The Sounds of Silence
Better is the end of a thing than its beginning.
“The Blues had a baby and they named it Rock ‘n’ Roll.” Thus begins the popular origin story for the music that has come to dominate American culture. From the first page of their book Apocalypse Jukebox: The End of the World in American Popular Music (Soft Skull Press, 2009), however, English professors David Janssen and Edward Whitelock say “we must change the metaphor.” Rock and roll wasn’t born, “it developed pupa-like, hibernating and growing in its chrysalis throughout the development of this country.” Similarly, Americans’ interest in secular and religious ideas of apocalypse always have been with us, not only in America’s understanding of itself as a nation, but musically as “one of the most consistent and evocative threads” in the development of rock and roll. Janssen and Whitelock examine both religious and secular views of the end times as they follow this thread from the jazz standard “Stars Fell on Alabama” (inspired by an unprecedented meteor storm in 1833) through the work of archivist Harry Smith, jazz saxophonist John Coltrane, and folk-rock poets Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen (the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”).
The title of the first serious history of this music, Charlie Gillett’s The Sound of the City: The Rise of Rock & Roll (1970), comes to mind as the authors’ place rock and roll alongside abstract expressionism, bebop, and the Beat movement in the rise of confrontational arts “during the peak of urban flight.” The shadow of atomic power’s mushroom cloud frightened many Americans out of the urban centers, and the early chapters here deal with the atomic bomb as subject matter and metaphor in American songwriting.
For all its accompanying images of freedom, fun, and fries & Cokes, rock and roll was a music of anxiety. The sound of the city captured not only dreamy nights up on the roof or under the boardwalk, but the terrors of those alone in their rooms or walking the streets until dawn. It was a music of worry, acute self-consciousness, and facing fears.
Covering a 1961 Boudleaux Bryant composition, “A Mushroom Cloud,” Janssen and Whitelock have their first hit: a critical look at “the alleged moral decline of America in the second half of the twentieth century.” The boy and girl in the song are trying to wait; they’re doing their best to “uphold the morals they’ve been taught.”
We prayed, we partied, we laughed and we pray again…
[but] a mushroom cloud… hangs in the way
tomorrow looks black so we live for today.
Before the arrival of the atomic bomb, the authors write, “the rewards of waiting seemed self-evident.” “But when the promise of tomorrow is erased, why bother waiting?” Here the authors give readers more than a lucid, highly entertaining survey of a prevalent pop music theme. This challenge establishes the book’s other interest, the effect of this real-life theme on those who used it, and those who danced to it.
Over the course of the past fifty years, cultural critics and assorted talking heads have laid blame for many of society’s alleged ills—from moral decline to rampant consumerism—on a list of usual suspects including jazz, rock and roll, seditious literature, television, and the Internet, among others. Perhaps songwriter Boudleaux Bryant had already answered that nagging question for everyone with this paranoid, impatient teenage melodrama. The song almost seems to beg the question, on behalf of several generations, now, of adolescents: Who are the immoral ones: you who have set this world up to be destroyed, or we who are trying to make the most of what little time you’ve left us?
Another of the book’s intentions is to broaden our understanding of Apocalypse to include personal transcendence and artistic expression of the spiritual. Bono’s encounter with Coltrane’s A Love Supreme cured him of a soul-deep cynicism. The singer came upon something that blew away that “tiny, petty, and greedy” image of God portrayed by televangelists and prosperity preachers. “There is so much wickedness in this world… but the beauty of John Coltrane’s reedy voice, its whispers, its knowingness, its sly sexuality, its praise of creation…” All of this can invite a listener back to themselves, to view their body as a temple.
In the previous chapter, the authors place Harry Smith, the man behind the monumental 1952 reissue effort Anthology of American Folk Music, at the end of a trajectory from Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau to the last three minutes of the Doomsday Clock. Smith’s six-LP collection of “artifacts from a world that was disappearing at the very moment they were being recorded” was his cry for sanity to a “world capable of disappearing at the push of a button.” These obscure, marginalized selections come from 1927–1932. Today, we may nod in recognition at names like the Carter Family or Blind Willie Johnson, but in the early 1950s such purveyors of raw hope were not yet revived and revered. Stripped of racial identification and arranged to his purpose, these artists submerged listeners “into an anonymous mass that is the collective store of the American character in all its beauty and its ugliness.” Smith said that he wanted “to see America changed by music.” Such change, as Emerson understood, must take place first in individuals.
