Notes on the Life & Death and Incandescent Banality of Rock ‘n’ Roll (08/92)

There’s an image of present-day rock ‘n’ roll that I’ve been unable to get out of my head since I first bumped into it on MTV a few years ago. It still runs on the channel, but with the set on or off it comes back to me all the time, without warning, capable of tingeing any musical thrill with nausea.

It’s a video by Poi­son, one of L. A.’s blond heavy-metal bands—the clip for “Every Rose Has Its Thorn,” a good ballad. You see singer Bret Michaels striding through back­stage corridors on his way to the stage, where cameras, visible in the video itself, will soon make it appear as if infinite numbers of fist-thrusting boys and weeping girls want nothing more than to sacrifice themselves on the altar of the band’s life-force. Backstage, adoring fans, looking at once giddy and scared, are huddled against the wall, as if pressed back by vibrations emanating from Michaels’s forehead.

He’s flanked by two bodyguards—mountains of flesh with heads so blocklike they barely seem human, no expressions on their faces, just a readiness to smash apparent in the way that they move. It’s slow motion. Though nothing is really happening, tension builds. The disdain on Michaels’s face, in his walk, is precise and studied, a parody of every rock-star swagger from Elvis to Jagger. No one is laughing, Michaels least of all.

The pose is too obvious. One more gesture is called for. Michaels is carrying a drink in a big paper cup; he tosses it against the wall. There’s no anger in his movement, merely contempt; in your mind’s eye you can glimpse the bottomless well. Still in slow motion, the drink splatters and drips down the wall.As in almost any video, symbolism is the currency. As the clenched fists will symbolize self-affirmation, the tears submission, and the visible cameras that what you’re seeing is very important—important enough to be filmed—here the meaning is equally plain: The star pisses on his fans and they are blessed.

This tableau of worship and hauteur is staged, an advertisement carefully constructed out of cliches that have been pretested and presold. They need only to be rearranged to produce the proper response: Bret Michaels, in his role, could be Sebastian Bach of Skid Row or Axl Rose of Guns N’ Roses as easily as he is himself. The demonstration is riveting nonetheless. It is a pornography of money, fame, and domination, all for no reason outside itself, and all based in the magic of music.

If rock ‘n’ roll is real—not simply a balance sheet, but a matrix of voices and values—then here in this video is something real about rock ‘n’ roll. For this is, today, a sign; as complete as Little Richard’s pompadour in 1956 or Jimi Hendrix’s blasted “Star-Spangled Banner” in 1969, of the liberation rock ‘n’ roll has always promised: I can go where I want, do what I want, say what I want. There are no rules. Freedom’s just another word for a mess someone else has to clean up.

This is my image of the death of rock—or of rock as something that ought to be killed.

The question of the death of rock comes up again and again these days, and not just because of falling record sales, a collapsing concert market, major labels consolidating to the point of monopoly, or desperately profligate, rear-guard superstar contracts. Sony Music’s $33.5 million for ancient hard-rock war-horses Aerosmith, for example—a deal that will take the boys into their fifties, if they or Sony last that long, a kiddie-toy version of Wall Street’s ’80s leveraged buyouts, debt-financing, Milkenesque “compensation” at the top, massive layoffs below. The death of rock is not a question because of growing censorship of songs and shows, damaging as that is. (Speaking in March at an American Enterprise Institute conference on popular culture—a forum that included Robert Bork, Irving Kris­tol, and William J. Bennett—a professor of constitutional law at Georgetown University named Walter Berns called for censoring not only the music but “the musicians themselves, the rockers, the rappers, and all the Madonnas”—there’s more than one?) It isn’t even that the music is empty. Put last year’s most interesting platinum albums against the year’s celebrated hit movies and best-selling books—pit Metallica against Bugsy, or Ice Cube’s Death Certificate against Julie Salamon’s The Devil’s Candy——and it’s clear that there’s more life and less formula on the charts

The question of the death of rock comes up because rock and roll—as a cultural force rather than as a catchphrase—no longer seems to mean anything. It no longer seems to speak in unknown tongues that turn into new and common languages, to say anything that is not instantly translated back into the dominant discourse of our day: the discourse of corporatism, selfishness, crime, racism, sexism, homophobia, government propaganda, scapegoating, and happy endings.

