Name the ten songs that explain the history of rock 'n' roll. Not just your ten favorite songs and not even the ten most important or best tunes. Name the ten songs that together tell the story of rock 'n' roll in the richest, most meaningful way. Go ahead. I'll wait...
Now that days, weeks, or perhaps even months have passed, I'll continue.
This summer I am teaching a course entitled The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll (and Everything in It) in Ten Songs. (In fact I am teaching two mini-courses on rock 'n' roll at Shalem College in July and August. The second is entitled The Music and Myth of Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan. More on that in a few weeks...)
My cards are on the table. I have nothing to hide. Greil Marcus is a master of cultural criticism who has shaped my own work in countless ways. Any rock exercise compelling enough for him to use as the basis for a book is more than compelling enough for me to chew on with the students for a few weeks.
Stranded on a Desert Island
Part of rock fandom - and likewise part of the realm of sports and likewise religion and myth - is the making and reciting and sharing of lists. Who are the five greatest basketball players of all time? What is the one album you would take with you if you were stranded on a desert island? (There is no Spotify allowed there, not even off-line streaming, but there is a Greil Marcus book available if you need help packing.)
What are the core elements of a covenant with the divine? Would you list the ten commandments, the seven Noahide laws, the Golden Rule or the six hundred and thirteen mitzvot? Zealots and mystics and scholars and heretics have been playing this game for thousands of years. A winner has yet to be determined.
Lists are one of the longest-standing ways people make order in civilization, particularly as a key element in the ancient art of memory which I have used elsewhere to explain the fusion of ancient and contemporary artistry that defines Dylan's greatness.
In this case - the case of a cultural effort like rock music which relies so much on memory for contextualizing and qualifying meaning - imagine memory as a vast garden dependent on cultivation to survive. By turning over the soil of culture again and again, by making and remaking lists as part of serious and grounding play, culture makers keep the earth fresh and fertile and ordered and alive.
A stagnant memory dies just like an untended garden. Making lists, speculating, and pushing content into shared rubrics are more than just a party tricks. They keep the party going.
I am being very careful in my adaptation of Greil's approach. I have not yet read his book, even properly steeling myself from stealing from it by vowing not to look even at the table of contents until after finishing the course.
My entire enterprise begin with the question, "What matters to rock ‘n’ roll?" The answer, which provided me with the tools of cultivation that led to harvesting the ten songs we needed, is found in these ten themes: Prophecy, rebellion, fashion, love, war, friendship, work, sex, death and fun.
Yes, I made a list of ten to get to another list of ten. But by listening to, reading about, and discussing ten great rock songs grappling with these ten themes across the approximately three prime decades of rock, I think we will understand not only the history of rock more fully, but the world that made and heard it as well.
|The Age of Classic Rock as published here on FiveThirtyEight.|
I will be posting reflections on what the students and I find out right here on this blog following each of the sessions.
The theme of Session I is Rebellion and Fun. If you are feeling particularly ready to rock and wish to be a teacher's pet, I welcome you to prepare in advance for class, which will take place on Sunday July 13.
Our listening list for Sunday includes the following tunes:
- 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)
The Replacements, "Bastards of Young"
"But hey!" you say. "That's already eight songs. How will you ever be able to do the list in ten if you already have eight?"
That is an excellent question and it merits an answer. Only the songs in bold are included in the list of ten. The others provide context and support for them.
"Oh come now," you say, "that's cheating."
No, it's not. Because this might look like a college class to you, but it's still rock 'n' roll. And that means that we get to do what we want.
"Jeez," you say.
Jeez indeed. And I would add that the students and I wholeheartedly welcome your comments below. In the words of the great Paul Westerberg of the Replacements: "Take it, it's yours."
Next Up: Rebellion & Fun