Rock has long outlived its allotted lifespan, you say? How can today’s risk free rock bands compare to Hendrix playing the Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock during the Vietnam War? They say the very sound of his distorted guitar was pure culture shock back then!
Rock evolved from Elvis with his greaser hair and swivel hip to Dylan’s acidic social criticism. Rock gave us Bowie’s gender blur, Iggy’s ultimate barbaric yawp, Patti Smith’s poetic torrent. How are you going to beat Alice Cooper at theatrical rock? You can make four Alices like Kiss. You can make a prettier Kiss like Motley Crue. You can make a more serious Alice like Marilyn Manson.
We’ve had Jim Morrison as Dionysus, The Beatles as the Four Apostles, and Eric Clapton as God. Didn’t it all end when Kurt Cobain pulled the trigger in the ultimate act of rock repudiation of submission to the status quo? Didn’t Limp Bizkit spew on rock’s grave? Isn’t Coldplay a zombie movie? What else can rock do?
Hi, I’m a female rocker. Without female rockers nobody would have bought the records Elvis made. Dylan wouldn’t have had any muses to bitch about and crucify in his “hit” songs. Alice Cooper was pretending to be a female rocker. All your narrow hipped longhaired hippie, metal, hair and grunge bands were boys wearing our drag. Jimi Hendrix and the New York Dolls wore our clothes. Your 80’s hair bands in their spandex and lipstick were all caricatures of us. Take Janis Joplin and Ethel Merman from Axl Rose and what have you got? Jim Dandy to the rescue.
Note prophetic headline on bottom right corner.
Is there some reason female rockers can’t use this forbidden medium of rock to express ourselves? Are we doomed to be only an asterisk in rock history? A few token artists and bands almost lost in the stampede of male creative dominance? Many otherwise perceptive writers have made public fools of themselves theorizing about why women can’t handle the phallic guitar, though we seem to do just fine with cocks.
Joan Jett proved we could write anthems. L7 proved that women could rock hard. Patty Schemel proved a woman could bring the Bonham thunder. Patti Smith proved we could do intelligent abandon. Jennifer Batten proved we could shred. Bikini Kill proved we could start social movements. So is it just an eentsy teensy bit possible that rock may not be complete because women haven’t really been allowed to have our say in it yet?
Sure, we’ve had our token stardoms, but we’ve never really had a female rock renaissance. Perhaps we never will. Maybe the prevailing mass media brainwash will do its job. But that doesn’t mean it couldn’t have happened. So rock at the very worst isn’t dead, it’s dormant. Prince Charming sleeps waiting for Snow White’s kiss.
After the 2014 Grammys the LA Times Pop Critic wrote the latest in the perennial post mortem of rock showing no sign of returning to life. Sure rock is the best selling genre in vinyl, but that only represents six percent of the market. Seriously though, using the Grammys to check the pulse of rock is like asking Baby Jane how Blanche is doing.
The Grammys never got rock. They fought it tooth and nail, embraced it tepidly when forced to, and eagerly promoted anything that might replace it. Which brings us to the question who wants rock dead?
Back in 1962 an A&R genius over at Decca Records informed Brian Epstein that they wouldn’t sign The Beatles because “guitar bands are on their way out.”
Ask any veteran of the music business this question: do you think most of the suits hate musicians? I have yet to find one vet who didn’t answer with a favorite horror story about that very topic. Let’s face it, musicians are easy to hate. Even when we’re ugly there’s something pretty about us. We can conjure a magical sound from nowhere with nothing more than our vocal chords and our fingers on instruments. We travel. We visit the dark corners of the world. We seem to be immune, you’ll always find musicians at the most troubling gatherings, and the most inspiring. We can channel divine epiphany or make your loins tingle without even touching you. Like I said, easy to hate. Especially if someone from our ranks has broken your heart, or your girlfriend’s, or you mom’s, which is highly likely.
Is there any rock star of yore who lived to a ripe age who hasn’t found a way to embarrass us fans? Brian May? Patti Smith? The Steely Dan guys? Joni Mitchell? Donovan? Iggy Pop? Just don’t dig too deep! Not that it’s the job of rock stars to be admirable, but you figure the odds would be that more than a few would have found a way to turn their good fortune into a story worth telling. Are future scholars really going to be interested in the Polaroid pussy albums of Gene Simmons and his shrewd business decisions? Or the interchangeable career trajectories of interchangeable entertainers?
