The Aesthetics of Rock

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The Aesthetics of Rock

This article originally appeared in Issue 8 of   Crawdaddy in February, 1967.

Rock ‘n’ roll is a fairly new art form; too new apparently for most to realize its value. This month, Crawdaddy! presents selections from an unpublished book entitled A Sequel: Tomorrow’s Not Today, a book Grove Press wrestled with for seven months before finally turning it down because “they didn’t understand it.” The intent of the book is simply to offer a sideways insight into the workings of rock as an art form; it is certainly the most careful, well-handled approach to the subject I’ve ever seen. It was originally written in the summer of 1965, for an undergraduate aesthetics course at Stony Brook; after a year and a halt, the only way it shows its age is in its propheticness. Richard Meltzer is twenty years ahead of Grove Press and the “Underground” world; I have hopes that in Crawdaddyl where the presentation of new ways of thinking really is part of our daily work, he will find an audience responsive to his roundabout, highly amusing, brilliantly perceptive presentation of the past and the present of rock.

—The Editor

Bob Dylan’s greatest dive into the rock ‘n’ roll domain, “Like a Rolling Stone,” represents an attempt to free man by rescuing him from meaning, rather than free man through meaning. John Lennon’s two collections of writings, In His Own Write and A Spaniard in the Works, have shown his desire to denigrate all meaning and thus throw intentional ambiguity into all domains of meaning. And very definitely all meaning is similar, beginning with the most “authentic” and continuing down the line. When told by Paul McCartney about a girl he encountered with the idea that God had advised her to marry Paul, “I was trying to persuade her that she didn’t in actual fact have a vision from God, that it was…” George Harrison interrupted with, “It was probably somebody disguised as God.” Meaning by any other name, smells about the same. John and Ringo destroy P. F. Strawson’s argument for separation into logical and empirical primacy:

John: “We’re money-makers first, then we’re entertainers.”

Ringo: “No, we’re not.”

John: “What are we then?”

Ringo: “Dunno. Entertainers first.”

John: “O.K.”

Ringo: “Cause we were entertainers before we were money-makers.”

Whereas James Joyce attempted to salvage meaning from semantic chaos, John would rather attain a cool semantic oblivion, and thus has written two books intentionally inferior to James Joyce’s works.

One of Lennon and McCartney’s maneuvers is to present meaning in such a role that it becomes trite. Thus is the use of “in spite of” in a positive sense reduced to triviality in “Yes It Is”:

Please don’t wear red tonight.

Remember what I said tonight.

For red is the color that will make me blue

In spite of you

It’s true…

Yes it is, it’s true.

This very spirit of the song, with its assertively positive title, presents a frightening ambiguity between arrogance and possession of a unique vulnerability. “When I Get Home” plays upon the mere appearance of a single word, “trivialities”:

Come on, if you please

I got no time for trivialities

I got a girl who is waiting home for me

Tonight.
Wo-wo-wo-I

Wo-wo-wo-I

I got a whole lot of things to tell her

When I get home.

In the midst of apparent “tragedy” in realizing a sudden revulsion at his semi-adulterous involvement with another girl, he can hesitate to give it the meaning of “triviaIity.” But the five-syllable word is so strange in such a monosyllabic context that it is rendered incredibly inappropriate, and the need for meaning collapses.

Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction” presents a plethora of such words: “coaguIatin’,” “legislation,” etc. The very appearance of such “serious” subjects as war and segregation in a rock context is a denigration of their original significance. His absolute overstatement of theme renders disaster cool; his “Don’t you know we’re on the eve of destruction” is so affirmative that one can feel comfortable with such knowledge. England’s banning of this song is a really fine misunderstanding of how McGuire has rendered Weltschmerz trite.

