The magic of rock & roll


Last weekend this happened at the Rock & Roll Writers Festival at the Old Museum:

2.50 - She Blinded Me With Science:

Academics lead us in a discussion of what they believe are important issues at the intersection of music, writing and social commentary. We don’t know what that’s going to be – but we suspect it’ll be entertaining…

Moderator: Sally Breen
 Panellists: John Wilsteed, Greg Arnold, Leah Cotterell

Feeling a very much like a dowdy cuckoo in the nest of a special breed of eagles, it was finally time to roll out my own special viewpoint on two tracks off the defining albums of our times, ‘Nevermind’ by Nirvana and ‘Back to Black’ by Amy Winehouse.

When human dynamo Leanne de Souza asked if I’d like to be on this panel, I pointed out that I’ve never been part of the rock & roll scene. But bless her cotton socks, Leanne thinks I’ve got something to say on music and emotion. And she loves music, and the people who write about it, wholeheartedly. So I was honour-bound to work out what I might be able to add from my peculiar vantage point. What I know about is singing: what it does, how I think it does these things and some ideas about why we sing. Undeniably there can be great beauty in music and singing. For some, it can even be a spiritual joy. But what I believe singing does better than any other art form is communicate a sense of the person, portraying the intelligence and emotion behind the sound. Essentially this allows listeners to feel themselves to be (or to be in close relationship with) the narrator in the song. When we identify in this way, the song becomes our story, the singer’s emotions become our emotions. But there seems to be as much variety and gradation in these vicarious relationships, as there is in our real ones. Some people we like on sight, some we’ll never spend time with by choice. Different genres connect people in different ways. In opera and classical music the singer is responsible for delivering the creative intentions of the composer. In jazz the singer has the job of disrupting or extending the composer’s intentions. In rock & roll though, the singer is meant to be in the song, to live the song. The song is meant to directly capture their experience. The magic of rock & roll seems to be the phenomena of total immersion in the story of the song.

I was in a tunnel in 1991, working flat out singing jazz in the hotel bars of South East Queensland with some pretty heavy guys, a way of life that was engrossing if somewhat riddled with angst (that’s a different story). So regardless of their world conquest, I was oblivious to Nirvana and the grunge revolution. I may as well have been living on Mars. So, for this panel discussion I approached my listening task as though I were ‘The Martian Musicologist’. When I listen to ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ what do I hear? I hear the rock solid musicianship, great production, clever artistic choices that amplify the impact of a subtle, dark lyric delivered in a powerful vocal. It’s taut, exciting and has lots of bite. ‘What excellent pop music!’ I thought, as I broke down the form and textures in the arrangement. For other members on the panel, particularly our moderator, Sally Breen, they remember where they were when Nirvana arrived in their lives and what that says about where we are now: https://theconversation.com/can-an-album-still-define-the-times-oh-well-whatever-nevermind-74920. I hear the singer first and foremost and Kurt gives a dazzling, intelligent representation of vulnerability. The fey beauty of the verses is thrown into dramatic relief by the one-man-on-stimulants duet that is the choruses. As I understand events, this vision of consciousness apparently arrived at the perfect moment to help millions of young people interpret their own interiority, and for all those people (now in their 40s) this is the peak experience in their reminiscence bump. Did the world need Kurt to share his pain? Absolutely. But the irony is that most listeners were able to muse on these dark materials, safe in the knowledge that they could go on with their reasonably functional lives. We adore Kurt because he laid it on the line; he made the magic happen. I feel sure that he would have loved writing this song, the hook-y riff, the drama in the chorus, then the arrangement that grew spontaneously in the practice room, all the dynamics and textures, the sweet and sour note choices would have been so satisfying. Did Kurt feel chained to his creation? Did he dream that it would be so big? Did he feel that he had lost control? Are the forces of commercial success a doom to the troubled artist in every generation? What’s it like to live with success on this order? Is this the dark side to the magic?

‘Back to Black’ is miles closer to my musical turf, with the big round timbre and laconic delivery of Amy Winehouse harking back to Billie Holiday while the groovy Dap-Kings power on behind. But when it came out I was busy getting my daughter to school everyday with a clean uniform and a packed lunch. I wasn’t so much turned on by hairspray and high heels by then. I’d had my day as a chanteuse and considered myself lucky to have gotten away with it, lucky to not have been too successful, if you can believe that. I’d certainly had a few too many bourbons at the bar and spent a bit too much time with my jazz cigarettes in the car park and found I wasn’t cut out for the gig. So from my listening station on Mars, years after the fact, I hear the jarring of elements, between the earthy joys of jazz and blues and the narrator’s fatalism, her picaresque suffering, as she treads a troubled track littered with drug slang. Again the tension that lies in the conflict of form and content is so very pleasing. We’re so lucky that Amy shared her suffering. It’s the stuff of proper drama. We love it. She loved it too when she recorded it. Like Kurt, Amy is sharing her inner contradictions. For her it’s pride and its fall, for him an insight into despair. It’s her emotion and his identity and by the time we get to the coda he can only see ‘denial’ and she is lost in ‘black’. They repeat these single words over and over as both sink into hopelessness.

These are great songs. They earned a worldwide audience. I believe in the end the listener wants it to feel real, but not to be real. That is the magic of rock & roll. That’s how it looks from Mars anyway.

POSTSCRIPT: Seems like rock & roll doesn’t have to be deadly, cause clearly Greg Arnold found a way to be happy, healthy and a rock musician (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a96RZURNtII) and John plays with one of the great Queensland bands of today, Halfway (http://www.halfway.com.au). Awesome work chaps…

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