In an interview with Roger Waters and Syd Barrett from 1967, back when Pink Floyd was pure psychedelic stew, the BBC’s Hans Keller told them that he found their music loud, too loud–loud enough to trample musical delicacies. He questioned whether all this loudness thinly veiled the band’s hostility toward their audience. That his capsule verdict held Pink Floyd’s music to be “a little bit of a regression to childhood” is no surprise. The surprising part is that he then answered his own complaint by saying, “But, after all, why not?”
For how it regresses to childhood–and this seems almost too obvious to say–rock is exciting. Do you have any trouble believing Barrettonce sat naked in the bath with his friend, classical musician Paul Charrier chanting, “No rules, no rules!” (Manning, 2006)? I don’t. “No rules, no rules!” could be the motto of this enchanted forest-come-gladiator ball pit of an industry, which attracted Barrett and seemingly a thousand other British schoolboys ready to loosen their cravats.
In Cameron Crowe’s film, Almost Famous (2000), Jeff Bebe, (Jason Lee) lead singer of the fictional rock band Stillwater, claims the band has a responsibility to control what is happening to their image. Guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup) replies, “Excuse me, but didn’t we all get into this to avoid responsibility?”
I imagine this is one of those Almost Famous scenes—like the one where William Miller (Patrick Fugit) leans forward to say, “So Russell, what do you love about music?” and all the parts involving Philip Seymour Hoffman as Lester Bangs—that gets quoted plenty wherever the rock-inclined converge. It certainly doesn’t ring false.
However, I think what all of us who got into rock to avoid something actually got into rock to avoid the stiffness we believe adulthood implies. Responsibility could be part of that, but so could other factors. The dimming of creativity, selflessness, inertia, moderation, diets, antacids, contentment as a swap for passion. Most of the time, the rebellion against it all looks ham-fisted, and is, as Hans Keller would tell you, just damn loud. But the subject of rock’s inherent rebellion has been addressed both artfully and incisively within the genre.
Take the music video for Jack White’s “Sixteen Saltines”.
The Plasma Coiled intro shreds as a soulless-eyed kid caked in blue paint heads toward an already tied-up White with even more rope in hand. It becomes clear in seconds that the youth in this town have achieved governance. Their playthings now are gas masks and severed fingers. To see them stalking around with baseball bats is only slightly less unnerving than watching Uma Thurman’s character, The Bride, do the same with a sword in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill (2003). If you can watch (or wincingly avert your eyes from) the tattoed faces or the girl spitting her cotton-candy-blue milkshake into a boy’s face without thinking of William Golding’s 1954 novel Lord of the Flies–well then, you haven’t read it.
The most “adult” thing that occurs is that a cheerleader rushes over to yank the plastic bag off the head of a teenage boy is casually self-suffocating in a garage. But the video’s only true adult is Jack White himself, who ends up in the back seat of a car while the blue boy drenches the car’s roof, hood, and trunk with gasoline. Given all the significant eye contact between White and this boy from the beginning of the video—and how much he would look like the boy if he too were caked in schoolhouse blue paint”?—I think it’s perfectly safe to assume the video for “Sixteen Saltines”, if not the song itself, tells the story of the inner child triumphing over the man … and the moral perils that would actually spell.
“Sixteen Saltines” isn’t the only time Jack White casts a harsh light on youthful impulse. Perhaps my all-time favorite of his is a bluesy rock/hip-hop song bemoaning the tendency to spit out whatever’s in his mouth, “just like that black bat licorice”. The narrator of that song has no filter, which is probably why he winds up with his feelings hurt badly enough to prompt a move to New York, the city that never fails to drown out your private embarrassments.
He is ruled by whim (“and the phases of the moon directing all of my decisions”). Something within his sincere but callow spontaneity–a reactivity and directionlessness–is driving him mad. No wonder he fantasizes about “the hospital, the army, a silo, confinement, in prison” or really “anywhere there’s a cot to clear my vision”.
