There are many ways to get something across, though; and if the artist has any respect for his audience, and any respect for his art, he’ll not make it too clear what he means, because he probably isn’t too sure himself. There’s just a feeling, a sense, and it’s that hint of certainty against a conversation of emotions that forms the basis for the best rock ‘n’ roll stories: the stories Dylan tells, that his band tells, that the Stones told in “Play with Fire” and “I Am Waiting” and “Who’s Been Sleeping Here,” that the Beatles told in “Girl” and “Norwegian Wood” and “A Day in the Life.” A situation is created, and the music makes it real, gives it immediacy, drawing the listener in, and as the story ends, the mind is reaching, and will return for another try, not to “interpret,” most likely, but to get close to the stories our music tells us.
It was a very depressing time. The Democratic Party had just presided over its incredible black mass in Chicago. They had given the American public its first view of the American police state in all its grisly omnipotence. In depressing times, I listen to music. I put on an old Pete Seeger song I used to love, called “Hold On.” The song was once an ancient gospel chant, a biblical challenge of sin and retribution, but Seeger had changed the lyrics to straight protest: “United Nations make a chain, every link is freedom’s name.” It’s a good song, the music, Seeger’s banjo, his singing; but the words are flat, and they have no power of motion. They are incapable of taking the listener beyond himself. The lyrics, holding the “message,” are the weakest part of it all; they pull the experience of hearing Pete Seeger sing “Hold On” down to sterility, while his voice and his music try to pull one out of oneself into the transcendental experience that is the miracle of any sort of music at its best.
It’s the smugness that destroys the art. Believing in, say, racial harmony, another of the causes listed in “Hold On,” needn’t be smug, but when Seeger sings out in its defense, and the audience cheers, they cheer not only, not even principally, for the affirmation of a “good,” but for themselves, because they recognize that the black and white politics of “Hold On” divide the world into two sides, right and wrong, and they’re right. It’s Lenny Bruce’s story all over again: “Yeah, Joe Louis was a hell of a fighter…”
There is nothing to understand in message lyrics of this sort, lyrics that are afraid to admit to the element of uncertainty and unpredictability that gives art—music, painting, poetry—the tension that opens up the senses. There is nothing to keep the mind alive; there is just something to undercut and perhaps even destroy the music that “goes with” the message. Singing protest songs on a sit-in or on a demonstration can be different; sometimes you have to applaud yourself just to keep going. Even then, I think, the words are irrelevant. They are an excuse to start singing, to have “something to sing,” because people still think that words are “something,” and that music is what you hang that something on. But it’s the experience of letting the rhythms of the music capture you, together, that affirms the group, strengthening the will to fight and keeping the struggle going. It is the act of singing, not the message mouthed as the words are sung. That’s why when Phil Ochs gets up to sing protest songs to people getting ready for a demonstration, to tell them that they are right and that their opponents are wrong, he always sounds flat and empty compared to the singing that begins when the cops move in. That’s why no one ever argues about what song to sing when the time for singing comes. And that is why I can’t listen to a message song, that tells me that I’m right and the world is wrong, when I’m depressed and disgusted with the politics that these songs try to sing about.
To clear my head, I put on Dylan’s “Absolutely Sweet Marie,” a great rock ‘n’ roll song, and then I put on “Memphis Blues Again.” I’ve heard that song hundreds of times before, but this time it was different. It became a journey, a rite of passage, a struggling effort to pass out of an inexplicable contradiction, only to find another, with no escape, only a change to a new chord, a new movement of the guitar or organ, intensifying the desire that it all be over, if only on a crude level of time. And then it was all there, all in front of me—that incredible black mass had been captured, framed, and punctured. Not explained, not even “attacked,” but re-created the day after it happened, in a song written two years before:
Now the senator, he came down here
Showing everyone his gun
Handing out free tickets
To the wedding of his son
And me, I nearly got busted
And wouldn’t it be my luck
To get caught without a ticket
And be discovered beneath a truck
Is this really
To be stuck inside of Mobile With the Memphis blues again?
