Chapter 2 - In Search of the Essence of "Rock 'n Roll"

Lesson: Once you find something you like, don’t be afraid to pursue it with great passion (even if other people think you're weird).

Although this chapter is informed by my own experiences with rock-n-roll, I am going to make an honest attempt at identifying the “essence” of rock-n-roll. Why do this? My personal view is that you cannot understand yourself in a vacuum. You understand how unique you are based on how you differ from others. Without that frame of reference, you might be inclined to think everyone in the human race thinks, feels and acts just like you. Without others, we would not be able to get a better grasp of who we are.

The majority of songs and artists that I will reference in this book are based on my own likes and dislikes. I wanted to search for the essence of rock-n-roll so that I could see if the criteria that I’ve used to identify great music is similar to or different from the criteria that an average fan of rock-n-roll would use. Once identified, this “essence” will be something that will be useful to me in writing this book since it provides a measure against which to compare other musical selections in this book. This information will be helpful because it both serves as a window into my past and a measure of how far I have come in my appreciation of rock-n-roll music.

High Voltage Rock-n-Roll

I want to start by examining what songs that have some form of the word “rock” in the title tell us about rock-n-roll. Instead of picking from a list of “the best rock-n-roll songs of all time” or from my own list of most rockin’ tunes, I thought the inclusion of the word “rock” or some form of it in the title would likely indicate that the band was trying to say something about rock-n-roll or touching on a theme that is pivotal to the musical genre.

AC/DC is hands down the band that has most readily used the actual word “rock” in their song titles, so they merit their own section. AC/DC was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2003. (As a side note, the other artist that I found with the most frequent inclusion of the word “rock” in his song titles is Kid Rock, a fact which should not be a surprise given his performance name.)

I first heard AC/DC when Back in Black was released. I was an 8th grader and on the basketball team. The Cars’ Candy-O was popular as well. I heard these albums in the bus trips to our basketball games. I had never heard music like this. I used to go deer hunting with my grandfather and cousins. On those hunting trips we would sleep over in a ranch house and when the adults went to bed, our older cousins or youthful uncles would break out a variety of entertainment items that included a boom box and cassette version of classic rock albums. I remember hearing Pink Floyd (The Wall & Dark Side of the Moon) and Black Sabbath (Paranoid) albums for the first time.

One of my best friends in high school, whom we called Tweety, turned me onto a hard rock station from Corpus Christi. At that time, we didn’t have a rock station in “The Valley” (which is a name used to refer to the part of South Texas where I grew up). However, when the sun went down, we could hear the rock station from Corpus Christi. That is the first time I remember hearing “Stairway to Heaven.” All of these songs sort of creeped me out, because of the accusations that rock artists would include subliminal Satanic messages in their recordings. In several documentaries from that time period, the producers would play particular songs in reverse and then point out the Satanic messages, which honestly appeared to be unintelligible to me. If anything, this made us want to listen even more.

One of the first instances of AC/DC using the term “rock” in a song title is in the song “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘n Roll).” In this tune, the band appears to be trying to tell us something about the characteristics one must possess to qualify as a rock-n-roller: you’ve got to bust your behind and watch your back. Trust no one. Trust only rock-n-roll. The irony here is that AC/DC really hadn’t made it big yet when they wrote this song so it’s not clear that they were in a position to give advice to any other artists. The song “Rocker,” one of my favorites from AC/DC, tells you that you’ve got to do certain things to be a rocker. You have to be: “a brusier, a cruiser, a wheeler, dealer, wicked woman stealer, a rocker roller right out of controller.” From the many gold nuggets of wisdom embedded in this song collection, the following recurring themes of rock-n-roll emerged:

  1. Rock-n-roll is a Powerful Force . It matters. It is the real deal. It is a force to be reckoned with. It cannot be stopped. No matter what anyone says.
  2. Rock-n-roll is an Attitude (fearless, free and carefree)
  3. Rock-n-roll is about Pleasure (Go wild, Party, Have fun and Get it on)
  4. Rock-n-roll is about Pain (Life/love/drugs will kick your A$$. Be wary and don’t take it personally.)
  5. Rock-n-roll Demands Loyalty
  6. Rock-n-roll Gives You Courage to kick some A$$ and Do What Needs to Be Done.
  7. Rock-n-roll Can Show You the Way (to redemption, to hope, to inspiration, to healing, to your true self)
  8. Rock-n-roll Wants You to Pursue your Dreams and Passions (with passion)

