Still Rock and Roll to Me

Over the next few days, three of our writers will offer lighter reflections on why they prefer a given genre of music — Rock, Broadway, and Classical.
We begin today with Rock and Roll.
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My childhood was marinated in the thunder of Beethoven, the depth of Mozart, and the confidence of Johann Sebastian Bach. Because dad could not abide a steady diet of what he called "the long-hair stuff," he added musical forays through those parts of the show-tune landscape claimed by Rogers and Hammerstein. His once-formidable collection of vinyl records also allowed us to spin ourselves dizzy listening to Irish reels, laugh at Harry Belafonte’s "Mama Look a Boo-Boo," and smile when Petula Clark sang about a downtown utterly unlike the one later populated by doo-wopping urbanites in "Little Shop of Horrors." We made several trips to Disneyland, and every one of them found me loitering around the Main Street soda shop where you could hear Red, the best of the ragtime pianists then collecting a check from Mickey Mouse.

In spite of all that, I now prefer rock music to any other kind. Although my formative years were bookended by the Beatles "Help!" and Pat Benatar’s "Hit Me with Your Best Shot," no explanation that stops with the calendar would be complete.

Jazz great Louis Armstrong once declared that "all music is folk music," but that was more a playful tautology than a working definition. Satchmo was kidding; rock is more accessible than any other musical form, including folk music. Consider the tool sets involved: I’ll listen to an accessibility argument from folk-music partisans when banjos, accordions, and nose flutes enjoy the popularity of such rock standbys as the Fender Stratocaster and the Hammond B3 organ.

Mark Humphreys, a record mogul and troubadour of fond acquaintance, explains accessibility better than I can: "The enjoyment of jazz and classical music [is] greatly enhanced by an understanding of the technical aspects of music," he writes, "whereas just about everybody understands — and has lived — ‘she was just seventeen and you know what I mean.’ AND you can dance to it." Amen to that. In Bruce Springsteen’s frightening paraphrase of the same thought, "We learned more from a three-minute record, baby, than we ever learned in school."

The democratic impulse can of course be a double-edged sword, because rock welcomes even mediocre players. But on the whole, accessibility is a good thing. When a success story like Bryan Adams sings about buying his first real six-string at the five-and-dime, even musicians who toil in well-deserved obscurity know he’s telling the truth.

Some fault rock lyrics for poor grammar, with the Steve Miller Band’s song about a detective down in Texas who "knows exactly just what the facts is" often winning dishonorable mention. Let’s not forget that scansion beats syntax for the very good reason that, while it’s safe to think of poetry as frozen music, you can’t think of music as frozen anything without throwing rhythm over the side. And although Steve Miller never found a sensible rhyme for "Texas," it’s hard to hold a grudge against a man who also gave us the knowing whimsy of "I’m a joker; I’m a smoker; I’m a midnight toker."

That self-description will never be mistaken for the Confessions of Saint Augustine, but together with Tom Petty’s "you take it on faith, you take it to the heart, yeah the waiting is the hardest part," it’s as close to the fifth-century Bishop of Hippo as pop culture ever comes.

Another reason to prefer rock to other musical styles is that rock revels in humor. With the exception of one effort by violinist Lara St. John, who posed for the cover of an acclaimed 1996 recording of Bach solo pieces with nothing but her instrument to hide her apparent nakedness, classical album covers are drearily predictable. But rock offers the skeletons of the Grateful Dead, the UFOs of Boston albums, and the famous photo of John, Paul, George, and Ringo crossing Abbey Road in studied nonchalance.

The small canvas afforded by CD jackets and the advent of digital downloading technology have combined to make illustrators grumpy, but there is still fun to be had and heard in rock. You can find it in band names, in lyrics, and in performances. Mark Knopfler named Dire Straits for his financial position at the time, and the Marshall Tucker Band was named for a blind piano tuner who had previously occupied the warehouse they used for rehearsals.

The best rock lyricists stamp their work with a disciplined mischievousness. Double entendres don’t get any better than, "Well I’m not the world’s most masculine man, but I know what I am and I’m glad I’m a man and so is Lola." Whether the line refers to one man or two is open to question, because Ray Davies put it in a song about a transvestite. And how do you not smile when Joe Walsh sings, "I go to parties sometimes until four; It’s hard to leave when you can’t find the door"?

More than the lyrics, rock offers countless examples of enthusiastic playing. I especially like the way Max Crook turned Dell Shannon’s "Runaway" into a showcase for his own keyboard skills, as Roy Bittan would do in Bruce Springsteen’s "Thunder Road" a generation later.

On the vocal side of things, Freddie Mercury’s greetings for Galileo in "Bohemian Rhapsody," Bob Dylan’s sneering through "Like a Rolling Stone," and Roy Orbison’s growl in "Pretty Woman" are the stuff of legends. Among B-list groups, the band mates in Twisted Sister really enjoy the cadence of "We’re right! We’re free! We’ll fight! You’ll see!"

Together rockers comprise a debauched court striving to overcome weaknesses in a manner reminiscent of the anonymous "whiskey priest" whose moral growth anchors Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory. Meanwhile, rock beats other musical forms because "accessible" and "fun" make as devastating a one-two punch as you could want.

And, of course, you can dance to it.

Patrick O’Hannigan is a husband, father, writer, lector, and sometime harmonica player in North Carolina. Thanks to the confidence he learned from a voice coach named Joni, he almost always sings along with Norman Greenbaum’s "Spirit in the Sky," even though he finds the theology in that song rather short of the mark set by the Catechism.


Patrick O'Hannigan is a writer in North Carolina.

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