There is an overwhelming sense of separation, isolation: segregation. There might be a vague awareness of the early and mid-’50s, when street corner doo-wop by African- and Italian-Americans, rockabilly by southern whites, and urban rhythm-and-blues from Chicago on down struggled for a name to mark the new spirit they seemed to share. There might be a memory of The T.A.M.I. Show, the 1964 concert film with Jan & Dean, the Supremes, Gerry & the Pace­makers, Chuck Berry, Lesley Gore, the Miracles, the Beach Boys, Marvin Gaye, James Brown; and the Rolling Stones sharing the same stage and, indisputably, whatever the word meant, all rock. The myth of the ’60s that today serves as such a beacon and a burden for people in their teens and twenties is, among other things, a myth of wholeness—a wholeness that people who never experienced “the Sixties, as fact or illusion, sometimes still feel as an absence, like the itch of a limb amputated before they were born. It is a myth less of unity, or even rebellion, than of a pop lingua franca—that’s what brought more young people into the theaters for The Doors, a strong movie that invited them to imagine themselves dressed up in their parents’ clothes, than for Pump Up the Volume, a stronger movie in which they could have seen people like themselves seeking the voice Jim Morrison once seemed to have found.

The rock audience began to break apart as far back as the ear­ly ’70s. As the center of pop gravity, the Beatles had validated ev­ery form of the music both as commerce and as art; with that force gone, both listeners and genres spun out in all directions. Still, the lines between sounds and audiences have never been so hard or so self-justifying—as commerce and as art—as they are now. Today “rock” refers to—what? Nirvana? Sinead O’Connor? Michael Jackson? Bruce Springsteen? Prince? Ray Charles for Diet Pepsi? Rapper Ice-T, with or without his thrash band, Body Count? Public Enemy? Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine, two former London buskers transformed into world-class Jeremiahs? Rosanne Cash? Madonna? Aging and unbowed punk troubadours the Mekons or neo-psychedelicists My Bloody Valentine? The Nymphs from Los Angeles, the Fastbacks from Seattle, Pulnoc from Prague, the Vulgar Boatmen from Florida, Babes in Toyland from Minnesota, anyone’s favorite breaking group or nowhere indie band? Some people would withhold the name “rock” from some of those performers, and some of those performers would reject the name themselves.

The pop-music audience is bigger than ever, despite fifteen-dollar CDs and thirty-dollar concert tickets. Such prices are paid, when they are, because the audience has been organized into mar­ket segments—complex and recombined segments of age, race, class, and gender—efficiently predictable, containable markets that can be sold identity, or anyway self-recognition, packaged as music. As culture the segmentation is so strict that any public violation of its boundaries—say, white fraternity boys blasting N.W.A.’s ho-bitch rap spew—can seem less a matter of outsiders crossing over into the mainstream than a privileged raid by the colonists on the colonized. There is no central figure to define the music or against whom the music could be defined, no one everybody feels compelled to love or hate, nobody everyone wants to argue about (what is pop music if not an argument anyone can join?), unless it’s the undead Elvis Presley. He’s dripping almost fifteen years of rot—and, according to the Geto Boys, a rap group from Houston, he’s the winner of the Grammy for Most Appearances Made After Death. “The King couldn’t be here due to illness,” mouths a white-bread voice on the Geto Boys’ “Trophy,” “so to accept this award on his behalf we have—Grateful Dead.”

