Surely one letter celebrating 30 years of rock (Times, May 24) is not enough. Let me add another, in a somewhat different vein than the first.
To be fully enjoyed (by those who enjoy it), rock must be amplified to a level, which, audiologists tell us, damages the sense of hearing. Unless insulated, it can also destroy the privacy of non-fans within earshot, interfering with sleep, concentration, or the enjoyment of one’s own choice of entertainment.
But, as the fans say, “If it’s too loud, you’re too old.” Some of them admit being first attracted to rock partly because it gave their parents fits. By giving speakers access to open doors and windows, or carrying ghetto-blasters into public places, they can recover the exhilaration of infantile rebellion. Rock is alone among art forms in being prized partly for its nuisance value.
If you remember the old Tyrone Power movie, “Nightmare Alley,” one feature of sleazy carnival freak shows used to be the geek, a deranged character hired to swallow small creatures alive before an audience of depraved bumpkins. Rock may claim the credit for bringing the geek from the obscurity of the alley, or the make-believe of the screen, to real-life big time. It is not clear whether the rock star geek swallowed whole animals or merely bit off their heads, but that technicality should not deny him, nor rock, the glory.
He did not, I realize, represent all of rock. Perhaps he was an exponent of punk rock, and not just punk rock, but some kind of punk rock. Every innovative thrust of a screamer’s pelvis, every new pitch in caterwauling, justifies a new label. It’s hard to keep up with them. There’s neo-punk and funk-punk and, for all I know, gunk-punk, junk-punk and bunk-punk. The Times’s rock critic, Robert C. Hilburn would know which of them favors assaults on animals and which merely encourages mutual assault among the spectators or the exchange of missiles and spittle between spectators and artists.
Hilburn can, of course, not only classify rock groups, but rate them. Some years back, I recall, he discerned that a group had, over a span of many performances, actually learned to play their instruments and he dubbed them “the aristocrats of funk-punk,” thereby opening a whole new branch of aristocracy.
Admittedly, all rock groups are not punks of one sort of another and do not bite off the heads of birds and rodents. Most of them merely look, sound and cavort as if they were up to it. In costume, manner and characteristic themes these artists generally fall into one of several categories: the addict, the hoodlum, the lunatic and the hermaphrodite. They make a motley crew, no matter how you want to spell it. Often, I hope, their appearance only signals adherence to a conventional form, a pose calculated to delight their followers. Not every Sid Vicious type feels the need to play the role to the hilt.
But to what extent rock performers are authentically or pretendedly perverse is less important than their historical accomplishment, which is, that for a large part of the population they have made the irrational, the illiterate, the unseemly and the barely human somehow adorable.
A member of Black Flag, Hilburn once admiringly reported, " . . . threw his head back and howled like a coyote.” Praiseworthy. But one wonders why a live coyote could not have been borrowed to strike just the right note, like the cannon in the 1812 Overture.
“The Decline Of Western Civilization,” one group calls itself. Hopefully, their reach exceeds their grasp; yet the enduring mass appeal of relentlessly pounding beat, of metallic clangor, or bawled gibberish and of rutting postures straight out of the primates’ cage at the zoo shakes one’s faith.
“Satiddy gnat! Satiddy gnat!” endlessly shrieked one rock vocalist of not long ago. Well, considering the general scene, of which rock is but a part, maybe it is Saturday night, and just about 12 o’clock, too.