It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll But I Like It
I went down to the crossroads, clutching Johnson’s rock ‘n’ roll words like a drunken fool. “If you want to make songs yourself, you take your guitar and go to where a crossroads is,” Johnson confided. “Be sure to get there just a little ‘fore 12 that night. You have your guitar and you be playing a piece there by yourself. A big black man will walk up there and take your guitar and he’ll tune it. Then he’ll play a piece and hand it back to you. That’s the way I learned to play anything I want.”
I knew of the folklore and reading the words made it all seem so simple. Born under a bad sign, or because he had that look in his eye, Robert Johnson’s performance at the birth of rock ‘n’ roll has been much acclaimed. The bad sign could have been the weight of post civil war emancipation. And there’s talk that the look in his eye was cataracts. But his words sang like a siren. What did they mean? What is rock ‘n’ roll? Where has it been and where is it going? I needed to know. So. I arrived at the crossroads.
Shrouded in the lick of autumn, I clocked the options. 3 to the right. 6 straight down. 9 to the left. Midnight straight up. Grasping the arm of twelve I hid underneath the marquee moon. The shadows it threw wrapped their dark arms around me. Swamped in the blackness I strained for a sound. Nothing. In petulant disbelief I screamed for my rock ‘n’ roll. The wind whistled past with a mocking tone. “What do you want it for? The fame. The wealth. The satisfaction?” The sigh gave way to groans when I questioned: “satisfaction?”
“I can’t get no satisfaction watching from the sidelines. Taste, don’t touch.” Replied the gathering sound. And the lines gave way to familiar horizons. The youthful unrest of the mid-fifties west, blurred with the sonic ascent of rock ‘n’ roll music. A raucous copulation that spawned a magic band of captain beefhearts. A rock ‘n’ roll circus careened across the land. The Who exploded into spitting riffs and cut-glass lyrics. A yellow submarine toured the psychedelic coastline offering Love and The Doors of perception. Harrison praised Wah Wah whilst Hendrix caressed it with a measured abandon. And on a stairway to heaven the madcaps laughed. Autumn fell on the summer of love as Eugene MC Daniels squared up to the Nixon era and Television’s Marquee Moon lit up the parade. Rock ‘n’ roll embraced the Ibiza-Indian summer. And it fuelled the swagger of the Happy Mondays and the Stone Roses before thundering into the winter of Nirvana’s discontent. But the more I strained the less I could see the immediate past, the present, the future. The wind died down to a persistent whisper. And in the respite of the breathless calm I struggled to piece together rock ‘n’ roll.
From smoky-bar recesses to echoing lecture halls, the birth of rock ‘n’ roll has been animated and debated. It’s suggested that Alan Freed, a Cleveland disc jockey, invented the term in 1951. He borrowed the words from a current hit of the time; My Baby Rocks Me With A Steady Roll. So was this the first rock ‘n’ roll record? In their book What Was The First Rock ‘N’ Roll Record? Jim Dawson and Steve Propes list 50 candidates. But what is the value of a list to debate? Spurred on by the uncertainties of opinion and taste. Writing on the culture and ideology of rock ‘n’ roll, David Townsend states: “All you need to know about the origins of rock ‘n’ roll is that it started from slavery.” Focusing on the explosive opportunities that racial and cultural integration offered in the late forties and fifties, a time of social friction and relative freedom, Townsend proffers, “it (rock ‘n’ roll) owes to a brief window of history two years, no more that three when the fabric of American culture was torn apart and rewoven.”
But where is it now and how does it feel? Is rock ‘n’ roll, as Townsend claims, music that, “offers its adherents (in the modern era) perhaps the best opportunity to look within themselves while reaching beyond”? But what does this involve? An insatiable search for the freedom to choose? To lose? An escape from reality or the creation of new realities? If this is rock ‘n’ roll why start with Robert Johnson or Elvis and confine it to music? What about books, art, the desire for social change? Anything. Everything. The human spirit.
As the shadows moved back in, lightening struck itself and I realised I had no idea what it was but that I liked it. Wrenched from the sidelines, in the heart of the blackness, I gave way to the seductive wind. On the road with Kerouac’s muse I sampled the freedom of not knowing when. And swept into caverns crafted by Coleridge and measureless to man. I stayed down at the crossroads.
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- May 6, 2006 / 5:40 pm