Ah yes, the Grateful Dead, from 1967’s Summer of Love to… the number-one concert draw of 1991. “I’ve had a few too many, so this might sound strange,” Rick Rizzo of the guitar-based Chicago foursome Eleventh Dream Day leads off on “Bomb the Mars Hotel”: “To see something that gives pleasure to so many/And want to take if all away.” But he does, and anyone who’s seen too many Dead­heads or heard too much “classic rock” while punching buttons in search of something new knows how he feels. “Bury the righteous monolith,” Rizzo shouts. “And kill the sleepy myth/No more travel­ing microbus hordes/Taking over my town/No more tie-dyed un­derwear/No more dancing bears.”

This is where talk of the death of rock starts: with pointlessness surrounded by repetition. As two Paris critics put it in 1955 while writing about the art world, it starts with the feeling that you’re trapped in “a dismal yet profitable carnival, where each cliché has its disciples, each regression its admirers, every remake its fans.” It’s as if the source of the depression is not that rock is dead but that it re­fuses to die. Far more than Elvis, really, a clone like Bret Michaels, so arrogant and proud, is of the walking dead. It’s just that the money’s too good to quit.

I believe all of that, but as with any fan there are times when I couldn’t care less—when, as in the last hour, running a few errands, I can hear the guitar line ripping through John Mellencamp’s “Get a Leg Up,” the radio shock of the drums kicking off Tom Petty’s “Out in the Cold,” voices growling in the background of ZZ Top’s “My Head’s in Mississippi”—times when the question of the death of rock seems, if not pointless, the most tired repetition of all.

Rock ‘n’ roll fans have always been waiting for the death of rock. Plenty of people will tell you the question itself is dead: Rock ‘n’ roll died in 1957, or 1969, or 1976, when the Sex Pistols, lacking anything better to do, announced they had come to destroy it. From the start, the new music’s new followers were told it will never last so often and so loudly that a distrust of the music, a distrust of one’s own response to it, was all but part of the sound. Though the music began to argue against its own demise almost as soon as it had a name to trumpet, a belief in the music’s end was coded into every one of its early artifacts, from Chuck Berry’s “School Days” to the Monotones’ “Book of Love.” The music was never meant to last, fans were later told by critics who came not to bury but to praise, and that’s the fun of it! The death of rock was certain by 1960, with the founders missing (Elvis in the Army; Berry on his way to prison, Buddy Holly dead, Alan Freed driven from the airwaves by the payola scandals, Little Richard in God’s arms), Lawrence Welk ascendant (with “Cal­cutta,” his only number-one record)—and Motown, the Stax-Volt Memphis sound, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, and Aretha Franklin, all waiting in the wings. In 1971, a year after the Bea­tles broke up, Don McLean’s “American Pie” was number-one record as coroner’s report, with the bodies of Brian Jones, Janis Joplin, Hen­drix, and Morrison for evidence. The stone was all but set by 1974, when pop dinosaurs ruled the earth and the likes of Johnny Rotten scurried beneath their feet, wondering what to do with their rage.By 1979, Danny and the Juniors’ unconvincing 1958 anthem “Rock and Roll Is Here to Stay” had been answered by Neil Young’s utterly convincing “Hey Hey, My My”—rock and roll will never die, he chanted. The song was convincing in its ugly, assaultive fury, but more so in its irony—a doubt so sardonic it froze the song’s subjects, the dead Elvis and the by-then-ex-Sex Pistol Rotten, into the history they’d already made. Young sang his rock song about the death of rock with such power that the great event seemed at once irrefutable and impossible. Even today, his irony still has the kick of life to it—perhaps especially today. Sometimes, you need irony to breathe—to filter the stench of a corruption that can pop up anywhere, even in the casual act of a rock star on MTV.There’s a hint of that corruption, in the form of undifferentiated loathing and decay, in the video for Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the most surprising hit of 1991—and irony may be the currency in the five minutes that pass as the band grinds out its slow, corroding punk chords. Late for that, you might think: The death of punk was announced with great fanfare as far back as 1978. Living in Aberdeen, Washington, a town about a hundred miles southwest of Seattle, Nirvana singer-guitarist Kurt Cobain missed the funeral and for that matter the birth. Born in 1967, he first heard punk, the first sound of walls falling in his life, when a friend played him a tape of scavenged punk songs, already old, but news to him. It was 1983, the same year Danny Rapp of Danny and the Juniors killed himself, unable to stand one more oldies tour.