I didn’t “interpret” those words, they interpreted my situation. They existed to act on me, not for me to figure out “what they mean.” They’ll mean something else the next time I hear them. The music carries those words—I might never have heard them without the jangling of the guitar that caught my ear and made them jump. But the words don’t exist as statements; they exist as part of a song, as a moment on that journey I was trying to get through.
The words of a message song just lie on the floor, dragging the music down. You don’t have to go to them, they don’t have to go to you. There is nothing to reach for. “Message,” in music, isn’t “meaning”—what is meaningful has powers of its own, powers that aren’t carefully explained out of a fear that someone might miss something. There is a recording of Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind” by Peter-Paul-and-Mary, in which they very conscientiously inform the audience that “this song asks nine questions—we hope, as we ask them, you will ask them of yourselves.” That’s a lot different from the Grateful Dead yelling to the audience: “Let’s get up and dance!”
If music is “meaningful,” its meaning must be free enough to depend on how one hears it. “Shooby shooby doo wah,” heard in the right mood, has more meaning than a flat-out protest song ever does, because by definition when you listen to a protest song absolutely nothing is in doubt; the listener is in a box. There isn’t any movement. But Dylan told me a little story, and where he got it I don’t know, and it doesn’t matter at all, because that story keeps finding new ways to tell itself to me.
That was my best response to the dismal events of the political week; but in Berkeley, in the middle of August, two sets of events, “political” and “musical,” set to work on one another. The newspaper we were reading had stories in it other parts of the country missed; our newspaper had the Rolling Stones and the Beatles right next to Hubert Humphrey, and Country Joe and the Fish along with Mayor Daley.
As thousands of demonstrators and onlookers and even a score of convention delegates were beaten and busted by the Chicago police, the Fish, our very own hometown big-time rock ‘n’ roll band, in town for the big week, were given theirs by a few of Chicago’s law-abiding citizens, veterans of Vietnam to boot. Law and order is where you find it. These fellows found it in the lobby of the hotel where the Fish were staying. Screaming, “Why don’t you like America, you dirty hippies!,” they knocked Barry, the lead guitarist, into an elevator, and as it shot up four stories, they took on Country Joe and David, the organist. By the time Barry had made it downstairs, armed with a fire extinguisher, the veterans had split, leaving the cops who were called with an unsolvable mystery. It seemed that “to live outside the law” you not only have to be “honest,” but fast on your feet. The Fish, one of the country’s most political rock bands, who dedicated an album to Bobby Hutton, an eighteen-year-old Black Panther shot by the Oakland police, were our Marx Brothers-reminder that youth is the enemy, not only to the police, but to the nation. Their troubles made us realize, in the midst of Chicago’s enforced vision of crime and brutality, that political terror is random as well as institutional; that risk is becoming less a matter of commitment than of age.
The day after the convention, people in Berkeley took to the street. It wasn’t nearly as dramatic as it sounds. We went to Telegraph Avenue to show sympathy with the kids in Chicago, to flaunt the police, to see what would happen at the latest of Berkeley’s innumerable illegal rallies. We had something to talk about there on the street, beneath the speech-making and outside of the slogans we’d all heard too many times before. For in the midst of this incredible week of cops and hatred, with our memories of the Paris students’ rebellion in the spring and the Berkeley police riots of early summer, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones had released new singles. There we were on the Avenue, not really knowing why we were there, waiting around for the cops who were staying away, both jealous and relieved that we hadn’t been in Chicago, but listening in our minds to John Lennon singing “Revolution” and Mick Jagger screaming “Street Fighting Man.”
The Beatles were ordering us to pack up and go home, but the Stones seemed to be saying that we were lucky if we had a fight to make and a place to take a stand.
“The Beatles are preaching again,” remarked a disk jockey, as he played “Revolution” along with the Stones’ “Street Fighting Man.” “You know which one of these they aren’t playing in Chicago this week.”