Van Halen - 1984 (remastered)


Undoubtedly, the movies Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Breakfast Club, and Sixteen Candles would be the movies from my youth that incorporated rock-n-roll songs (and not just pop songs per se) into the movie in a significant way. Fast Times included songs by Tom Petty, Joe Walsh, the Go Go’s, and Don Henley, not to mention the infamous quoting of several Cheap Trick songs by one of the lead characters that was a ticket scalper. Breakfast Club incorporates songs from AC/DC, David Bowie, Stevie Ray Vaughn and The Beatles, but some of the other selections were a bit more suspect. I also remember watching the animated film, Heavy Metal I, which without a doubt had more of a hard edge and obscure song selections.

Other rock tunes that I vividly recall because of their use in movies include:

  • “Lust for Life” – Iggy Pop – Trainspotting
  • “Foxy Lady” - Jimi Hendrix – Wayne’s World
  • “I Want to Take You Higher (boom chaka laka laka)” – Sly & the Family Stone – Stripes
  • “Rock and Roll, Pt. 2 - Hey Song)” – Gary Glitter – The Adventures of Ford Fairlane
  • “Bad to the Bone” – George Thorogood – Terminator II
  • “Bad Moon on the Rise” – Clearance Clearwater Revival – American Werewolf in London
  • “In the City” – Joe Walsh – The Warriors
  • “Old Time Rock & Roll” – Bob Seger – Risky Business
  • “Bohemian Rhapsody” – Queen – Wayne’s World
  • “This is the End” – The Doors – Apocalypse Now

Terminator 2 - Bad to the Bone

I wanted to find a “rock” movie or two that could help in uncovering the essential themes and attitude of rock-n-roll as a genre. I saw for the first time or re-watched Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, Heavy Metal I & II, Spinal Tap, The Blues Brothers, Wayne’s World I & II, The Rocker, Dazed and Confused, Everybody Wants Some and Rock of Ages. Some movies had better and more extensive soundtracks than others, and some had better story lines. In the end, I had to pick movies that would aid me in my quest to find the essence of rock-n-roll. Ironically, that led me to select two rock spoofs, School of Rock and Spinal Tap, and a broadway musical, American Idiot, based on the classic album by the rock group, Green Day, as the vehicle by which to continue this exploration.

Since one of the essential criteria of rock-n-roll is “doing what feels goods” (i.e., #3 - Rock-n-roll is about Pleasure) then having a good laugh, especially about yourself, is most definitely in order. Spinal Tap is one of the most classic parodies of rock-n-roll culture. It takes on stage antics, group/band dynamics, the complexity of songwriting (or not), and the difficulty of navigating the business aspects of being in a band. The funniest parts of the “rockumentary” are the interviews between the filmmaker and the band members. The band is most certainly portrayed as clueless, which points to one of the perceptions of rock musicians as being un-sophisticated. The drummer for me is the most memorable—he is apparently the fourth drummer of the group with all previous drummers having died. When asked how he feels about it he says that the law of averages is on his side. What are the chances that a fourth drummer is going to die? This same character is asked about his philosophy or creed for life, and he gives the typical, “sex, drugs and rock-n-roll.” When asked what he would do if he couldn’t be a rock star any more, he says he’d probably be alright as long as he still has the sex and drugs.

The themes of the songs performed by Spinal Tap are probably the most pertinent to this book and this chapter in particular. The songs from the early incarnations of the group have a sixties folk rock sound to them. Those songs just really don’t make any sense to me, so I can’t say too much about them. That may have been the point (hopefully). There’s a couple of songs that are unapologetically about appreciating the opposite sex, a couple about rockin’ your heart out, one about how life stinks, and a couple about mystical topics (“Rock-n-roll Creation” and “Stonehenge”). It is this focus on the unexplained and the supernatural where I believe Spinal Tap adds to our profile of rock-n-roll, because it really is a common theme, especially for groups like Iron Maiden, Blue Oyster Cult and Black Sabbath. In “Rock-n-Roll Creation,” God specifically takes a day out from his busy week of creation to create rock-n-roll and to state that “it was good.”