As a class of musicians unquestionably the luckiest in human history, the most laid, the most paid, the most worldwide, rock stars have done so little with their wealth and power it boggles the mind. George Harrison for his work with Monty Python should have been the rule not the exception. But most have been content to wallow in wealth while Rome burns. Of course, why blame them, since whatever millions they have is chickenfeed compared to the money that was made by the suits.
The way the suits allowed the all ages scenes to die off right around 2000 at first didn’t make sense to me. That would be like the NBA letting the NCAA and D-League disappear. There’s nowhere to develop talent anymore. But they didn’t need fresh talent developing on its own. Mouseshwitz taught the other corporate media conglomerates how to grow new talent in the test tubes of our TV and mobile screens. That way the audience can be latched on at an earlier more gullible age.
So why does Disney perhaps not consciously but certainly unconsciously want rock dead? Why does Viacom which rock made with MTV want rock dead? They of course would argue that’s ridiculous. Rock is dead because nobody out there wants rock. We exploited rock as far as we could take it. The audience grew up. The younger generations lost interest. But any rocker who has had anything to do with those companies and their brethren knows they hate rock and they always did.
Do they hate rock because rock is freedom? Rock is freedom. What does that mean? Isn’t that ridiculous? Doesn’t the entire history of rock tell us it was anything but free? It cost lives, souls, families, and uncountable brain cells. It ruined millions with drugs, sexually transmitted diseases and permanent tinnitus. Have you seen Wolf of Wall Street? Who was that douche bag imitating when he was blowing coke up a hooker’s ass? Rock stars. Isn’t that what rock is? Fame? Conspicuous wealth? Debauchery? The adulation of the horny masses?
Maybe that’s the definition of rock held by people who feel that #MotleyCrueRIP is a sign of the end times. But my own personal definition of rock is something very different from that. Now, I’m not in any way suggesting that their definition of rock is wrong, or that yours is, or that mine is right. I’m not trying to convince anybody of my point of view. But you might find my perspective interesting, perhaps inspiring, and the research behind it may surprise you.
To understand what rock is, knowing its history is important, and my favorite version of it is an essay by Michael Ventura called “Long Snake Moan.”
Ventura taught me that to talk about rock you’ve got to talk about Voodoo. And to talk about Voodoo you have to talk about Africa. Now I’m not talking about the idea of Voodoo concocted by Hollywood: zombies, human sacrifice, dolls with pins stuck in them. Hollywood Voodoo bears little resemblance to the wholesome community activity Voodoo derives from. Yes animal sacrifice is sometimes practiced but it was by every culture on the planet at one stage of development or another. And you practice it yourself if you eat chicken, or any other meat or for that matter fish. In Voodoo it’s a spiritual rather than culinary sacrifice.
How profound is the influence of Africa on American music culture? Ventura writes: “Robert Farris Thompson, the art and music historian, has found that “funky” is from the Ki-Kongo lu-fuki, meaning “positive sweat.” Which is virtually what it means, in a metaphoric sense, in American language. He notes that now the Bakongo people use the American “funky” and their own lu-fuki interchangeably “to praise persons for the integrity of their art.” It’s a word that’s been around America for a long time. Song titles place it in New Orleans circa 1900, and it was apparently well-established by then.”
Mojo is Ki-Kongo for soul. Ki-Kongo also gave us our word boogie from their word mbugi which Thompson translates as “devilishly good.”
Consider the concept of cool. Because cool is what American music is all about. Who knows what cool means to the average American today? The right app? A certain haircut? (Not that those things aren’t part of the world of cool). But consider this definition, provided by Thompson, of cool, an idea he argues originated in Yoruba culture. Ventura writes:
“Said one Yoruba informant to Thompson, “Coolness is the correct way you represent yourself to a human being.” In his remarkable book Flash of the Spirit Thompson writes: “Like character, coolness ought to be internalized as a governing principle for a person to merit high praise, “His heart is cool” (okan e tutu). In becoming sophisticated, a Yoruba adept learns to differentiate between forms of spiritual coolness… So heavily charged is this concept with ideas of beauty and correctness that a fine carnelian bead or a passage of exciting drumming may be praised as “cool.” Coolness, then, is a part of character… To the degree that we live generously and discreetly, exhibiting grace under pressure, our appearance and our acts gradually assume virtual royal power. As we become noble, fully realizing the spark of creative goodness God endowed us with… we find the confidence to cope with all kinds of situations. This is ashe. This is character. This is mystic coolness. All one. Paradise is regained, for Yoruba art returns the idea of heaven to mankind wherever ancient ideal attitudes are genuinely manifested.” That’s not just cool, it’s kool, too.
