Sunday, July 20, 2008

Sex, Drugs, Rock, Roll, etc.

Hi. My name’s Joe Friday-on-My-Mind. I’m with the ACLU, Rock Music Division. We defend the indefensible. Here’s my story:


If your upbringing was anything like mine, your parents hated rock and roll music. Some lucky kids had parents who could at least stomach the Beatles. Not us. I’ll never forget my dad’s pronouncement, made sometime in 1964 I think, that There would never be a Beatles record in this house! Man, that sounded pretty final at the time, and even though we eventually wore him down, it took until 1966, and a double birthday combo (my brother’s and mine were three weeks apart) to get our first album ever – “Revolver”. And even that was Plan B, after the single (“Yellow Submarine”/”Eleanor Rigby”) they bought us kept skipping on our old Victrola. The pennies weighing down the tone arm didn’t work. They did eventually wear a groove into “She Said She Said” that was so deep that I was an adult before I heard the song all the way through uninterrupted.

After some time, the Monkees were permitted, too, but we knew there were limits. No one with facial or female-length hair need apply. We probably could have gotten away with the odd subtle drug reference here or there. After all, my dad missed what Country Joe was spelling out on “Woodstock”. But then my mom figured out what John Prine’s “Illegal Smile” was about.

And in my own cowardly and roundabout way, I struck a blow for justice when I accidentally (?) dropped a stack of Irish LPs on the floor. Back then the vinyl was thick and brittle. All I remember now is being up to my ankles in jagged black shards, feeling like I’d just slain Goliath (or Dorothy after she unknowingly dropped a house on the witch, but I’m a little uncomfortable with that analogy).

A lot of us spent our childhoods being told that what we loved was crap and that our heroes were bums. How did you deal with that? Did you ignore the criticisms or try to prove them wrong? If you did the former, weren’t you implicitly accepting the criticism? (Not really, but I thought so at the time. Unlike most other kids, I never learned to totally ignore adults.) And if you accepted it, then didn’t that mean that you yourself would eventually choose to stop listening to it, judging it to be juvenile? And even though I was confusing a simple change of taste with a conscious decision to reject something on philosophical grounds, I still think that the early seventies represented my generation’s first reaction against rock and roll. Many of us, in an effort to feel more mature, began listening to more “serious” music.

I did it too, by getting into “progressive” music, singer-songwriters and other such genres. I was looking for Artists who were making music that was more defensible. After all, I had adults I needed to be to arguing with. Other kids played stickball.

And what defenses did I use, you ask?

First, there was the Virtuosity, or, Ginger Baker is the best drummer in the world” defense. At around the age of twelve, musicianship became very important to me. Simply judging music by the amount of enjoyment it provided was too subjective for me. And it left me open to the criticism that my taste was immature. But if someone was a great musician, it meant that they had an inherent quality that could be measured, which validated the music. Alas, this is where music “appreciation” begins. Remember how much fun it was to listen to ten minute drum solos?

Then there was the Sounds Like Classical Music defense. You had to buy Emerson, Lake and Palmer records for this one. Some high school music teachers even pretended to buy into it. But it usually entailed listening to long “suite”s on side two. Rock operas could fall into this category, too, unless, like “Tommy”, they used actual rock and roll music. Imagine.

And finally, there was the Sounds Like Music Older People Would Like defense. I would play “Celluloid Heroes” by the Kinks for my mom, hoping that she would one day say “What a beautiful song. Well, rock music is actually very good! How’s about putting on some Hot f-ing Tuna?” Instead, she mistook the drum beat for a scratch on the record. Much later, to her credit, she very unexpectedly said that she liked “Ripple” by the Grateful Dead. And dad noted that David Lindley could play a mean violin, wild hair and all. Thanks, Mom and Dad.

Even on its own, independent of adult disapproval, rock music felt the need to get serious. I suppose we could blame Sgt. Pepper for this, but this hasn’t been an entirely bad thing. Let’s face it, for a lot of people, rock and roll music was just an excuse to act like an asshole. For every Woodstock, there’s at least one Altamont. So those of us who were not assholes – both listeners and musicians - were given a false choice between Significance or utter Stupidity. Choosing the former meant you were - and had - no fun; the latter meant that you were an ignorant clod. Foghat to the right of me, Genesis to the left of me - what’s a fellow to do? I wouldn’t resolve this dilemma satisfactorily until years later when I could absorb some punk rock.

