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Say no to pop: Five arguments for the existence of rock 'n' roll



I don't think there is any such thing as pure pop. What matters is what feeds you. Like the way listening to Meet the Beatles thrills a spiritual/physical nerve ending, like breathing pure oxygen.

"Pop" is a self-preservative ploy of London music scene partisans -- a tasteless, odorless little nothing of a word used to obscure the fact that the English have no native modern tradition of popular music. Blues, jazz, rock 'n' roll, even Broadway show tunes -- to admit their existence as living traditions, English critics and musicians would also have to admit that none of them has an inherent relationship to English culture. So tradition is denied as reactionary (or deliberately robbed of meaning -- for example, the mysterious English use of the generic term "soul" to describe bands that have their most obvious stylistic roots in mid-period David Bowie and Roxy Music records). And it all becomes "pop." But the attitude has been picked up by American music fans and writers, and it has nearly won.

The use of the word "pop" in this context conceals a distinct attitude to the music. It homogenizes and levels, implying that the fact of appearing on the charts gives all music equal weight. It works to undermine any basis for judgments of quality. If it's all "pop" -- that is, if it is all a disposable, here-today-gone-tomorrow rush of ephemeral pleasure -- then we have no grounds for disappointment if the music doesn't deliver what we need, no precedent on which to appeal our case. It is a ready-made excuse for not meaning anything. The dog ate the homework even before you got the assignment.

I sometimes think that the English rock critics' obsession with classifying performers according to political ideologies comes from guilt. Guilt over the fact that they've not only, condoned, but championed the gradual leaking away of all context, commitment, and meaning from the music itself. Stuck as the English now are with an enormously influential music scene that has created an international musical language as defanged and puerile as anything since the pre-rock 'n' roll 50s, they try to cheer themselves and restore a lost sense of significance by figuring out what far-left faction of the Labour Party their pop giants would belong to, if they belonged to the Labour Party at all, which they probably don't.

Which is odd and sad, given the fact that the London music scene that sealed us up in this bell jar actually spawned the last flailing lunge at making popular music mean something. The Sex Pistols and the punk bands that followed them over the top were the last to speak rock 'n' roll's great "'No!' in thunder," to make protest music. And they did it with a beautiful instinct for the legacy of energy they inherited; you could hear it rolling in their huge chords. They were perfect avatars of the vision that John Sinclair had written down ten years earlier, in prison in Michigan, as his way of explaining what the MC5 were all about (indeed, what the 60s were all about): the idea that rock 'n' roll tapped into a unique form of human energy that could be used to empower the people, or rather each individual person -- an energy external to the rigged options of mass modern culture, and so one that could be used to fuel the growth of a more spiritually energized alternative.

This the Pistols did. At least musically. At least in America. In England the self-lacerating nihilism that was the dark face of the Sex Pistols' moral outrage could not be put back in its box once set loose. Just as with an angry child, the power to say "no" became intoxicating, then maddening, until it took on a diabolic life of its own. It always felt like the Pistols were making an overhasty surrender to the death of all possibilities. Remember "no future, no future, no future for you"? You never knew whether they were outraged by or half in love with the thought. And Sid Vicious acted it out.

It started with the punks. No to the past. No to the future. No to sex. The New Romantics and the synthesizer bands carried it on. No to musical instruments. No even to the No In Thunder -- lay down arms and surrender to the smooth oblivion of the mainstream, and welcome to Spandau Ballet and Culture Club, Haircut 100 and Frankie Goes To Hollywood. After all, how can you be accused of selling out if any moral context for your act has first been denied, and if nothing you have to sell means anything anyway?

Seen through this vision, all the conditions of life, even life itself, begin to appear like tyrannical commands from a great arbitrary parent called existence. And finally you say no even to that, as did Ian Curtis of Joy Division, found hanging by his neck, a suicide. Like Sid. Ian and Sid. The two martyrs of English "pop."