You say you want a revolution
Well, you know
We all want to change the world…
But when you talk about destruction
Don’t you know that you can count me out
You know it’s going to be
A lot of the people were mad at the Beatles because their “politics” didn’t agree with ours. We felt tricked, because we had expected the Beatles to be our spokesmen (whoever “we” were), to say what we wanted to hear, what we wanted to learn about. We had taken the Beatles for granted, and if we felt tricked, it was probably our fault. There was, though, a lot more involved.
The Beatles were giving orders and setting up rules, singing words that were perfectly intelligible, making sure nobody missed anything, singing a song that neatly caught the listener in a logical trap. No one takes sides with the “minds that hate” that the Beatles were singing about. Revolution, though hardly a protest song, worked like one. It set up all the old barriers, retrieving all the abandoned assumptions about life: the world divided into two sides, right and wrong, one side indefensible, the other unassailable. And who wants to be wrong, especially when the magic Beatles are beckoning?
It got worse; the Beatles were ready to dictate the consequences of getting out of line:
But if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao
You know you ain’t gonna make it with anyone anyhow
You know it’s going to be
The lyrics John Lennon was singing had no space for doubt or illusion, no space for the listener if he happened to be different. They had no space, for that matter, for fun. Nothing was left to the imagination. The words delivered a straightforward message, a strict command.
The best songs the Beatles write add dimensions of experience and imagination to our lives, revealing new realms into which we might not have entered without a little help. It is done in such a simple and inscrutable way that we find ourselves with epigrams and epitaphs for every season of the year. In “A Day in the Life” the Beatles strung out the clichés of anyone’s morning routine, and then exploded them, opening up the possibility that the tying of one’s shoe might reveal terror and impotence, or power and grace. In “Penny Lane” they built and dismantled a theatre without ever interrupting the comedy in progress: “And tho’ she thinks she’s in a play, she is anyway.” I could walk through a whole day with that phrase in my head and watch everything and everyone bloom like a charming flower. A line like that sticks in one’s memory and tempts it; a singer cannot touch its power by declaiming “Love is all around” or by barking “free your mind.”
The words to “Revolution” close down the theatre instead of opening it up, denying the imagination in favor of a tangible opinion There are no elusive secrets, only phrases that keep company with those slogans we ignored that night on Telegraph Avenue after the Convention. “Revolution” speaks a language that destroys the relationship between performer and listener that the Beatles created with songs like “Penny Lane”; with that, they gave us a mirror, but they didn’t tell us we had to look in it.
But rock ‘n’ roll is not the polite, quiet, cerebral music of the protest song, and “Revolution” isn’t the strumming of a folk guitar, it’s full of the crashing explosions of a great rock ‘n’ roll band. There is freedom and movement in the music, even as there is sterility and repression in the lyrics. Music takes risks that politics avoid, and that is why “Revolution” isn’t simply a collection of pronouncements and rules. Years ago, with the words fitted to another idiom, it might have been, but it isn’t now. It is a wild, shouting song that is so immediate and ecstatic that I find myself singing along as my fingers pound out the beat. The music makes me feel happy even though the lyrics depress me. John Lennon’s singing possesses all the thrill of rock ‘n’ roll, his voice as full of the humor of his wonderful grin as the words he sings are empty of it. Nicky Hopkins, sitting in, hits the piano like nobody since Huey “Piano” Smith and Frankie Ford teamed up on “Roberta” and “Sea-Cruise,” like the frantic piano player on “One Fine Day,” only better. George Harrison and John Lennon are playing unfettered and incredibly loud guitars, mad with the freedom of making music on the spot, sounding like the best guitarists in the world.
Eyes brighten, bodies move. If you’re reading a newspaper, that music says put it down, listen to me; if you’re driving a car, you put your foot down on the accelerator and beat your hand on the roof and all over the dashboard.
The radio executives ought to be more careful, those men that smugly program “Revolution” every hour in the hope that it will keep this kids off the streets. Those men like the “message,” but there is a “message” in that music which is ultimately more powerful than anyone’s words. The music doesn’t say “cool it” or “don’t fight the cops.” Rock ‘n’ roll music at its best, and it’s at its best in “Revolution,” doesn’t follow orders—it makes people aware of their bodies and aware of themselves. Lyrics like “Revolution”‘s “free your mind instead” can’t make people forget the beat they feel in their hearts or the confidence in themselves they sense when the beat is translated into a personality of movement.
