Rock and roll is a music of mechanized sexuality. That’s why 90 percent of it sounds like clocks fucking.
What does rock and roll mean? For the purposes of this little disquisition, it does not mean “white people with messy haircuts.” It means the tyranny of the backbeat: Boom, bat, boom, bat, boom, bat. It means all things boom and bat. It means: Why is it so much easier to goose-step to supposed anthems of freedom like AC/DC’s “Jailbreak” than to the Prelude to Tristan und Isolde? It means: How did the drum become the drum machine?
James Brown sang about the joys of being a sex machine: Get up, get on up. Stay on the scene (Get on up!) like a sex machine. Compare this to the old joke about the traveling salesman who’s allowed to sleep in the barn on the condition that he not stick his whanger in the three holes in the barn’s wall, the last of which is—have you heard this one?—the milking machine that won’t stop until thirty gallons are gone. Let the simulation of ravening commence. Mechanization means never having to wonder what to pretend to desire next.
Now ask Mister Brown what sex is really like. Nothing could allude less to the time-bending freedom of sex than the hyperexperience of subdivided time: boom, bat, boom, bat. We are right to fear sex and its mystery, but we are wrong not to conjure our courage against that fear. Rock and roll tries to lock fucking’s magic door.
A long unmechanized moment, sex provides one of our remaining freedoms to move outside of time. What sort of thing is this to say? Why would we want to move outside of time? Well, it smells in here, for one thing. It’s horrible in here. And everything we love is going to die.
We need a music worth our time. What would that different music be like? And how would the culture itself have to change before conditions might arise to make such a music significant or even possible? Contemporary music is just one part of a none-too-subtly militarized culture—boom, bat, hup, two—in which technologies bear us aloft, or back us against the wall. If your favorite band exists, it is already part of the problem.
I do not perceive much difference between science-fiction dystopias in which loudspeakers on every corner remind me that Everything Is Under Control and this present dystopia in which Kelly Clarkson reminds me, in every shop, bar, and restaurant, that since I’ve been gone, she can breathe for the first time; but we’ve known for a while that there’s no such thing as science fiction any more.
One of my freshman English students, sent to find an example of debased language from the world of the lie, selected an ad for a brassiere promising Sexy fun, 24/7. This is a lot of pressure to put on your urogenital hydraulics. What, no refractory period? No menstruation? No bean soup, no coffee, no long phone calls to old friends, no train trips to the city? It sounds like hell to me: like Paolo and Francesca, speared together for eternity. O anime affanate, / Venite a noi parlar, s’altri nol niega—but someone has forbidden speech. Their burning is all but drowned out by this fucking music. I couldn’t hear you. What were you saying?
The brief history of rock is the evolution of license’s orthodoxy. These, then, are the ordained paths of deviance; these anarchies have been approved. Rock music was—excuse me if I talk about it in the past tense—was about fucking, getting fucked up, and fucking shit up, but what is the thrill in or even the meaning of profanity once the distinction between sacred and profane has been fully demolished? There is no sin in hell.
If this sounds like the rambling of an ex-rocker who once erred in believing a lot of half-educated revolutionary horseshit, that’s exactly what it is. Black Flag encouraged us to Rise Above. Very well, then, we have risen. We have risen above Black Flag.
I’ll bet a hundred dollars that I can teach you—if you can’t even tune a guitar—the rock song of your choice in ninety minutes. I might need some preparation before we start the stopwatch, depending on the meaning of the word rock, and you might not articulate the hairier arpeggiations as dexterously as you’d like. But I’ll get a recognizable structure under your fingers: zero to sixty in ninety minutes.
I played music professionally, drunker than a boiled owl, for almost fifteen years. I can read treble clef OK, and I still have all my fingers. I could get a couple of pages of Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue under my belt if I didn’t have anything else to do, but not in any kind of ninety minutes. And I guarantee you I could never learn it for piano, not in any convincing sense. I won’t live long enough. The mirror of art also shows us what we are not.
Fucking “classical” music? Who are you kidding, Johnny? I knew you when. High culture is not a stick to beat other people with. That’s what actual sticks are for.
I still like rock music. What I like is not necessarily good for any number of reasons, foremost among which is that I am not good. I do not disown what is base in me, or basic—what is primal, or primary. But an edifice ought to be built on that foundation; and, construction having commenced, a man can say of what is base: This is beneath me.
Reading about music is boring, and reading about extremely boring music is extremely boring. Writing about it is no thrill ride, either. Many writers on rock, by now the boringest of all possible musics, attempt to enliven things with a bit of proctological egotism: that headfirst disappearance up the asshole of lyricism, that display of the self—if that’s your idea of a self—in excruciating prose poetry, or pose. It’s the 21st century, so tell me, dear, why is it so Romantic?
If you could write perfectly, you would write the way Charles Mingus composed music: uncompromising intelligence and seriousness married to shit-kicking raunch. The twin fortunes of the high art tradition and the gutbucket were his: a wit now coruscating and now astringent; a tone now dignified by restraint and now characterized by its smashed-piano smile, by its sleaze, stink, and balls; a time to respect those who have gone before, to play it as our forebears carved it in the stele, and a time to stop playing licks and get into yourself; a time to invoke, and a time to deride the fraudulent stock solemnities of invocation. Was there anything Mingus couldn’t do? Yes: he couldn’t live forever. He had to die of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis here, inside of time.
What is outside of time, anyway? More time? Why is there no freaking out that is not freaking in? The organization of sounds in time, relative to one another, can take us outside time—as certain uses of the body seem to take us outside the body, as the body is levered against itself and others in sex to produce the out-of-body experience. Stasis is a prerequisite for ekstasis. Form is the escape from form. Let me out, you say, but there isn’t any out. The only way out is through.
File under Dionysus the feelings a rock concert aims to induce: careless ecstasy and careless unity, dissolving in the careless crowd. Is Dionysus all-embracing, or is he instead all-consuming, all-digesting, reducing all to homogenous shit-stink? Why has no one mentioned that John Lennon’s “I hope someday you’ll join us and the world will live as one” is a sentiment suitable for chanting at a Nuremberg rally?
The solution to mass-market Dionysianism is the obvious corrective tilt toward the Apollonian. Apollo is the contrary principle of form, clarity, precision, and individuation. Sculpture is the art of saying No to the rest of the mountain.
Apollo and Dionysus need one another, but only Apollo seems to understand this; Dionysus is busy vomiting into the toilet. Apollo is no slouch. He flayed Marsyas alive. He killed the Python of the Delphic Oracle. He killed the great hunter Orion: shot him in the head, poink. What did Dionysus do, exactly? Remind me. Did he invent wine? Then he married Ariadne. And he invented wine. I think that’s great. For half my life, I was hammered more or less every night, or so they tell me. Now Apollo beckons. See how he shines.
Dionysus is the god of the mob. The necessary Apollonian redress is a private endeavor. Surely no one could be enough of a fool to write an essay explaining his attempt.
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