In referencing Emerson’s “apocalypse of the self,” wherein “dissolution of the self precedes the beatific vision of self in God,” Janssen and Whitelock claim for rock and roll a “transcendent aural moment” equal to the philosopher’s transcendent visual moment. “Music reflects God and man in the same way that Emerson sees nature reflecting God and man.” While their use of the Transcendentalists brings interesting insight to Smith and his mission, here it fails to convince this existentialist. Music is made by man, and nature is not. In his ecstatic, “transparent eye-ball” moment, Emerson is losing his ego to something essentially egoless. The rock fan caught up in the ecstasy of a performance is giving himself to something created by another rock fan. Only the performer is up for an apocalypse of the self, to be, as Bono heard John Coltrane, “a man facing God with the gift of his music.” The spasmodic appreciator will have to find his own moment.
The final two Horsemen, Dylan the Denouncer and Cohen the Stranger, also wanted to see America changed by music—their music. Both are creators of grotesques, and Janssen and Whitelock spend two engrossing chapters on this most bizarre, and apparently apocalyptic, literary device. They survey the work and character of each artist before zeroing in on a particular recording that exemplifies their apocalyptic aesthetic. For Dylan, it is the 1983 release Infidels. His “distinction between God and gods is of immense value,” while “every song is a portrait of infidelity.” Cohen’s 1992 album The Future brings his prophetic voice to full maturity. That voice sings of his fear that a loss of order “would create a society self-deceived into accepting the oppression of the masses under the false name of freedom.” Both artists juxtapose “the beautiful and the damned, the sacred and the profane, the promise and the terror.” What these dualities have in common, the authors tell us, is that they have meaning. “Whichever side of the extreme they fall on, they hold higher value than what we have erected, which [Cohen] implies, is nothing, a world without meaning or values.”
After a discussion of the band Love’s 1967 album Forever Changes, which was supposed to function as a suicide note for co-leader Arthur Lee, the 1960s are left smoldering while Janssen and Whitelock turn to Devo, R.E.M., Laurie Anderson, Sleater-Kinney, and Green Day. On the way, their explications remind me of one American band whose work also “reveals a deep longing to make connections and sense that just aren’t there,” and that is the punk band X. From the 1980 song title “The World’s a Mess, It’s In My Kiss” to the 1995 chorus lyric “I’m lying in the road, trying to save my life,” X always gives the sense that when this love affair is over, everything is over. The moment in X’s music has rarely been a transcendent one; rather it takes its importance from being the moment before something else—something worse, something to be avoided at all costs, something that is nonetheless welcomed.
X’s pinnacle album, the Reagan-era More Fun in the New World, is full of such moments. “Honest to goodness,” exclaims the first voice, “the bars weren’t open this morning. They must’ve been votin’ for a new president, or somethin’.” “They” are up to no good, and after asking for a quarter, the confused character wanders off. Singers John Doe and Exene Cervenka sound equally nonplused, but not so as to miss the fact that they’ve been cheated. “THIS WAS SUPPOSED TO BE THE NEW WORLD,” they wail. It could be Election Day, or it could be Doomsday. In any case, the disappointment is real and all encompassing. “It was better before, before they voted for what’s-his-name.” In the world we ended up with instead of the New World we were promised, true love is the devil’s crowbar; roses are red, violence is too, and “let’s drink a beer from a paper bag while we got time” is the height of neighborly concern because “this is no goddamn country to wander alone!” One of the many drunks in these shadow scenes gives up, saying “my doorway is blocked by DOOMSDAY for certain.”
So goes the end of the world, rock and roll style. Janssen and Whitelock have begun a discussion into which readers of any generation can leap and bring their experiences to bear. So grab an apocalyptic favorite. I will meet you on the corner for a paper-bag beer—or a prayer—while we still have time.
J. D. Buhl recently moved to the urban core of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the city that gave us the apocalyptic dance floor smash “Disco Inferno.”