But opt for staying alive, just once and for whatever reason, and the chain of "no" breaks. And some of us like music. And we find names for music becoming useful again, living names like "rock 'n' roll" that actually developed out of common use, instead of boardroom words like "pop." And we look for songs that feed us, offer energy.

English pop hasn't totally wasted the landscape. There are still bands and musicians who're crafting songs that we can use for bread, weapons, or fire -- mostly in America, because we have been separated by an ocean from the nihilist sump into which English music sank. But in Britain, too. Because the Sex Pistols, the whole punk thing, did empower people, a new world of musicians. Only a relative minority got caught in the whipcrack at the end of it that snapped them off into the void.

So let's get to the interesting stuff and talk about songs. The Talking Heads. In "Once in a Lifetime" you come right up against it, the shattering moment. The collision with the mirror that's waiting there in the middle of the night, in the middle of life for everyone. David Byrne has said the song is about "water and ecstasy" or something, which it is. But I think it's about the suburbs, too.

I've always had a feeling that the unanimity with which the suburbs have been condemned as a spiritual dead zone is a little suspicious, like maybe people are on to something that they're trying to hide. I think there's a mystery in the heart of the suburbs. In this dream of the suburbs that I hear in "Once in a Lifetime," suburban fathers lie in their beds, good and wise fathers like Robert Young and Hugh Beaumont, hatchet-faced and implacable fathers looking like Donald Regan. But all of them with their faces frozen from years of the effort to exert their will over themselves and others. To each of them one night comes a 3 AM call from their backyard (each householder's little share of a darker, greener world). Maybe they think it's burglars at first. Maybe they even get the family revolver down from the closet shelf.

And when they get out there, looking for whatever has come to disturb their sleep, the world cracks open, and they are shattered. They fall on their knees in the moon-humming yard. Maybe they see something in the dark shining shrubbery they've never seen before. Maybe they have a personal experience of the Lord Jesus Christ. Maybe they're overwhelmed with horror. At any rate their faces will never be the same. For me this song is about the initiation of the suburban fathers. And then they understand about the water under the water that David Byrne sings about. And the water on the moon. And about waking up to say, "My God, what have I done?" as singers around them in an African circle dance like the agents of eternity.

The Waterboys have a lot of that water imagery, too, as you can tell from their name. Their best song is the title song of their second LP; it's called "This is the Sea." This song performs a priestly function (the Waterboys are from Scotland where the very soil breathes forth the Holy Spirit, so that is no surprise). "Come unto me all ye who are heavy laden" is what their front man, Mike Scott, is saying.

At first the song sounds like it comes out of the same ocean that Van Morrison found himself rolling on when he created Astral Weeks, when some personal agony forced a break in the world that opened vision to him. The massed acoustic chords bob and ripple, the maddening sinuous strings crest and slacken. Then Mike Scott goes through a roll call of the wounded, calling to them: "You been scarring your conscience, raking through your memory. . . . You say you been suffering from . . . a few . . . too . . . many . . . plans that have gone wrong!"

And then he offers -- well, not solace. Something better. "That was the river -- this is the sea." In other words, "affairs are now soul size," as 60s poet John Berryman said. And the long, portentous swell of the acoustic guitars builds to a vast, slowly gathering breaker, carrying all the flotsam -- the mad violins, a little mandolin folk dance -- and breaks into a new and bigger stillness, as the tiny structure of personal care is subsumed and consumed and rushed out into the estuary, where hurt finds its place and isn't hurt any more.

The Waterboys are pretty self-consciously inspirational. (Though not nearly so egregiously as bands like Big Country or the Alarm -- the cartoon face of save-the-world Celtic hoodoo). The truth is, this true meat and drink can be found anyplace. Remember Pat Benatar's hit, "We Belong"? Yeah, it's a little self-conscious, too, but somebody's really dug deep here. I guess this is pretty "pop" -- even once-removed pop, since it just sort of recycles 80s pop ideas that have been invented elsewhere. Pat Benatar herself is sort of recycled, too -- a rock tough girl somewhere between Joan Jett and Chrissie Hynde. Her only original addition to the persona was an essentially conventional character, closer to fluffy-haired, overrouged girls from the suburbs out for a night on the town than to Chrissie's project of total self-reinvention.