In a world of such things as random values, metaphysical inconsistency, and the constant unavoidable interruption of pure aesthetic perception by random events from within and without, eclecticism is the only valid position; and other stances may be measured by virtue of their distance from the eclectic. Andy Warhol has devised one of the simplest of all schemes, the selection of a popular motif, from Troy Donahue to floral prints to Campbell’s Soup, followed by mechanical multiple reproduction of this motif, with the consistency and inconsistency being a function of the mechanism of creation. Rock ‘n’ roll, however, cannot rely upon the selling power of random circumlocution of the originally acceptable motif, but turns toward the utter compression of popularly acceptable, yet eclectically arranged, images. “A Little Bit Better” by Herman’s Hermits begins with the instrumental introduction from the Four Seasons’ Coca-Cola commercial, proceeds with the sinister spirit of the Rolling Stones’ “Play with Fire” (of course rendered innocent by Herman’s contradiction), sung with the vocal style of the Zombies, to the tune of Chuck Berry’s “Memphis,” and in possession of a title clearly reminiscent of the recent hit by Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders, “A Little Bit Too Late.” Wayne Fontana himself sounded like a clear version of the Kingsmen in his first hit, like the Searchers in his next. The Beatles have taken from visceral jazz saxophonist John Coltrane in “Love Me Do,” the gay Four Seasons in “Tell Me Why,” Larry Williams in “I’m Down,” and Bob Dylan and Scottish marching bands in “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away.” They have used elderly African drum in “Mr. Moonlight,” violins in “Yesterday,” timpani in “What You’re Doing” and “Every Little Thing,” packing case in “Words of Love,” and unusual amplification maneuvers in “I Feel Fine” and “Yes It ls.” They have used double-tracking on several records, sometimes so obviously that it can be easily noticed (in Hard Day’s Night, John Lennon’s harmonica line can be heard while he is singing lead vocal in “I Should Have Known Better.” It does not matter if part of the Beatles’ formula is visible; after all, even Lennon’s bathing suit is clearly visible in a bathtub scene).

Teilhard de Chardin’s philosophy of education as expounded in The Phenomenon of Man is readily visible in the eclecticism of rock. Just as branches of life strive for continuation, sometimes to succeed and sometimes to reach a dead end, with nature always using a multiplicity of interrelated strivings in its drive toward the “Omega Point,” rock ‘n’ roll is clearly viewable in terms of crude persistence. As long as a fixture “works” in the Allan Kaprow usage of the term, it remains in the forefront and shouts its presence; when it ceases to work, it is relegated to relative obscurity until a new context presents itself and allows for favorable reacceptance. No branch can ever really become extinct if it continues to function in the memory, even dormantly, and old but undiscovered branches from both the “within” and “without” of things past, as Chardin uses these terms, can always appear in active functions in contemporary rock. The almost-forgotten 1957 minor hit by Kathy Linden, “Billy,” features an expectation of obscenity in its final passage:

And when I sleep…

And when I sleep…

I always dream of Bill.

This anxiety of waiting for the impossible use of “sleep” in the last line is not too overtly common in rock of any period, but suddenly in the summer of 1965 it arose in Tom Jones’ “What’s New Pussycat?” “Pussycat lips,” “pussycat eyes,” and other “pussycat” features are mentioned until, with the final verse, the singer is hesitatingly approaching something more openly sexual and finishes, “You and your pussycat…nose.” Here is the appearance of a branch of rock with now at least two evolutionary members, a branch which I can call the “pussycat school.” Rock has had its “rain school” (“Raindrops,” “Teardrops,” “Rhythm of the Rain,” “Walking in the Rain,” etc.), a fine eclectic grouping which is ambiguously between the inner and outer worlds of artistic evolution. Cousin Bruce Morrow of WABC has used even flimsier branches, as the branch of all songs with “tell” in their titles (“I’m Telling You Now,” “Tell Me,” etc.) and that composed of “animal” titles. Flock has implicitly operated on this infinitude of random, eclectic evolutionary pathways, something merely suggested by Thomas Pynchon in his V. My categories “ponytail rock” (the group the Poni-Tails; “What ls Love?” which describes this emotion as “five feet of heaven with a ponytail”; “Chantilly Lace,” with its reference to the hairpiece as a criterion of socio-sexual adequacy), “fear-of-loss-of-being rock” (“Going Out of My Head”; “Remember”; Dion and the Belmonts’ absolutely obscure “l Can’t Go On Rosalie”), and “march rock” (Little Peggy March; the beat of “I’ll Never Dance Again”; the tympani of “Every Little Thing”; “Calendar Girl,” which declares, “March, I’m gonna march you down the aisle”) are as valid as such categories as “folk-rock,” “Motown rock,” or even “rock-which-legitimately-renders-human-experience” or “that-which-consistently-conforms-to-the-standards-of-classical-music rock.”

