I’m not going to give a history lesson. I don’t know enough quantifiably to give you a run down of where rock and roll came from, where it went on its advent, and what happened when white people intervened. I am not schooled enough, versed enough, smart enough, wise enough, to give you a feed on why rock and roll ever happened and what has happened to it over the years. I am lost without confusion that Rock and Roll was born with Louis Jordan, was perfected by Little Richard and Chuck Berry, whitenized by Elvis and folkified by the Everly Brothers. Whatever one can really say about American Music History, it is to say that with Swing brought clubs and not just listening halls. People were there to dance. And that was that.
People don’t dance to rock and roll anymore. Maybe they never really did. We bob our heads, the rock crowd. We shimmy. We do not shake. Sometimes we bash into each other. I am of a generation of indie folk entrepreneurs and 60s rock evangelists. I want Belle and Sebastian when I’m looking for it. I bleed Bright Eyes, Rilo Kiley, Crooked Fingers, but the Replacements, Big Star, and for some reason, still, The Beatles…these are markers far into my world of music that stand as the Rock and Roll I grew up with, yet still along with the whole history of rock music I came to know.
You could surely say that rock and roll is more the feeling than the contents, the context not the sum of the parts. Good music at all is bound to make you feel more than the individual pieces of a whole played out. There is nothing stopping an acoustic guitar from rolling across a chord progression and leaving you rocking in your chair. I believe it was Keith Richards who claimed that rock and roll isn’t about the rock so much as the roll, the ways in which instrumentation combines with the cadence of the vocal line that takes you ever forward through the composition. True that no one player can make a song roll on, even as singular musicians can trick you into thinking so.
But again, this is more the feeling of it all. There is, in my opinion, more that kicks into gear with a Faces song, acoustic instruments them all, than with AC/DC going through the motions. Rock music without the Roll was undoubtedly born in the mid-70s, when arenas meant more to a band than a club; when full-throttle indifference to subtlety caught up in intricate lines soloing on and on forever, technique the last building block of the post-post modern age of song. I am so bored by most of what tries to pass itself off as Rock and Roll that I default to what is so often referred to as Folk, and which carries more of the spirit of Leadbelly than Led Zeppelin.
Is it just that I Don’t Understand? I think I do. And history shows us that rock music withdrew from the spirit of rock and roll. Eric Clapton singing about cocaine, and to speak of Jagger and Co. is to mention but a slip up of amassing a brand of machismo, even if Exile on Main Street is probably the best rock and roll album ever made. The whole thing was sex and drugs to begin with. It is written in history. But do I continue to buy it from 80 year old men? Probably not. But should I really even care when they once defined the whole of it?
So what is Rock and Roll – and I capitalize it well. What is it that is still so fresh when found? I point you to mid-to-late ‘00s Okkervil River in that respect. Here was true Rock and Roll and not just Rock Music. Folk with a punkish hue, as it’s been stated. That was Rock and Roll. Rock and Roll if nothing else is for outsiders, corrupted by the age of sublimation and thievery; of a poor man’s hail mary to boot.
But it is also a representation of systemic racism. Rock and Roll is no question also Black music. It was born from the fields of the antebellum south. Twisted through time into Jazz, Swing, Jump, Boogie Woogie, Blues, Folk, Traditional, Hillbilly, Race Records, R & fucking B. You’ll find music through the past century morphing with integration, appropriation, and the British Invasion, Europe as a whole being influenced by the Americas; Reggae, Ska, etc. You’ll find, of course, that most of the United States’s past, present, and future is built on the lie of whitehood and the abomination of slavery, the hate of bigotry, and the cover up of it all. More music has been stolen and repurposed than ever existed in the first place. So what the fuck?
What the fuck is Rock and Roll?
And why the fuck would I capitalize it sometimes and not others? What contexts will reign if I am talking about the true 1950s, raggamuffin gaze of some men and some guitars, or a piano and a drum with a strong Backbeat, a will for the listener to engage, and a whole world asking why this? why now? What lies at the heart of the willing forlorn? What bridges the gap of the absurd?
I should take a step back. I may have lost course somewhere here so far. Because I think I have a point. There is something intrinsic to Rock and Roll, when it’s not just Rock, when it’s not just Pop. Inside all of us is a will to bob our heads. When there’s something about the music that knows when it’s Rock and Roll, I can feel it. So how do we define it?
Maybe the point is that it can’t be defined. One looks merely to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and notice the vast majority of its recent inductees having been non-rock and roll. Simply not Rock and Roll. I don’t care who you are, LL Cool J is not rock and roll just as much as he’s mostly just a Pop star in a hard man’s body. His soul was always to sell records. And you could say this is perhaps the most of what rock and roll was in its youth and on to its contagion. Hits were hits only when they sold. There have only ever been so many Velvet Undergrounds who defied popular music, sold 5000 copies, and inspired all 5000 purchasers to start a band. LL Cool J is no Lou Reed. And that can not be argued.
But for however many Reed, Cale and Cos there are, there are more Bon Jovis; more Mariah Careys; less turbulent youth in revolt than young adults looking to find some truth. No one has ever picked up a Hall and Oates record looking for their lives to be changed, even as Hall and Oates has made some damn good songs. And Alex Chilton, I’m sure, rolls in his grave each time a BTS song tops the charts, when the good Alex Chilton died penniless and mostly unknown, in no Rock Hall, dying literally because he didn’t have the money to see a fucking doctor. This is where my Rock and Roll has gotten to over the years. And you know what? It isn’t getting any better.
The Strokes are one thing. But I’ll be damned if the fucking Black Keys keep churning out the same goddamn rock and roll as anyone with a guitar and a few lessons in Blues music could pick up given a good BB King record and a Gibson Les Paul. I know of a few bands who yearn for the pentatonic scale like a bastard on wheels out to steal the meat from a beggar’s dinner plate. Dan Auerbach might be a genius. But probably not, and not like those ever-present Strokes who change key all over the place and still manage to make what Rock and Roll should sound like in this, the early 21st century. I’ll remember Gold on the Ceiling just as often as All I Want For Christmas is You. And that is no compliment of character.
But what the fuck am I even talking about? What. The. Fuck. Is. Rock. And. Roll.
Rock and Roll is a slap in the face of the bad in society. It is a pattern of rebellion stripped back to the basics of musical simplicity, and is an offer of entrepreneurship of the soul.
Without really knowing what the fuck is rock and roll, one can at least describe how it can never die.