Rock travels

BY JEFF LEVEN

So they want me to write about “road rock” for the issue before spring break.

My mind drifts back to Michael Sugrue, one of my professors in college. A brilliant guy with burning, intense eyes and an ever-unruly shock of tangled hair, Sugrue was known for (aside from his series of off-the-cuff videotapes on Western civilization), his ample supply of catchphrases. The history of Western thought and philosophy was at his fingertips, distilled into bite-size slogans (Nietzsche — “the party’s over”), and one of his favorites was “philosophy is the journey you take at home.” I didn’t quite know what it meant at the time, and I still don’t know what it means now, save that, like most vague statements about philosophy, it always struck me to be true of rock n’ roll….

Pages and pages have been written about the deep connection between rock and the road, particularly in the American context. From its birth in the 1950s, rock n’ roll shared a place in America’s heart with the automobile, and for a young duck-tailed hipster of the era, it really didn’t get much better than owning both a Chevy Belair and a Fender Stratocaster. Both were, in their way, crowning monuments of American culture — boldly futuristic in design, bluntly utilitarian in purpose, the Technicolor manifestations of America’s blooming industrial prowess, both things that could get your heart racing, showcase your skill and, if you were lucky enough, get you loved. Rock was sex and cars were sex and sex was sex, and a lot of teenagers didn’t have the last two but if you could learn the chords to Chuck Berry’s “Maybelline” or “Rocket 88,” (originally penned by Ike Turner) or Gene Vincent’s “Race with the Devil,” then maybe all would fall into line soon enough. Rock was driving music, as in music with a beat, but also, quite essentially, music to drive to. Yeah, on one level it was all about freedom, and on another level it was all about style, and on another level it was just about cadence — speed, fury, acceleration, zipping through time and space either in your own room with the stereo on, or on the great American highways jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive (and yes, the ’50s tradition of cars and guitars is still alive and well in every note of Springsteen’s catalogue). Yeah, rock n’ roll was road music, but where it was going, it didn’t need roads….

Many of rock’s journeys in the 1960s itself were inward (and perhaps, and not always so coincidentally, drugward). People forget that before Ted Nugent was wearing a loincloth and melting eardrums pumping out “Strangehold,” he was with the Amboy Dukes, pioneering stalwarts of the psychedelic rock underground of the mid- and late-1960s (referred to as the “Nuggets” era by its friends because of an incredibly influential so-named compilation by Patti Smith guitarist Lenny Kaye collecting and disseminating some of the most vital and unsung works of the period, later reissued in glorious box form by Rhino Records). With the Dukes, Nugent recorded the seminal “Journey to the Center of The Mind,” a song that, aside from stinging, plangent guitar work, also featured the lyrical motif that would underpin the psychedelic movement — ride the magic carpet, ride the snake, ride the waves of your mind. In the 1960s, rock started to take the automotive energy of its immediate fathers and make it freaky and fractal and recursive and creepily internalized, at least in certain circles…

Living besides the most mind-searching psychedelia, of course, was the simple hippie road ethic — “Easy Rider” and such — particularly as, on the peripheries, the revolutionary rock of the ’60s miscegenated with good old fashioned country music. In one of the stranger and less scrutinized twists of American culture, backwoods country music — the stuff of salt-of-the-earth farmer folk — knit itself into the Woodstock ethos and groups like the Byrds recorded albums like Sweetheart of the Rodeo. And then, of course, there were Dylan and the Band — lovingly recreating a folk America long since remapped by the highways and byways of postwar development. The extent to which Dylan was the principle journeyman of 1960s rock is almost impossible to overstate. “Tangled Up in Blue” (which, by the way, seems to have had its plot line uncannily mirrored by Forrest Gump, right down the fishing boat in Louisiana, meeting up with the lost love in a strip joint, etc.) was to music what Kerouac’s On the Road was to literature — the wisened fence-post markings of a well-weathered hobo poet leading the way through the wilderness with the vague suggestion that the journey was the point itself. Or was it really….

