Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Richard Hell and Rock & Roll, Ctd.

The most interesting passages in Richard Hell's memoir in I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp come as Hell pushes up against the limits of language to describe rock and roll. (His writing about the seduction, bliss, and brutality of heroin addiction is also very strong, among the best I've encountered about the personal politics of drug addiction. Hell got out.) Embedded among his startlingly-clear memories of early jobs, early girls, and early drug use are scenes where his first band Television (metamorphosed from the Neon Boys) rehearses its early songs. "The power and beauty of it was unimaginable until then," Hell writes, still marveling decades later. "It can't be overstated, that initial rush of realizing, of experiencing, what's possible as you’re standing there in the rehearsal room with your guitars and the mikes turned on and when you make a move this physical information comes pouring out and you can do or say anything with it."

Maybe recognizing that that description is lacking, he pushes on:
It was like having magic powers. The ability to create action at a distance. The sounds that came from the amplifiers were absurdly moving and strange, the variety of them so wide in view of the fact that they came from flicks of our fingers and from our vocal noises, and the way that it was a single thing, an entity, that was produced by the simultaneous reactive interplay of the four band members combining various of their faculties. We were turned into a sound a flow of sound. I remember having a weird moment of weird revelation once, that each moment of a phonograph record being played, each millimeter of information conveyed via the needle to the amplifier to the speaker to the ear, is one sound. A whole orchestra is one sound, altering moment by moment, no matter how many instruments go into producing it. And, as our band rehearsed, on each moment we made the sound spray out in arrays we could instantly alter, emanating from inside us and out interplay and our inner beings combined, playing. And the sound included words.
Now the frustration sets in:
All through this book I've had to search for different ways to say “thrill,” “exhilaration,” “ecstatic” to communicate particular experiences. Maybe the most extreme example of this class of moment is what I’m trying to describe here. What it felt like to first be creating electrically amplified songs. It was like being born. It was everything one wants from so-called God. The joy of it, the instant inherent awareness that you could go anywhere you wanted with it and everywhere was fascinatingly new and ridiculously effective. It was like making emotion and thought physical, to be undergone apart from oneself.

That's theory filtered through remembered bliss and mind-expanding drug use, and bit over-blown. Trying to describe: it's hard work. A few pages later, his head seemingly cleared, Hell delivers a far more promising description of the power of rock and roll and its origins. Recalling a Television gig that co-founder Tom Verlaine was unhappy with, Hell writes, "It's true that the band sounded ragged [that night]."
But this was something that had also been said of the early gigs (and often the later ones) of the New York Dolls and the Stooges and the Velvet Underground. It was something that I positively liked in a band. It’s true of the Stones’ Exile on Main Street sessions too, or on some of their early singles, like “Who’s Driving Your Plane?” or “l9th Nervous Breakdown.” Another band whose sound I’d always loved was Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, especially on a track like “Going to a Go-Go,” which sounds like it was recorded in an alley, the band banging on cardboard boxes and garbage cans. I love a racket. I love it when it seems like a group is slipping in and out of phase, when something lags and then slides into a pocket, like hitting the number on a roulette wheel, a clatter, like the sound of the Johnny Burnette Trio, like galloping horses' hooves. It’s like a baby learning to walk, or a little bird just barely avoiding a crash to the dirt, or two kids losing their virginity. It's awkward but it's riveting, and uplifting and funny. In a way it's the aural representation of that feeling that makes the first time people feel the possibilities of rock and roll music in themselves the benchmark of hope and freedom and euphoria.
And then a bit later, after considering Dee Dee Ramone's potent appeal as a young man in the mid-1970s, Hell really nails it:
Rock and roll is the only art form at which teenagers are not only capable of excelling but that actually requires that one be a teenager, more or less, to practice it at all. This is the way that “punk” uniquely embodies rock and roll. It explicitly asserts and demonstrates that the music is not about virtuosity. Rock and roll is about natural grace, about style and instinct. Also the inherent physical beauty of youth. You don't have to play guitar well or, by any conventional standard, sing well to make great rock and roll; you just have to have it, have be able to recognize it, have to get it. And half of that is about simply being young, meaning full of crazed sex drive and sensitivity to the object of romantic and sexual desire, and full of anger about being condescended to by adults, and disgust and anger about all the lies you're being fed, and all the control you've been subjected to, by those complacent adults. And a deep desire for some fun. And though rock and roll is about being cool, you don’t have to be cool to make real rock and roll—sometimes the most innocuous and pathetic fumblers only become graced by the way they shine in songs. And this is half of what makes the music the art of adolescence—that it doesn’t require any verifiable skill. It’s all essence, and it’s available to those who, to all appearances, have nothing.
That's about as good a definition of rock and roll I've read for some time.

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