“Way down in the background/I can see frustrated souls of cities burnin,
And all across the water vapor/I see weapons barkin out the stamp of death,
And up in the clouds I can imagine UFO's jumpin themselves/Laughin they sayin,
Those people so uptight, they sure know how to make a mess.” -- Jimi Hendrix
If you spend much time being aware of your surroundings and informing yourself about
what is happening in the world, it is very easy to conclude that We Are Screwed. From
nearly every vantage point, the future looks pretty bleak, darker than anytime in history.
Or so you think.
As the lyrics above show, Hendrix’s idea of Earth circa Nineteen-Seventy-Something
isn’t too different than what many think today. In fact, rock and roll has a tradition of
painting the present - and future - as dark. Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues,”
Barry Maguire’s “Eve of Destruction,” Zagar & Evans’s “2525,” David Essex’s “Rock
On,” the whole of David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust,” “Aladin Sane,” and “Diamond
Dogs” albums and hundreds more songs, from the popular to the obscenely obscure, paint
the present & future age black.
This tradition is also present in jazz, especially late 60s & early 70s free jazz. Albert
Ayler built a career out of darkness. Extreme soundscapes like Peter Brotzman’s
“Machine Gun” will wilt any flower within vibration range. Ornette Coleman entire
“Science Fiction” album and most of Archie Shepp’s 70s output spares little optimism.
Recently I picked up a copy of Bernard Herrmann leading the London Philharmonic in
Gustav Holst’s The Planets. I am not a classical music guy and am relatively ignorant of
the genre but I have a handful of Bernard Herrmann film soundtracks and I like them so I
slapped down my hard earned buck & a quarter and took The Planets home. Last night I
threw it on the turntable and dropped the needle. The first song, “Mars, Bringer of War,”
built up, brass pulsing, strings shrieking, percussion pounding, and...I lifted the tonearm
off the record, turned the volume way up, and started the record over.
The room shook as the music marched across my living room and darkened my
apartment. As I rarely play my stereo really loud, my neighbors do not get subjected to
aural assaults on a regular basis. If any of them felt a need to complain during my Holst
hurrah, the black, martial music throbbing from my speakers probably warned them off.
The track ended but my neighbors got no relief. I picked up the needle and once again
dropped it at the front of the record. Boom bah boom bah.......
Holst started writing The Planets in 1914 and the piece had its first performance in 1918.
At the time, Europe was in turmoil and, later, in the First World War. Towns were laid to
waste and men were gassed to death while trying to survive in dirt trenches, the first
victims of mass chemical warfare. People starved to death while big business cashed in
on a war started for no coherent reason. Pick up a volume of Wilfred Owen’s poems and
you will get as cynical a punch as there is on that war, the view from a soldier who
fought the damn thing. Owen’s vision is as dark as Holst’s “Mars...”
English folk music has a long history of apocalyptic songs. Gypsy songs are full of
darkness. There is a heavy pall in Japanese Kyoto music. Much of Chinese classical
music is bleak. The tradition of thinking the present sucks has been reflected in music
throughout time. And, for the most part, the artists making that commentary were right. I
could give you an encyclopedic list of history’s dark times just as easy as I can catalog
why things blow today.
I can just as effortlessly rave on about why life is good and give you a never-ending list of
celebration songs; however right now I want to write about an old friend of mine named
Death Rider. Death Rider is not his Christian name. It is a neighborhood nickname that
he picked up because he would ride his motorcycle on whatever surface that would
accommodate the vehicle, be it dirt, grass, asphalt, cement, or wood. Death Rider is
immortalized in song, the Tales of Terror’s “Deathryder” (I got flames in my eyes/The
world I despise/Cold weather in my mind/Go downtown, run over street signs).
My first meeting with Death Rider was many years before he earned his nickname. It was
a huge bump forward in my juvenile delinquency. It’s not that Death Rider was
responsible for my teenage tantrum - I was well on my way without his influence.
Hooking up with Death Rider merely accelerated the process, not just for me, for both of
us. I was nitro to his glycerin.
My first conversation with Death Rider was innocent enough. The eleven year old me
was riding my bike through the neighborhood when I came across another young’un
building models on a card table in his front yard. I was quite a model buff myself, having
won several contests leading to an appearance on the afternoon cartoon television show
hosted by Cap’n Mitch, aka Mitch Agruss, Skipper of the Valley Queen.
