Pete's Blog

What makes rock 'n' roll

In "The Last Waltz," Martin Scorcese's masterful documentary about the Band, drummer Levon Helm talks about his native Mississippi Delta and the music that combined there in his youth. I have to paraphrase, but I've seen the movie enough times to remember pretty closely. If you've got the blues coming up the river, he says, and country music coming down from the mountains and showtunes and gospel coming down another river, and it meets where the rivers meet, near Memphis, "and it dances...." "What do you call that kind of music?" a jittery Scorcese interrupts. "Rock and Roll," says the greatest white drummer that ever lived, barely stopping himself from adding, "D'uh!" It's one of my favorite moments in one of my favorite movies, but I've been thinking about this lately for other reasons than just to wallow in my own good taste. Since getting a few of my own videos up on Youtube I've been watching a lot of music performances, but for all the drums and guitars involved, the music doesn't often fit Levon's definition of rock and roll. What's missing in these ostensible "rock" groups (I've seen Metallica, the Dresden Dolls, AFI, Evanescence, Smashing Pumpkins, and others in recent weeks) is the sense that there's more to this music than one thing, both sylistically and (more important) emotionally. It's a one-note act, endlessly intense, arrogantly non-commercial, and utterly, completely humorless. So since when does this Captain Beefheart fan not like non-commercial? Well, like it or not, the originators - Elvis, the Beatles, Dylan - all did more than just nod at standard-issue showbiz. All of them did Tin Pan Alley numbers and all of them were funny, embracing the put-on aspect of rock, and the clowning tradition in American music that goes back through Louis Armstrong and Charlie Patton to Dan Emmit and even earlier. The last time I saw Dylan (Eric Clapton and Friends in Madison Square Garden) I laughed nonstop through the whole set. I think as music and its audiences become more segmented, people have come to expect one thing from a concert: rappers will brag, country singers will weep, rockers will be intense. The result is thoroughly calculated, utterly predictable, and deadly dull. When did this happen? You could say the first wave of corporate rock stars in the late '50s and early '60s (the Frankie Fabians) had something to do with it. The Phil Spector "Wall of Sound" may be compelling but it's about as funny as a Wagner opera. And the earnest, humorless coffeehouse folkie (early Simon & Garfunkel anyone?) is one of our culture's most enduring cliches. Still, punk could be funny, at least in its early days. The Clash might have taken themselves terrribly seriously but the Sex Pistols, the New York Dolls, the Stooges, even the MC5 relished the put-on side of rock. And what of the Ramones? Gabba-gabba hey! So who among the early rock inflluences WASN'T funny, or multi-faceted, or capable of the unexpected? The blues-rockers winked at their own innuendos and exagerrations. The glam bands' poutings and swoonings were deliriously goofy fun. Heavy metal? The buzzer goes aaaank. Led Zeppelin? Not funny. Black Sabbath? Not funny. And as new metal gives way to pop metal and punk metal and metalcore you keep thinking not funny, not funny, not funny. I'm banging my head but I'm not having fun. More importantly, this music is not stretching my sense of what's possible. When you first hear Louis Armstrong or Aretha Franklin or Bill Monroe or Muddy Waters or Bob Dylan you think, "I didn't know you could DO that." The first time any of their fans heard Judas Priest or Bon Jovi or Faith No More or Good Charlotte or any of a thousand good, popular bands they said, "These guys are doing EXACTLY what I like." Big difference.

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