Posts Tagged ‘Rock’n’roll’


A few days ago it was Phil Ochs. Today I’m in a whole other mood. David Lee Roth.

Yes, David Lee Roth. Diamond Dave. DLR. I am total slut for the man, and entirely unapologetic about that.

He’s one of the few – like Joan Jett – that just screams rock’n’roll to me. Pure sex. Pure devil-may-care. Pure rock’n’roll.

Why? David Lee Roth is not the straight-ahead, right-out-of-the-gutter, loud and coarse rebel-type. No, indeed. But he is the absolute epitome of the other side of rock. He’s fundamentally P.T. Barnum, the ringmaster under the big top, all flash and glitter and ladies-and-gentlemen, boys-and-girls, step-right-up-for-the-show-of-your-life. DLR is convinced that the whole world needs to be looking right at him. He’s convinced that he’s the hottest ticket in town, the best show going, and that a night with him is the best night of your life. And y’know, I can’t argue with the man. Cause to me, he is indeed all that. Now, Rolling Stone has taken another view, calling him “the most obnoxious singer in human history”. Well, can’t argue with that either. But then again, that’s exactly the point.

Born into a Russian-Jewish family, an opthalmologist for a father, Dave hooked up with the Van Halen boys, Eddie and Alex, in 1974, creating what was without a doubt one of the finest rock’n’roll outfits ever to come along. But as much as has been made of Eddie Van Halen’s guitar-magic, it was Roth that stood out from the beginning. Indeed, more than once it was suggested the band drop this over-the-top loudmouth, because it was pretty much impossible to pay attention to anything else when he was in the vicinity. But as has been pointed out before, what looked absolutely ridiculous on a little riser in a hundred-person bar was transformed when dropped into a stadium. All of a sudden, what was obnoxious and overwhelming was perfect for the space. All of a sudden, those same traits that drove everyone up the fucking wall in close quarters became exactly what held audiences in awe and drove them into such a frenzy. Roth needed a circus. He needed a big top. He needed a mammoth fucking stage to fit his aspirations and his ego. But once he was there. there was no way of displacing him. Once he was there, there was no question but he belonged, he fucking owned it, and all he’d said about himself and his greatness and his showmanship suddenly seemed right on the mark.

But there’s more to it than that. I’m in love with David Lee Roth because he’s funny as all hell, and because he can come uyp with one-liners like no one since Groucho Marx.

“The problem with self-improvement is knowing when to quit.”

“You know why music critics hate Van Halen and love Elvis Costello? Cause music critics look like Elvis Costello”

“I used to jog but the ice cubes kept falling out of my glass.”

“After all these years of bright lights, I still don’t need glasses – I drink straight from the bottle.”

“When you hear ‘David Lee Roth’ you think of a person. When you head DLR Band you think of a band. Just like when you hear ‘Eddie Van Halen’ you think of a person. When you hear ‘Van Halen’, you think of David Lee Roth.”

“There’s a guy with black socks, black shoes, blue and white bermuda shorts, a Hawaiian luau shirt, a Nikon and a Walkman around his neck, zinc oxide on his nose, a pair of sunglasses, a fishing hat with all the badges on it – and he’s staring up at tall buildings. That’s rock’n’roll.”

Yeah, Dave’s good for lines. And his attitude is more than enough to get me on-side. But there’s more yet.

This is guy who starts every tour the same way. He gets on hands and knees and scrubs the stage top to bottom. Why? Cause it’s show business. And show business people is everybody from the kid taking tickets to the old guy sweeping up to the band on the stage. And when you forget that, your ride is over. You want to be in showbiz? You do what it takes, regardless of where you are in the set-up.

This is a guy who is famous among the hard rock crowd for his tendency to make seedy run-down hotels home when he’s in a new city for more than a few days at a time. Indeed, in Vancouver he’s as likely to be found at the Patricia or another downtown eastside haunt as he is in the Hotel Vancouver.

This is a guy whose primary influences are comic books, Playboy and fashion out of blaxploiitation films, who bases his stage presence on James Brown meets Sinatra meets Bruce Lee, and whose music owes as much to early Elton John and Marvin Gaye as it does to Deep Purple. The noise of punk, the mayhem of metal, the sensibility of funk and R&B. And lyrics that are often as not no lyrics at all, but ad-libbed doo-wop and scat.

This is a guy who holidays in tiny Haitian villages, months-long trips alone up the Amazon, treks through the Himalayas and off-trail hikes across Papua New Guinea – and who, despite some shitty politics, generally seems to do so in a pretty respectful kinda way.

And this is a guy who puts out music across a wide range of genres, with not only individual songs but whole albums devoted to sleazy hard rock, bluegrass, big band, loungey easy-listening. And stage shows along the same lines, some concerts all cock-rock and flips in the air, others all about James Brown, and still others based around a stool, a couple of acoustic guitars and a banjo.