In our culture we have channels who talk to dead relatives of guests on TV shows. In Voodoo the gods, drawn by the sacred rhythms of the drums, ride participants, who are called horses. That’s why Maya Deren called her famous book and film The Divine Horsemen. Aside from bringing some great dancing and healing positive sweat, the loa (gods, spirits, saints whatever term you prefer) give messages, much like popular psychics today, they answer questions, find what was lost, give advice.
All these activities splintered by western civilization into separate categories meet in Voodoo ritual. There’s your dance club, your rock concert, your doctor’s office, your medium’s parlor, your political gathering, your community in action.
But what happened to those rhythms when white slave owners in America worried about uprisings? How could the religion survive? In those days only one big city in the United States was Catholic and cosmopolitan: New Orleans. Since certain saints actually made good symbols for the loa, Voodoo practitioners could coexist with the Catholic Church. The Church wanted to stamp Voodoo out but since saints were being incorporated into the religion tolerance was possible. Plus New Orleans as the main port of the south was a melting pot of freed slaves, Native Americans, Cajuns and almost every race on the planet managed to find at least a small foothold there in the person of some forsaken adventurer.
When every city, town and village in America banned slaves from meeting, and from drumming, the sacred rhythms were preserved in what we now know as tap dancing. But New Orleans didn’t have to tap dance. That city dedicated a place, Congo Square, where the slaves could meet up, play their drums, and party all day and night once a month. That’s where American music was born: jazz, r&b, hip hop, rock and roll, all of it born in that square. Imagine the wonderful scandals! The white audience would be shocked when many of their own suddenly shed their inhibitions and joined the celebration. True, what had been religion, had subtlety evolved into entertainment, but that’s how theater was born, too.
How did Congo Square happen? Who put on this outrageous party? We can’t really say who first organized the celebration but one person towers above all others in influence, and sheer dominance, during Congo Square’s glory years: Marie Laveau.
Through the brothels she owned and her network of hairdressers, Marie Laveau knew all the secrets of New Orleans, and she knew how to use those secrets to gain and hold power. As famed for her beauty as for her dance with a snake wrapped around her, she was a feared Voodoo Queen rumored to have used magical means to finish off rivals who refused to submit to her. Not only as a cultural influence on the future of American music and pagan revivalist movements, but also as an early adapter of the old ways to the new world, she is an icon of American Metaphysical Religion.
As long as Marie lived, to a ripe old age, Congo Square rocked. But after she died the celebration soon ended. The first historical inklings of what became jazz and the blues arrived within ten years after that. That somehow harmonious cacophony of raucous drums and horns, jangling guitars, and wailing voices, just had to find a way to go on.
I won’t linger on the details of how jazz, blues and Cajun music from the nameless geniuses before Jelly Roll and onward evolved into rock and roll, and how Elvis saw and imitated what he saw, so teenage girls across the world, furnished for the first time with portable music players for their bedrooms, could set their hips free to the jungle rhythm.
So, check, there’s a woman right there in the heart of the birth of rock and roll. But how far back does rock and roll go? The old blues legends always said the blues goes back as far as history goes.
The day before Halloween in 2006 NBC News carried a story from the annual New Horizons in Science briefing presented by the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. In Egypt an ancient temple had been excavated revealing the earliest evidence (c. 1470 B.C.) of this thing we’re talking about: “Archaeologists say they have found evidence amid the ruins of a temple in Luxor that the annual rite featured sex, drugs and the ancient equivalent of rock ‘n’ roll.”
Prof. Betsy Bryan of John Hopkins University clarified: “We are talking about a festival in which people come together in a community to get drunk,” she said. “Not high, not socially fun, but drunk — knee-walking, absolutely passed-out drunk.”
