in itself. Though a Canadian by birth and a transient cosmopolitan by temperament, Cohen often has America on his mind, and compares favorably to Dylan, one of the most cogent social critics of America and society as a whole over the past half century. Both take on the myth of the American dream without reservation. 

There are many examples of this trope in the Dylan canon from which to chose. Consider "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream." First fiddling with Melville's Moby Dick as Dylan plays bandit with Captain "Arab" at the beginning song, "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream" contains one of the funniest and cutting rock 'n' roll statements ever about the USA:

But the funniest thing was
When I was leavin’ the bay

I saw three ships a-sailin’

They were all heading my way
I asked the captain what his name was
And how come he didn’t drive a truck
He said his name was Columbus
I just said, “Good luck”

Dylan pokes at American myths of Moby Dick, the Mayflower, and Columbus in his dream. Everything is upside down. If not hypocrisy, then goofiness rules. A man in trouble has a door slammed in his face while an American flag flaps above him:

I said, “Could you help me out
I got some friends down the way”

The man says, “Get out of here

I’ll tear you limb from limb”
I said, “You know they refused Jesus, too”
He said, “You’re not Him
Get out of here before I break your bones..."

America is bought and named for the price of a few beads and people call to "Ban the Bums" down on the Bowery. It's all a bit of a mess.

A few decades later in "Democracy," Cohen has an even sharper critique. Same hard knocks streets, same domestic lack of bliss, same religious duplicity:

It's coming from the sorrow in the street,

the holy places where the races meet;

from the homicidal bitchin'
that goes down in every kitchen
to determine who will serve 
and who will eat.
From the wells of disappointment
where the women kneel to pray
for the grace of God in the desert here
and the desert far away:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

It is also the same mythic American ship (the wonderfully named "Ship of State") which Cohen urges to "sail on, sail on." Whether they are sailing towards another New World that makes more sense (after the old New World winds up going the way of the old Old World) or abandoning the world altogether, these twinned ballads envision a country that needs its myths challenged, shaken, resorted, and reimagined.

Prophetic Dream
Reimagining or recasting myth in prophetic language is precisely what Cohen does in "Anthem," urging this great ship forward. While the same "lawless crowd" remains in the captain's tower of society, there is a new image of power in the song. Cohen describes a universe where light, not shadow, is the natural state of being. Brokenness provides the opportunity for a singer to help people see it:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack in everything

That's how the light gets in.

Dylan's "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" also drops the cynicism of "115th Dream" or "Democracy." If the holy dove is trapped and "bought and sold and bought again" in "Anthem," the pending storm Dylan forecasts is even darker, but the determination of the singer to make brokenness seen is stronger. "Anthem" speaks of a singer carrying the power of illumination which matches the power of a thundercloud; Dylan also sings of a poetic voice of almost otherworldly power calling out from the heart of the storm.

And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it
Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’
But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

Dylan and Cohen's prophetic voices  not only describe corruption, but match its raw power with a protesting voice demanding a change in direction of the Ship of State. Their power lies in the ability to see the world for what it is and what it is not and then to share this image. It is hard and brave work, and sometimes it becomes too much.

Dreaming the Self
Bob Dylan sings: 

You might be a rock ’n’ roll addict prancing on the stage...
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody
With all of the powers Dylan and Cohen summon up in a thundercloud, part of their appeal, like any mythic figure, is their flaws. "Field Commander Cohen" allows Cohen to berate himself for his inability to live up to the commitment he made to be a protector of the codes in which he believes:

But many men are failing,

where you promised to stand guard.

For Dylan, judgement leads to a kind of disassociation from the world Maybe everything is imagined. Maybe he has missed the cues to emerge from an endless loop of dreams where no riddles are solved. "Series of Dreams" could sound like a nightmare for one who claimed a crystal clear vision of right and wrong. 

I was thinking of a series of dreams
Where nothing comes up to the top
Everything stays down where it’s wounded
And comes to a permanent stop

It might be escapism, but it also might represent the reward of transcendence for one who pays a heavy price for all he has seen.

Mystic Dream
It is difficult to find a contemporary song that better matches steely-eyed vision of jagged reality with transcendence than "Visions of Johanna." This is where we landed at the end of thinking about a series of visions and dreams. 

In "Visions of Johanna," what you see is what you get. The world is grotesque as "the jelly faced women all sneeze" and gorgeous "as the country music plays soft;" the "jewels and binoculars hang from the head of a mule" in a flash of archetypes from other worlds that seem almost not to belong. And meanwhile, the glue that holds this wild mosaic of images together is loneliness "that Johanna's not here." Depth of feeling, echoes of old stories, resignation to see what is unpleasant combine in a song that "looks like the mirror"of the singer and the world all at once. 

