Rock and roll

I TOOK a necessary break last week and did nothing very much. Listened to a lot of music that I have found perks me up, although a lot of people will find my choice of pick-me-up troubadours somewhat odd: Tom Waits, Dylan's "Blood on the Tracks", the Doors, Guns n' Roses' primal scream "Welcome to the Jungle", Metallica's "Enter Sandman". Ah well, there is no accounting for taste. In between listening to gloomy songs about death, dying and life on the skids, I dipped into a book Night Beat: A Shadow History of Rock and Roll by Mikal Gilmore (Picador) that has made an appearance in these columns before.

Now music like sport when played to perfection is such a subliminal experience that it is about impossible to recapture its exhilaration and beauty in print. You need a pretty good writer to even come close and Gilmore is definitely one such. I reviewed his memoir of his brother, Gary Gilmore, the murderer (Shot in the Heart) a couple of years ago and it seemed to me even then that Mikal had what it took to deal with difficult subjects with skill and with panache.

Night Beat has its origins in Rolling Stone, the magazine Gilmore writes for. Some of the pieces are straight reprints of articles that appeared in the magazine, others are written specially for the volume, and a third kind are Rolling Stone pieces that have been extensively revised and reshaped for inclusion in the book. Taken together the book is quirky, well-imagined subjective history of rock and roll and for anyone interested in that particular form of music it is a blast.

Gilmore's icons are Dylan, Lou Reed (his all-time favourite record LP/album/CD is "The Velvety Underground and Nico - a record full of songs about had losses, cold hearts, hard narcotics and rough, degrading sex.") and Bruce Springsteen, and these artists and bands naturally get the lion's share of space in the book. Other acts covered include Elvis Presley, the Beatles, The Rolling Stones, the Allman Brothers Band, Van Halen, Anthrax, Jerry Garcia, Kurt Cobain and so on. These constitute the heart of the book and thee are also several pieces on punk and some of the more unusual folk rock and jazz performers. There is a certain kind of person who listens to this kind of music, and you will find him (the person is usually male) in countries around the world, and it is this person who will most enjoy this book. He will thrill to this interview Gilmore had with Dylan which gives him a glimpse into the singer's mind: "Happiness is not on my list of priorities. I just deal with day-to-day things. If I'm happy, I'm happy - and if I'm not, I don't know the difference.

"He fell silent for a few moments, and stared at his hands. "You know" he said, "these are yuppie words, happiness and unhappiness. It's not happiness or unhappiness, it's either blessed or unblessed. As the Bible says, 'Blessed is the man who walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly.' Now, that must be a happy man. Knowing that you are the person you were put on this earth to be - that's much more important than just being happy. Anyway, happiness is just a balloon - it's just temporary stuff. Anybody can be happy, and if you're not happy, they got a lot of drugs that can make you happy. But trust me: Life is not a bowl of cherries.

"I asked him if, in the case, he felt he was a blessed man. Oh Yeah, he said, nodding his head and smiling broadly. Yeah I don. But not because I'm a rock and roll star"...

Or again, he will be perfectly in sync with what Gilmore has to say about Kurt Cobain, the lead singer for Nirvana who killed himself prematurely. The writer visits the singer's hometown, a dead-end logging town, and there he finds one of Cobain's hiding places, a hollow scraped out of the riverbank beneath a bridge. It is a dark, depressing place. The writer spends a short while there absorbing the dreariness of the place: "I get up to leave and my eye catches something scrawled on a rail overhead. It is hard to make out, but the writing looks much like the examples of Cobain's penmanship that I have seen recently in books and new articles. The scrawl reads: WELL, I MUST BE OFF. IT'S TIME FOR THE FOOL TO GET OUT.

"Maybe it is indeed Cobain's writing, or maybe it's the script of another local kid who came to realise the same thing Cobain realised: To save yourself from a dark fate, you have to remove yourself from dark places. Sometimes, though, you might not remove yourself soon enough, and when that happens, the darkness leaves with you. It visits you not just in your worst moments, but also in your best ones, dimming the light that those occasions have to offer. It visits you and it tells you that this is where you are from - that no matter how far you run or how hard you reach for release, the darkness, sooner or later, will claim you.

"You can learn a lot of bad things when you are made to sleep under a bridge in your homeland, and some of those things can stay with you until the day you die."...

That is rock and roll for you. To appreciate its more extreme acts you need to posses a certain kind of personality. And then you will probably listen to "Riders on the Storm" to cheer you up.


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