Still something breathes through this song. A lot of people get turned off by Benatar's melodramatic singing style. But it isn't here. It's very intimate. Not sexy-intimate, more like a person saying something important to somebody she loves. Not what the actual conversation would sound like, but what it feels like when you hear it. It's very quiet and loving and sad, and tentative, like those echoey clouds of strings or electronics that ripple around the lyrics. And then comes this crashing chorus, which could have been played for melodrama -- as a pat contrast to the hushed tentativeness of the verse. Only what it feels like is the love implicit in the quiet part becoming explicit. "Whatever we deny or embrace, for worse or for better, we belong, we belong together." Those are pretty good lyrics. And the chorus of women singing those long, looping, lovely lines, sounding Australian and aboriginal in the background as the thing disappears. It's no big deal. It just comes close to the heart.

Almost nobody's as good at the "'No!' in thunder" these days as Paul Westerberg of the Replacements. The Replacements are actually not nearly as good at straightforward rocking as a lot of people are saying. In fact, their up-tempo numbers are often uninspired variants on that rigidly orthodox, anally restrictive, grumpily asexual, and undanceable cult music called "hardcore." Other writers have added to the confusion, by harping on what heedless, nihilist drunken slobs they are. Both impressions -- superlative rockers or doltish midwestern yobs -- are misleading. The Replacements tend to be rote and offhand in the up-tempo numbers they're usually praised for; richly textured, inventive, and emotionally complex in the mid-tempo stuff -- qualities in distinct contradiction to their legendary boorishness.

But that's not the important thing about the Replacements, and it's not why people get so worked up about them. What excites people, whether they can articulate it or not, is just the sense that there's something human going on in their music. That it reaffirms rock 'n' roll without either the faintest stink of nostalgia (that admission of defeat and anachronicity that oozes out of most of the respected rockers of our day) or of selling out to soulless synthetics. The Replacements sound like struggle, like personalities cramped and convulsed with the effort of finding out why they feel empty.

And if you really get to know this music, you realize its subtle but all-important difference from the hardcore nihilists of America and the glossy nihilists of England. The Replacements aren't yucking it up about the emptiness, like the Americans. And they're not acceding to it, then dressing it up in fashion and fashionable politics, like the English. They're trying to find something to fill it. They need to.

Which makes the Replacements' "Unsatisfied" one very moving song. "Tell me what's wrong!" Paul Westerberg shouts. "Look into my eyes and tell me, that I'm satisfied -- are you satisfied?" he asks again and again.

This music is so dense and churning, the pace is almost languorous but -- if this makes sense -- it's urgent languor. Like you might feel slowly rolling back and forth in bed trying to wake yourself out of a bad dream.

There's not a whole lot else besides this chorus. But Paul Westerberg sets the mood with lyric fragments in the verses. "Everything you've ever wanted -- tell me what's wrong. . . ." Just that little fragment of a phrase -- you get everything you've ever wanted, and something's still wrong? Such a thought would be beyond the ken of an English "pop" band, who know nothing of the nausea of surfeit.

And then there's the presence of an Other, a relationship implied in the incessant questions, and in the care that weights them. "Tell me what's wrong?" "Are you satisfied?" posed by that torn-up voice.

