Archive for June, 2013


Magic and Madness

At the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, there’s a little area on the 4th floor with benches, in the corner of the glass pyramid. It’s little more than a sitting area for weary museum-goers to rest their feet, but it’s also an exhibit dedicated to a particularly fascinating segment of rock history, and a turning point in the life of one band. In the middle of the area is a huge white-bricked wall, with blocks taken out of it to allow passage to the other side. What looks like a demented Macy’s Thanksgiving puppet hovers over both sides of the wall – the schoolmaster from Pink Floyd’s The Wall. There are other artifacts, mostly from the movie – the melted, blubberous Pink watching TV, another ghoulish schoolmaster with freakishly long limbs, and the crossed hammers banner used as the insignia of Pink’s totalitarian regime. (Don’t worry… all these will be explained)

When we last left Pink Floyd, they were struggling with the ideas of fame and celebrity. Roger Waters in particular found that the more people that liked his music, the less he liked the people. When Pink Floyd first started, they were very happy in their general anonymity. Their early shows were described by Waters as “magic,” intimate and personal. After The Dark Side of the Moon and the monster success of “Money,” they were playing bigger and bigger venues as time went by. By the time of their In the Flesh tour in 1977 for their newest album, Animals, they were stadium regulars.

Whereas Pink Floyd’s relationship to their fans had been close and friendly, it was now more like the ruler of a nation of millions to his subjugates. While some men might have been driven mad by that kind of power (as many rock and pop stars have), Waters found it disgusting, and that translated directly into disgust with his fans. Suddenly, it was “us and them.”

Get it? “Us and Them?” Oh, never mind…

Pink Floyd always being on guard from their fans had to come to a breaking point sometime, and it did in Montreal in 1977. The In the Flesh tour took them to arena after arena, and a fan tried to climb onto the stage at this show. He almost succeeded before security hauled him away, but before even that, Roger Waters took all his disgust, paranoia and anger out on this fan by spitting on him.

It was then that Roger, then the main creative force behind Pink Floyd, realized what he had become, and why. He was faced with the choice of either recapturing the magic Pink Floyd used to have, or giving in to the current madness and the horrible place it might lead to. The Wall is what Roger created to, as he puts it, help him make that choice.

Pink Floyd - The Wall - 11/20/1979

Pink Floyd – The Wall – 11/20/1979

When my wife and I visited the Rock Hall and saw the Wall Exhibit, I explained to her what was written on the white wall (a short detailing of the history leading up to The Wall, in Roger Waters’ own words). When I told her about Roger’s choice between magic and madness, she had a very sharp and to-the-point question (she’s full of those) – “Which did he choose?”

Perhaps it’s obvious to me, but any other reasonably intelligent person could look at The Wall and what it contains and get the wrong impression. In brief, The Wall is about a rock star who becomes so isolated by his past that he ceases to have meaningful human relationships, and thus becomes a totalitarian dictator with a brutal, fascist agenda, until he is confronted by the people he used to create his isolation. If you take a few listens to The Wall and really let it sink in – and are at least passingly familiar with any literature – it becomes clear that The Wall is a cautionary tale. The main thrust of the entire story, and what Roger Waters is looking at when he uses it as a reminder of his choice, is “don’t go down this road.”

The moral of the story is this: the more cut off you are from other human beings, the less you really feel things, and the less you care about hurting other people. That is what “isolation” means – it means a descent into yourself so deep that nothing matters anymore, not even the people you once loved.

Next: the character of Pink and the building of the wall.

The House That Rock Built

Last week I took a vacation to the Lake Erie area, in the vineyards of Geneva, OH. My vacation spot being only an hour away from Cleveland, I of course took a trip to the absolute pinnacle of musical geekdom, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.

For disciples of rock like me, going there is a spiritual experience. I imagine it as similar to a theologian going to St. Paul’s Cathedral, a Civil War buff going to Gettysburg, or an art student going to the Leaning Tower. Walking up to that glass pyramid electrified my very soul, and for the briefest of prophetic moments, the entire world crystallized into its perfect form. God spoke to me, and all he said was, “See?”

Some highlights:

  1. Elvis had a really shiny suit – and was a Denver police officer.
  2. The double-neck guitar, despite its over-the-top ridiculousness, was very popular at one time. The Rock Hall has on display those owned by Jimi Hendrix, Mike Rutherford of Genesis, and Alex Lifeson of Rush, and they never fail to make me giggle as if to say, “oh you guys!”
  3. Soul singers in the ‘60s really knew how to dress.

    Sam Cooke's coat and hat. One word - stylin'.

    Sam Cooke’s coat and hat. One word – stylin’.

  4. Rock stars make their signatures as illegible as possible.
  5. There’s a section about protests to rock and roll. Statements from politicians, Christian leaders and activists are written on walls, followed by statements from musicians as a sort of response. The best one is from Eminem, from his song “Who Knew”: “Quit tryin’ to censor music, this is for your kid’s amusement / But don’t blame me when lil’ Eric jumps off of the terrace / You should of been watchin’ him, apparently you ain’t parents”
  6. Jimi Hendrix’s family had a really ugly couch.
  7. How did people NOT know Rob Halford was gay the second they laid eyes on him?

    "Not that there's anything wrong with it!"

    “Not that there’s anything wrong with it!”

  8. I now have to listen to every single song on the list of Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll.
  9. The Rock Hall NEEDS a restaurant. A microwaved cheeseburger and tater tots that taste like cardboard simply aren’t enough for hungry museum-goers.

My third trip to the Rock Hall also made me realize two things. The first is that I already know a ton of information about the science, history and art of rock and roll. The second is that as much as I know, it’s only a miniscule fraction of what I have yet to learn. Rather than daunt me, that thought fills me with exhilaration like nothing I’ve ever felt before.

