Monday, October 17, 2005
Why We Form Rock Bands
What is it about two-guitars-bass-drums rock groups that's so damned eloquent to those of us of A Certain Age? Here we future Harridans were, three guys in their forties who thought and thought about what to do for some fun, and one of us (Odd Heartburn -- Xtcfan to his many friends here in Bloggospace) said, Hey, let's form a rock band! This despite the mindbendingly difficult logistical problem presented by the fact that Bobby Lightfoot lives in Massachusetts and couldn't rehearse with us except in the most virtual sort of way.
If you are of A Certain Age you'll no doubt remember those Mickey Rooney vehicles from the Thirties and Forties -- and, of course, the Bing Crosby flick Holiday Inn -- where the premise of the thing was always, "Hey, gang! Let’s rent the old barn and put on a show!" I think something of this spirit survived into the DIY aesthetic that we had drummed into us as the Apotheosis of Authenticity during the Punk Years. But there's just something about the Rock Band that's just inescapably mythmaking.
The Rock Band follows the same mythic archetype that informs, for example, the WWII band-of-misfits movie -- Sands of Iwo Jima, say, or, in a more self-conscious way, The Dirty Dozen, in which a randomly selected group of mutually antagonistic types (the leatherlunged Brooklyn Irishman, the Pugnacious Queens Guinea, the Hayseed, the Sensitive Novelist) learn to operate together as a unit and emerge victorious, their individual weaknesses made into group strengths.
The first and best model is of course the Beatles. A Hard Day's Night had an enormously disparate effect on the sexes. To the girls the Beatles offered a hierarchy on which to organize and rank their affections, their budding sexual aesthetic. The movie clarified, I like George, therefore I think I like solemn and slightly intense men. The straight boys in the audience, raised on a steady diet of those WWII movies, had exactly that band-of-misfits archetype in their minds as they burst forth from the theaters vowing to form bands of their own. A rock band, in their minds, meant a melding of disparate personalities, so clearly evident in their own -- or any -- circle of friends, into a cohesive whole that was intensely -- unimaginably! -- stronger than the sum of its parts. Jesus Christ, the girls you can pull with this racket!
Obviously the sense of belonging to something was supremely important -- but there's not much difference between belonging to a band and belonging to a hideously violent gang. Something else must be at work -- and that thing is the production of music. Andy Hardy didn't say, "Let's rent the old barn and lure the Sharks here and beat them into strawberry jam." "Let's put on a show" has got to rank up there with "Blessed are the meek" as one of the most civilized -- and most complex -- things that anybody's ever said.
Which brings us to the Monkees. I clearly remember, in the sunny spring of 1968 -- the Prague Spring had been beaten to death by the Soviets and Les Evénements du Mai in Paris were dominating the first front pages I remember, and I'd encouraged my schoolmates in a Lord of the Flies sort of way to pretend we were Protesting Students as we linked arms and paraded on the schoolyard -- that I believed the Monkees the Kings of Pop and the Beatles rather passé. I think my exact words were along the lines of Ronald Reagan's condemnation of the Democratic Party: "I didn't leave the Democrats; the Democrats left me!" (The judgment that my acuity was about as good as Reagan's I'll leave for future historians.) I didn't leave the Beatles; the Beatles had left me. All that sodden blah REALITY of the White Album, following the druggy philosophizing of Sgt. Pepper, left the eight-year-old me, who'd first tasted ECSTASY dancing to "I Saw Her Standing There" at the age of four, quite overwhelmed and unwilling to rise to the challenge.
The Monkees were PERFECT. They conformed to my expectations, they hadn't bowed to that terrible Ambiguity and Artiness that the Beatles had succumbed to, and THEY WERE A ROCK BAND the way that rock bands were supposed to be! They lived together! Each member conformed to the role he'd been given, the way the Beatles had forgotten to do. Lennon might be all druggy and heavy, but Mike Nesmith knew how to be The Smart One! Mickey Dolenz would never dream of growing a moustache! Peter Tork might be quiet and intense, but he'd never wander off into weird old Indian mysticism! Davey's English!
Let's us (and Don Kirschner, and CBS) demand, for the exigencies of history, that The Monkees, on pain of death, never wander off into the fallow fields of Weirditude. I can't live with ambiguity.