Coming two thirds of the way through the performance, the requisite instrumental break should have provided a rest; somehow it raised the stakes. When Lindsey Buckingham dropped his words for a guitar solo—a shattered, severed solo almost drowning in a dozen more overdubbed guitar parts, the off-beat rhythm chasing his lead, then overtaking him, then seeming to wait for him to catch up, which he never quite did—the song began all over again. Ten years later, I flinch every time it comes on the radio, knowing what’s coming, knowing that no matter how completely I can predict what’s going to happen, I won’t be able to catch up: the instrumental passage supersedes not only the singing that precedes it, but the ability of memory to enclose it. And the record got its due: “Dreams” hasn’t been on the air since it dropped from the charts, while, since then, “Go Your Own Way” has never been off it.
Well, what’s going on here? Why is what ought to be a “break”—a relief, a respite—a charge of even greater energy? This happens all the time in rock ’n’ roll—often, maybe most often, the charge isn’t sustained, the lift is all in the shift, but that can be enough. It’s as if some sort of promise is being made, some vision of possibility opening up, if only for a second; to glimpse it is to reach for it. But to reach, finally, for what?
A person writes a song. On the page, the words are probably banal; sung, accompanied by instruments, they come to life. They seem new, perhaps even prophetic; the musical dimension enshrines the verbal dimension. The process works in the other direction too: words, perhaps just a title (“one title is worth a million lyrics,” says Mike Watt of the Minutemen), suggest a meaning for music, make sense of it—but because the words would be little or nothing without the music, the music finally rebukes the words. Building in any successful rock ’n’ roll record is a sense of the power of the singer to say what he or she means, but also a realization that words are inadequate to that task, and the feeling of fulfillment is never as strong as the feeling of frustration. The singer goes as far as he or she can go; the singer even acknowledges the quandary, gives in to its tension, abandons words and screams. But the singer still comes up short; the performance demands the absolute lucidity it has already promised, a promise from which it is already falling back, and so an instrument takes over. It is a relief: a relief from the failure of language. The thrill is that of entering a world where anything can be said, even if no one can know what it means.
You can hear this happen, appreciate it as a deliberate piece of drama, in Elvis’s “Jailhouse Rock”: there’s a slur of “rockrockrock,” then a perfectly placed cymbal smash. The ensemble means to sweep you off your feet, and it does. The tactic is a little more complex in “Hound Dog.” The first guitar solo is terrific, but its function turns out to be to set up the second solo, which exists, it sometimes seems, only to supersede the first—to show you how ordinary it was, to show you what the extraordinary really is. Scotty Moore takes the fluid notes of the first break and smashes them, cuts them up, then leaps over the empty spaces. He says, “You thought that was the truth, but I was only kidding I’m not kidding any more.”
But the same kind of thrill can be delivered without any setup at all—and that’s the real claim of such a moment on musical time. In the original version of “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” a Nick Lowe composition recorded in 1974 by Brinsley Schwarz, the song is a joke on ’60s pieties, so full of irony you can feel the stuff oozing out of the speakers. In Elvis Costello’s 1979 version, he sings with apparent conviction, but given his then still-controlling “revenge and guilt” persona, you know it has to be a joke—a dialectical joke, maybe, given the strength of the music, but nevertheless an account of world-historical dopiness. Then Costello shuts his mouth and plays chord changes on his guitar that are so rudimentary they can’t even be called a solo; the band presses down just slightly; and everything is different. Suddenly, all the context, all the pop knowledge one might have brought to the performance (the hard-edged punk rejection of hippie naïveté, etc.), is dissolved. Not only is the built-in hokiness of the tune diverted, the irony is boiled off; the guitar notes don’t neutralize the pathos of the lyrics, they validate it. What’s so funny about peace, love, and understanding? Now, nothing. For an instant, the search for peace, love, and understanding is what life is all about. You come back to the ordinary world, the world of ordinary language, with a wonderful story: “I saw it! I heard it!” “What was it?,” everyone asks, and you open your mouth, and begin to wave your hands in the air.
Artforum, March 1987