The contributions of the Jack Black/Richard Linklater collaboration, School of Rock, are hilarious if not essential in our quest for the essential elements of rock music. To provide a little context, in this movie, Jack Black is a musician that is hard-up for cash to pay the rent. He impersonates his roommate as a substitute teacher to make the extra cash. Since he “ain’t no teacher,” the only thing he can teach is how to play rock music. So, that is what he teaches all day, every day for nearly three weeks. The best lesson he teaches is when he asks each member of his class what pisses them off the most, and they each start sharing. The intensity of the students’ reactions increase with each thing mentioned. At the end of the lesson he asks, “Now is everyone nice and pissed off? Yeah? Well, good, now we’re ready to rock-n-roll.”

The quotes from Jack Black are, of course, the highlight of the entire movie. The main messages conveyed are that you have to have passion, attitude, confidence, commitment, and gratitude (for the opportunity to rock). These themes have already been included in our rock criteria, but I just couldn’t resist including a few memorable quotes from the movie:

“I serve society by rockin’. I’m out there on the front lines liberating people with my music. Rockin’ ain’t no walk in the park!”

“What’s rock all ask? Stickin’ it to the man!”

Prayer before performing: “God of rock. Thank you for this chance to kick-A$$. We are your humble servants. Please give us the power to blow people’s minds with our high voltage rock.”

I end the contribution to this search for the essence of rock-n-roll from rock movies with a source that is not even a movie, but a couple of albums from the legendary band, Green Day, that were transformed into a Broadway musical. I know hard rock/heavy metal and Broadway may seem like a bad mixture, but Rock of Ages and American Idiot both were adaptions of the rock genre that I actually enjoyed. I picked American Idiot and not Rock of Ages because the album American Idiot and songs from it kept popping up in other sections of this book, but were not used in those sections for one reason or another. Because American Idiot The Musical used the classic Green Day album American Idiot (with a few songs infused from their follow-up album, 21st Century Breakdown), it seemed like this reproduction had something significant to contribute to my search for the essence of rock-n-roll.

The story for the Broadway musical includes a group of three friends from a town whose clutches they seek to flee. Only two out of the group of three actually make it out to the big city. Life is not kind to any of them in their pursuit of success and love. The story ends with a homecoming where the three friends meet back up in their home town at their old hang out. It’s not a triumphant return but a return that celebrates survival if nothing else, which one might argue is a triumph of sorts and a more typical American experience. The point behind this all too brief synopsis is to convey that this story could represent almost any town, neighborhood, or group of friends. So, even though I didn’t grow up in the suburbs (but in a small border town), I could relate to the story. What I envision is that this story could be re-made based on the story of twenty somethings from any American City

The lyrics of the songs in American Idiot (either the original album or the Broadway remake) include almost all of the essential criteria for rock-n-roll that I have heretofore outlined. No other album I encountered in this rock journey come as close to accomplishing this feat. The song, “Jesus of Suburbia,” itself, might contain half of the criteria in and of itself. Although “Jesus of Suburbia” is not my absolute favorite song from the album (the “Holiday/Boulevard of Broken Dreams” combo holds that honor), I now marvel at its magnificence. This album also helps to bring to light another recurring theme and thus another essential characteristic of rock-n-roll:

9. Rock-n-roll Despises All Things That Are Fake (so be true to yourself and don’t succumb to the lies).

Albums that Mattered When It Mattered For Me

I wanted to pick several albums that stood out as stalwarts for me and my band of rockers in our high school days. Since it is these albums that christened my relationship with rock-n-roll, I think it is worth looking at what attracted me to the genre initially. For one, it was different from what everyone else was listening to in school. We did not have a rock station so access was limited to anything but traditional Mexican and Tejano music and to top forty stations. We felt like we were “it” since we had our own thing going. It helped that we had a few guys in our clique with older brothers who were really the ones in the know. Plus, we had a few guys in our circle who moved to the Valley from parts unknown and so they brought great musical knowledge (and cassettes) with them.