I can dig “Revolution,” and get beyond the level of right and wrong that the lyrics try to impose, because it’s a great rock ‘n’ roll song before it’s a “message.” There is too much to listen to for the obviousness of one element to triumph. A great rock ‘n’ roll “protest” song can’t be written or sung, because if it is great rock ‘n’ roll the music dodges the message and comes out in front, especially if the message is clear and unmistakable. The idea must be virtually lost in the music before it is worth reaching for, or be so simple and emotional that “words” and “idea” become music themselves, as they do in the songs of Otis Redding.
So coming out of a few windows that night was this great obnoxious rock ‘n’ roll song. It was hardly enough. We wanted to hear the rest of the story. We wanted the Stones there with us as well; but “Street Fighting Man” was invisible except for the title. It had been banned in the Bay Area as well as in Chicago. We kept talking, though; it is amazing how people can speculate on a song they’ve never even heard.
Well what can a poor boy do
‘Cept to sing for a rock and roll band
‘Cause in sleepy London town
There’s just no place for
Street Fighting Man
The Stones broke in looking tough and angry and hungry, even though Mick Jagger had just dropped out of the London School of Economics. They became a vehicle for everyone’s petty rebellions, and when they got a chance to catch their breath, they set about giving those rebellions a little content. The Stones were each of us when we were mad at our parents, at society, at our friends. They came on hard, not kidding around, with their first real hit, “I Wanna Be Your Man.”
They had a little help from some slightly less outrageous friends in those days. The Beatles wrote that song for them, and it fit, far better than when Ringo recorded it some time later.
We didn’t know about any of that when the Stones hit America in 1964. All we knew was that they had a driving, bluesy record, with their dark, menacing figures on their album cover. The pictures on the back of the record looked like mug shots of back-alley hoods, not friendly, almost as if they were daring you to play a game of “chicken” out of Rebel Without a Cause. Except that they didn’t look as if they’d feel too bad if you happened to go over the cliff. The Stones were hardly that evil and cruel, of course; but it’s easy to lose a little of one’s perspective when for years all there had been to hear was the crooning of well-groomed Bobby Vee.
The notes to the first album seemed ridiculous: “The Rolling Stones are more than a group; they are a way of life.” It turned out to be true, truer than any press agent or any fan could have guessed. More than anyone else, more than the Beatles, more than Dylan, the Stones created an image of a style of life, and put together a musical and verbal language with which to express that style. It is ever-changing, but always tough and humorous. Just listen to Keith Richard’s playing on “Miss Amanda Jones” or “Ride On Baby.” The only way I can describe his guitar on these songs is to call it “Ugly Throw-Up”; he has more jokes to tell than a stand-up comedian, all of them sarcastic, until he seems to be cracking up over his own tag lines.
When the Stones find themselves trapped in a story they’re telling, such as their attempt to get across the uselessness and the confusion of the guy trying to save the girl in “19th Nervous Breakdown,” they don’t sit down and keep calm, as our Boy Scout Handbooks told us to do when we got lost in the woods—they pick up their instruments and make hard, scary, exhilarating music, and break out of it.
The Rolling Stones aren’t “liberal,” in the classical sense of the word, in the way that British (and American) politics are “liberal.” As “Street Fighting Man” went on sale in the record stores, the cop-killing trial of Oakland Black Panther leader Huey Newton resulted in a verdict of “voluntary manslaughter,” not murder, not acquittal, but a carefully balanced “liberal” decision, “taking two positions, either of which might be true, and arriving at a compromise that could not possibly be true.” The Stones aren’t “liberal.” That doesn’t mean they always have to win; they can accept something that can’t be won, that can’t be understood. In “Ruby Tuesday” they sang about a girl that no one could “hang a name on,” that no one could conquer or pin down. But they aren’t interested in compromises.
