Tag Archive: Blues

Rock of Ages: Mannish Boy

Keith Richards - Hollywood, CA, 1969 (copyright Robert Altman)

I was once told at a party by an aged Mlle that I was too young to know anything about a certain jazz singer.  I wondered out loud whether this also meant that she was too young to know anything, say, about Bach.  I didn’t get into a huff about it then, and I remember it now just to point out that age, in the bigger scheme of things, is a bogus trump card.

“There’s one thing I know, though I’m younger than you.” (Bob Dylan)

On whichever side of the boundary line you may fall – and the boundary line is ever-moving, incidentally – age neither necessarily limits nor guarantees any further insight into music.  Experience doesn’t necessarily lead to wisdom, which marks more than a mere tallying of days.

Yet age is a topic – a prejudice, however empty it may be – that continues to pepper opinion about music of all kinds.  And the views are pretty much conflicting and scattershot: or what the youth of today lamentably (insert winkey face emoticon) call “random.”  The Rolling Stones have been the go-to straw men on the popular music front.  I can remember reading a Mad Magazine spoof on Mick, Keith and company well back in the midst of their “Steel Wheelchair” tour.  The Stones toured that album, properly known as Steel Wheels, in 1989; I was ten.  That’s now twenty-some-odd years ago, and the Stones are still, if not going strong, then at least going on.  And I admire them for it, even if their greatest albums seem forever-destined to remain behind them.

It’s as though people no longer believe that a rolling stone gathers no moss.

Muddy Waters - "Mannish Boy"

I’m reminded of the great bluesmen that the Stones helped bring onto the stage of popular culture: chief among them, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf.  Blessed with the “luxury” of short-term perspective, it was easy for people to get excited when the rebellious Stones urinated on gas station walls.  It took a little more time to appreciate the ways in which the boys helped to bridge the divide between the youth of their day and the deep tradition of music represented by the great aging bluesmen.  Mississippi John Hurt, Son House, Bukka White: again, only a few of the deeply seasoned blues musicians who were welcomed with open arms in the 1960s – “rediscovered,” so it goes, by a youth that had never discovered them in the first place.  It was accepted that blues musicians should get old – partly because they simply were so (relatively speaking) when they came to the fore of the public imagination.

So why shouldn’t we accept that rock musicians will age?  If ours are the first generations to witness it, then we need to welcome the greying of rock and roll as one consequence of a music that should no longer be understood as bound to an isolated historical moment.  Instead, rock needs to be thought of as part of a rich music tradition that forever changes.  It’s highly unlikely that Pete Townshend still hopes to die before he gets old.  Talking about his generation: If Keith Richards – in my view the only remaining viable argument for personal immortality – ever dies, then let’s let him do so with a guitar on his back.

Nobody’s underwear knotted when it was announced that jazz greats Mose Allison and Dave Brubeck – octogenarian and nonagenarian, respectively – would be highlighting the 2011 Toronto Jazz Festival.  Jazz, aware of its long tradition, forgives its elders.

In some sense, you stop thinking about age when you come to appreciate the depth of music’s roots.  Rock is now as much about those roots as it was formerly – momentarily, but importantly – about rebellion.

Roots, rebellion and youth: they’re all part of the story of rock, that great mannish boy, a rock of ages that forever changes.

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)

Mahler’s second symphony (the “Resurrection”) ends with a beautiful choral movement that’s based in part on a poem by Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock.  Mahler once wrote that it was his intention to capture the idea of a life beyond death: “The last movement of my Second Symphony really obliged me to search through the whole of world literature, including the Bible, in order to find the liberating word… .”  There’s nothing new in the yearning for life after death, but what I’m wondering is whether there’s such a thing as the “liberating word”? 

Does music need words?  Can words, lyrics, liberate music?

The most famous instance of an orchestral work culminating in a choral finale is Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which ends with the “Ode to Joy,” that grand statement of faith in the universal brotherhood of humanity.  The Ninth looms large over music history, and many composers have been conscious of its shadow.  Even Mahler worried that people would perceive his Resurrection Symphony as a “superficial imitation of Beethoven.” 

To push the idea a little further: Wagner saw Beethoven’s Ninth as the culmination and end, the death of orchestral music pure and simple.  The entrance of the voice in the finale signalled the eclipse of the orchestral era and, with it, the dawn of a new age: that of the Gesammtkunstwerk, the “total work of art.” Wagner felt that this supposedly higher form of art would successfully integrate music, drama and poetry.  The way I read him, Wagner thinks that the written word was needed in order to free music from the tomb of tradition and to elevate it to the symbolic realm of art and myth.  “Where music can go no farther, there comes the word,” he says.

Now, I disagree with just about everything Wagner ever wrote (and this is no exception), but I’d like to rein things in before they get needlessly heavy.

I realize that words can help to give symbolic power to music, but I’m not sold on the idea that the written word is “greater” than music itself.  I’m reminded of a small 1927 miracle: Delta bluesman Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground,” a gripping three-minutes of wordless moaning over a solitary slide guitar.  Ry Cooder considers it the “most soulful, transcendent piece of American music recorded in the 20th century.”  Part of this so-called “transcendent” quality comes from the very fact that there are no words.  If the song is religious, there is no theological baggage to weigh it down; if it is a cry from the American Delta, there is no English to restrict its reach.  The only language here is music, and there is nothing to limit its communicative power.

Blind Willie Johnson (1897-1945)In some ways, music can be limited by words.  They can tie it down.  I don’t say this to suggest that the word has to die if music is to find new life.  I simply don’t think that Wagner is right in suggesting that the age of purely instrumental music has died. 

Music does not die.  And if there is no death, then there is no need for the dream of a resurrection.  


Short Note:

The ideas are all my own, but I should point out that I drew the Mahler quote from Kurt Blaukopf’s critical biography Mahler.  The Wagner quotation comes from Maynard Solomon’s Late Beethoven: Music, Thought, Imagination

Recommended Recordings of Mahler’s 2nd Symphony:

  • Otto Klemperer / Philharmonia Chorus and Orchestra (recorded 1962; released on EMI Classics in 2000) 
  • Pierre Boulez / Vienna Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon, 2006)

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