Next: isolation and other fun activities

The game Rock Band 2 has a feature at the end of some songs called the Big Rock Ending. That’s where the band members, for the last several seconds of a song, can just go nuts with their notes and rhythms, and the number of points you get from the Big Rock Ending will depend on how many notes and beats you manage to squeeze into the 10 or 15 seconds of the ending. One other thing, too: you only get the points if all the band members also hit the last note with perfect timing and pitch. Otherwise, you get zero.

The only AC/DC song in the standard package of Rock Band 2 is “Let There Be Rock,” the title track from their 1977 album. Not only does the track feature the longest guitar solo – and the greatest number of them – in the entire game, it also has the longest, loudest and most bombastic Big Rock Ending in Rock Band 2. The first time I played it in the game (which was also the first time I heard “Let There Be Rock”), I was simply blown away by the utter hugeness of both the guitar solos and the ending.

I guess the Big Rock Ending is very symbolic of AC/DC’s entire musical ethos. You play your heart out, give everything you’ve got, then give more than you’ve got, until you finally explode in a brilliantly loud apex of rock and roll greatness. You burn hard and burn fast, then you burn out. That may be AC/DC’s general musical philosophy, but it’s also the trajectory that Bon Scott’s life took.

classy, Bon, real classy...

classy, Bon, real classy…

Few characters in rock history are more fascinating to me than Bon Scott. His very existence is a cautionary tale, his life a story that grizzled, washed-up rock stars tell young hotshots of their craft. “Don’t take it from me, son… take it from Bon,” they say with a wagging finger. The younger generation just rolls their eyes, not wanting to give up a life of drugs and sex and decadence. The story of Bon would seem too clichéd, too perfectly tailored to that grizzled rock star’s sermon, if it weren’t true.

Like the Young brothers, Bon was a Scottish transplant to Australia. He took over as lead singer of AC/DC in 1974, shortly before the recording and release of their first album, High Voltage. Their popularity and reputation grew steadily, and they became known as heavy rockers, heavy partiers, and heavy drinkers. This was especially true of Bon. His long streak of partying ended in February of 1980; he died after passing out in a drunken stupor and choking on his own vomit.

Bon’s songwriting style shows that he saw things as simple – one thing leads to another, like a mathematical equation. In “Highway to Hell,” the narrator is melting two candles together so he can burn it at three ends. All along, he – and we can easily infer that it’s Bon himself talking – knows that all this destructive behavior will earn him nothing but damnation; one thing leads to another. But what separates him from a southern Baptist preacher spinning a cautionary tale is that Bon’s entire inflection when talking about fast living and hell is one of a salesman trying to get someone to buy a potato peeler.

Why? I think the reason is he thought hell would be fun. As far as he had heard, hell was where all the drunkards, thieves, womanizers, and kids with spray paint cans would go. In the inverse, heaven would be a boring place where everybody sat on a cloud with a harp all day long. According to what Bon must have thought, hell was where all the cool people would be. In his own words, “hell ain’t a bad place to be!”

gag

gag

I cannot tell you how much this attitude frustrates me. When I hear people talk about how they’re atheists because they think the Christian heaven sounds incredibly dull, it almost makes me wretch. Where did anyone get the idea that we’d all be wearing white robes and sitting on clouds when we got to heaven? Where does that iconography come from? It doesn’t appear anywhere in the Bible. It’s described as a house (John 14:2) and a city (Hebrews 11:16), but I really don’t understand this crap about clouds and harps. It might be because of the inadequacies of the English language – the Bible, when translated into English, sometimes uses the word “heaven” or “the heavens” to talk about the sky. Kindergarten logic says if we’re in “heaven” than we must be in the sky, right? That means clouds. Brilliant! Let’s make it church doctrine!

Bear in mind that I’m NOWHERE NEAR being a Biblical scholar, so you should probably take my statements about heaven with a pickup-truck-sized grain of salt.

Bon’s direct and simple approach to songwriting takes another form, too, and that’s when he’s telling a narrative. “Shot Down In Flames” is a straight-up account of a horny male being soundly rejected by two different females. I can totally imagine Bon simply smiling and shrugging when he sings the chorus, as if to say, “Them’s the breaks, huh?” And “Touch Too Much” tells the story of a man who has stumbled into a sexual relationship where the woman’s appetite greatly eclipses his own. The one place Bon uses metaphor instead of directness in his storytelling is “Night Prowler,” where he perceives that what he’s actually talking about is taboo. What’s his solution, then? Use something that’s even less socially acceptable! What could go wrong?

Bon Scott, 1946-1980

Bon Scott, 1946-1980

Also, songs like “Touch Too Much,” “Girl’s Got Rhythm” and “Love Hungry Man” show that Bon sees nearly everything through a sexual lens. Here’s where I can really empathize with him. To Bon, life is just one big search for a better feeling – there’s always something better over the next horizon. As hot and gorgeous as the last girl you slept with was, and as good as she made you feel, there’s somebody that will make you feel better. While that logic is flawed, it makes a lot of sense in the moment. While Bon’s methods were ultimately destructive to himself and the world around him, I can completely understand his philosophy of trying to feel good always and feel bad never.

Much as some Christians say otherwise, feeling good is good. In fact, God made us to feel good – it’s in His design. But the stunted versions of good feeling we seek all the time don’t really compare with the full versions God can give us. Just like we’re designed to feel good, we’re also designed to feel best in God. If I have to make a choice between “good” and “best,” I’ll pick “best.” But consider this: if it’s possible, why not have “good” AND “best?” That’s a lesson I learned from Bon Scott.