White is more reflective on average than your boilerplate rock star, by a lot. But the difference between his stories of childlike indulgence and those forwarded by most rock artists (especially those big in the ’80s) strikes an even greater contrast.
In the same way that the David Allan Coe’s “You Never Even Called Me by My Name” is the perfect country-western song, “The Dirt (Est. 1981) (feat. Machine Gun Kelly)” by Mötley Crüe should be considered the perfect rock star anthem for the bluntness of its chorus, which offers a fast, hard namechecking of all the right insignia. Its story—one of “more sex, more tats, more blood, more pain / more threats, more theft, torn jeans, cocaine” and so on—is what rock has been arguing for the legitimacy and feasibility of for decades. Pick up a guitar and grow out your hair, and all of this could be yours.
But “all of this”, the lifestyle, has been getting laundered for quite some time. Things are different now. Dave Grohl brings kids on stage. He’s married to an age-appropriate woman who has her own thing going. Greta Van Fleet certainly couldn’t get away with acting like Led Zeppelin. No one wants to see a bunch of (mostly) white guys slurping entitlement through a silver straw, and they seem to be getting that—which could be the best thing to ever happen to rock. It could shift the entire burden of its delightful bangy, bellowing rebellion onto the music.
However, even the music sometimes looks like a cosmic joke. It’s timely today and snoozily classic tomorrow. It’s self-destructive: the singer-songwriter who is misunderstood, penniless, and frustrated is naturally positioned to make better rock than the popular, rich, always shall-we-say satisfied individual they can so easily become if they’re good. It’s built on a technical foundation of screwing shit up in a fun way and a moral history of screwing things up greedily, negligently. It has always been the wildest fantasy wobbling on top of reactive, circumstantial good times. Who’s doing it nastiest, most authentically, or most (god forbid) poetically is subjective as fuck. Everybody in the thick of rock is playing with sticks and yelling on the playground.
Still, every once in a while, something in rock matters. It shouldn’t. If it does, it suggests it’s possible for a medium we basted together from ids and pent-up aggression and instant-gratification brotherhood to mean something. Something other than, say, “arrested development will be arrested development”.
What rock means is that even being reactive; having only flaws to bare–with two of the worst being inflated ego and poor self-control–raging against adulthood as if it slept with your ex; perfecting the art of the tantrum; etc., can create moments of stark, valuable connection between musician and fan.
I listened to “That Black Bat Licorice” over and over and over (which, by the way, is the title of another Jack White song brimming with consequence) the night after I got in a bad car accident three states from home. I was stuck in a grimy hotel. Big plans were shot. It would be a day and a half before I could do anything that would fix anything. So, my mind sort of spiraled out, tore the walls off the place, began vacuuming in everything—exactly the way our minds did when we were kids.
When we were young, vulnerable, prone to the gimme-gimmes, entranced by anything that expanded our small worlds, and completely receptive to feedback about who we were and where we stopped and the rest of reality began, we let in everything. We sucked up everything. To paraphrase Hole’s song “Softer, Softest”, we got blistered from touching everything we saw. We were porous enough to let in way too much, and to spit it all back out, “just like that black bat licorice”. We didn’t yet have sunk-in boundaries, and so we fell fully into the world, and it was too much—it smarted—but it also gave us moments of believing this must be what it felt like to be gods. To feel so much.
White sings in “That Black Bat Licorice”: “Don’t you want to lose the part of the brain that has opinions? / To not even know what you are doing / Or care about yourself or your species in the billions”? It has taken me until now to put my finger on the fact that what I heard was, “Don’t you want to regress all the way back to the womb?” And on a night as helpless as that one in that crappy hotel—did I ever.
Jones, Josh. “A Brief History of Guitar Distortion. Open Culture. 25 September 2018.
Manning, Toby. The Rough Guide to Pink Floyd (1st ed.). Rough Guides. 2006.
“Syd Barrett /Pink Floyd – ‘Pow R. Toc H. / Astronomy Domine’”. YouTube, uploaded by
HDPinkFloyd. 21 November 2017.