At the same time rock has transcended any difficulties encountered in the sociology of knowledge. Because it is so wantonly eclectic, any moment’s linear connections can bear contradictory relationships to those of the next without difficulty. “l Can’t Stop Loving You” has succeeded “I’ve Had It,” “Tequila” has led to “Too Much Tequila,” and “Eve of Destruction” and “Dawn of Correction” have appeared almost concurrently. William James has seen the impossibility of viewing philosophical constructs separate from the temperament which has led to them; rock has never for a second viewed the construct and temperament as anything but the same phenomenon, or noumenon for that matter. Quine has noted, “The unit of empirical significance is the whole of science.” The unit of rock significance is the whole of rock ‘n’ roll, and this is not merely the result of the failure of reduction, as Hegel’s unit of historical significance as all of history seems to be. Just as permissible, anyway, is the Jamies’ position in “Summertime, Summertime,” which resembles Hegel’s end of history: “No more studyin’ history.”

The possibility of artistic evolution presupposes questions of evolving legitimacy and illegitimacy. Once a new approach has been legitimatized through acceptance, it may be repeated; in the case of rock ‘n’ roll, the very process of legitimatization itself can pertain to rock ‘n’ roll’s total picture, and this repetition, of course, is driven into the ground, just as I have obliterated the concept of repetition by overuse so far in this very essay. But when the mere juxtaposition of a still extraneous element can lead to either friction within an art or between it and the audience (which to rock is equally internal), more than simple vulgarity and tastefulness are in question. Moreover, rock has dealt with legitimacy and illegitimacy in a manner which frequently annihilates the distinction. Often something is capable of being observed as both at home in a rock context and utterly alien. When Elvis Presley followed his early hard-core rock hits with a ballad, “Love Me Tender,” the music of which had been taken from Stephen Foster, several questions arose. Could Elvis now be considered a popular musician in the “adult,” muzak-oriented sense? Was rock ‘n’ roll, not even three years old as an identifiable movement, on the verge of fusion with this popular mainstream? Pat Boone built his entire early career on music ambiguously legitimate to both pop and rock, with titles like “Love Letters in the Sand,” “Anastasia,” “There’s a Gold Mine in the Sky,” “April Love,” “When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano,” and the Quaker “Friendly Persuasion.” Perhaps he was interested mainly in attaining pop legitimacy for his own songs, imbued already with a pseudo-rock energy, without concentrating upon how that energy might enhance what he conservatively judged to be legitimate. The Platters, perhaps the biggest group during the early days of rock ‘n’ roll, strained to sound so “legitimate” that they have completely vanished.

As rock developed, a significant change took place: ballads became illegitimate. That is, they were no longer ambiguous “good” music, but were now eligible for use by rock ‘n’ rollers. Beauty could now reenter rock ‘n’ roll with full “badness” to it; there was no longer a need to equate beauty with the submundanely pretty, as Muzak necessitates; beauty was now free and ontologically energized. “Soul” encountered a similar problem, resolved completely by Ray Charles. His early blues and gospel contained an intense, lyrical poignancy that seemed unbreachably removed from rock’s trivial sentimentality. Charles’s “What’d I Say” and “Swanee River Rock” alienated his work from its earlier more conservative legitimacy and introduced to rock a variety of soul far more “righteous” than that of rhythm and blues. One of the first great ballads of this new era of rock was Conway Twitty’s “It’s Only Make Believe,” perhaps an indicator of the self-cognition necessary for such a transition beyond limitation by dubious distinction: “People see us everywhere / They think you really care / But myself l can’t deceive / I know it’s only make believe.” The problem of delegitimatization has sometimes been reduced to a problem of trivialization. The Righteous Brothers’ “Unchained Melody” is a song recorded scores of times in a “legitimate” context, but only they (actually only one Brother sings on the record, a dubious trivialization itself) could make it completely renderable through a rock context. The trick was to slur the phrase “your love” in the final “God speed your love to me” so that it is not clearly audible, even inaudible on a faulty transistor radio. Bob Dylan has brought his harsh folk songs of protest into rock ‘n’ roll by following the latter’s pleasure principle, recording for single releases (separate from his record albums) those songs which are the most aurally pleasing, as “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Positively Fourth Street.”

The usual labels for segments of artistic evolution, “baroque” and “rococo,” are really superficial manifestations of this deeper activity. A cursory examination of the terms used to designate success, the accepted song, is revelatory of an orientation different from that of the traditional forms to which those labels were originally applied. A song can be a “hit,” a “blast,” a “smash,” or even a “gasser”; kinetic destruction is inherent in kinetic success.