I rode my bike up onto Death Rider’s lawn. “You like models,” I half-ask, half-state.
“Yeah. Do you?” he asked looking up.
“Yeah.” A few more pre-teen mumblings were exchanged before we decided to meet the
following Saturday, to build models together. Of course, before this meeting was to
happen, my mom had to talk to his mom - a formality to ensure that neither one of us
were crazed demons, our parents nudists or some other godless perversity.
Saturday morning found me on Death Rider’s doorstep, model in hands, eagerly looking
forward to a new friendship. Death Rider’s mom opened the door and led me to his room,
where he was clearing floor space for us to work.
I do not remember what kind of models we were building. Chances are we had some Big
Daddy Roth-style Revell kits to put together. I do remember what we were assembling
the models with: The number one teen high of the 50s, 60s and 70s, Testors model glue.
It would be unfair to blame Testors for the drug experimentation I’d go through in the
years that followed - for I have no doubt that I’d have found contraband sooner or later.
However, my first illicit high was undoubtedly thanks to airplane glue.
My pre-teen glue jags were not planned. I did not sit around with a tube of glue up my
nose. Nor did I pour the stuff in a bag and start huffing. My glue highs were innocent
enough. They were the result of spending hours in small rooms building models with the
stuff. Two, three, four hours with glue on your fingers and fumes filling the air was
enough to send any kid soaring - or, in the case of my first day with Death Rider, two
Glue highs are weird. Sometimes spending hours with glue will give you a headache and
little more. Other times the world goes silly, everything takes on a cartoonish absurdity
and you giggle a lot. And, every once in a while, glue makes you, well, unglued. The
unhinged glue buzz makes it much easier to embrace the stupid and destructive. Breaking
things takes on a new pleasure. It was the later high that Death Rider and I grabbed onto
during our three hour model building session.
Looking at the models on his shelf, I accidentally knock one down, a Cha-Cha Muldowny
dragster. The damage was slight. A wheel had come on. A dab of our precious glue
would have been enough to fix it. Instead, Death Rider picked the model up, and with a
“Die Cha Cha Muldowny! Die vrrrrroooommmmmm!” he smashed the thing into the
The next ten minutes saw plastic fly, as Death Rider and I wrecked a dozen of his
models, ramming them into walls, the floor, other models and even throwing them at
After we had trashed most of Death Rider’s collection, we frantically peddled our bikes
to my house and went at my stuff.
While Death Rider was a dragster and funny car “man,” I liked to build airplanes. Instead
of putting the finished product on a shelf, I hung them from my ceiling. So our
destruction took on a different tact. Rather than drive the models into walls, we took
miniature baseball bats, the kind they gave out at the Sacramento Solon’s Bat Day, and
played air strike with about ten of mine.
Needless to say, Death Rider and I became fast friends. Until he graduated grade school
and entered middle school, we hung out a lot. Our JD was pretty mild. We’d throw rocks
at birds, shoot at each other with B-B guns, or blow up little things with firecrackers, but
that was about it. When Death Rider entered Kit Carson Middle School as a seventh
grader, we spent a school year apart, strange considering we lived a five minute walk
from each other. However, once reunited our reign of terror included throwing PVC
pipes onto the freeway, shoplifting, breaking into cars, endless nights of vandalism,
yelling obscenities at passersby, disrupting Cub Scout meetings, setting fires, and many,
many other things of questionable worth.
Sure, we took drugs but nothing heavier than a little speed. Most of the time we smoked
shitty pot. Our big drug was music. It was through me that Death Rider heard Black
Sabbath. It was through him that I first heard the Tubes. We’d alternate our theme song
between Electric Funeral and White Punks on Dope. When I first stumbled upon the Sex
Pistols and became transfixed on the song, “Bodies,” Death Rider was the first person I
sought out. All Death Rider needed to hear was the jack boots marching into the fanfare
that starts “Holidays in the Sun” and he was hooked.