Eight years after that, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” begins as if on Jupiter, where body weight has hideously increased, the music pressed down by fatigue, lassitude, why-bother: “Never mind,” as Cobain says to kill a line. Words take a long time to emerge from this gravity, from Cobain’s hoarse, seemingly shredded throat. It might be months on the radio or MTV before you begin to catch what’s being said in Nirvana’s songs—“sell the kids for food,” “I don’t mind if I don’t have a mind,” “I feel stupid and contagious,” “I’m neutered and spayed,” “at the end of the rainbow and your rope,” “I don’t care if it’s old”—but the feeling of humiliation, disintegration, of defeat by some distant malevolence, is what the music says by itself. In the video, when you first glimpse Cobain, bassist Chris Novoselic, and drummer David Grohl, they seem more than anything to be going through the motions for a crowd as sick of the ritual as they are.But this is one of the least spectacular and most suggestive videos ever made, and everything about it is slightly off. The band is set up on the floor in a high school gym; there are kids sitting on bleachers against one wall, and cheerleaders, as if somebody got the dates of the concert and the basketball game mixed up. Everyone plays along; they don’t care where they are. As the cheerleaders lift their pom-poms, stretching to the roof even more spookily than Cobain expands his fuzztone, they could be in the ‘5os; the crowd is dressed in an indecipherable motley of styles from the ’70s through the ’80s; the musicians look like ’60s hippies who had to hitchhike for three days to make the gig.

As in the Poison video, the drama is made of clichés—but what’s dramatic about them here is that they don’t work as such. They don’t return the song to any recognizable cultural or economic shape. There’s red gas in the gym, but it seems less the result of the usual video smoke machine than disease flaking off the listeners’ skin, floating out of their mouths. Slow motion is used but it seems like real time. Kids snap their heads back and forth to the music but they don’t give off any sense of pleasure. As a cheerleader bends backward, you follow the curve of her body, which reveals the anarchy symbol—Ⓐ—stitched into her uniform where her school insignia ought to be. Cobain communicates not abandon and let’s party but hopelessness and mistrust of his audience. A string comes loose on his guitar, he hangs sound in the air while he fixes it, and you lose all sense of performance.

The kids begin to tumble out of their seats and onto the basketball court. As the musicians disappear into the surrounding crowd, Cobain rails out a blank curse: “A denial! A denial! A denial!” Of what? By whom? Moments before, he’d fixed the irony the song comes from. He’s screaming, but still carrying that strange sense of difficulty, as if he’d damn you to hell if only he could summon the will to get out of bed: “Here we are now, entertain us.”

He’s trying to say that whatever it is he’s doing, it’s not entertainment. He’s saying that the noise he and his friends are making is entertainment only insofar as it fails, only to the degree that their vague intimations of utopia and annihilation—“our little group has always been and always will until the end,” the ending of each word dragged out into the beginning of the next, the whole phrase smeared—mean nothing, to him or anyone else. Entertain you? Fuck—we’ll set you on fire or well drag you down. You want entertainment, the basketball team’ll be back here tomorrow night. The moods and talismans of five rock ‘n’ roll decades are in the little play, and as it finishes, implodes, scatters, it seems as good a death as the music could ask for.

Sometimes, though, you need to speak without irony—and the irony in “Smells Like Teen Spirit” can’t really filter the corruption in rock, perhaps because it is only a song, maybe because the corruption it speaks for is just too innocent. I have in mind a corruption that is not limited to pop music, that is not in any sense innocent, and that irony can’t touch.