Above all the Beatles have established the necessity of at least watching the “action.” When the Dave Clark Five produced its revival of the Contours’ “Do You Love Me,” they strongly emphasized the phrase “Watch me now!” What to the Contours meant the observation of the lamenter’s dancing, “now that I can dance,” is to the D. C. Five a metaphor of universal nascent consciousness.

The Beatles have in their own work mirrored the entire development of rock ‘n’ roll. They began with primitive emotional music (“Love Me Do”), went on to hard-core affirmative kineticism (“She Loves You”) and triviality (Ringo’s wail “Okay, George!” during “Boys”), progressed to highly sophisticated arrogance (“I Should Have Known Better’) and straightforward profundity (“I’ll Be Back”), pessimism (“Things We Said Today”) and modern “tragedy” (“No Reply”), while at all stages relating themselves to the roots with revivals (“Dizzy, Miss Lizzie”) and retrogressions to early non-cognitiveness, written themselves (“l’m Down”). They have noted the evolution of multitracked recording, with “Help!,” a single-tracked recording, at its pinnacle. In this work, juxtaposed Greek-like lead and chorus seem separate in echoing each other, suggesting that the Beatles’ self-restraint in limiting the song to a single track divided between George and Paul and John is a self-conscious comprehension of the effect of one being fully capable of echoing himself and yet refusing, a queer addendum to a movement continuously felt throughout rock ‘n’ roll history. Representing the evolution of rock made conscious of itself (just as Chardin asserts man to be the crown of the natural evolution of the universe, made conscious of itself), the Beatles have made ontologically important the concept of anachronism. Just as the Parmenidean One “at all times…both is and is becoming older and younger than itself,” Beatlistic unity implies anachronism in its novelty, not just infinite extension of nostalgia.

Stylistically, Conway Twitty resembles closely Elvis Presley, who is echoed by Terry Stafford, who sounds just like Del Shannon. Marianne Faithfull can be thought of as an anemic Joan Baez; Adam Faith is essentially the same as Jimmy Soul both stylistically and nominally. By a convenient raunch epistemology, Dee Dee Sharp has resembled the Orlons, who in turn resemble the Marvelettes. The “late great” Buddy Holly was posthumously heard in the singing of Tommy Roe and Bobby Vee, who has even used Buddy Holly’s Crickets. The instrumental sounds of the Tornadoes and of Johnny and the Hurricanes display no distinct difference. Mel Carter is not readily distinguishable from the “late great” Sam Cooke. Some vocals and harmonica solos by Dylan and Lennon have sounded so related that one rock ‘n’ roll magazine said that they might be the same person in different disguises. Jay and the Americans sound like the Fortunes, who sound like the We Five, who sound like the Ivy League, who sound like the Beatles, who sound like the Zombies, who sound like the Searchers, who sound like the Everly Brothers, who sound like a multitude of white country blues singers, who sometimes sound like Negro country blues singers, who can sometimes sound like urban Negro blues singers, who sound like the Rolling Stones, who sound like the Nashville Teens, who do not even look like Jay and the Americans.

An epilogue adds to a body of writing what occurs temporally after the main action or what occurs to the writer after he has written about the main body of action. Often it is the summation of all the excess energies still residual after this main body has been explicated, but necessary to fully explain it. Actually, an idea should be quite visible when first mentioned, and continuous attention to it should beat it to death. Thomas Mann’s novels contain this type of idea expansion and elaboration. Thomas Pynchon’s novel V., whose main character, Benny Profane, envisions himself as a yo-yo, proceeds like a yo-yo to expand and elaborate the idea that it is silly yet essential to expand and elaborate to infinity. Pynchon’s epilogue, quite naturally, is a flashback to an event forty-six years before the time of main action.

Often an epilogue can contain what would have been too boring to develop in the preceding body. John Lennon’s epilogue to In His Own Write, entitled, “About the Awful,” states the following gibberish:

I was bored on the 9th of October when, I believe, the Nasties were still booming us led by Madalf Heatlump (who had only one). Anyway they didn’t get me. I attended to varicous schools in Liddypool. And still didn’t pass—much to my Aunties supplies. As a member of the most publified Beatles my (and P,G, and R’s) records might seem funnier to some than this book, but as far as I’m conceived this correction of short writty is the most wonderfoul larf I’ve ever ready. God help and breed you all.

George Harrison, in Hard Day’s Night, remarks upon boredom as the preclusion of continuity of expression in his description of a television personality: “She’s a drag, a well-known drag. You turn down the sound and say rude things.”

