rock and roll

The Strength to be Uncool

Philip Seymour Hoffman as Lester Bangs, left, giving advice to a young writer in the film "Almost Famous." / Columbia Pictures

DURING THE WINTER of my sophomore year in high school, a fistfight broke out in the cafeteria. It wasn’t anybody I knew especially well, and it didn’t get very far, but it marked a day in my life I’ll never forget.

Once the commotion started and the chant of “fight, fight, fight” rose up in the lunchroom, everybody stood to cheer and watch. I did too, craning my neck to try to see better, probably wearing a sophomoric smirk on my face.  It felt to me as if the whole world had gotten to its feet.

Everybody except one person. I only noticed when it was over and all of us turned to sit back down. My friend JJ hadn’t budged. Judging by the fact that his sandwich was almost gone, he hadn’t even let the matter affect his lunch. He didn’t ask any questions about the fight—not who was involved, not whether there was blood, not who won—he just bit into his apple.

The rest of us tittered on about the whole thing. Who we were rooting for, whether it would continue at the park after school, blah blah blah. JJ just stared off into space.

Finally, the contrast felt too much for me, and I said, “Hey JJ, why didn’t you get up?”

“I don’t like fights,” he responded. Then he looked me straight in the eye and said, “You don’t like fights either.”

He was right. JJ and I had been friends for a long time and had talked often about our dim view of high school fights.

Small as it might seem, I couldn’t get the matter out of my head. Why had JJ stayed seated while I stood up?

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What Rock and Roll and the Church Have in Common

Rock guitar, Sinelyov /
Rock guitar, Sinelyov /

I grew up with music in my life. At first, it was a combination of my dad’s Willie Nelson and Ray Charles with my mom’s old southern Gospel hymns. I’d sit under the piano, feeling the vibrations as she played “Blessed Assurance,” and then lie on the floor in front of the speakers as Ike and Tina belted out “Proud Mary.”

And then I discovered my own music, in the form of rock. Eventually, I sang lead in several hard rock bands around Dallas hitting all the local hot spots and singing until I was hoarse and exhausted. It was during my decade away from church that I did most of this, but I didn’t realize until recently that, despite the pretense of countercultural rebellion the music offered, it actually gave me some of the same things I experienced as part of organized religion.

Of course, only the most uneducated would think of rock music as some monolithic think that was barely held together by the pursuit of sex, drugs, and fame. There were rules. There were codes. And my lord, there were categories.

Any time you asked a band what style they were, inevitably they’d sigh and equivocate, finally listing off a handful of bands they most certainly were not like. No one wanted to be categorized, and yet we were more than ready to label all others and fit them in to their neat little musical denominations.

The Vision of E Street

Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band of brothers is dwindling. Three years ago, organist Danny Federici died from skin cancer, at age 58. Then on June 18, 2011, saxophonist Clarence "Big Man" Clemons died, at 69, from the effects of a stroke he had suffered a week earlier. When Federici died, the band was on the road without him. He was replaced onstage by one of the players from Springsteen's Seeger Sessions band. And, in his official statement after Clemons' death, Springsteen clearly implied that the band would continue, saying, “With Clarence at my side, my band and I were able to tell a story far deeper than those simply contained in our music. His life, his memory, and his love will live on in that story and in our band.”

But it is hard to imagine the sparks flying on E Street without Clemons. For one thing, his saxophone was sonically crucial in most of the band's best-known songs. Clemons was not, technically speaking, a great saxophone player. But that was beside the point. As Clemons himself pointed out, he was a rock-and-roll sax player, and rock and roll plays by its own set of rules. Chuck Berry was not a particularly accomplished guitarist and Bob Dylan was nobody's Caruso. But they were both great in rock-and-roll terms because they had a distinctive sound and an original, if primitive, form of personal expression that connected both with a contemporary audience and deep American tradition. It's that very unschooled idiosyncrasy that would seem to make Clemons' horn irreplaceable. If a hired session player takes his solos, the E Street Band will become simply another legacy act descending into unintentional self-parody.

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