To cite any influences on the Replacements' music would give anybody who hasn't heard the Replacements the wrong idea of what they sound like. Anyway, they come from a school with (at least in its beginnings) a very small sense of the past. But because they are children howling out of emptiness for fullness like all great rock 'n' rollers, it ends up reminding you of great moments -- maybe those mean banks of acoustic guitars echo the hardest, angriest boot-heel folk-rock. And that voice -- ragged and desperate as it shouts its obsessive question/demand, over and over -- seems like the real "punk rock" that the Sex Pistols were expressing but that you also hear in the voice of every real rocker all the way back to some lonely field holler, always howling for something more, better, and bigger, howling so that they may have life, and have it more abundantly.

And in the end I think of Jason & the Scorchers and the way it seems no one is listening to their fine record Still Standing and the crystalline joy and reassurance that comes from their song "Crashin' Down."

The Scorchers have appeared to be many things during their five-year career. Fried-out, pasty-faced yokels from the underside of the new South with a taste for the New York Dolls; true explorers of the unquiet spirit that country music has agreed to ignore for 20 years; a "country-punk" band; a heavy-metal band in disguise; standard-bearers for an American "roots-rock" renaissance; and most recently (take your pick) a classic main-vein rock 'n' roll band in the Rolling Stones tradition, or a cop-out to AOR radio aesthetics.

What's never been in doubt about them, especially if you've seen their shows all along, is their total dedication (whether they know it or not) to John Sinclair's high-energy manifesto. That the simple act of rocking out is somehow important in and of itself has always been the first thing you know about the Scorchers.

Now this sense of importance has taken many forms. At first, it was completely implicit in the performance. The early Scorchers were like the long finger of the Lord tearing through the fabric of the night right into their audience's new-wave club fantasyland. A confrontation with, a proof of a reality so furious and unexpected it sometimes didn't even seem like you should call it entertainment.

Since then Jason has been trying to make that importance more explicit, more literal. "We like to think we speak for a rural idealism -- a kind of rural mysticism -- for the people who watch the life-and-death cycle each year," Jason says. Yes, that does say something about what was going on, and maybe something about the source of the Scorchers' energy. The trouble is, when you come right out and say something like that, there's no way of telling it from the kind of empty cliche that all sorts of people mouth for all sorts of reasons. And it makes it easier to get contented with simply saying those things, not being a living proof of them.

That's the beauty of "Crashin' Down." 'Cause it walks it like it talks it. In it, all of Jason's stubbornly held idealism has found a lovely and natural and purely musical expression. Aaron Copland would have made a symphony around this song if he had heard it, taking it for one of those stabbing little airs that just floated off the edge of some hidden hollow. But it isn't simply airy. Its gilt loveliness is welded to a bumptiously assertive beat, and bursts into a splintered, tingling spray of needle-nosed licks each time the break rejoins the song. In fact, "Crashin' Down" pulls off that most pulse-quickening rock 'n' roll trick -- powering an elegant chassis with a fierce, rocking engine. Lyricism and raw power yoked together is a heady blend.

But behind the musical virtuosity, forming it, is soul. The sure, steady cadence, the plain-speaking, unadorned beauty of the melody, the exuberant harmonies -- all seem to rise from a deep well of surety and consolation, a place where there is balm for wounds. Jason sings almost as if he's talking, singing quietly, hanging back because he knows he needn't assert himself. He's riding a wave of feeling that's stronger than he is. So he can let it do the talking.

What he says is pretty simple. "Once I thought that I would be among the ruins that you see . . . / But since you came around, that old feeling's back in town / Our love will be standing when it all comes crashing down." While all structure will topple, what is at the heart of human things can't. This time Jason's preacherly tone sounds absolutely easy -- those pictures of the mighty falling are like remembered Sunday school lessons. "In the final round new hope will be found, our love will be standing when it all comes crashing down." It's not a hymn of hope, like U2 fancy they're singing. Very few rock stars have been through enough to offer assurances about final outcomes. "Crashin' Down" is a hymn to hope. Stay near the heart, it says, in melody and voices and lyrics and the power of guitars. Stay near the heart because that's the only place to stand.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Paul Natkin--Photo Reserve.

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