Next Up: Gods and Angels

Monday, July 28, 2014

The Mythology of Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan II: Masters and Teachers

This summer at Shalem College I am teaching a course entitled New Skin for the Old Ceremony: The Music and Mythology of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. I am posting key songs, texts, and comments from each of the eight sessions here. Feel free to share your own comments as well.

Creation Myths
In the beginningin our first session, that isthere were Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. But where do they come from and what are they for? 

Both have crafted personal myths describing unusual origins and a unique calling echoing mythic heroes of old, and because they are both the tellers and the heroes of their own tales, each plays a double roleHomer and Odysseus at the very same time. This is just one of the many post-modern twists Dylan and Cohen bring to the ancient art of mythmaking.

From the start Dylan is a fiercely independent wanderer. He accepts a calling "to make shoes for everyone, even you/but still I walk barefoot" in "I and I" (which appears below). Even moments of grace like the midnight strolls in "I and I" or the "mystic garden" of "Ain't Talkin'" (which will appear a few sessions later), Dylan does his seeking alone.

Leonard Cohen is also a serial seeker, but particularly in the later portion of his career, he positions his purpose  differently than Dylan. Cohen dwells in a kind of humility or simplicity of service that Dylan blends into more complex, challenging narratives. Hear how Cohen draws upon the image of a servant in "Show Me the Place," accepting that he is a vessel for a higher purpose. He calls out for resolution for ancient spiritual conundrums of suffering"when the Word became a man" or how to move a mythic Sisyphean stoneand asks for a partner from other realms to understand the universe, sing-saying in a low-pitched, pleading purr: "I can't move this thing alone."

Dylan makes no bones about knowing that he and everyone must serve a greater power:

You may call me Terry, you may call me Timmy
You may call me Bobby, you may call me Zimmy
You may call me R.J., you may call me Ray
You may call me anything but no matter what you say
You’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody
His narrators often speak of being vessels of higher purpose, but they are "still on the road lookin' for another joint." Even the heavenly forces his narrators know well cannot pin Dylan's heroes down. Always on the move, Dylan does not want or need a partner to help him. Cohen longs for a partner, and when he finds one, he holds on to him or her tight.

Masters and Teachers

Relationships to teachers reflect this same difference in approach. For Dylan, even if his high school yearbook lists his life ambition as being to "follow Little Richard," the master teacher of the first portion of his career is Woody Guthrie. 

"Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie," written and performed in 1963, is classic ode of a young man to his teacher. It ends like this:

And where do you look for this hope that yer seekin'
Where do you look for this lamp that's a-burnin'
Where do you look for this oil well gushin'
Where do you look for this candle that's glowin'
Where do you look for this hope that you know is there
And out there somewhere
And your feet can only walk down two kinds of roads
Your eyes can only look through two kinds of windows
Your nose can only smell two kinds of hallways
You can touch and twist
And turn two kinds of doorknobs
You can either go to the church of your choice
Or you can go to Brooklyn State Hospital
You'll find God in the church of your choice
You'll find Woody Guthrie in Brooklyn State Hospital
And though it's only my opinion
I may be right or wrong
You'll find them both
In the Grand Canyon
At sundown

After Guthriebut for a very public commitment to being "Property of Jesus" in the 70'sDylan never commits to another single teacher or path in the overall arc of his songs. He learns from everyone and no one, singing: "Don't follow leaders/Watch the parking meters." Recently, the Never Ending Bootleg Series revealed a tune"Working on a Guru"that pokes fun at the foolish move to become beholden to a single master:

Rain on the ground, windshield wipers movin',
Water all around, I sure don't feel like groovin'.
I'm working on a guru,
Yes, I'm working on a guru,
But I'm working on a guru, before the sun goes down. 

Working on a guru, 

Working on a guru, 
Well, it's true, it could be you ... 
I'm working on a guru

In some ways, Dylan's most poignant expression of being a following is his resigned acceptance of fate, that he is a cog in the great wheel of life, as in "Every
 Grain of Sand":
I hear the ancient footsteps
like the motion of the sea
Sometimes I turn, there’s someone there,
other times it’s only me

I am hanging in the balance
of the reality of man
Like every sparrow falling,

like every grain of sand

In the lyrical flow of a psalm, Dylan's ultimate teacher is a sense and spirit of creation itself.

