Elsa Triolet wears her hair blue to listen to distorted guitar. Ivy Beach dances to Traffic’s “John Barleycorn must die” barefoot after a day in the garden. Paul Jones listens to Audioslave in neon privacy because where he communes it’s hard to be a black man listening to rock and roll. Crowds of adepts (amatores: those who do it for the love) laugh at death, as the grateful living in love with a singer’s melodies. A vigil is held for the death of a singer who had brought down an empire’s bravado with his voice. Welcome to the world. First, a nota bene. This is not a definitive essay. A definitive essay on rock and roll should begin and end with its grammar, and how that grammar came to be and exists. In other words, the logic, ontology, and epistemology in the musician’s phrasing. Syntax and pronunciation (multiple negation, the silent g, the silent r and the silent l in African American Vernacular English…) and their metisse morphology as rock and roll would need a paragraph each. Finally, is Rock and Roll not magical realism par excellence, born in a south where magical freedom, and magical being our popular culture? The essay would have to split in two, where one half would be about rock and roll in the day, and the other would be about rock and roll at night. Both would have to discuss rock and roll as both beauty and desire, and its impact on time. I’m not the only one who thinks that a three-minute song is more like a quarter of an entire lifetime when it’s that good. This essay is an ode, something like a poem. Grammar inspired by grammar. It congratulates rock and roll.
We take a plane to Tokyo, on a fuzzy whim. Flight attendant Anne Prescot congratulates the plane’s two passengers for the passion in our conversation. We take the first horse and carriage we see to the poet Basho’s address. Basho, a young man in Tokugawa Japan writing haiku for physical experience, opens his door wearing a green robe. Poems of his like “come see the true flower of this pained world”, which is the entire poem, as if the beginning of a Grateful Dead song, ask us to live in the present, among others, like Attic Grek did, and he’s laid them out for us to read them. As we’d imagined ourselves, sitting with Basho over tea, in Edo (Tokyo) discussing style, and its significance. Edo will come to an end with the Meiji period, soon. None of us know this. What does Basho think about Rock and Roll? Basho takes a sip of tea before commenting on the record being played on a portable vinyl. It asks itself questions that it itself answers, you ask Basho. Basho nods. Not all questions. The ancient Greeks, like Thales, were obsessed with the question “which came before, day or night”. Not that question. Other questions. Basho nods, and writes a poem down. I have not been given his permission to share it, and it will be released after his death.
What to make of my presence in this world? That seems to be the most important one. Sing, dance, and contemplate. Act. Thus, goes the spirit of rock and roll. Unlike cultural movements before and after it, such as surrealism or Dadaism, rock and roll had no written manifesto and perhaps this is what has allowed it to flourish for so long. To lead the RA of rock and roll, one must first figure it out. What is it? It is first and foremost philosophy grounded in learned and lived experience, ontology (being) in melody, rhythm, harmony, in chord progression. It is an ethics, by which music is, nonetheless, always at the service of a populace. Not necessarily the social service of a populace, but nonetheless serves to fulfill the being of a population and its individuals. What is the world? Another aspect of this philosophy that is called rock and roll, born in a world of domination through politics, urbanity, grammar, and the contradictions in resistance.
What to make of my and our presence in the world of today? A world whose measure is dictated by greed in the form of neoliberal business, government, and philanthropy. Rock and roll? Yes, Rock and Roll, despite a traditional language and grammar heard in rock music that goes against the will to speak in reduced language, in a world where the exuberance of poetry can be fully stated as an emoji. Paul Verlaine, as an emoji. Imagine? Well…
Rock and Roll, like surrealism, or Ernest Hemingway’s novels, is a post war aesthetic, and so carries a profound criticism of experienced society as its foundations. Today, the experience of consumption is what guides being, instead. Consumption, especially networks of it such as in the rite of passage that is young people at the mall as their formative, often romantic, outings, as opposed to for example going to a park, has its grammar, that grammar being the grammar of contemporary pop and commercial hip hop music. Rock and roll, on the other hand, its spirit, spirit here defined as the unity of being and logic, can only come from profound and true sensual experience, at a park, being madly in love, of rejecting war, of resisting racism, etc. Of prophecy and messianic activity, as Sister Rosetta Tharpe showed us clearly by being one of the founders of rock and roll. Yes, rock and roll, though fewer of us dance it, sing it, and contemplate it.
In a different society than ours, rock and roll (a process of questioning and answering) as a native metering would have made its way into being quite simply a popular aesthetic in architecture, urban planning, and other aspects of life that quite frankly are more important than music. Imagine if Ildefons Cerda, Antonio Gaudi, and Luis Domenech i Montaner had lived in a city where rock and roll was born or reborn? Surely it would have been foundational to Memphis, New Orleans, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York City, of today in terms of its streets, its alleys, its parks, and its architecture, as modernisme is. In the US, since the end of World War 2, we, in our poetic state, have been stuck with the success of rationalizers, making art out of compromise with corporatism. Urbanism? Robert Moses. Museum? 25$. Andy Warhol? Portraiture in a city of decadent bankers and socialites. San Francisco figurative art? Dead leaves from a tree being wacked down. Abstract expressionism? Pontificating in a room of potential patrons. And so on, and so forth. Art becomes a method of material existence, living a world without apocalypse, passing as intellect.
So, there’s good news. Rock and roll is still here. Whatever it is was buried under a tree by its founders, a tree near a lake for wading in the water. Wade in the water I’m sure they sang that day, full of humor of life, for a battle was won. It glows all around us, the smallest flower, that nourished the most beautiful bird. You say all of this, as Basho and I smile. Basho laughs.