In junior high, I was in the band and played first chair trombone. I had also been playing baseball since little league and wanted to play baseball in high school. My band director got wind that I was planning to play baseball in high school and asked if I was planning to quit band. I said no, since I didn’t see a conflict because baseball season was in the Spring and not the Fall. He said that the Spring was for orchestra work and individual competition. I told him I didn’t want to compete. He said that this was a life decision I was going to have to make and if I didn’t want to commit, then I could turn in my instrument by the end of class. I said, “O.K. I will,” and he said “Good.” And that was the end of my musical career. A life decision at age 15.

Without a band period in my class schedule, I could add athletics and so I decided to play all three sports. I got to be good friends with all of the athletes in school. This is not a bad thing when you are kind of nerdy, scrawny and not so tough. I remember a few times when some kids would try to give me a hard time, I would happen to walk by the hall where the lineman from the football team would hang out. They’d notice the situation and ask, “Is there a problem here?” This only needed to happen a few times before people realize that you are not to be messed with…by association. My teammates probably won’t even remember this, but it is quite vivid in my head. When your a$$ is literally liable to be kicked, you don’t forget such things.

Being in athletics was key to my love of music because in the Valley, you have to travel via bus from 30 minutes to two hours (each way) for away games so there is a lot of time for playing and sharing music in boom boxes and Sony Walkmans (this was the early ‘80’s). Now, bus trips were not all fun and games when you are one of the scrawniest guys on the team. There was a lot of horseplay, and I (and others) definitely get messed with for entertainment. In my case, the horseplay typically stopped when I threatened to stop sharing homework answers. I must state for the record that such sharing was very rare and only done when my threats of not sharing were countered with serious threats of bodily harm. From experience, I can say that the look in the eyes of the person making the threat is usually a good indication of the seriousness of the threat. These are true survival skills that proved to be useful in the horse trading of the political world of which I would later become a part.

I was leading a double life as a teacher’s pet and semi-jock, two roads that each had their own benefits. There was most certainly an art to this balancing act as well as corresponding advantages. I could literally cut class without cutting class by participating in double the extracurricular activities. As a good student, I was part of the math and science teams that traveled to other schools for competitions. Between athletics and the academic meets and club meetings, I missed class a lot. But yet, I always had my excused absence slips and always received my perfect attendance certificates. Since my grades were never affected, nobody really seemed to care or notice. I greatly benefitted from the fact that teachers are overworked and, fittingly or not, were more concerned with those students not doing so well. It is ironic that the students who don’t want the teachers’ attention are the ones that get it.

I want to highlight a few albums from my high school days, but before doing so I want to say a little about my circle of friends and the mischief we got into. The albums listed above were those we often used to cruise the streets of our beloved Rio Grande City. We often would be cruising with my friend MC who had the coolest little car with the loudest stereo. We’d crank up the volume and make our presence known. Who knows if anyone gave a flip, but it felt good to be listening to our own music when others were listening to Top 40 or more traditional Tex-Mex or Norteño.

MC’s family owned one of the funeral homes in town which I supposed made it possible for both MC and his older brother to have their own cars. The typical members of the crew were Wile (pronounced “wee-leh”) and Big-O (who went to Stanford the same year I did). I assume MC’s knowledge of rock music was greatly informed by his big-brother’s collection. When we weren’t cruising around town, we’d be playing pick-up basketball behind the funeral home and, of course, cranking the rock music. It sounds like the scene was primed for a Night of the Living Dead ending to the story, but we never really succeeded in waking the dead. We were often around when the night shift workers had to abandon the game to do a “pick-up,” but it never really creeped us out for some reason.

