Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The History of Rock 'n' Roll: Prophecy, Love & Friendship

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.
Rock 'n' Roll Prophecy
Rock 'n' roll prophecy arranges fragments of family, art, spirit, and friendship in a vision that suits a song or singer's vision of the way the world should look.

The iconic verse of rock's prophetic memory appears in 1965's "Desolation Row," Bob Dylan's impressionistic resorting of figures and tropes of Western cultural ranging from Einstein and the Hunchback of Notre Dame to Cain and Abel and T.S. Elliot. A
man of both despair and lucidity gazes out of his window and recounts a world that not only he wants to see, but that he hopes you will see as well:

Yes, I received your letter yesterday
(About the time the doorknob broke)
When you asked how I was doing
Was that some kind of joke?
All these people that you mention 
Yes, I know them, they’re quite lame
I had to rearrange their faces
And give them all another name
Right now I can’t read too good
Don’t send me no more letters, no
Not unless you mail them
From Desolation Row

Rock prophecy mean re-membering the world, putting inheritances in order.

Gloria, Gloria to Patti
To prime the pump of rock memory and prophecy with a traditional apocalyptic charge, we listen first to Blind Willie Johnson's "John the Revelator," a jarring favorite from Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music:

Well who's that a writing? John The Revelator
Who's that a writing? John The Revelator
Who's that a writing? John The Revelator
A book of the seven seals
Tell me what's John a writing? Ask The Revelator
What's John a writing? Ask The Revelator
What's John a writing? Ask The Revelator
A book of the seven seals

A rip-roaring blues refresher of The Book of Revelations, "John the Revelator" hints at the sheer power carried by beloved religious or mythic texts that rock's most daring figures have taken on, rearranging their faces and giving them all another name. 

We want to trace this prophetic urge forward, beginning with a rendition of Vivaldi's "Gloria: In Excelsis Deo." Another Beethoven is about to roll. Who knows if Van Morrison and Them's original rocket shot "Gloria" was gesturing (obscenely) towards that first Gloria from back in the church, but the combination of Gloria and Gloria provides more than enough raw material for Patti Smith's rock-prophetic tour de force entitled "Gloria: In Excelsis Deo." 

Smith harnesses both a Latin liturgy set in all variety of classical tropes for centuries and Van Morrison 's rabid need for his girl at midnight to drive a complete takedown of rock pretentions, gender divisions, and - since "Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine" - the moral fulcrum of almost two thousand years of Christian religious dogma. 

Sounding almost sweet and good-natured after Patti Smith's ferocious mini-epic, R.E.M. continues with "It’s the End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine)." Yet another classical composer falls in this one - from Chuck Berry's Beethoven to anyone who composed "Gloria: In Excelsis Deo" to the still-hip Leonard Bernstein. 

Like a latter day "Desolation Row," "End of the World" is a bit more pop and ironic than Dylan's window gazing, but it is just as sharp in the art of assemblage of cultural inheritance in the name of revelation - from Lenny Bruce to Leonid Brezhnev to the aforementioned Bernstein. And as a sign of the times, as Dylan sits isolated in his room waiting for a letter from someone equally blue, Michael Stipe concludes: "It's time I had some time alone." 

Patti Smith had already disinvited the savior from a party in which "twenty thousand girls called their names out to me" and R.E.M. doesn't care if the world ends and nothing is revealed. "I feel fine," they say, even if we know that they are not.

Love & Friendship

Romantic love explodes as an answer for ultimate fulfillment and connection wherever traditional religious desire ebbs. Whatever it may have to say about other matters of the spirit, if rock is a castle, without love songs, it's mostly empty rooms. It is nearly impossible to pick one love song, so we went with the voice of voices, Aretha Franklin, singing "I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You)."