Leonard Cohen seeks real people of every kind to be his teachers, a litany of poets, lovers, scholars, musicians, and spiritual masters that he cites at every stage of his career:

I was handsome I was strong,
I knew the words of every song.
Did my singing please you?
No, the words you sang were wrong.
Who is it whom I address,
who takes down what I confess?
Are you the teachers of my heart?
We teach old hearts to rest.

Oh teachers are my lessons done?
I cannot do another one.

They laughed and laughed and said, Well child,
are your lessons done?
are your lessons done?
are your lessons done?

"Master Song" plays with this motif as part of a romantic tangle, indicating how thick master/disciple themes are in Cohen's mythic imagination.

Book of Longing (2006), collection of poetry and drawings, is full of gestures of love and admiration for teachers, particularly for Roshi, Cohen's master of several decades, including a period living as monk at a Zen monastery on Mount Baldy outside of Los Angeles.

After listening to Mozart
(which I often did)
I would always
Carry a piano
Up and down
Mt. Baldy
And I don’t mean
A keyboard
I mean a full-sized
Grand piano
Made of cement
Now that I am dying
I don’t regret
A single step

I never really understood
what he said
but every now and then
I find myself
barking with the dog
or bending with the irises
or helping out
In other little ways


Roshi’s very tired
he’s been lying on his bed
He’s been living with the living
and dying with the dead
But now he wants another drink
(will wonders never cease?)
He’s making war on war
And he’s making war on peace
He’s sitting in the throne-room
on his Original Face
and he’s making war on Nothing
that has Something in its place
His stomach’s very happy
The prunes are working well
There’s no one going to Heaven
And there’s no one left in Hell

And as has he had done since his first brush with fame as an upstart Canadian poet in the 50's and 60's, Cohen calls out the fellow writers who helped shape his own voice:


Always after I tell him
what I intend to do next,
Layton solemnly inquires:
Leonard, are you sure
you’re doing the wrong thing?

Lorca lives in New York City
He never went back to Spain
He went to Cuba for a while
But he’s back in town again
He’s tired of the gypsies
And he’s tired of the sea
He hates to play his old guitar
It only has one key
He heard that he was shot and killed
He never was, you know
He lives in New York City
He doesn’t like it though 

Cohen and Dylan both express awe, humility, longing, and praise as they try to make their way towards wisdom on a twisting mythic path. Dylan, launched into public consciousness as a hipster reimagining of Woody Guthrie, avoids aligning the heroes of his music with any one figure or school of thought. It's also worth noting that even though most of his songs as written in the first person, Dylan often denies in interviews that his work is auto-biographical. Maybe it is and maybe it is not. The point is that Dylan's work is a sophisticated mix of mythic commentary and confession. Cohen unabashedly grounds himself in people and disciplines that define his path and shares his journey lucidly and unadorned. 

Next Up: Dreams and Visions
In the joint mode of mythic seekers and bards of themselves, Dylan and Cohen describe unique origins and purpose and wrestle with who and what serve as their guides for their purposes. Tomorrow we will see how each fleshes out their calling with dreams and visions of life, the universe, and everything.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Mythology of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen I: Creation

As a great poet once said: Let us compare mythologies. 

Last week at Shalem College we completed The History of Rock 'n' Roll (and Everything in It) in 10 Songs. Now we enter another rock 'n' roll challenge: charting, comparing, and understanding the mythology at the heart of the work of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen.

Mythology rules today just as it always has, shaping our essential conceptions about life, the world, and everything. Joseph Campbell writes in The Hero with A Thousand Faces:

Myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestation. Religions, philosophies, arts, the social forms of primitive and historic man, prime discoveries in science and technology, the very dreams that blister sleep boil up from the basic, magic ring of myth.

Greil Marcus extends this thinking into the realm of rock in his introduction to Stars Don’t Stand Still in the Sky: Music and Myth, a beautiful collection edited by Karen Kelly and Evelyn McDonnell:
This was a myth you could join by allowing it to judge the choices you made: between friends, between going to college or not going, studying one thing and not another, between clothes you put on and those you set aside—the choice you made, finally over just what country, as you defined it, you would be a part of, if you were to be part of any country at all.
Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen both have had long and fruitful creative careers, producing a huge amount of material to consider. Ordering it with eight themes brings focus to the arc of mythic story these artists tell. 

