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This Essay Doesn't Rock - by Joe Oestreich

Originally published in Barrelhouse Magazine, 2006.

This Essay Doesn’t Rock

You may be tempted to argue otherwise. After all this is an essay concerning sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll—that archetypal trinity of a certain kind of “rocking” lifestyle. But the mere appearance of these three classic indicators of “rock” does not a rocking essay make. In fact, rocking essay is an oxymoron. Essaying—the crafted attempt to weigh a certain issue in order to gain a deeper understanding of it—by definition does not rock. I say this not because I have access to some specific definition of what rock is, but instead because I think I have a pretty clear sense of what rock is not. Rock is not crafted. Rock is not calculating. Rock is not honed and edited and revised.  It is not logical or cohesive or polite—at least it shouldn’t be.  Rock is not trying to get you to think. Rock doesn’t care what you think. And although rock may be heavy, it certainly does not weigh anything, at least not anything that approaches significant societal import (it often does, however, weigh the relative merits of rock itself, i.e., whether one should or should not rock—or be rocked—longer or harder or louder or like a hurricane).

Rock is a slippery concept, subject to varied and often contradictory interpretations. To my grandparents’ generation, rock is what one does in an unfinished wooden chair U-hauled home from Amish Country. Baby Boomers used the verb to rock to mean “playing rock ‘n’ roll music” or “living the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle” (read: sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll). The word, like the music itself, suggested urgency, shamelessness, a need to run counter to the suit-and-tie establishment, and a general tendency to not give a good-goddamn about anything but the here and now. But as rock music and its original, boomer audience have aged, the word rock has aged with them. In twenty-first century America, rock has been watered down to mean something benign like really, really great, a little better than awesome, or maybe a slightly more ass-kickin’ kick-ass. In this form rock is less a verb and more a verbal—a verb that does the work of an adjective.[1] Rock/rocks would fit toward the right on a continuum of “good” and “bad.”

The opposite of rocks is sucks. And to be blunt, the current usage of rocks does just that. The word has been commandeered by advertising agencies and cheerleading squads and other sloganeering types who assault us with an endless list of things that rock. We are told: Fruity Pebbles Rock! Westerville North Girls Volleyball Rocks! The Coast Guard Rocks! The Fourth Avenue Peace Coalition Rocks! We Rock! You Rock! Doesn’t this all just totally rock? Well, no. It doesn’t. But I’m not exactly being fair here. __________ Rocks! is not strictly the domain of pitchmen, political operatives, and high school hallway decorators. Even supposed “rockers” are guilty of this assault on the word.[2] I’d like to think the twenty years I’ve spent playing bass and singing in a rock band have taught me a little something about what rocks and what does not. And still, I find myself getting sloppy and saying ridiculous crap like, Ohio State’s Defense Rocks! all the time. But this horrendous corruption must stop. Right now. Because if Miss Mulcahy’s Third Graders Rock, then everything rocks. And if everything rocks, nothing rocks.

What’s really disturbing is saying something “rocks” has become not only an accepted way to describe things that patently do not rock, but worse, the word is often used to prop-up and make credible the same straight-laced, establishment-approved things that rock ‘n’ roll used to rally against. This became clear to me during the last Republican National Convention. Our burly codger of a Vice President saddled up to the podium with a half wave and a crooked grin, and the camera cut to the conventioneers on the floor. Right there, in the sea of Bush-Cheney 04 signs, floating above the chants of Four More Years!, on a large poster board with block letters that must have taken three or four Sharpies, it said:

DICK CHENEY ROCKS!!![3]

Now hold on. Dick Cheney does many things. He’s man of power and influence. He served in the Nixon White House. He was a five term congressman. House Minority Whip. He led the charge to invade Iraq. He possesses the nuclear launch codes. But Dick Cheney does not rock. Whatever you think of him as a man and a politician, surely we can agree on this point. I know. I know. The Republicans want to be the party of inclusiveness. They call themselves coalition builders. They are constructing a big tent in which we all feel welcome. But what would happen if a Keith Richards circa ’77 or a strung-out Johnny Thunders circa ’88 or even a neo-junkie like ex-Stone Temple Pilots frontman Scott Weiland circa now was to crash this little metaphorical tent party? My guess is that Dick Cheney would be choppered out like the fall of Saigon. Maybe this is an unfair scenario. The three above “rockers” all rock in a specific, old fashioned, snorting coke off the mixing board kind of way. But I know this for certain: Dick Cheney and Keith Richards can’t both rock. In order for rock to mean anything at all, we must choose.