“The citizenry has been lulled into perceiving the government as a private corporation with no responsibility for the common good rather than as a democratic mechanism that exists solely to serve the hopes and hungers of those who need it most,” Timothy White, editor of Billboard, wrote earlier this year. The words are so plain, so direct, that they can make you turn away or rant on in turn, but let White continue: “The Reagan and Bush administrations have actively reversed nearly forty years of gains in civil rights while fostering the racial demagoguery that destroys the powerless by pitting them against each other… The principle of divide-and-conquer starts with the power structure cunningly implanting fear and hatred in a society—and then stepping in to ‘rescue’ the populace with the sort of massive, heinous repression that can take a century to undo. In ominous times like these, ordinary people desperately need the support of each other to endure against such sweeping and terrible odds, and music can help provide the necessary solace, public truth, and social strength.”

Even if you were with White as he summed up the state of the nation, chances are he lost you with his last lines. Against all that, music? Rock ‘n’ roll? Hey, take your good times where you find them, later for that save-the-world shit. White’s voice loses its hardness and dissolves in sentimentality. The speaker who begins in complete candor and follows his words where they lead ends up sounding like a fool. But any attempt to talk about the death of rock must finally be made without irony, even if that ensures that the fool is the only role left to play. For there is no way to talk about the death of rock without facing what, exactly, is being consigned to the scrap heap—without recognizing what is being given up.

In his recent book, Rhythm Oil—A Journey Through the Music of the American South, Stanley Booth writes about a “record made in 1956 by a white rockabilly singer:

It has been suggested that Carl Perkins’s “Blue Suede Shoes”—the first record to reach the top of the pop, rhythm and blues, and country charts—represents one of the most important steps in the evolution of American consciousness since the Emancipation Proclamation. Perhaps it was an even more important step, because the Proclamation was an edict handed down from above, and the success of “Blue Suede Shoes” among Afro-Americans represented an actual grass-roots acknowledgment of a common heritage, a mutual overcoming of poverty and lack of style, an act of forgiveness, of redemption.At a distance of thirty-five years, a generation, it can be seen as the prelude to a tragedy, the murder of Martin Luther King, one of the ‘6os assassinations from which the country has not yet recovered.

There’s a lot going on in those few sentences—about race, democracy, fame and money, multiculturalism, shared language, social destruction. Placing questions of style and redemption on the same plane is remarkable in itself. But perhaps most striking is the displacing shock that Booth’s words can deliver. Think of how unlikely Carl Perkins’s gesture and the response that greeted it would have seemed in the very moment before they occurred—and think of how impossible such a gesture and such a response seem today.

Booth’s claims are big. They’re as big as any claims that can be made for rock ‘n’ roll, or any form of popular culture, or any form of art. Very gracefully, as if casually, he offers a ditty about “a country boy proud of a new pair of blue suedes” (as Carl Perkins once put it) as a wedge in history, as a breach that opened up new roads—a road to utopia and, from there, a road to annihilation.

It’s this sort of sweeping affirmation that always brings forth a chorus of skeptics happy to forsake the mysteries of art and cul­ture for the facts of entertainment: How can you make so much of a song? The answer is: because it isn’t simply a matter of the right notes in the right place at the right time that makes a song like Tom Petty’s “Out in the Cold” so thrilling. It is the echo those notes carry of a promise and a threat as vast as one can find in “Blue Suede Shoes”—even if, today, it is only an echo, and a faint, distorted echo at that. Whatever it is that “Out in the Cold” dis­tantly promises, it is self-contained: a few minutes of pleasure swiftly returned to the strictures of a segmented format. If the sound seems explosive, unstoppable, out of control, it promises first and last that maybe it will be a hit.In 1956, when “Blue Suede Shoes” mo­mentarily suggested that all sectors of Amer­ican society could sing the same song—sug­gested it because, for a moment, they did—there was no pop market, no pop America. Such territory remained to be made. Today the pop market is made: It’s cut up like a kiddie-toy version of the electoral market, with stars and genres targeted like politicians’ sound bites. There is little access to mass culture—to the risk of dissolution that entering mass culture entails, or to the chance of reaching everyone—and none of the peculiar energy of that fundamental rock ‘n’ roll journey, the leap (as with Carl Perkins, a balding married man from Tennessee) from nowhere to everywhere. Today rock exists in mass culture only as recycled commercial jingles for products everyone recognizes; the music itself is recognized only in its parts. The pop market, the pop world, is a thing in itself, complete unto itself. That music can travel outside its borders, into the larger world, where such promises and warnings as those in “Blue Suede Shoes” were fought over, seems childish.

