Monday, July 14, 2014

The History of Rock 'n' Roll: Rebellion and Fun

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. Below is the first installment describing what the students and I find...
Our task is daunting: ten songs to map the history of rock and everything in it. 

We began by tracing stories of rebellion and fun with these tunes:
  • Chuck Berry, “Roll Over Beethoven” (1956)
  • The Replacements, “Bastards of Young” (1985)
  • David Bowie, “Rebel, Rebel” (1974)
  • Tracy Bonham, “Mother, Mother” (1996)
  • The Beatles, “She’s Leaving Home” (1967)* 
*Songs in bold as part of the core ten songs of the course.  
In this telling of rock, the stories wrapped themselves around each other to become a woman's tale. She moved through four decades of rock 'n' roll as a ghost of many forms - sometimes a child, sometimes a parent; she was a performer, performed upon, and an audience as well. 

Chuck Berry, "Roll Over Beethoven"

She begins innocently, tagging along for fun in Chuck Berry's "Roll Over Beethoven:"

You know she wiggles like a glow worm,
dance like a spinnin' top.
She got a crazy partner,
Ya oughta see 'em reel and rock.
Long as she got a dime the music won't never stop.

Plugging dimes into the jukebox whose repetitive rhythms pull her close, she's found a beat and a partner and they've got their moves while Beethoven - the one she is supposed to love - is just a zombie, half memory and half man but all in the grave. There might be something creepy in the air, but no one is yet all that far from home. She and her friends may have contracted "rockin' pneumonia" and "rollin' arthiritis," but no one is limping, no one has gone off the rails.

But dime after dime in the jukebox ultimately releases something contagious and foreign that follows her back home. The Beatles named it in "She's Leaving Home." A restless daughter well-loved still needs to leave her sleeping parents who "gave her everything money can buy." She tip-toes out and away with tears in her eyes. Money can't buy her love and "fun is the one thing that money can't buy." So she leaves her mother and father for a partner. Maybe not Chuck Berry's crazy partner. He's a man from the motor trade. But as she sets off down the rock 'n' roll highway there is no way of telling what will be.

David Bowie, "Rebel, Rebel"

Times gets stranger. By "Rebel, Rebel," mother is "not sure if she's a boy or a girl." She has found lots of fun, probably too much fun. Her face is a mess and she's torn her dress. That's part of breaking down what ever had held her back before, of course, but the purpose of all of this noise and striving remains unclear. David Bowie asks:

So what you wanna know Calamity's child,
Where'd you wanna go?

Maybe somewhere, maybe nowhere, but the girl becomes a woman who becomes a mother. She travels far but only far enough to become the very same middle-aged woman whose sons and daughters now start their own band. Call them the Replacements: angry, realistic, charming, and drunk. 

These kids of the 80's had parents who turned over Beethoven with the addictive beat of the juke box, frightening and surprising their parents, but it does not save them them from the same mistakes and boredom that shaped the first generation that raised itself at rock's knee. 

"Clean your baby womb," the Replacements sing:

Trash that baby boom
Elvis in the ground
There ain't no beer tonight 

Elvis is the new Beethoven, but not even live enough in death to roll over.

Tracy Bonham, "Mother, Mother"

By Tracy Bonham's "Mother, Mother," teen rage and rebellion which rock 'n' roll had natured and sold are as standard as a man from the motor trade. A girl can screech and howl just as loudly as a boy. That's good news. But rock pneumonia, even as it is translated in two or three generations of record-making, festers and the kids are not quite all right:

I'm hungry, I'm dirty 
I'm losing my mind, everything's fine!
I'm freezing, I'm starving 
I'm bleeding to death, everything's fine!

It's not clear what the call to rebellion that breaks down barriers of gender and culture and breaks up the home has actually done. 

Yoel Botnivick found Calmity's Child - the specter of a woman holding many different forms - rounding a corner on the Rolling Stones' Bridges to Babylon just about the same time as Tracy Bonham's "Mother, Mother:"

Anybody seen my baby 
Anybody seen her around 
If I just close my eyes 
I reach out and touch the prize
Anybody seen her around
Lost, lost and never found
I must have called her a thousand times
Sometimes I think she's just in my imagination
Lost in the crowd

That bridge to Babylon and a long look into the crowd gave us direction to our next set of
tunes, all playing out the theme prophecy:
  • Vivaldi, Gloria: In Excelsis Deo
  • Patti Smith, “Gloria: In Excelsis Deo” (1975)
  • Van Morrison and 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)
These were followed by two songs, one on love and another on friendship.
  • Aretha Franklin, “I Never Loved a Man (the Way That I Love You)” (1967)
  • Bruce Springsteen, “Backstreets” (1975)
Next Up: Prophecy, Love & Friendship


Raz Kropveld said...

The song Backstreets touched me realy deeply. I tried to understand why, to define to myself that special feeling that i felt in the class. I recall in another song, a very famous rock balade of the rolling stones called Angie. It says something quite different, but like Backstreets it's speaks about a close and intime relationship that ends. The speaker understands the reasons for that end, but he is still deeply yearns for something that was so special and unique in that relationship.
It seems to me that the real nucleus of every romantic love isn't the sexual passion but the need for a soul mate.

Raz Kropveld said...


יואל בוטביניק said...

"waiting for mesiach" - like in the case of gloria, shalom hanoch use the fact that "mashiach" is now a name and not just a concept. it alow him to make a cultural and religius critic, all in one.

Gal Rosenberg said...

Hey guys!
Been a long day, huh? Today's class seems like ages ago...

Aaaaaanyhow, I dunna if you did end up listening to "Tutti Frutti" by Lil' Richard yesterday, but here it is, on #6 of 11 songs that you'll never hear the same after reading this bit:

And more to the point, i can think of a few more things which coincide with what we've listened to today:
1) Chelsea Hotel #2 - Original version by Leonard Cohen, yet I kinda like this cover by Lana del Rey. Plus, she's coming to Israel soon, so I thought what the heck. Lyrics are at the bottom of the video:

2) See what Rolling Stone's (the magazine, not the band) Greil Marcus has to say about a part of today's lesson in the article "Rock Stars as American Prophets?"

3) Some other songs that went through my mind as I was sitting in today's class are:

That's it for now, and in the meanwhile, on the same apocalyptic note: Enjoy earth while we're here!

Oren Baum said...

The conversation about the strong connection between Rock an friendship reminded me of the movie "Detroit Rock City". The movie is about four rocking teenagers and their tedious journey of trying to get inside a Kiss concert. The movie also relates to the talk about rebellion and fun, because the friendship of the boys revolves around these two things. It also describes a lot of what rock culture was like for me as a teenager. When I was in the tenth grade, I went with two good friends to see Megadeth preform on Palmachim beach. Just like in the movie, and maybe under inspiration from it, I remember the adventures of that night as a mythological story of our friendship.

Michal Peled said...

Hi friends,
I am attaching a song sung by Aretha Franklin which I think can represent the idea of finding the answer in love with a bite lass pain than the feeling in "I Never Loved a Man" and its "I'd leave you if I could" content...
good night, and hope will all find our key to peace and mind :)

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.