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The Secret History of Rock 'n' Roll: The Mysterious Roots of Modern Music

Christopher Knowles

(Viva Editions; US: Oct 2010)

This is a frustrating book. Christopher Knowles combines a compelling thesis with lackadaisical follow-through, leaving readers teased but unsatisfied. His basic argument—that rock ‘n’ roll concerts and culture can trace their origins back to the Mystery cults and rituals of ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome—is given barely 90 pages of consideration, mainly in the form of quick ‘n’ dirty synopses. The book then shifts to 150+ pages of rock star bios, which are neither terribly illuminating, terribly well written, or terribly relevant to his thesis.


Let’s start with the good. Knowles makes his claim clearly up front, claiming that rock ‘n’ roll will survive “because in one form or another, it’s always been with us and always will be.” A couple of pages later he expands on this idea: “To understand rock ‘n’ roll you have to go back—all the way back—to the earliest days of human civilization.” He draws a connection between contemporary rock culture and “the drugs, the drums, the noise, the wild costumes, the pyrotechnics, the controversy, and the outrage” engendered by ancient countercultural cults and ceremonies.


It’s an intriguing idea, and it grows more convincing as he outlines these ancient worshippers. His description of the Korybantes, an ancient sect of Hellenistic Dionysians, paints them as “warrior priests [who] performed their insane racket in full hoplite armor, clanging their swords and shields in time to the beat of drums and lyres, literally screaming their songs until their throats were raw.” When Knowles draws a parallel between them and modern-day heavy metal headbangers, the reader goes along.


Similarly, the Galloi—ancient priests of the goddess Cybele—“would castrate themselves and dress as women” as an expression of their belief in “the concept of androgyny as salvation.” Again, Knowles traces a line from the ancient world to the modern: “The mysteries of Cybele and Attis were spread throughout the Roman Empire by a fierce army of cross-dressing eunuch priests, whose fast/loud/wild music and bloody rituals eerily prefigure the glam and glitter movements” typified by David Bowie, T. Rex and the New York Dolls.


Many more Mysteries are outlines here—cults of Dionysus, Orpheus, Isis, Mithras, Hermes, and others. These synopses are brief, however, and despite many references to the wild rituals and chants and songs of the various groups, few details emerge. Yes, numbers of highly-excitable individuals have been gathering for millenia to achieve a transcendent experience through singing, ingesting drugs, and screwing with abandon; does this really mean that the Roman cult of Mithras was a precursor to The Stooges?


Maybe it does—but anyone looking for more evidence is going to be mightily disappointed in the remaining 60 percent of the book. Just when Knowles has set the reader up for deeper insights into his thesis, he backs off; instead of digging deep, he treds shallow. Do we really need a detailed Van Halen discography? Does this really render any more convincing Knowles’ thesis that the SoCal party boys are heirs to Dionysus? The answers to these questions are no and no.


At times Knowles rattles on for pages, providing a hipster’s who’s-who of rock bands before he suddenly remembers that he’s supposed to be writing a book about rock’s ancient origins. Then he’ll slip in a reminder: “[The Beastie Boys] developed a distinctly Dionysian synthesis of punk, hard rock, and hip-hop…” At times the connections he draws are absurd, as when he links Patti Smith to the goddess Isis because they are both widows. In that case, my mom fits into that club as well. Not.


Elsewhere, his musical knowledge is laughable, as when he calls “Norweigian Wood” an Indian raga. (Note to Knowles: plucking a melody line out on a sitar does not mean you are playing a raga.) He is prone to making sweeping statements with little evidence: “It was the Hyksos who brought the stringed instrument known as the lute into Egypt, where it traveled to other parts of Africa and finally to the Americas.” Fair enough, but he goes on to claim: “In this light, the electric guitar is part of a cultural continuum which traces its origins from the Yoruba back to… ancient Mesopotamia.”


The statement is so vague as to be meaningless. Yes, people migrated in the ancient world, and yes, they played music then, and guess what? We play music now. If this makes a “cultural continuum,” so be it—but it is hardly evidence that worship of Orpheus led us somehow to The Cure, something he claims a couple hundred pages later.


Besides vagueness, there is contradiction. Immediately after dissecting U2 with the assertion that “they are selling a myth that no one much believes anymore—that mainstream corporate rock can ‘change the world’”—he describes the effect of Green Day’s American Idiot album: “In many ways, American Idiot became a rallying cry, bolstering a resistance that resulted in massive Republican losses in the 2006 elections.” Oh. So—I guess rock ‘n’ roll can change the world, huh?


Perhaps Knowles’ most bewildering contradiction comes at the very end of his book, in his discussion of Nirvana—which he both sneeringly dismisses as “grunge-by-numbers” and acknowledges as an expression of Kurt Cobain’s “real pain”. Wrapping up his discussion, Knowles blames grunge and the generally dour attitude of ‘90s rock for its subsequent loss of popularity. “Something had been shattered,” he tells us, “...and it would take several years to sift through the rubble and find the great mythology of rock ‘n’ roll lying dead beneath it. Whether or not it can rise from the ashes is very much an open question.”


Huh? If you’re confused, don’t feel bad—Knowles is, too. After regaling us with 250 pages of Why Rock ‘n’ Roll Will Never Die, he closes his book with the startling newsflash that in fact, Rock ‘n’ Roll Is Already Dead. Who knew? Even more surprising, the murderer of rock ‘n’ roll appears to be, um, rock ‘n’ roll itself.


Somebody call a goddess… we need some help here.

Rating:

DAVID MAINE is a novelist and essayist. His books include The Preservationist (2004), Fallen (2005), The Book of Samson (2006), Monster, 1959 (2008) and An Age of Madness (2012). He has contributed to The Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, Esquire.com and NPR.com, among other outlets. He is a lifelong music obsessive whose interests range from rock to folk to hip-hop to international to blues. He currently lives in western Massachusetts, where he works in human services. Catch up with his blog, The Party Never Stops, at davidmaine.blogspot.com, or become his buddy on Facebook (or Twitter or Google+ or whatever you prefer) to keep up with reviews and other developments.


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