Our editor Tyler Burdwood plays and sings in Bellwire. Here he lays out a pantheon of rock stars to give you the gist of our taste.
I don’t know how many bands I’ve heard, but I’m sure that number dwarfs the number of bands I listen to. This means that for all intents and purposes I dislike most rock, or at least I don’t care about it.
I imagine this is true for most people–most bands they hear don’t become bands they like. Nothing strange about that really–rock has been around a long time and has branched out in a million directions.
I consider this more good than bad, but it means we need to define what we think about when we think about rock. Those of us who conflate our musical taste with our identity sometimes get uncomfortable summarizing their music preference as “rock,” because rock means a lot of things and one of those things is Nickelback.
I am getting comfortable again with liking rock, free of indie-, alt-, or any other prefixes. I don’t know if that’s coming into style or if it’s just that it’s been long enough since I left college. King Tuff, a pretty hip/indie/alt-y band has re-embraced so many classic rock radio conventions, that I feel hopeful it’s all blended together and now everything’s fair game.
I am also trying to re-embrace the notion of the rock star. Punks be danged! This playlist is made up of rock stars that are dear to my heart and fundamental to my aesthetic. This is to give you an idea if our tastes match up, if our blog features music you’d like to listen to. It must be noted that I’m not the only one who picks the bands this blog covers. I’ll try to get some more “staff picks” style playlists from other staff. In the meantime, you could get to know Jared better through [his love letter] to Fugazi.
Full youtube playlist here.
DAVID BOWIE – Rebel Rebel, 1974
This performance is from Dutch Television show ToPPoP. Bowie’s in his “Halloween Jack” persona. Singing over a riff for the ages, he fetishizing androgyny with his big red mouth and a real red guitar.
PATTI SMITH – My Generation, 2013
“I don’t even know what I’m supposed to be doing.”
“We don’t need no more fuckin wars.”
JIM MORRISON – The Doors, Break on Through, 1970
One of the cool things about rock is that hoots, grunts, whoops and howls count as integral parts of the music. I love that it can be your job to spit out these animal interjections and I consider Jim Morrison one of rock’s great interjectionists. Henry Rollins idolized him and I think of GG Allin’s shit-throwing tantrums as the hardcore-porno version of what Jim Morrison was chasing in his performances.
THE FUNK BROTHERS – The Temptations, My Girl, 1964
I’ll deviate from frontmen for a second and go as far in the opposite direction as possible.
The session players of Motown’s Detroit era are collectively known as the Funk Brothers. They turned chord charts into timeless hits for Gladys Knight, The Temptations, The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and many other superstars.
The Funk Brothers themselves are the opposite of rock stars. Their contributions to popular culture went virtually unrecognized until somewhat recently. In that spirit, I chose a version of “My Girl” with Temptation David Ruffin’s classic lead vocals removed.
Sink into the groove.
AMY WINEHOUSE – Me and Mr. Jones, 2007
It’s ridiculous the range of sounds she could make with her voice. A member of the unfortunate 27 club, Amy was treated as a cash cow by the people closest to her and habitually shamed by the mass media. I went to see the documentary and cried and cried.
KIMYA DAWSON – The Uncluded, The Aquarium, 2013
Kimya is good because of her lyrics. She’s a gifted musician, but you’d never know if it wasn’t for her words. That’s why she makes the list.
I love the first Moldy Peaches album. I think they are a little like Jackson Pollock. You’re tempted to think anyone could do it, except lots of people have failed at the same thing.
I believe in practice, but I’m open to the idea that being a Moldy Peach takes an innate gift.
Attempting what they did risks landing right in the worst side of indie rock. When bands flaunt their limited technical ability without any reason but to be slackery–that’s the danger. The Moldy Peaches use the awkward parts of their playing and production to make their funny parts funnier and their confessions more vulnerable and intimate.
NELS CLINE – Wilco, Muzzle of Bees, 2011
Jazz guitarist Nels Cline knows how to be a rock star. Here he rockstars all over a nearly acoustic performance in someone’s living room. God dang!
BOB DYLAN – with The Band, Like A Rolling Stone, 1966
Here, Dylan’s freshly gone electric, pissing off folkies and activists that had seen him as the voice of their generation. That reception followed him abroad, as shown here in this clip from a performance at Royal Albert Hall.
It begins with some now-legendary banter:
Audience Member: JUDAS!
Bob Dylan: I don’t believe you! You’re a liar!
Robbie Robertson: (turning back) Play it fucking loud.
But the real rock star moment here is Dylan’s dainty, regal gesture to his critic in the audience once the song starts.
I guess the moral here is that spite makes a good rock star. Some people blow up like puffer fish when they feel attacked. And a subset of those people are able to turn that reaction into something artistically satisfying. It’s not all there is to rock stardom, or even a requisite, but it can and has gone a long way.