But the choice isn’t between a Republican and a Rolling Stone. That choice is obvious and pointless. Everyone knows Richards rocks, and sane people know Cheney doesn’t. There is no universally agreed upon standard. We just know this intuitively. Much like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart stating that he couldn’t provide a satisfactory definition of pornography, but that he knew it when he saw it, most of us can recognize rock when we see, hear, smell, feel, or taste it.[4] Does Keith Richards rock? Christ, just look at him. Sixty-odd years of rock are carved into his face. He’s a one man Mount Rushmore of rock, the (somehow still) living, breathing template for the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. And Cheney? Uh, no. Power Lunches at The Palm on DuPont Circle aren’t so much carved into his face as they are spilling over his shirt collar. Obviously the definition of rock can’t be so wide as to include Cheney, but it can’t be so narrow as to include only Keith. Rock can’t be limited to those who have copped heroin in Tompkins Square, but it also can’t include those who hold breakfast meetings with conservative Christian groups.

So if we all have some DNA-level knowledge of what rock is, how did we get to the place where even the stuff we know does not rock is still filed under rock?  Society writ-large was once both fascinated and repelled by rock ‘n’ roll music and the antics of its practitioners. In 1969[5], the year I was born, Jim Morrison—the bloated, ex-film student and self-coronated Lizard King[6]—exposed himself to a Miami audience. This got him arrested, charged, and eventually convicted of lewd and lascivious behavior, but it also helped to create the persona that became a cultural fascination, and it certainly made the Doors a more popular band.  Would anyone today notice, much less care, if Billie Joe Armstrong from Green Day—that heavily eyelined father of two and singer for the current biggest band in the world—dropped his drawers on stage? I suppose a few mini-van driving chaperones would write fiery letters to the daily paper, but it certainly wouldn’t cause a Morrison-sized stink. And my guess is it wouldn’t affect Green Day’s popularity either way.

This is not because our view of lewd and lascivious has changed (we still don’t cotton to the free-swinging of male genitalia—the almost guaranteed X-rating for a movie featuring a naked penis testifies to that, as does the Clinton impeachment trial). Instead it is our view of rock and roll (and rock and rollers) that has changed. Rock music has become so ubiquitous as to be invisible. As it moved from being a voice of the counterculture to being an integrated part of The Culture, it didn’t so much fall off the cultural radar, but it became so on the cultural radar that it is now the background noise that other, suddenly edgier cultural movements are made vivid against. Rock and roll is not any less dangerous or urgent than it ever was.[7] The difference is in how we perceive it. The fact is we no longer look to rock ‘n’ roll to fulfill our need to rebel or be shocked. Instead we are simultaneously shocked and fascinated by the “thug-lifestyle” glorified by ex-drug dealing rappers. We worry that our kids will be contaminated by “gangsta rap” videos that make violence look sexy and sex look violent. We can’t believe that our kids have access to bloody video games like the Grand Theft Auto series that allow them to virtually act out this sex and violence. And just like our own parents, and their parents before, we think back to a day when things were simpler: when kids liked baseball, and people wished they could buy the world a Coke, and the biggest danger at a rock ‘n’ roll show was that the drunken lead singer might unzip his pants.

