Rock and Roll

Innovating Tradition (Traditional Innovation)

“Scribes trained in the way of the Kingdom Heaven are like a householder who brings out from the treasury things both new and old.”  Matthew 13:52

New and old, innovation and tradition, generally  in opposition to one another.  Yet , new and old are two momentary experiences.  New and old are how we experience things in certain moments: the unexpected, anticipation, recollection and familiarity.  Something that is new (to me) is also unfamiliar but also full of promise.  Tradition is something passed on, it has age yet it also what is known and familiar.

Rock and Roll for a time kept inventing new aspects of itself.  Notably for me in my experience of music and Rock-n-Roll are punk and various post-punk genres that can be put under the umbrella of Goth, EBM, Industrial, Death Rock, Dark Wave, Shoe Gazer etc.

If you attend a Goth or Dark Wave festival or convention there will be bands that are still around from early on in the scene and of course newer bands.  At one of these festivals  friend of mine and I were unfamiliar with but had heard good things about this new band  The music was familiar and drew us in we would dance for a bit of the song and then we’d both stop.  About the fourth or fifth song in my friend leaned over and said “every one of their songs I’m like oh ya this is great I know this song, and then I realize, no , it only sounds like such and such great song by so and so.” I was having exactly the same experience.  Another band were excellent musicians yet the passion seemed to be sucked out of their music, or more to the point their musicianship was excellent but they lacked raw energy of the punk and death rock one would expect. The music was good the sound fit within Goth Dark wave genre, but I was unmoved but  mesmerized by the technical skill in reproducing the sounds typical of the genre. A third band was clearly conscious that they were embracing Goth Death Rock template, yet they embraced it fully even the sense that there wasn’t anything original to what they were doing, unexpectedly though the songs didn’t sound like other bands.  Thee was a distinctiveness even an newness to their submission to the genre.  Then there was Sunshine Blind, who hadn’t played or released an album in years and it was fresh a familiar and full of years of dancing to their songs..  The goth festival is an experience of Tradition.

Granted a young tradition, but it seems clear to me that certain music genres are traditional even though their origins were innovations, Jazz and Blues come readily to mind.  Rock and Roll and it sub genres both punk and Goth are now traditions.

Seeing these music genres as musical traditions, I think can bring to light the dynamic between tradition and innovation as well as dislodge our preconceived ideas about both.

Then maybe we can begin to reflect upon Jesus’s aphorism about the scribes of the Beloved Community being a curator who is able to represent a treasured collection by presenting from that collection both what is old and new.


Death and the Romantic Rock-n-Roller

A musician with whom I’m unfamiliar (Lana Del Rey)  had some romantic thoughts about the suicide and early deaths of Rock and Pop icons, like Kurt Cobain.  She said in the interview (though she says she was tricked into saying it by the interviewer) “I wish I was dead already.”  Since the comment was in part a response to questions about the suicide of Kurt Cobain, Frances Bean Cobain weighed in, saying there was nothing romantic about an early death and her growing up without her father.

I get Frances Bean’s point.  Kurt’s suicide in and of itself is tragic.  And yet, it’s hard to separate this final act from the music of Kurt Cobain and Nirvana.  If Cobain hadn’t been tormented in the way he was and which lead to his suicide would Nirvana have been what it was?  It isn’t cause and effect but I also can’t completely disentangle all those threads from each other.

I have reflected on this in a reflection on how joy and suffering are interwoven in the work Ian Curtis of  Joy Division.

What ever lead Ian and Kurt to commit suicide was also woven in with their music.  For Kurt and Ian the beauty of their music, is bound up in their brief life and their death, it’s part of their genius.  Not to say that all great art or music must come out of that mental and spiritual place.  However, Ian Curtis, Kurt Cobain, Rozz Williams, all tormented, all committed suicide, all have music that speaks to me in away other music even in the same genre doesn’t.

Not sure what to make of that.  Yet, I can’t deny that my love for the music and their quality as artists and musicians, even my reverence for them is bound up in their early demise, and due to that they lived the line from that Neil Young song “… Better off to burn out then to fade away.”

Whether or not it is a “correct” or acceptable sentiment, I can understand how a musician (or any artist) may say “I wish I was dead already.”

Death brings about the moment when the artist is complete, summed up.   In the case of the likes of Cobain, Rozz Williams, and Ian Curtis the brief moment of their musical output continues to reverberate and have power, in part due to the brevity and thus the intensity of their output.  Part of that power and resonance is bound up in their early death and that they committed suicide.  It’s powerful, and there’s a simplicity to that artistic output.

Admittedly this is disturbing.  This is not something to be emulated (but are artists, particularly Rock musicians role models?) These are people carried along by something with in them that drives them to create.  There is a torment in this.

One might say that an artist longs for death, longs for that moment when they will have their body of work, complete and unchanging… finished.  That is an artist longs to “know” what one’s body of work is.  One is only known in this sense in death.

Certainly, this isn’t the only way of being known.  All the same none of us are complete or settled until we die.  So, it makes sense to say “I wish I was dead already.”  This expresses a desire to know and be known in completion and the fullness of the body of ones work.  To achieve greatness in a brief moment is an astounding achievement.  That a brief life has other more mundane and tragic ramifications is also true, but that truth doesn’t deny this other truth and its power.

So, yes, there is something romantic and powerful about artists who produce with such intensity and torment that they willfully burn out quickly, it’s also true that such brevity tragically tears at the human fabric of their lives.  

However, we are mistaken if we think the long lived musician or artist escapes death, or that prolonged life is a life without death.  There are ways to live towards death that are rich and aren’t also a death wish, but pretending their isn’t power and truth in the body of work defined by an artist’s brief and tormented life isn’t the way to find such a path.  Rather I’d say accepting the  death woven into their work already is a way to begin to find life that comes from death.

 I find Cobain, Curtis, and Williams to be romantic figures, and their suicides are part of that romance.  But it is because their death was already in their life, and because it is as much in their death as in their life that we know their beauty.