Since I was the neighborhood music freak and our gang’s best shoplifter, acquiring tunes
was left up to me. Knowing nothing about what to get as far as punk rock went (there
were no guides or discographies or histories of back in the late 70s) I had to buy (or steal)
blind. I picked up the first Slaughter & the Dogs 12” because the sleeve had a graphic of
the RCA dog with its head lopped off. I got the Dead Boys first LP for a copy of “Who
are You” from a kid at school whose dad was a record reviewer.
About a year into our punk rock obsession, Death Rider and OC (for Outta Control, a
nickname we stole from an issue of National Lampoon featuring OC & Stiggs)
discovered the Plasmatics. The music was dumb, something we all agreed on but how
could one not like the stage show? Guitars getting chainsawed, Wendy O Williams nearly
nude and covered in shaving cream, cars getting blown up? The critics hated it. It drove
punk purists crazy with rage. But it was all a great theater. Death Rider and OC were so
hooked on it that they hitch hiked to San Francisco to see them, and then later made the
trip to LA.
Our next group obsession was Black Flag. We burned though copies of Nervous
Breakdown, Jealous Again, and Six Pack. “When’s Black Flag coming?” was the
constant question. Black Flag. Black Flag. Black Flag. And when they did finally play
Sacramento (again), the scene was people jumping off of whatever they could jump off, a
hundred person pit and an evening full of glorious chaos.
Of course, to the uninitiated Black Flag, the Plasmatics, and the Sex Pistols were
unrelentingly negative. Their songs were bleak portraits of the present and a bad omen of
things to come. But to Death Rider, our gang, and I, what we listened to was a soundtrack
to life, just as joyous and inspirational to us as Up with People was to the mass of morons
who craved something positive from music.
Read interviews with early Industrial music pioneers, the members of Throbbing Gristle,
SPK and Non and you find a consistent critique of pop music as something negative,
even sinister. Sprightly, uplifting groups such as Abba are painted as evil as Muzak, the
processed instrumental takes on pop hits that is piped into malls. The truly bleak songs
about the present are churned out by the Madonnas, the Britneys, the Avrels, the boy
bands, the purveyors of Christian rock. That is where cynicism really lies; not in the
words coming out of Jimi Hendrix’s mouth or even the most depressing utterances of
Ron Reyes. What Holst wrote about was life. What I did as a teenager (and would like to
think still do) was live it, love it, and wallow in it, ugly or not.
Nowadays, I am far from being a teen. I don’t go around smashing the windows of the
local elementary school with a baseball bat. Nor do I watch my friends torch porta-potties
at the Little League diamonds. And while I still listen to new punk rock, to new rock and
roll, I find very little of it really fresh, something unique that would excite me if I heard it
for the first time. So much rock and roll - even the “experimental” stuff - is
paint-by-numbers, sounding like it was cast in some rock and roll factory. “Hello, I’d like
to order three art-punks, a dozen ska-punks, say five of that KBD punk. You say you are
having a sale on power violence? Send over ten and some of that synth punk, too.”
This is not to say that there isn’t any good music being made. There is but what is there
for young people to grab on to that has not been corrupted by commerce and ambition? It
is more and more common for great songs to wind up as backing tracks to sell cars,
cookies, or cold cream. I turn on the TV the other day and heard the Sonics doing “Have
Love Will Travel” as some car cruised across the screen. I never thought I’d ever hear
that, but whoever owns the rights to it (not the Sonics, by the way) wanted to milk the
band even more so now millions have been exposed to the Northwest’s greatest band and
will always think of a car cruising across a TV screen whenever they hear that song.
So where does the authenticity come from? Hip hop? Electronica? Neo garage punk? Do
I really believe that Le Tigre is going to change the world now that they are on a major
label? Will their “rebel yell” be any more affective as Chumbawumbas? Is artifice all
kids or anyone interested in rock and roll have to grab onto? Is the past where we must
look for the raw and real? Lots of questions the beget more questions.
I know one thing for sure. Rock and roll, real rock and roll as in rock and roll as a music
of celebration, complaint, authenticity and rebellion is not about style. It has nothing to
do with fashion or posturing. It is something that is merely done without any regard for
either consequence or ambition. It is not a means to an end but the end itself. I listen to
Holst or Ayler or Black Flag or the Piranhas and I found the end. I could trash a
classroom, an office cubicle or a department store to any of those bands. Negative? Or
just living life?
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