Rock ‘n’ roll was rebellion, an act of defiance, a shaggy spit-in-the-face to Eisenhower’s high and tight America. But when the baby boomers took over America’s societal institutions, they commodified the rock and roll lifestyle. Suddenly the music of everyone from Dylan to Janice Joplin to The Stones was being co-opted by ad executives and used to sell luxury cars and computer software and silk lingerie. Sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll—the very weapons of the revolution—were used to sell bourgeois luxuries to the same people that once rocked in an act of rebellion against that bourgeoisie lifestyle. Today, many of those formerly shaggy parents encourage their kids to form rock and roll bands. Once a year I read a story in the paper about a couple of freewheeling suburbanites who have outfitted their garage with a state of the art PA system, space-age soundproofing, and digital recording gear so little Hunter and his buddies in the cul de sac can have a place to, ahem, rock-out. Forming a rock band is seen as a good, clean, parentally-endorsed alternative to other types of rebellion…at least until Hunter comes home with a dime-bag hidden in his amplifier.  Everybody seems to want to rock but only up to the point when it becomes dangerous. But that is when rock truly rocks.

Maybe the problem is not that rocks has lost its meaning, but rather that it means too much. Either way, this climate in which anything somebody likes is said to rock provides an opportunity to construct some standard to help us gauge who or what is truly rocking and how hard he or she or it is doing it.[8]  But you should also understand that attempting to codify rock by applying some fixed set of qualifications is probably the least rocking thing I can imagine.[9]  Anyway, here I go. Back to the beginning. 

Sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll.

That’s the standard. And why not? The thinking has already been done for us. Three easy-to-remember categories. Like most-things-rock, the beauty lies in the simplicity. Cheerleaders and Advertising Executives won’t even have to stop using the word to describe their wrestling team or F-150 trucks or whatever; they’ll just have to be more judicious in its use. Before spelling out Cardinal Wrestling Rocks! in Elmer’s Glue and glitter dust, the vernacularly responsible cheerleader will stop to consider how the wrestling team measures up in the three criteria. No sex? No drugs? No rock ‘n’ roll? Then no rocks.

But wait. As mentioned above, the standard must be broad enough to be useful, and insisting that the three categories are all-or-nothing makes meeting them far too difficult for people who aren’t in Mötley Crüe.[10] So I’ll propose a time-tested compromise: a minimum of two out of three. Sex and drugs. Rock and sex. Drugs and rock. This idea was inspired by Spinal Tap drummer, Mick Shrimpton. When he is asked what he would be doing if he weren’t in a rock ‘n’ roll band, he replies, “I suppose as long as I had the sex and drugs, I could do without the rock and roll.” Leave it to the fictional drummer of a fictional band to say something that captures the nature of rock perfectly. Mr. Shrimpton knows that with the sex and the drugs, the rock ‘n’ roll is superfluous. He wouldn’t need it; he’d already be “rocking.”

The SDR&R standard (with the Shrimpton addendum) seems like a reasonable way to measure rock, but let’s apply it to a test case and see if it holds. I would hope it would go without saying that Christian rock doesn’t rock—that rocking for God, however righteous or holy or commercially successful it may be, isn’t really rocking at all. Two generations of rock journalists[11] have pretty much established that the devil has the better musical acts in his corner (think: Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, AC/DC, The Stones, The Kinks, The Clash, Zeppelin, Creedence, Nirvana, The White Stripes, on and on ad infinitum). But beyond that, much like the previous discussion of Dick Cheney, I just know that Christian rock doesn’t. I know it. But let’s see how Christian rock measures up to the SDR&R standard. Take the last criterion, “rock ‘n’ roll.”  I might try to argue that Christian rock isn’t even rock music, that rock and roll itself should contain some element of sex and drugs to even be rock and roll, but that would get dizzyingly circular. Instead I’ll concede that Christian rock, because the bands generally utilize the classic rock ‘n’ roll instrumentation (electric guitar, bass, drums), is in fact rock music. Besides, most Christian rock is indiscernible at first listen from what Christian rockers call “secular” rock, until the lyrics sink in and you make out the not quite veiled references to a loved one who could either be a lover or the Almighty or both. So if it sounds like rock, maybe it is, and one element out of three is nailed.[12] However, I’m afraid Christian rock’s active stance against taking drugs and having indiscriminate sex prevents it from meeting the SDR&R standard. Christian rock might be rock music, but it doesn’t rock.