It’s often said that rock ‘n’ roll, like any popular art form, reflects or mirrors society at large; this is not interesting and not to the point. Certainly it is not if one buys even a fraction of what Stanley Booth says about “Blue Suede Shoes.” That record—coming two years after the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which mandated the integration of public schools, and decades before that mandate would be, as Timothy White writes, subverted and abandoned by the new Reagan-Bush Supreme Court—did not merely reflect. As a novel cultural event, the song did something very different. With preternatural intensity—with a new kind of humor and drive—it absorbed events in the world at large and sent them back into the world, altogether transformed and disguised, in a form that deflected any refusal. The song took in the social energies of change, desire, fear, jeopardy, of hatred of difference and ambivalence toward it too, and said: A new day is dawning. Now, without embarrassment, we can all dress up in new clothes.

The energy of absorption and transformation powers the most indelible rock ‘n’ roll. “Dylan exhibits a profound awareness of the [Vietnam] war and how it is affecting all of us,” Jon Landau wrote in 1968 of John Wesley Harding, that oddly quiet, paradoxical reversal of the psychedelic ’60s. “This doesn’t mean that I think any of the particular songs are about the war or that any of the songs are protests against it. All I mean to say is that Dylan has felt the war, that there is an awareness of it contained within the mood of the album as a whole… Dylan’s songs”—which seemed to ask, What is this country made of, where did it come from, which roads are open, which are closed off?—“acknowledge the war in the same way that songs like [the Beatles’] ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ or ‘Fool on the Hill’ ignore it. They acknowledge it by… attempting not to speak falsely.”

The same spirit may be at work in Nirvana’s sound, which can seem so adolescent, so hormonal. “When we went to make this record,” Chris Novoselic has said of the sessions that produced “Smells Like Teen’ Spirit,” which took place during the Gulf war, “I had such a feeling of us versus them. All those people waving the flag and being brainwashed, I really hated them. And all of a sudden, they’re all buying our record, and I just think, You don’t get it at all.”

When rock ‘n’ roll fails to absorb the events of the larger world, it does reflect—but that’s all it does. Then you have such famous scandals as a Guns N’ Roses number denouncing “immigrants,” “faggots,” and “niggers”; an Ice Cube cut threatening to burn Korean grocers out of Los Angeles; or Public Enemy’s Chuck D recounting his crucifixion at the hands of the same tribe that “got me like Jesus”—or explaining that unfortunately, not his fault, homosexuality remains a crime against nature: “The parts don’t fit.” You get, in other words, no more than a flat, blank reflection of the daily newspaper. You get Axl Rose translating his lyrics into an explanation that “nigger” merely refers to people he doesn’t like as surely as David Duke insists that all he’s saying is that white people deserve an even break. You get critics rushing to provide the apologies the singers can’t—or won’t—make, just as Patrick Buchanan’s talk-show colleagues come forth to assure the country that, when you get him alone, Pat’s as nice a guy as you’d ever want to meet. And you get, as on a National Public Radio report on the release of Guns N’ Roses’ Use Your Illusion I and II—the discs went on sale at midnight, September 23, 1991, stores stayed open, fans lined up, happy to talk—an exit poll, as it were: the truth that “immigrants,” “faggots,” “niggers” were not a problem for Guns N’ Roses, but selling points. As a stockbroker said on NPR, new CD in his attaché case: At least Axl Rose has the nerve to say what everybody’s thinking. Look in this mirror and you see a person, like Axl Rose or Bret Michaels, who is just like you, except that he, unlike you, seems empowered. So you give him your money—hoping that, in the course of the transaction, some of that power is passed over to you.

