When I drive I usually listen to classic rock stations. As a result, over the years I have internalized a man’s despair as a primary marker of human condition, as this music genre has been a perfect medium to telegraph his existential ennui.
An unhappy man – the main hero of any rock song – searching for a culprit of his unhappiness, often turns his gaze to his romantic partner (‘The Woman’). His lament can be broken down into following categories:
- I come home from hard work and you’re not home. (Santana, Led Zeppelin)
- Why did you leave me, woman? (Allman Brothers, Led Zeppelin)
- Can’t get laid (ZZ Top)
- Stay away, woman, I can’t take you anymore (The Guess Who).
- She’s so annoying I have no choice but to kill her (Jimi Hendrix, Guns’n’Roses).
Maybe because the birth of rock coincided with the peak of Beat generation culture, with its heroes ‘rebelling’ against ‘the system’ by simply leaving women and children behind and running away from responsibilities by going ‘on the road’, it was easy for rock pioneers to designate a woman as the main culprit of a man’s unhappiness. She was just the lowest hanging fruit. Still, it could have been worse. I think we have to give credit to classic rock bands for avoiding singling out the other usual suspects: minorities and immigrants. Even Lynyrd Skynyrd dodged a bullet there.
Some bands, like The Who, put more thought into a man’s condition and identified ‘The Man’ as a more consequential reason for his suffering. (“Meet the new boss, same as old boss”).
But, paradoxically, I never really liked The Who. ‘Real me’ and ‘Behind Blue Eyes’ sound whiney and self-absorbed. A rock song where a man is asking us to feel sorry for him is not a good song. And does that man feel sorry for anybody but himself? No. In ‘Squeeze Box’ – a really atrocious song – Mr. Sad Misunderstood Man blames his mother, who happened to have a ‘squeeze box’ on her chest, for domestic disorder. The Who is a commentary on politics and sex without any redeeming qualities. It’s navel gazing, interchanged with pseudo-profundity and set to a, let’s be honest, mediocre tune. Can you really sing along to any of The Who songs? They really straddle the two worst aspects of classic rock: self-indulgence and misogyny. At least when Robert Plant cries for a woman who left him, he doesn’t stoop to mocking her physique. And his delivery leaves no doubt that he’s in real pain. Not the case with The Who.
Rolling Stones: I’ll be honest here, they have some cool tunes. But because none of them OD’ed on anything in 60s or 70s and as a result were left intact as a band, they suffered a different misfortune: they became a parody of their old selves.
Rush is too clinical. What am I, reading a treatise? Just want to listen to a song, ffs.
If we were moved by reason and logic alone then our best songs would contain mathematical formulas laid over a tune. But a part of us is awed by the illogical and the absurd. There are some good songs that merely offer a social commentary. But those are not great songs. Great songs don’t even attempt to make any sense.
Pink Floyd has found that elusive vein. Unlike The Who, neither Gilmour not Waters fish for sympathy, even though (or rather because) they have identified the real culprit: greed (‘Money’), ambition, rat race (‘Time’), fear (‘Mother’). That they have stepped on a raw nerve of the existing power structure is evident by the criticism they receive about the visuals in their shows: a flying pig, planes bombarding us with corporate logos. It’s an unapologetic indictment of capitalism and authoritarianism. But, still, they would not get far on social commentary alone, just like Led Zeppelin would not get far on libido. They would just be Noam Chomsky with a guitar. Thus ‘Money’ and ‘Time’ and ‘Mother’, while iconic, are not the best Pink Floyd songs. Gilmour transcends when he manages to put us in a contemplative state with tracks like ‘Comfortably Numb’, and ‘Wish you were here’, and ‘Echoes’. “Overhead the albatross hangs motionless upon the air” is an ingenious opening line, casting an arresting spell. Is it about politics? No. About sex? No. About a man’s raw deal? No. What is it about? Nothing in particular. And yet we’re stopped in our tracks. In art, the non-sensical has more power than logical. It gives us a sense of timelessness. ‘Stairway to Heaven’, too, has absurd, non-sensical lyrics. And it has acquired a near-religious status. ‘Hotel California’ – same thing. Why can’t they leave? Who knows. But we can’t stop singing along and languish in thoughts.
Led Zeppelin has a similar dual quality. It is at its best when it veers off from a sex worship into a Tolkienesque, Old English ballads-inspired fantasy (Stairway to Heaven, Black Mountain Side). Their mass appeal is in sex, but their greatness rests with the mythological and the irrational.
The sweet spot of classic rock, though, is in good, simple, blue-collar themed driving songs that do not attempt to find an answer but merely depict a working man’s lot. Bob Seger and Silver Bullet Band, Jackson Browne, some Dire Straits, some CCR, Springsteen. Working folk with no time and aptitude to ponder on the meta. The beauty here is in a lack of high-brow ruminations, plus they all pass my ‘no irony in good art’ test.
“If you believe it, it’s not a lie,” George Constanza once said. Back in the day the singers believed in what they were singing about, even if, from today’s post-modernist perspective, they were often, uh, misguided. But because of this genuineness I’m willing to take them at face value. Today, on the other hand, everything is ironic, as if the performers don’t believe in their own product. In art, in music and in film the statement can be wrong; but if it is delivered with an authentic conviction it is better than a statement delivered with a self-deprecating smirk.