The very words, rock and roll, from their inception were a kind of code for sex; they even sound like sex or at least a description of sex. And until relatively recently, only heterosexual sex was overtly considered.  But this brings me to an important caveat to the SDR&R standard: rock must continually confound our expectations. For example, cycles of strict heterosexuality tend to lead to a kind of testerone-fueled meat-headishness that simply does not rock.[13] This in turn creates a counter movement toward sexual ambiguity and at least a token acknowledgement of homosexuality. And this confounds our expectations. Listening to the lyrics of the rock and roll canon, we might expect heterosexual sex to rock harder than homosexual sex, but this is not a sure bet. In a climate of prevailing heterosexuality, homosexuality rocks harder. But as soon as this homosexuality plays like a blatant and conscious attempt to be perceived as rock (and sell a bunch of records), it doesn’t rock at all.[14]

This brings me to caveat number two: as soon as something self-identifies as “rocking;” as soon as it is conscious of its own attempt to rock; as soon as it is too obviously trying to convince you that it “rocks,” it almost certainly does not, regardless of the amount of sex or drugs or rock ‘n’ roll. A month ago I stopped by my friend Phil’s guitar shop to buy a couple packs of bass strings. As I reached into the rack to pull out my old stand-bys I noticed a new product from GHS string company called “Nickel Rockers”—“Nickel,” as in the metal the strings are made of and “Rockers,” as in either these strings rock or guitarists who play these strings will then rock. Now Phil has been playing, fixing, and selling guitars for a long time, and I’ve come to him often for rock and roll advice. But while paying for my strings, my question to him was this, “Hey Phil, what kind of self-respecting ‘rocker’ would ever buy strings called ‘Nickel Rockers?’”

“Yeah, I don’t know. It’s stupid,” he said.

“But here’s the thing,” I said, handing him my credit card. And I paused for a second because I knew I was about to use a word that is as offensive and hurtful as it gets in my circles. “If these strings were called GHS Nickel Faggots, then I would buy them in a second.”

“Yeah, it’s funny,” he said. “‘Rockers’ is gay, but ‘Faggots’ rocks.”

Here we see much of what is true and infuriating and confusing about rock. In this single statement we get the notion that a) rock is contradictory; b) it undermines our expectations; c) it shouldn’t be too blatant in announcing itself as rock; and d) as soon as it leans too hard in one direction it must reverse itself. Perhaps the most frustrating contradiction is that even as rock appears to make room for homosexuality, by conceding that “Faggots Rocks,” this is still a kind of ironic, wink-wink, empowerment that is undermined by the use of “gay” to signify the worst kind of not-rocking.

Make no mistake, in today’s rock climate, homophobia is prevalent. But this homophobia set the stage for my friends in The Fags (three straight guys from Detroit) to sign a major label deal with legendary Sire Records President, Seymour Stein. I’ve had many discussions with people who are offended by the name “The Fags.” Newspapers have refused to print the name in their concert listings. And sure, this band of heterosexuals is admittedly co-opting an ironic homosexuality and parlaying it into a major label record deal. However, by flying in the face of what is culturally accepted and by risking the wrath of both gays and gay-bashers—by calling themselves The Fags instead of something ambiguous and safe like, maybe, The Vines—these Detroiters are giving us a lesson in what rocks, for now.

But here’s the ultimate problem with trying to apply standards—be they my requirement for sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll or the 1950s-style standards of decency—to what rocks. Let’s say I could get everyone to agree to my SDR&R standard, with the Shrimpton addendum and the two caveats, and everyone from you and me to Extra’s Dayna Devon only used rocks in reference to people and things that meet the standard: Keith Richards Rocks, Johnny Thunders Rocks, etc. As soon as that was achieved, one ornery upsetter—maybe even little Hunter from the cul de sac—would surely announce to the world that all of us, with our sex and drugs and our ex-hippie parents and our standards and our addendums and our caveats were one-hundred-percent full of shit, and what really rocks, what really, really rocks is American Girl Place or Emeril Lagasse or hell, maybe even Christian rock. And you know what? He’d have a point.