The so-called Frat Initiation Papyrus containing the world’s first vomit joke on the upper left. (Actually a drawing based on art found on the wall of the Porch of Drunkenness).
The ancient wall paintings made to commemorate the event show drunken partiers staggering, barfing, fucking in outrageous positions, prancing around naked, and musicians of course are everywhere. Next morning’s prayers began with the drums waking up the hung over party animals for prayers. They had some neat paraphernalia, for example, bells shaped like cat heads they’d strike with soft mallets while saying the word “pleasure.” The father of history Herodotus wrote in 440 B.C. that seven hundred thousand partiers made the scene. He also added the detail that drunken women exposed themselves to onlookers; a phenomenon in our own culture mostly associated with New Orleans, and also rock concerts. So yeah it all ties up in a nice little bow.
Who started those parties? In whose honor did the partiers party? The pharaoh at the time they were established was Hatshepsut, a woman, a widow so capable she took over when her husband died. She even built a “Porch of Drunkenness” where she could join the party, establishing a trend enjoyed even to this day by a wide variety of Americans. The man who became pharaoh after Hatshepsut had her name erased from history. The man said the party is dead. But the man never lives forever and the party came back bigger than ever.
Who was this party for? For the goddess Sekhmet. An invincible goddess, with the head of a lioness, the hot wind of the desert was her breath, and the blazing sun that drank the red silt of the Nile once a year (thank Isis it wasn’t once a month), that was the mere glint of her tawny body. A goddess of war and healing, of magic and ecstasy, a goddess of intoxication, who when she gets drunk and fucked enough transforms into Hathor the bovine Aphrodite of ancient Egypt, the first Venus, Bast, the familiar purring house cat, queen of contented domesticity.
So yeah, the first rock concerts were put on by a woman in honor of a goddess that probably originated among the ancient Nubians or Sudanese, in a warrior cult of women, totem of a forgotten matriarchy. Historians tell us that in ancient Egypt, ancient Cyprus, and ancient Greece in the earliest days women were drummers. Hi, I’m a female rocker. Marie Laveau, holla at your grrrls.
Rimbaud said it in 1871: “When the eternal slavery of women is destroyed, when she lives for herself and through herself, when man, up till now abominable, will have set her free, she will be a poet as well! Woman will discover the unknown! Will her world of ideas differ from ours? She will discover strange things, unfathomable, repulsive, delightful; we will accept and understand them.”
Lester Bangs said it in 1981: “…the only hope for rock’n’roll, aside from everybody playing nothing but shrieking atonal noise through arbitor distorters, is women. Balls are what ruined both rock and politics in the first place, and I demand the world be turned over to the female sex immediately.”
But what did popular culture do with this awesome gift of spiritual and physical reconciliation? White performers smeared on black face and tap-danced rolling their eyes and singing imitations of fractured slave English. While Muddy Waters and band rocked Chicago white America embraced Howlin’ Wolf and ever since we’ve prefered our musical stars of color to have colorful criminal pasts.
What in the hands of Chuck Berry and Little Richard was positive sexy sweat turned into everything from soulless corporate cheese to soundtracks for hate and nihilism. “Gutted” by Cannibal Corpse is a long way from Congo Square.
Altamont is going to look mighty ironic in history. A white Brit in America up there singing about the devil, doing a spot on imitation of Tina Turner’s dancing if not her vocals, his guitarist behind him butchering Robert Johnson licks, for a crowd of white kids in which white Hell’s Angels murder a black kid. Now I do love the music of the Rolling Stones, but rock’s got some bad karma, people, some bad karma. Way worse than stealing the songs of poor old men and putting your own names on them.
So I’ve told you what in my humble opinion rock is not, and I’ve shared with you some of its forgotten historical origins and perhaps like me you’re wondering why us ladies didn’t do more with this gift from our foremothers. But what is rock then, to me, as opposed to, say, Ozzy Osbourne.
In Dante’s Divine Comedy the good pagans who don’t make it into heaven have a sort of meadow to hang out in. Hey, at least they avoided hell! My rock heaven has such a meadow. And I’m pretty generous about who gets in there. For example The Screamers are there even though they never made a real record.
My rock and roll heaven is very sparsely populated. But I’m merciful. I’ll let in men who hit women like Jimi Hendrix or John Lennon because there was so much more to them than the bad habits they learned from the men around them.