A rock star ought to be up against something. To be mythic requires a story, which requires a struggle and antagonists. Ice T gets it. It’s just like he tells Tipper Gore and Oprah:
I can put it all in a nutshell–the enemy of the music is what fuels the fire. As soon as a kid comes home from school and his mother says, “Have you listened to your Ice T album today?” I’m through. Rock and roll has always gotta have an enemy. That’s what keeps it rock and roll!
I don’t think an indie darling like Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy has experienced much of this sort of resistance, at least not from the public or his audience. Jeff’s personable, mellow, and has always been outside the craziness of stuperstardom. He’s used to playing for people who love him and who want to understand him. He’s so comfortable he can put out an album and go on tour with his 18-year-old son as his drummer. This might play into what made it impossible for me to refer to him as a rock star, despite badly wanting Wilco on my playlist.
KANYE WEST – Can’t Tell Me Nothing, 2007
Rock and rap count as cousins on this blog. Kanye’s here because I can’t think of a rock celebrity has had a big media-frenzied rock star like Kanye except maybe Marilyn Manson?
I don’t really like Marilyn Manson.
Kanye’s interesting because he’s experienced a long time on pop culture’s shit list, but he’s managed to thrive in it. He had the benefit of entering the limelight at an older age than Amy and with experience already in the pop’s machinery. Before attempting his rap career he worked in near-funk-brothers levels of secrecy producing beats like the one in Jay Z’s Izzo.
The media has gotten a lot of mileage out of “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” and his famous interruption of Taylor Swift. He tends to strike back, if you’d call it that, in two ways. First, he further inflates his ego, or his persona’s ego, to superhuman sizes. B Bragging is part of rap, but “I Am God” takes it to new heights of antagonism. Besides claiming he is God, he intimates that being hated is a deliberate choice:
Soon as they like you make ’em unlike you
Cause kissin’ people’s ass is so unlike you
His second approach is to open up, show his wounds and force his critics to confront his humanity, as he does in the following lines from “Can’t Tell Me Nothin”:
I feel the pressure, under more scrutiny
And what I do, act more stupidly,
Bought more jewelry, more Louis V–
My Momma couldn’t get through to me
The drama, people suing me
I’m on TV talking like it’s just you and me
His infamous 2006 Rolling Stone cover is a pretty elegant combination of these two strategies. Wearing Christ’s crown of thorns he communicates both that he is god and we are killing him.
What a martyr. But it has an uncomfortable ring of truth to it. The demi-god status that comes with rockstardom is often unsustainable. A recent study claims that rock stars die up to 25 years younger than average.
Kanye’s public image is part of his artwork. This is what he told students at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago while accepting an honorary doctorate:
I am a pop artist. So my medium is public opinion. And the world is my canvas.
The speech is a little awkward because he’s giving an award speech for the honorary doctorate instead of addressing the graduates, but that’s classic Kanye. Everything he does in public is part of his Kanye West project.
It’s also good marketing. Controversy makes rock stars rock stars. This can suck some of the fun out of it, but it’s just part of it, part of pop, part of rock stardom.
Just wanna add–Kanye and Dylan are similar artists in my mind and not just for their fraught relationships with the press. Dylan can’t sing and Kanye, compared to say Jay Z, really can’t rap. Both Dylan and West overcome this with creativity, cleverness and a deep, working understanding of the music that influenced them. Some might put Kimya Dawson in this camp too.
RIVERS CUOMO – Weezer, In The Garage (acoustic), 1994
It worries me that I see so little dancing at rock shows. It gives me the sense that this music is not the relevant music of our time. It’s been a long time since rock was really threatening or enjoyed a significant renaissance. Now I think the genre has been inherited by the meek.
It makes sense to me that the music would lose its transcendental power as its newness wore off. There are accounts of Igor Stravinsky causing a bona fide riot when he premiered ferociously modern and dissonant The Rites of Spring in Paris. They ate him up a year later–and from what I remember from the NPR story it was a little like Beatlesmania. That was back in 1913. Things don’t stay outlandish and new for very long.
The teenage groupies and naked cuddle puddles and riots are largely a thing of the past for rock. Not such a bad thing, but it does mean that the initial effects have worn off and with them the reach and purposes of the music.
Now that the genre enjoys a rich history and an unlistenably large library of recordings, a lot of the good rock left to be written will come from the people who do their homework. I expect great music to come from those who can rework the ecstatic breakthroughs of the past into thoughtful new arrangements.
There’s no better figure for this ideal than Rivers Cuomo. His dorkiness is so extreme that he attempted a scientific study of Green Day and Nirvana songs in an attempt to quantify the elements of a good pop song. Rivers sings not as a rockstar, but as a fan in, “In The Garage.”
I’ve got posters on the wall
My favorite rock group KISS
I’ve got Ace Frehley
I’ve got Peter Criss
Waiting there for me
Yes I do, I do
I’ve got an electric guitar
I play my stupid songs
I write these stupid words
And I love every one
Waiting there for me
Yes I do, I do
In the garage
I feel safe
No one cares about my ways
In the garage
Where I belong
No one hears me sing this song