And finally, when it comes to friendship, I have said it here before: From the look and walk and talk of the E Street Band, Bruce Springsteen has made it clear for decades how much he loves his neighborhood and that his neighborhood is his band. This is the world of connection he wishes for everyone. He plays for the masses with his best friends and fellow travellers in a large part because it is a friendship he is eager to share. So many of Springsteen's songs model the beauty of friendship. "Bobby Jean?" "Spirit in the Night?" 

We went with "Backstreets:"

Laying here in the dark
You're like an angel on my chest
Just another tramp of hearts
Crying tears of faithlessness

Remember all the movies, Terry
We'd go see
Trying to learn to walk like the heroes
We thought we had to be

Well after all this time
To find we're just like all the rest
Stranded in the park
And forced to confess
To hiding on the backstreets

Hiding on the backstreets
Where we swore forever friends
On the backstreets until the end

Next up, we will be taking on Work and War. Get ready with these, if you please:
  • David Crosby (The Byrds) introducing “He Was a Friend of Mine” at the Monterey Pop Festival (1967)
  • Jimi Hendrix, "The Star Spangled Banner at the Woodstock Music and Art Fair (1969)
  • The Rolling Stones, “Gimme Shelter” (1969)
  • The Bently Boys, “Penny’s Farm” (1929)
  • Bob Dylan, “Maggie’s Farm” (1965)
And so you don't have to work too hard, here are the Crosby and Hendrix clips:

The Monterey Pop Festival, 1967 (Filmed by D.A. Pennebaker)
See David Crosby's JFK rant at the 37:10 mark.

Jimi Hendrix, "The Star Spangled Banner" at the Woodstock Music and Art Fair, 1969


Oren Baum said...

This morning we talked about love being(or at least trying to be) the solution to war in the rolling stones's "Gimme Shelter". It reminded of the song "street spirit" by Radiohead. The lyrics of this piece are very vague and morbid, and they deal with issues such as the alienation of modern urban society and fear of death. Just like in the stones song, redemption comes at the of the song with the repeating line "Immerse your soul with love". I think that radiohead have managed to do what the stones failed to do, and succeeded in presenting love as the ultimate solution, in a way that is convincing enough to overcome the dark side of the song. Love is not a kiss away. It is not cymetric to war because unlike the shot, one kiss is not enough for love to overcome. Instead, Radiohead are offering us a love immersion program- To learn the language of love, you have to immerse yourself in it, make it everything. It also reflects in the music that is built up through out the song and reaches its beautiful climax in these last lines. The Rock n'rolling enthusiasm of the stones just don't have the emotional intensity that is needed to deeply move the heart of the listener, what leaves their love solution hollow.



Raz Kropveld said...

The song that came to my head at the moment we spoke about war is "Civil War" of Guns and Roses. It just proved to me how a rock song, which is quite simple, maybe even kitch, but straight and full with energy can stay in your mind and effect your thinking and ideas for many years. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O1fHxPY3TJo&feature=kphttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O1fHxPY3TJo&feature=kp

Raz Kropveld said...

For the end of the session I will add something funny, that I heard on the radio recently after many that I didn't hear it. Mainly, it's a kind of joke by Tenacious D, named "The Best Song In the World" or "Tribute". Even though, I think that there is something there that defines rock very sharply: the ambition to defeat evil by the inspiration of music. Besides, there is a lot of fun there... And, of course, the visual clip is an integral part of the music. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Jvgbe9Kx0U&list=RD2Jvgbe9Kx0U#t=0

Hadas Ofir said...

Regarding yesterday's class-


Gal Rosenberg said...

1) The connection btw War, TV and Intelligence had never been clearer than in Oingo Boingo's "War Again":

Lyrics (by Danny Elfman, Tim Burton's regular soundtrack composer):

2) What's war good for? Discover right here:

1) How can we not mention this song? This version's one of my favorites, by Tennessee Ernie Ford. (Had it been Hebrew immersion, I'd have posted Rafi Ginat's version)

2) "Career opportunities are the ones that never knock":

Hadas Ofir said...


Jimi Hendrix, Machine Gun. I think there's no need to elaborate..