Country music has, to my mind, always thrown a hitch into the road-rock-as-necessarily-freedom-rock theory. In so many country songs, drivin’ and cryin’ (and, yes, that phrase referring to country music was exactly where the late ’80s band known for “Fly Me Courageous” got its name) were inextricably linked — the road itself the metaphor for being cast away from home, from love, from the source of peace itself. If arena rock focused on the dreams and illusions of the small town girl living in a lonely world, for country the everyman of the moment was the trucker — bleary-eyed, overworked, seeking respite from a road that would never end, yearning only for a faraway home that seems to recede even as you get closer, the road as the loneliest of any lonely place. As Steve Earle so lyrically put it in his ode to an overdosed Townes Van Zandt: “You used to say the highway was your home, but we both know that that ain’t true / it’s just the only place a man can go, when he don’t know where he’s traveling to.” They say the ghosts of those whose souls die at odds with the world are damned to wander its face seeking salvation, and perhaps so too of the road warriors of the rock tradition — here I am, on the road again, here I am, up on the stage, here I am, playing star again, there I go, turn the page….

But if the road for many rockers has been a restless place, the devil has found work for idle hands to do. Many rockers are rampaging Vikings, and the story doesn’t start and end with Motley Crue. Touring musicians and touring minstrels have often lived off the proverbial fat of the land, often leaving a trail of carnage in their wandering wake. “Papa was a rolling stone, wherever he lay his hat was his home, and when he died all he left us was alone.” They say Robert Johnson used to ride the steamboats from town to town, cuckolding husbands, quaffing moonshine and playing his ungodly otherworldly blues, staying just long enough to evade the law and the aforementioned well-armed jealous husbands. Rock is the party that comes to town just long enough to trash it, puke in the sink and catch the red-eye to the next hapless village. Good night, Springfield, there will be no encores….

The partying, just like the traveling itself, can burn the rock nomads out. In the 1970s, the journey grew more lonely, more majestic, more bruised and sprawled further afield. Bowie took us to Mars while ground control called Major Tom over and over, and then of course there was the Rocket Man, cold and detached in the solipsism of space, yearning for yellow brick roads that had long since evaded him (to mix Elton metaphors). A musical analogue to the brutally calming silences of 2001’s wide-open spacescapes, these songs implicitly portrayed a society where individualism itself had blasted holes in the social fabrics of the West, where the challenge to find common values in a post-Vietnam-Watergate-and-end-of-the-innocence Cold War winter was a long road as yet untraveled with miles to go before we sleep. It was, in a sense, the country music of the spheres in folky piano playing pre-punk form — lonely, lost, alienated, and beautifically mournful of such….

Punk was many things, but not so much the rock of travel, save for an occasional holiday in Cambodia. Punk is the destruction you wreak in your own kitchen…. Nevermind…. I write about punk in just about every story these da
ys, so… disco. Disco was not about traveling either. It was about tight pants and meeting other people with tight pants, and singing about how much fun it is to wear tight pants. Rock is sex and dancing is sex and sex is sex and in the ’70s these things were apparently easier to come by than they were in the ’50s….

In the ’80s, rock’s travels meandered back to cars and the skies simultaneously. Gary Numan sang of cars, cars, cars, Billy Ocean pulled lovers out of his dreams and into his car, and ZZ Top’s cars seemed to turn into planes, like F-14s right into the danger zone (courtesy of Kenny Loggins), and meanwhile the band names themselves were all-too-obvious flights of fancy: while the Jefferson Airplane-cum Jefferson Starship-cum Starship talked of building futuristic cities with haplessly cheesy harmonizer-enhanced vocals, Toto found itself no longer in Kansas but “Africa,” (ouch) and then of course Journey… well, I just don’t wanna talk about Journey, particularly when Bruce brought it all full circle with “Pink Cadillac.” In many ways, the ’80s, like the ’50s, were about the day-glo escapism of fusing rock and road back together, and celebrating the zest of American prosperity with cool cars and flashy clothes, and a synthesizer if not a Stratocaster….

I could try to spin out some analysis of the ’90s and ’00s, but you get the point. Rock is movement — inward, outward, selfward, sexward, roadward, onward, loudward, forward. Throughout this long and winding road of travel rock, the restless feral energy of youth was allegorized in song through the metaphor of musical nomadism. Rock is about the flights of fancy and the racings of the pulse that you can get in your room, in your stereo, in your headphones on the T, in your dreams when the hook from the night’s concert can’t dislodge itself from your brain stem. Rock is travel, in the soles of your shoes, in the shoes of your soul, at home, on the road, in the mind and most of the miles in between. Rock is the journey you take when you listen, simple as that.

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