An epilogue should be an afterthought on afterthought. “About the Awful” appears on the back cover of the book, a perfect mechanical epilogue. “Mr. Moonlight” and “Everybody’s Trying to Be My Baby,” the two most trivial of the songs contained in Beatles ‘65, appear last respectively on side one and side two, a perfect mechanical incorporation of essential triviality. The Beatles’ trivialization scheme has been this reflexive afterthought.

The Rolling Stones’ trivialization scheme has been more elusive. Although the Rolling Stones appear timid in the face of a creative universe of triviality, one which the Beatles visit frequently, they have allowed a truly trivial American, Joey Page, to accompany them on tours. His distinctively abominable television performance on Hollywood a Go-Go exonerates the Stones: they are unafraid of triviality, at least by proxy. And this significant key to a great mystery of the Stones remains invisible to the American follower of rock ‘n’ roll unless he is either degenerate or sophisticated enough to appreciate the unique experience of this television program. Here we have an empirical approach not dependent upon dispositions of human perception but upon dispositions of human sentiment. The Rolling Stones have not relied upon reflexive afterthought.

So what?

At the close of Plato’s Symposium, Socrates has clinched complete control of the situation and has, by keeping his listeners on the verge of boredom and sleep, forced them into acceptance of anything he chooses. “Socrates was arguing with others—not that Aristodemus could remember very much of what he said, for, besides having missed the beginning, he was still more than half asleep. But the gist of it was that Socrates was forcing them to admit that the same man might be capable of writing both comedy and tragedy—that the tragic poet might be a comedian as well.” Socrates here has spoken of tragedy and comedy alone as a matter of drunken brevity. John Lennon in a similar position would group together many more things, likely tragedy, comedy, pornography, melodrama, structured philosophy, mathematics and psychology, history, limerick, babble. Dulled beyond speech he might still indicate his conception of the One as dullness beyond speech. Mick Jagger actually offers a variation of this position at the conclusion of the Stones’ ‘Walking the Dog,” babbling, “Duh-duh-duh-duh-duh…just a-walkin’.” Struck by profound revelation, he is ambiguously wounded and removed of his power to speak coherently, or so awestruck that coherent speech is no longer necessary.
Anyway, he just babbles.

John Lennon focuses upon the death toward which all solutions, although utterly successful, may move, in a two-page cartoon in A Spaniard in the Works. Shown on the left-hand leaf is a very thin blind man, standing upright upon a cane with a trumpet at his lips and a pot of coins at his feet. Even his Seeing Eye dog is cadaverously thin and it is furnished with a pair of sunglasses, as his master. He has only two toes on each foot, and his tragic despair is evident in his upright resignation. His “I am blind” sign is his only objective label. Opposite him on the right-hand page is someone who has seen beyond the inadequacies of tragic authenticity and bears “I can see quite clearly” on his chest. He is fat, has three toes on each foot, owns a well-fed, smiling dog who is roaming freely at the end of a leash, and from his jovial expression and carefree, slovenly stance, he appears quite successful for one endowed with the limitation of sight. The creative genius of the second trumpeter has carried the tin cup experience about as far as it can possibly be extended both artistically and financially while still toying with an ambiguous level of authenticity. Although he has a great solution, perhaps the only viable one, standing on a street corner will reduce to sheer boredom for him in about three hours. He has seen and rejected the tragic possibilities of blindness, with all its metaphysical and poetic implication, and would generate a new potency for man, as a Nietzschean trumpeter might. But now he is about to become simply bored, so he may pack up his earnings and pay the debts he owes his brother-in-law. Even the genius of Sisyphus might eventually produce a scheme whereby he can scratch pornographic drawings with his thumb; after fourteen or fifteen successful attempts, Sisyphus would then finally get bored by this newly found experience. But Sisyphus is entrapped by his situation: he cannot completely say “So what?” to his fate worse than death. But the seeing trumpeter and John Lennon share a fate worse than life. They can become fully bored; this capability limits their ability to sustain aesthetic expression while it simultaneously allows an escape.

Cognitive “solutions” can be more awesome in their manifestations than Nietzsche imagined, additionally awesome because they are doomed to burn out as brilliant sparks awaiting a non-cognitive rekindling. Writer for children Dr. Seuss has given insight into a related aspect of solution: ‘“lf I ran the zoo’ / said young Gerald McGrew / ‘I’d make a few changes /That’s what I’d do.”‘

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