The themes are:
  • Creation Myths 
  • Masters and Teachers 
  • Dreams and Visions 
  • Gods and Angels 
  • Journeys and Battles 
  • Places 
  • Sacred Stories 
  • The Law

In addition to encountering Cohen and Dylan, special guests in this two-week course will include Franz Kafka, Abraham and Isaac, Joan of Arc, Robin Hood, King David, Satan, Buddha, Aphrodite, the Angel Gabriel and the Angel of Death, Shakespeare, and a carpenter from Nazareth, his mother and his apprentice. 

Creation Myths
Artists are self-inventors. This is particularly true of rockers. From Joan Jett and David Bowie to Madonna and Prince, rock 'n' rollers create myth-laden names, identities, voices, and appearances that proclaim a place in the world different than everyone else. So too Dylan and Cohen, who conceive of their own roots creativelyhow and where they were born and what shaped themjust as ancient tellers imagined the superhuman coming-of-ages of Moses or Jesus or Achilles.

In "My Life in a Stolen Moment," a poem published in 1962, Bob Dylan describes himself as a precocious, orphaned, rambling outlaw-in-training who has been looking for trouble and purpose since he ran away from home at the ages of "10, 12, 13, 15, 151/2, 17 an’ 18:"

With my thumb out, my eyes asleep, my hat turned up
     an’ my head turned on
I’s driftin’ an’ learnin’ new lessons
I was making my own depression
I rode freight trains for kicks
An’ got beat up for laughs
Cut grass for quarters
An’ sang for dimes
Hitchhiked on 61 — 51 — 75 — 169 — 37 — 66 — 22
Gopher Road — Route 40 an’ Howard Johnson Turnpike
Got jailed for suspicion of armed robbery
Got held for four hours on a murder rap
Got busted for looking like I do
An’ I never done none a them things
Somewheres back I took time to start plain’ the guitar
Somewheres back I took the time to start singin’
Somewheres back I took the time to start writin’
But I never did take the time to find out why

Dylan makes his "own depression" and bounces around backroads and jails, guitar in hand, so that he can inhabit a romantic, mythic reality that grounds his life in something grand. 

In Leonard Cohen's 1960 poem "One Night I Burned," he describes a housemaybe his house of family origin and maybe a later, more grown-up homeas place of perfection he must burn and flee in order to become the person he wants to be:

One night I burned the house I loved,
It lit a perfect ring
In which I saw some weeds and stone
Beyond – not anything.

Certain creatures of the air
Frightened by the night,
They came to see the world again
And perished in the light.

Now I sail from sky to sky
And all the blackness sings
Against the boat that I have made
Of mutilated wings.
But Dylan and Cohen need to do more than craft a creation myth of the place from which they have come. They must also conceive of the place and purpose to which they are headed. This the myth of how their unique birth blossoms into an embodiment of a calling only they can fulfill. 

The list of songs describing each these artists' calling as mythic artists is, well, kind of mythic. They have produced scores of maps and liturgies towards discovery that millions of people have used to shape their own yearnings to make a life. 

We will make do with one song from each artist: Dylan's "I and I" and Cohen's "Show Me the Place." 

In "I and I" Dylan tends to a melancholy tale of a lone wanderer who is clearly descended from the hardscrabble urchin of "My Life in a Stolen Moment:"

Noontime, and I'm still pushin' myself along the road, the darkest part
Someone else is speakin’ with my mouth,
but I’m listening only to my heart
I’ve made shoes for everyone, even you, while I still go barefoot

I and I
In creation where one’s nature neither honors nor forgives
I and I
One says to the other, no man sees my face and lives

As we will hear often over the next two weeks, Dylan combines raw urges for seeking and poetic lucidity in a story that shows him wrestling with love, loss, and the divine in equal measure.  

Cohen describes himself as similarly melancholy and placeless, echoes of "One Night I Burned." Often, particularly in his later work, bowing to his burdens results in servitude that affirms his purpose, even as it leaves him humbled.

Show me the place
Where you want your slave to go
Show me the place
I’ve forgotten, I don’t know
Show me the place
For my head is bending low
Show me the place
Where you want your slave to go

And so, with "I and I" and "Show Me the Place" as their first musical statements of purpose, we begin to seek the seekers.

Stay Tuned
For a lover of myth and music, it does not get much better than having the chance to prepare the songs, texts, reflections, and images that will guide a stroll through the gardens of some of the most profound artistry of the past half century.

Starting this Sunday evening, I will be writing about what the students and I find in this work. I look forward to seeing you here. And for those who want to hear more, join me Wednesday July 30 and August 6 at 3 PM EST to listen to some of these songs live from Jerusalem on JLM.FM. My commentary will be in Hebrew, but, as they say, the song remains the same.

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.