Yeah, there’s lotsa reasons to love Diamond Dave. Just as many reasons to hate him? Sure. But me, I like a good show, I like a good showman, and I like entertainers who are bigger than life, who walk with the swagger of John Wayne and the groove of Shack. It’s the circus without the animal-abuse; the ego that knows its all just a show; the sex that’s all playful; the music that crosses borders and plays just to get attention and just to get people hot.

It ain’t popular. It can’t be taken too seriously. But I love it. Cause though I’m not a dancer, it makes me dance. Cause I can’t stop myself singing along. And cause when I hear a Dave Roth tune, I start walking with a little more swagger and a little more groove myself.



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In a Metal Mood

Iron Fucking Maiden. What else can I say?

A couple of months ago some friends and I flew to Toronto for a Maiden show; last night we went with a larger group to the Vancouver concert. And despite the fact that Bruce Dickinson decided to lead the crowd in ‘the wave’ at one point, I am affirmed that there is no such thing as a bad Maiden performance.

I grew up on metal – Maiden, Ozzy, Judas Priest, Dio and all your basic power metal stuff. Then, around 16 or so, I moved into folk music, and pretty much dropped the crunching power chord for a while. But the last few years I’ve been back with a vengeance. KISS and Slayer – that’s what did it.

In the mid-nineties KISS did a big reunion thing, putting the make-up back on, getting the original four together and hitting the road. I hadn’t been to a show in years, but there was no way in hell I was gonna miss this, so I grabbed my brother, Dennis, and off we went. Fucking blew me away. Simple, poppy hard rock. But that was a show like I have never seen, and if there had ever been any question why these guys made such a name for themselves, that answered it. I pulled out the cds, I went to a number of concerts over the next few years, and I started to remember why I love rock’n’roll so much.

Then, just a couple years back, a friend managed to score a box at GM place from the law firm she works for – Slayer. Now, I was never a big thrash fan – that shit started to hit big around the time I was moving into the folksy thing. But I went along, it fucking rocked, and I screamed so loud I couldn’t speak for about three days afterwards. Now that’s a show.

Since then, I’ve been trying to hit metal or hard rock shows every couple of months – old bands coming through, whether Van Halen or Megadeth or Motley Crue or Ozzy. And new bands, too, the most notable being Dragonforce, an amazing speed metal outfit. Little venues like the Croation Cultural Centre, which is becoming a major metal stop these days, and stadiums of thousands and thousands – I’m loving it all.

Metal. A whole musical genre built on the diminished fifth, the tri-tone, a chord so dissonant it was anathema to classical composers and for a long while banned by the Catholic Church for its supposed power to summon the devil. Diabolus in musica, the Devil’s Chord.

Metal. A rock genre with little structural commonality with any other rock music. It’s basic unit is not the song, but the album. A genre in which radio’s three-minute, chorus-laced standard is regularly eschewed for 8-12 minutes pieces with no consistent time signature. A genre in which it is not uncommon to see two or three instrumental pieces on a 10 song record. A genre in which basic blues get played with heavy distortion and overlaid with jazz and lots and lots of classical.

At least, that’s what the musicologists talk about.

But it’s also a theatrical genre. The concept- and album-based tendencies combined make for music that is to be performed or taken in for long periods – there’s no string of random songs here, no four-minute singalong, but instead the creation of an atmosphere, the telling of a story. Add to that the fact that metal – for all the reasons above as much as its noise-levels – never got any radio airplay, so its focus was entirely upon live performance and the development of an overall visual/ sonic spectacle. This is operatic performance, regardless of the sound – everything is bigger than life, everything is melodrama, everything is epic struggle. Metal is musical theatre.

And the subculture? Kinda split. There’s the adolescent, aggressive male audience which is all piss and beer and blood, and there’s the “musicianship” audience, still male but more intellectual, reserved, and often highly-proficient. Motley Crue’s Nikki Sixx writes in his book, The Heroin Diaries about the disjuncture between his sleaze-rock culture and those of some of the bands they toured with – bands that would spend all day locked in their hotel rooms practicing, taking lessons, while the Crue boys just wanted coke and pussy and more coke and more pussy.

Me, I love it all. The theatrics and the crazy 14 minute songs about Viking battles and Greek mythology and Romantic poetry and classical literature. The sleazy performance rock which combines pop-oriented musicality with lyrics about nothing but sex with the over-the-top showmanship of power metal. The dirtiest dirtbags one will ever come across who wax to no end about intricate details of classical composers lives and practice for 6,7, 8 hours a day – musical nerds through and through. I get all of this in one subculture. And I get the chance to do nothing but denim and leather and gutteral screams for a few hours.

In a documentary on metal, A Headbanger’s Journey, Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden talks about how he can still do this. Being over  50, a professional-calibre fencer, a spy novelist and an airplane pilot, how does he stand up with a straight face in multi-colored spandex and sing history set to music. Bruce answers that while we all grow up, there’s a fifteen year old kid in us who never does. We can pretend he’s not there. We can beat him down. Or we can pull him out and take a few minutes or a few hours every now and then to give him the life he wants – that’s where metal starts and ends. It’s not a profound statement. It’s not an attempt to defend the genre on grounds of musical sophistication. But to me, it’s the whole truth.