Their “politics” would always be confused, because they would never bother to separate “politics” from life, in the bedroom or on the streets. The characters in the stories the Stones tell accept problems that can’t be easily adjusted to protect one sphere of experience from another. Their “politics” might be like the politics of Parnell, the great Irish nationalist leader, who survived prison and a charge of treason only to destroy his career and his life when he stole the wife of his most fervent supporter. A man like Parnell would have loved the Stones singing, “Let’s drink to the hard-working people, let’s drink to the salt of the earth,” not just because of the song’s “politics” but because it’s a song one could sing in a pub just before closing time.
Out of the pubs and into the streets. “Street Fighting Man.” Listen to it. There will be an automatic “political” response, if one is expecting a wax manifesto: “What the hell is going on? I can’t understand anything but the title! I can’t hear a word Jagger’s saying!”
That is as it should be—a confusion for the listener, so he has to pull out of it himself. Words not too clear, so there is an incentive to go further into the song, to become more involved with the rhythm and the chords. Mick Jagger takes his cue from early rock ‘n’ roll: he has said that the words should never be sung too neatly—yell out a motif or a phrase so everyone can hear it, giving people a place from which to start, but let them figure out the rest for themselves. The Stones have never fallen into the arty trap of printing their song lyrics on their albums, as have the Beatles, the Doors, Jimi Hendrix, and others. The first rock ‘n’ roll game, if one wants to play it, is figuring out the words, just for fun. In a sense, each listener virtually writes his own song when he hears great records like “Street Fighting Man,” records where music overpowers lyric. Getting a hint of an idea across is important, if it is a song with a story to tell, a story with an idea that wants to be placed in front of a listener; but a signpost is all that is needed to begin.
The people on Telegraph Avenue knew nothing of the Stones’ new song save for the title. If it had been coming out of the windows of the apartments facing the street, along with “Revolution,” the only words we would have understood would have been “Street” and “Fighting” and “Man”—our place to start.
This motif stands in the middle of a very powerful sound. It is held up by a strong, strong combination of bass and drums, driving harder and harder, fighting the limits of the instruments, until finally the chorus comes back again and the Stones are ready for another try at answering their own question: “What can a poor boy do? …sleepy London town, it’s just no place…”—asking the question, but smashing forward once again, because there’s no time to reply when all one can hear is “the sound of marching, charging feet.”
That question is very important, both for our own feelings when we have finally heard the song enough times to understand it, and for what the Stones themselves are doing with their music.
The Stones ask both us and themselves a question, injecting a humorous element of uncertainty into a situation that is really as confusing as a street riot. There is no doubt as to which side we’re on, “of course,” but what is really happening? “Nowhere to run to, nowhere to hide.” Why not? What does “side” mean, anyway? It all has to come apart before it can come together; and we have to put it together. Someone might say, “Great! The Stones are telling us to go out and fight the cops! They’re on our side!” but it’s hardly that simple. If you can imagine the Stones’ record personified, marching down the street, it might talk like this: “Yeah! I’m a Street Fighting Man! But who stole my paving stones? Who forgot to build the streets with them in the first place? My God, what am I doing here?” It gets complicated. The Stones create a situation that seems absolutely clear-cut, but they accept just a hint of doubt, and that situation dissolves and becomes a challenging emotional jigsaw puzzle, not congratulations for being on the right side.
The Stones won’t do our thinking for us, as the Beatles tried to do with “Revolution.” They aren’t giving orders, but describing a very simple situation that is possessed by an unexpected complexity. The tension rises, created by the band, as it fights the doubts of the lyrics with tough musical emotion, the tension created by Jagger’s singing, angry and self-deprecating at the same time. What’s going on?