By their definition of a single rock ‘n’ roll achievement, Stanley Booth’s words on “Blue Suede Shoes” measure the progress of the death of rock. It is an ongoing story that, today, cannot quite be contained by an insistence on how old a story it is. Along with the presumption of the death of rock ‘n’ roll, encoded in any song is the promise that the music will, in some barely definable way, unsettle the world that presumes to contain it, or take its profit, or write off its loss. With­out that promise, there’s only profit and loss—and soon enough, merely loss.

Against all that I offer a fantasy, sparked by a real song. In 1990, the Geto Boys’ self-titled second album was scheduled for release on Geffen Records; mostly because of “Mind of a Lunatic,” a tune about rape, murder, and necrophilia, Geffen refused it. The Geto Boys came out on the Def American label, with this blaring “parental advisory”: “Def American Records is opposed to censorship. Our manufacturer and distributor, however, do not condone or endorse the content of this recording, which they find violent, sexist, racist, and indecent.” .

The Geto Boys were fixed, in that segment of the public imagination that was aware of their existence, as a Willie Horton-ism, as vandals occupying the furthest extremes of capitalism and the First Amendment, as the scum of the earth. Last year, on the Rap-a-Lot label, they released the album We Can’t Be Stopped and a single, “Mind Playing Tricks on Me.” The single was a hit on stations that play rap—black stations. It wasn’t heard on Contemporary Hit Radio, on the stations formatted as Modern Rock or Rock of the ’90s, or on many college stations, the refuge of the avant-garde in pop music; as its singers’ name suggested, the song was ghettoized. In my fantasy, though, the song could be heard—and can still be heard; it’s still on the radio—as a new “Blue Suede Shoes.” The borders of the song are that unclear, that open.

The tune opens lightly, with pretty little notes sweeping up a theme, as if reprising a dream already dreamed too many times before. Those same notes, on a guitar or a synthesizer, remain constant throughout the piece, changing in tone according to the story set against them: Comfort turns into mockery, mockery turns cold. The echoes here are very deep: “Mind Playing Tricks on Me” shares the fatalism of Robert Johnson’s 1936 “Me and the Devil Blues,” the oth­erworldliness of the Orioles’ 1948 “It’s Too Soon to Know,” the dead-end introspection of Sly & the Family Stone’s 1971 “Thank You for Talkin’ to Me Africa”—dead-end, because Africa isn’t talking, and the only one who’ll listen to you is yourself.The narrator—his part taken in turn by Willie D, twenty-five; Scarface, twenty-two; and Bushwick Bill, twenty-five—is a dope dealer in Houston’s Fifth Ward. You can stay tuned to that fact and keep the song corralled, or you can forget it. Chances are you’ll forget it: Beginning in specifics of time and place, the song moves past them, almost refutes them, looking for a way out. There’s something horribly small and humiliated about the way the man tells you what a big shot he is, how he’s like a movie star; something enormous about the way he says “I often drift when I drive.” Moving easily through the streets he owns, he says, he thinks about killing himself. Scarface has the vocal; he’s fluid, soulful. You believe him. The music has moved just slightly away from realism. His mind is playing tricks on him, but so far they’re easy to solve.

It’s with the last section of the song that the story breaks up. Bushwick Bill’s speech is hesitant; you can’t quite follow him. He doesn’t sing, he recites. He’s not soulful; he distances himself from what he’s saying. Day and night, sleep and waking are scrambled. He doesn’t understand. He testifies. The music in the background says, Yeah, I’ve heard it all before.

This year Halloween fell on a weekend
Me and Geto Boys were trick or treatin’
Robbin’ little kids for bags.

A cop appears; they run; he catches them. The pettiness—the pathetic, bizarrely automatic account of men stealing candy from children (you don’t have to want it, it’s there, you take it)—wars against the bravado that follows when they turn to face the cop.