Now, I have no illusions that anyone not immersed in the metal scene will have any idea what the hell I’m on about here. But that’s OK. My head’s still pounding, my ears are still ringing, my throat’s still raspy and sore. And I am fucking loving it.


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When I was in grade five, my friend Arthur showed up at school one day with a little tape-player and an earphone, and called me over before class began to take a listen. I’d never heard such sounds before. He then reached into his bag and pulled out an album cover – four guys, in full-make-up, demonic and cool and all black and white, leaping over a post-apocalyptic landscape. KISS Destroyer.

I took that album home that night and played it through – from the opening of Detroit Rock City, through the BDSM-fetishism of Sweet Pain, the gentleness of Beth, the crush of Do Y0u Love Me. I was fucking hooked. For months I saved up allowance money and bought every KISS album I could find. I’d move onto sleazy 80s rock and British metal over the next several years, but nothing ever compared with the feeling I had when I first played that KISS album, staring at the cover art.

KISS has stayed with me. It’s mostly crappy music, with little gems of great rorck’n’roll in the early stuff. It’s all the worst of the music industry, a band driven by a corporate sensibility, for whom selling calendars and bobble-heads and toilet paper and even coffins are what its all about, to the point that sometimes it’s hard to remember that there’s even any music here it all. Cause the music is an advertising soundtrack, the live shows just the schilling of product product product.

But I’m still in love with it somehow, the comic-book unreality of it, the broadway show appeal it has.

I’ve been thinking about this for a while now, and thinking about how this music came to be, and the world it came out of.

The early 1970s were a moment of profound global crisis, the global order shaken to its core by rebellions from Mexico to Prague to Paris to New York. Globally, strike levels reached an unprecedented peak, national liberation movements sprang up across the world, the last colonial adminstrations crumbled, feminist, student, indigenous and black nationalist movements rocked the foundations of the myth of America. Capital, state, church and traditional morality – all was under attack as resistances circled the globe, inspiring and feeding off one another like nothing since the last years of the first world war. The order was bankrupt, morally, politically, economically, and everybody knew it.

Of course, capital’s fightback in austerity and counter-insurgency would provide some significant re-stabilization in future years, but at that moment things looked pretty fucking bleak. Struggle had largely fizzeled out by 1973-1974; a counter-strategy to re-establish order had beeen developed, but was just in its earliest stages. What was left was crisis and disillusionment.

And this, I think, is what makes KISS so interesting. Especially when we put Gene, Paul, Ace and Peter up against another band that exploded from the same ground – the Ramones. Both groups came out of New York at just that time. Both centred musically on simple, catchy, chorus-led rock with added distortion and crunch. Both presented something new in image and approach. But what that was couldn’t be more different. And what that was, I think, is in part reflective of different approaches to the broader social and cultural crisis.

KISS’ whole gimmick was centred on the party – the world was falling apart, there was no faith in the world of adults, there was nothing of any substance to hold onto. But the musical response is a feel-good singalong, a celebration of sex and drink and good times for the sake of good times. That is the only morality. A new American Dream which is party culture, straight up. Flash and bang and confetti and sparkle – it’s a call to brave the crisis by retreat into excess.

The Ramones’ response starts from the same premise, the same socio-cultural place, but throws itself headfirst into the disillusionment, into the despair. This is music that also calls for a new youth culture, but one that is drab and angry and seeks quite simply to withdraw into shadows. Music not for an all-night party at some big empty house while the parents are away, but music for the kids who can’t find work, don’t want to find work, and get their kicks on sidewalks and in alleyways.

Now, I’m no musicologist, and really don’t know a damn thing about what I’m writing here. However, I do know a bit about crisis and about the dynamics of social struggles, and I’ve been quite struck by the fact that I can’t put on a Ramones or KISS album without thinking about that moment in history, and the youth culture that emerged when it became so abundantly clear in the early-mid 1970s that there was no hope in East or West, that there was nothing to order but order for its own sake.

And that feeling doesn’t come from any politics in the music. There are clearly no politics to early KISS other than the party-mantra (and in later years a more explicit US patriotism). But nor is there really in the Ramones – crisis, yes, but no articulation of any fundamental social consciousness. In fact, both bands are most well-known politically for the extreme right views expressed by some members in more recent years.

Working class culture, however, and working class experience of crisis do not necessarily lead to progressive politics. Responses can be many and varied, but all still have some pretty significant class content to them. There’s nothing to live for so we might as well just drink and fuck and laugh as long as we can. There’s nothing to live for so we might as well just give up entirely and lose ourselves in ourselves. Both resonated somewhere in the youth culture of economic and political collapse. And both generated a wave of not only music but also more product product product and their own subcultures in the decades after.

And that, I think, has a whole lot less to do with the music than with the time and the social context.

Make no mistake, though – I’m still a fan of both. Despite my over-powering need to analyze the shit out of things that should just be fun, there’s still nothing that can top Bltizkreig Bop or Love Gun playing at ten.  


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