To get into my rock heaven you have to have lived a life of real dedication. You have to help others make culture so that your success isn’t yours alone. You have to be as true to yourself and others as your personality permits. You have to be sincere about the rock. Your art must fulfill Aristotle’s rule: reacquaint people with reality. You have to care more about your work than fame or money. You don’t have to be nice to people, or do big splashy charity gigs, or go to church every Sunday, or get in to the oxymoronic Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, or make enough money for the Grammys to notice you, to get into my rock and roll heaven.
Rock gave me hope when I was hopeless. It promised me a life when I saw no life anywhere. Rock gave me true love, raw honesty, real adventures, fun friends. Rock taught me to be myself. Rock taught me the power of words and led me to favorite poets like Rumi, Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Rimbaud. In writing about rock I found my first hints of the Tibetan Book of the Dead.
Every time I hear about a school shooting caused by bullies I can’t help but think that the perp would have gotten his revenge with a guitar instead of a gun if rock was still around. But between the near ban on all ages clubs across America and the Stalinesque scrutiny of families and courts these days, being in a rock band when you need it most is a real challenge.
Rock is the only place where I can say what I mean. Most music, even today’s current corporate rock, requires a restricted palette of emotions, but rock has allowed me to go anywhere and everywhere emotionally. For me personally as an artist every other kind of music is a straightjacket. Only rock will let me say anything I need to.
If I was the only one in the world playing rock music and it did what it does for me that would be all the proof I need that it lives. But if you think it matters where the crowd goes try this on. According to Neilsen Soundscan the top selling genre for albums in 2013 was rock representing almost 35% of sales. Rap was only 8%. Country was less than 14%. R&B less than 18%. If you include Alternative and Hard Music in rock, as I would, rock represents about 52% of album sales. According to Billboard Magazine rock moved 100 million albums in 2014. R&B and rap together sold around fifty million. Does that sound dead to you?
Scoffers will point out that there aren’t rock bands on YouTube wowing everyone with hundreds of millions of views of their latest video. Sure, you might say, those other music genres aren’t selling as many records, but they are what we’re all looking at and listening to online.
Which brings me to the difference between rock and entertainment. Yes, rock is entertaining. All art entertains. And all entertainment involves art. But no one is going to mistake Poison for art or dismiss Joni Mitchell as nothing more than an entertainer. The tension between rock as entertainment and rock as art has always been obvious. Even the most pedestrian Jimi Hendrix docs talk about his desire to leave behind the guitar eating and other shticks. Kurt Cobain agonized over the fact that the kind of guys who beat him up in school were now singing along to his songs. He didn’t want to be entertainment for the masses, he wanted to be solace for his own kind. Dylan’s career is a series of left turns meant to throw fame off the scent but not too much.
Odds are I’m not the only current rock artist with an aversion to fame. Who knows what marvelous bodies of work will be revealed some day? A few fans already know what someday everyone else will: that’s always been the way with rock.
So if you’re a fan of rock, or you love to play rock, or most of all if you’re a female rocker getting shit from everyone for your cultural necrophilia, feel embarrassed no more! Now you know your history. And who knows, maybe rock still has some surprises in store for us. Not just from women, but from new generations, and other cultures. Why should the white boys of 1954 – 1994 be the only ones allowed to rock? Whatever rock is, history proves it doesn’t belong to any single place or time, but to everyone everywhere.
Alan Boyle, “Sex and Booze Figured in Ancient Egyptian Rites” NBCNews.com Oct 30, 2006.
Pagel, Ruth. I’m a Man: Sex, Gods and Rock and Roll. Faber and Faber, 2000.
Ventura, Michael. Shadow Dancing in the U.S.A. Tarcher, 1985.
Written by Tamra Spivey
Newtopia staff writer TAMRA SPIVEY is a founding member and primary singer of Lucid Nation, executive producer of the documentaries Rap is War and Exile Nation, and associate producer of The Gits documentary. She was art editor and west coast editor of Newtopia Magazine in its former incarnation, collaborating on in depth interviews with whistle blower Michael Ruppert, ACLU and record business honcho Danny Goldberg, and grassroots political strategist Larry Tramutola. Follow her on twitter @MongrelPatriot.