They jump him—but here the narrative dissolves. Who the cop is, and who they are, is suddenly unclear. Why they’ve done what they’ve done, which a minute before was set out with all the inevitability of manners, is now a mystery. Boundaries break up; characters who moved through the earlier moments of the song move on; specters take their places. The devil who starred by name in Robert Johnson’s song, and in Sly & the Family Stone’s, returns, no name needed. Those numbers are about a struggle to see clearly; the Orioles’ “It’s Too Soon to Know,” with its delicate, fading doo-wop moans, is about the impossibility of seeing clearly; “Mind Playing Tricks on Me” faces Robert Johnson’s nemesis through the Orioles’ haze. The devil is the cop; he’s the singer. The singer is the cop. He kills himself. The headless horseman rides again.

He was goin’ down we planned
But this Wasn’t no ordinary man
He stood about six or seven feet
Now, that’s a creep I’ll be seein’ in my sleep
So we triple-teamed on ‘im
Droppin’ those Fifth Ward B’s on ‘im
The more I swung, the more blood flew
Then he disappeared and my boys disappeared, too
Then I felt just like a fiend
It wasn’t even close to Halloween
It was dark as death on the streets
My hands were all bloody
From punching on the concrete.

If you can hear Bushwick Bill not as a Houston rapper, or even as an African-American, but directly as an exemplary American with a story to tell and the means to tell it, then metaphors suggest themselves as quickly as, in its most intense moments, the music in “Mind Playing Tricks on Me” seems to slow down, the car door opening, a hand beckoning you inside. That drifting, swirling sound, those tinkling notes—almost a merry-go-round sound, after a bit—make room for anyone’s displacement, confusion, terror, despair. The way Bushwick Bill mutters, “Ah, man, homey/My mind is playing tricks on me”—yes, you’ve felt that, maybe the last time you turned on the news. Is the way he says it, is anything in the song, redemptive, as the response to “Blue Suede Shoes” might have been redemptive? “Mind Playing Tricks on Me” as a record on the top of every chart is just a fantasy; it has yet to find the response it deserves. It’s too soon to know.

In a time when it has been definitively pronounced that we have reached the end of history, the death of rock may appear to be a very small thing. Certainly it is, if you believe that rock ‘n’ roll and history have nothing to do with each other—if you believe that rock ‘n’ roll cannot help make history and that history cannot help make good rock ‘n’ roll. If you believe that, though, you may have to accept that rock ‘n’ roll never really existed at all—in which case the death of rock is no problem. If you don’t believe it—well, listen to “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and “Mind Playing Tricks on Me,” and see if you hear a finished story, or an open one, or at least the screams of a few people doing what they can to keep the door from closing.

Esquire, August 1992 (also featured in Double Trouble: Bill Clinton and Elvis Presley in a Land of No Alternatives, Henry Holt & Co., 2001)


7 thoughts on “Notes on the Life & Death and Incandescent Banality of Rock ‘n’ Roll (08/92)

  1. Ramble on much? That made zero sense from almost the beginning & then it just goes on & on & on….you’re overthinking this whole thing waaaay too much…it’s only Rock & Roll

  2. “Only Rock & Roll” doesn’t just kill rock criticism (and if that’s just jake with you what are you doing here?). It kills the whole idea of music worth writing about.

    • Right on. A lot of this made perfect sense, whether I agreed with each point or not. And in this day and age, I’d be wary of anyone who believes you can “overthink” anything of substantial importance.

  3. Pingback: It couldn’t have been that easy to forget about me: Tom Petty’s legacy | Humanizing The Vacuum

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  5. This is, in its totality, a sad curmudgeon who’s ears can simply no longer get erect to the extensions of sounds in music anymore. Instead of the death of rock n roll, on your next piece of written tantrum. we’d prefer to read upon the death of your hearing and how you’re planning to get a time machine to reach out to that good old concept of rock n roll you praise so much. What a critic you are.. haha

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