Everywhere I hear the sound of marching, charging feet, boy
‘Cause summer’s here and I think the time is right
For fighting in the streets
“Summer’s here…” It’s almost a rock ‘n’ roll tradition to have a new summer-song every year. Usually, these June-to-September songs bounce gaily back and forth to nowhere, affirming the great good of summer as opposed to the unspeakable evil of school, in the vein of, “No more pencils, no more books, no more teacher’s dirty looks.” There are dozens: “Summer’s Here,” “Here Comes Summer,” “Summer Set,” “Summertime, Summertime,” “Summer in the City” (written by a boy who was still in high school), and to finish it off, the quaintly melancholy “Summer’s Almost Gone.” All of these songs were teenage paeans to the joy of release from bondage, replacing homework with “drive-in movies every night.” Eddie Cochran sang the only summer-song about the problems and hang-ups of the offseason, with the great “Summertime Blues.” A job to do while the sun was out, a boss who made you work overtime, a car you couldn’t get, the fun the other kids were having while you babysat to earn money for gas. “There ain’t no cure for the summertime blues!”
Gonna take two weeks, gonna have a fine vacation
Gonna take my problem to the United Nations
Well I called my Congressman
And he said, quote!
“I’d like to help you son
But you’re too young to vote”
Like “Summertime Blues,” “Street Fighting Man,” our summer-song for a year of police riots and violence, catches the listener, not in a trap, as did the Beatles with “Revolution,” but in a paradox. Summer is the time when all the problems are supposed to float away, but there are more problems than ever, because we’re free of the usual mild slavery, with time on our hands, and they still won’t leave us alone. Summer is a practical joke. Putting “Summertime Blues” or “Street Fighting Man” into the midst of the usual summer ditties is like inserting an obscene sculpture by Keinholz into a cheap copy of a landscape by Monet. It works that way. The Democrats weren’t kind enough to hold their convention in February, and they didn’t even call off the draft in honor of the baseball season.
The songs don’t give answers. The Stones keep trying to find a place for their Street Fighting Man to catch his breath, and Eddie Cochran makes it all the way to Washington, D.C., in a hilarious state of innocence. Cochran’s line about his Congressman tells us more about “politics” than any protest song, because its absurdity comes out of self-conscious humor. It isn’t self-righteous; there is no desire to kick out the dirty old man and sit in his chair, to prove who is good and who is bad, an impulse that seems to underly the spirit of most message songs. “Street Fighting Man” reveals an idea about Chicago or Paris or San Francisco or Berkeley that no learned article or New Left polemic has ever understood—that once one goes beyond an appeal to “our democratically elected representatives,” and stands in the streets to represent oneself, the first flush of mastery and self-confidence dissolves into a confusion of very real doubts. It is hardly just a fear of the cops. Representing oneself is a very old idea that is suddenly very new, and the streets of “sleepy London town” (or any other town) were not built for its expression.
“Street Fighting Man” is a musical confusion of feeling in a political context—very simply the context of our daily life—not a list of priorities or a secret map of battle plans. It is not a call for a revolution, but in a natural and necessary way, a part of one that is already in progress.
Rock ‘n’ roll is not a means by which to “learn about politics,” nor a wavelength for a message as to what is to be done or who is to be fought. It is, at times (especially in such moments as August, 1968), a way to get a feeling for the political spaces we might happen to occupy at any particular time. Rock ‘n’ roll music and a rock ‘n’ roll song—a record—keeps those spaces open. That record holds back, for a moment, the tangible weight of enemies and outrages and violence, allowing us to move within a situation we create with a rock ‘n’ roll band, out of its response to our lives and our response to its song. Questions and humor, grafted on to the irresistible beat of exciting music, allows us to form that fleeting personality of movement. If we can keep moving in that space, opened up by a song that brings us a joke on ourselves and a sense of the doubts we might try to hide, we have a chance at an honest response to the coldly serious New Left and to the fascism of the old guard. When doubt disappears, there is only bitterness and a desire to control everything that might offend. A “personality of movement” is just another way of saying that I heard a record, and it let the movement of my body open up a situation within which, for a moment, my mind could watch my emotions create my own song. It was this summer’s gift from the Rolling Stones, just a “singer and a rock and roll band.”
from Rock and Roll Will Stand, 1969 (Beacon Press, collection edited by G.M.)