Once the world had measured precisely what rocks, there would be, as Sammy Hagar sings, “only one way to rock.” And that way would be to do a one-eighty against everyone else. Hunter would rock by trading his guitar for a three piece suit, by quitting his garage band and joining the Debate and Forensic team. He’d rock by becoming an actuary for an insurance company. Or maybe he’d go into politics instead. Why mess around? The hardest rockers would step right up and join the Establishment. He’d become a five-term congressman, get a job in the White House, arrange breakfast meetings with conservative Christians.

So maybe Dick Cheney does rock.

Power and wealth are sexy. I mean, chicks dig rich, powerful guys, right? So, there’s the sex. And America’s presence in Afghanistan gives us access to most of the world’s supply of the opium poppy. There’s the drugs. Now the Veep has two out of three. But maybe he doesn’t even need the sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. What if, despite my adherence to the SDR&R standard, the one true criterion for rock is simply the ability to convince somebody that you do rock.  I suppose if Cheney can somehow motivate somebody, anybody—and perhaps most impressively a bible-banging Republican—to break open a package of sharpies and spring for $.79 worth of poster board with which to declare his rockingness for all the world to behold, then goddamn it. All I can say is rock on, Mr. Vice President. Rock on.

 

In addition to being the bass player for Watershed, Joe Oestreich is the author of Hitless Wonder: A Life in Minor League Rock and Roll. Find him online at www.joeoestreich.com

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 [1]Come to think of it, most of the corporate, stylized, focus-group-approved muck that currently passes for rock and roll music is also more adjective than verb—more a dressed-up modifier of something that once rocked than actual rocking itself.

[2] In fact, most of us in bands are the last to know what rocks, hence the pitch-perfect film This is Spinal Tap.

[3] Exclamation points in original. Exclamation points are a tremendously accurate indicator. Whatever precedes them almost assuredly does not rock. It is an inverse relationship: the more exclamation points, the less rock. Count on it.

[4] What does rock taste like? Something like that mouthful of warm beer from a can someone has been using as an ashtray. Unexpected.

[5] Getting sophomoric laughs from the number 69 does not rock. However, I’ve noticed that the Ohio Department of Transportation has erected signs on every interstate and US route that point out when you are exactly 69 miles from Columbus. Not 65. Not 70. Not 75. Sixty-nine. See for yourself.

[6] Giving yourself a nickname or acknowledging the nickname someone else has given you does not rock. But strangely enough a stage name (I prefer the term nom de guerre) can rock. Rock is funny that way.

[7] It is true that years of mergers and acquisitions and the steady process of vertical and horizontal integration have reduced “the music business” (and indeed the entire entertainment industry) to three multinational mega-corporations, Sony/Bertelsmann A.G., Time Warner, and Universal Music Group. Their need to answer to share holders puts a governor on any real “danger” we might find in the music we hear on the radio or see topping the charts. There is, of course, plenty of rock and roll that remains infused with the immediacy that once said, “rock,” but we have to look hard for it. “Little Steven’s Underground Garage” on Sirius Satellite radio is a good place to start.

[8] Rock is always measured in terms of hardness, just like actual rocks.

[9] Check that. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is the least rocking thing I can imagine. The self-sanctioned institutionalization of rock and roll music may have been the death knell. That said, it’s a fantastic museum, and I have a great time every time I visit.

[10] The use of irönic umlauts and “devil horns” rocks when somebody who rocks does it. This is totally dependent on context.

[11] Christian rockers take heart: rock journalism doesn’t rock either. But rock journalists can rock. See Lester Bangs and Chuck Klosterman.

[12] But this sounds like rock quality is exactly what has so many people confused. And their use of “secular” to describe everything that is not Christian rock is a move meant to legitimize Christian rock itself. Christian rockers are very crafty.

[13] See Limp Bizkit. This engorged penis-rock also confuses people.  It sounds like rock, and it is irrefutably “hard.” But it is far too predictable and unsexy to truly rock. Can you imagine having sex with someone who fucks like this music sounds?

[14] This is why Russian lesbian duo t.A.t.U do not rock, but Joan Jett and Ani DiFranco do.