And as I got older, I began to get the cosmic joke a little more. I could see how rock and roll would always be in danger of looking stupid when it took itself too seriously. Some of us get more serious over time, but those of us who are too serious to begin with sometimes learn to just lighten up. You can be unserious and smart at the same time.

It took time to appreciate rock and roll music that could be both, even when it was right in front of me. You can have your cake and eat it too, it said, by immersing yourself in the joy of the sound, having a good time with the theoretical stupidity (“Louie, Louie”), and totally rejecting the actual stupidity (see my posting “Most Awful Bands”). This is not easy for a teen-ager who takes himself way too seriously. I can barely manage it now.

But after a while, you realize that a good TV show is better than a bad book. And in the same way, good rock and roll is better than bad opera. Sometimes good rock and roll is an opera.

Sex (Not Really) and Drugs:

But I mustn’t ignore the second front of this particular war, which was a debate over lifestyle, by which I mean sex and drugs. Well drugs anyway. Sex (defined more or less as the seeing anyone else’s underwear, in any context whatsoever) wasn’t discussed. So let’s just check that one off right away.

A self evident axiom at the time was that Everybody who played rock music took drugs. My parents certainly thought so. “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In” had a great line about it: “In a recent experiment, scientists gave LSD to lab rats. There were few side affects, but the rats now have an album in the Top 40.” Even I laughed at that one.

Drug addicts (i.e., anyone who ever tried an illegal drug in their lives) were bad people, and bad people couldn’t do things like make great music. So I had to defend my favorite artists from this charge. I told my parents that they were being unfair, and that they shouldn’t assume this about anyone, blah, blah, blah…. I really believed this; hence my need at the time to find “clean cut” groups (i.e. those adhering to my dad’s facial hair dictum, which I’d apparently internalized by this time. Sgt. Pepper, again, caused a crisis, with the Beatles now sporting mustaches.) I can now admit that I was being a bit naive, but only because my mom probably won’t read this.

One of the low points of this period was the day my mom marched into our bedroom one morning to announce, with relish, that one of our heroes – Mickey Dolenz of the clean cut Monkees – had been arrested for drug possession. (Pot? LSD? Heroin? What difference did it make? It was drugs!) I felt so betrayed that I went through my copy of “Sixteen” (wait, that can’t be right. I was only ten!) magazine and decided to spit on his picture. Since these magazines had LOTS of pictures, there were a bunch to choose from. I decided that I would spit on the 30th one I found, which I got to about a third of the way through.

I made my way down to the kitchen, and heard on the news that it was Mick JAGGER who got arrested, not Mickey Dolenz! Of course he took drugs, mom! He was in the Rolling Stones! He practically had to. One perfectly good magazine ruined. I would find out later that Mick Jagger was a relative tea-totler, compared to everyone else around him. So I was wrong every which way from Sunday on this one.

Have Mouth, Will Defend:

Both personal experience and a perusal of Blender magazine force me to confront the fact that musicians may, in fact, be the most miserable excuses for human beings on the planet. (Oh wait, that’s Bill O’Reilly.) And when they interact with other humans, it’s the latter who usually get the worst of it. These friends and family members must endure them and thus pay a steep price for our joy. I hope there’s a special place in heaven for them because I will continue to require this joy until the day I die.

I think my problem was that I was trying to defend what can’t be defended. Once you try to fit music, or worse yet, the musicians themselves, into a set of philosophical preconditions, you’re going to run into trouble. The minute that irresistible hook comes around, you’ll be singing along with those lyrics about drowning puppies in a well. (What, you don’t remember that one?) Okay, may not. After all, we all draw our own personal line in the sand for when something is officially “offensive” to us, but it’s usually because the riff (or the punch line) isn’t good enough. I would call it my Guns n Roses line. And we all have a duty to encourage the good and discourage the bad. We should deny sex (yeah, this situation is always coming up) to those who profess an admiration for Hitler or John Tesh, both as punishment, and to clean up the gene pool.

But otherwise, if I may paraphrase some very unsound advice, if it sounds good, maybe you should just sit back and enjoy. And yes, I’ll admit that we’ll all draw the line at drowning puppies, but I wonder what I’ll be willing to sing along to before I get to that point? Hopefully not “Deutschland ├╝ber Alles”.

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