I must say a little something about my friend Wile. He is anglo and has a “white-sounding” last name, was pale-faced, and had blue eyes. The thing about Wile is that he spoke Spanish almost as well as those of us whose first language was Spanish. He and his brother, JR (RIP), were in all the same schools and all the same classes as us, so how could they not speak Spanish? They had to adapt if they wanted to fit in. When my college buddies visited Rio Grande City during a break from Stanford, they met Wile. I recall them saying, he talks just like you guys do, accent and all. Keep in mind that this is not “real” Spanish, it is a Tex-Mex form of the language that is not quite English and not quite Spanish, but Spanglish. We lived right on the border with Mexico, so everything was mashed-up, language and culture included.

A separate set of cruising buddies were some of my baseball teammates. Baseball was the only varsity sport that I played. I gave up football and basketball in 11th grade to “focus on my strengths.” Wile was also part of this crew which included Redman and Melman. Big-O played baseball, but he was not part of this set of cruising buddies because this was a crew of drinking buddies. Big O was a straight shooter. He was even more of a straight shooter than me. This crew tended to act a little more crazy. We’d dress-up in camouflaged clothing, sneak into Fort Ringgold (where all public school buildings were located), and would just have fun out-running security. Dodging security was the whole point of the exercise. The point was not to vandalize or steal anything. Not sure what would have happened if we’d have been caught, but I’m glad we weren’t.

Now, this crew of drinking buddies was very goal oriented. It was not just about the drinking. One fun activity was that we would take the plastic letters from the convenience store signs to spell the names of the girls we liked. Then this collection of letters would be delivered to the unsuspecting young ladies. We also frequently held target practice as we cruised around town. We’d select a target somewhere along the route and every time we cruised near the target, someone would fling an empty bottle at the target. One of my proudest moments is when we picked the “Dr. Beardsley” sign as the target, and I was the first to hit it dead-center. As I like to tell it, I hit the target “right in the Dr. Beardsley.” It sounds painful when you say it that way. Thank goodness the sign was made out of thick, unbreakable plastic and not glass.

The most surreal moment that the drinking crew was involved in is when we all dressed up like “kickers” (i.e., in country-western attire, cowboy hats, cowboy boots and all) so that we could sneak-in to a bar at a hotel that we knew has a side door that was not monitored. The plan worked to a T except that there was one hitch. My mom, who never went out for a drink, chose this very occasion to go out with her friends for a drink. They happened to choose the very bar WE snuck into for THEIR late night excursion. When we became aware of this fact, we snuck out of there just about as fast as we had snuck-in (at least that’s what I think happened). Tweety was my other best friend, but he neither drank, nor played basketball nor liked cruising in a tightly packed car full of guys to listen to music at decibel levels that literally may have caused harm to our ear drums. Needless to say, he was one of the smartest of us all. I would argue that he was THE smartest, although I graduated closer to the top of our class. He attended an Ivy League school while I went off to the West Coast to Stanford. I almost attended Dartmouth instead of Stanford because that was the university he opted to attend. I didn’t keep up with Tweety much when we went off to college, but I do want to acknowledge him for sharing his musical knowledge and writing my Salutatorian speech which was very well received.

Not only was Tweety smarter than all of us, but he also had a greater knowledge of rock-n-roll than us. Like MC, Tweety had an older brother and, thus, had access to a higher knowledge of rock. It was almost as if they both had access to an oracle. Tweety turned me onto Rush, Triumph, Metallica, Queensryche, Pink Floyd, and Led Zeppelin. He is the friend who told me about the Corpus Christi rock station whose signal was audible at night time. My contribution to the musical exchange between me and Tweety were the likes of Dokken, Motley Crew, Quiet Riot, Ratt, etc. Probably not the same league (with all due respect to the artists), but it was a good combination of new rock and classic rock.

Tweety really did seem to have access to a higher power. At our young age and in the early 1980’s, he could already appreciate Dylan. He also knew that Letterman was the best late-night talk show host, which of course he was for the longest time. I couldn’t stay up late enough to watch the evening news, much less to watch Letterman. So Tweety would have to give me the Letterman play by play each morning. He could also tell when a “pretty young thing” had that hots for me. Such signals were invisible to me for some reason. I was never very adept at wooing members of the opposite sex. I’m still amazed that Theresa married me, even after I made one faux paus after another during the courting period.

When I quit football in 11th grade, Tweety and I would sit in the bleachers during the Friday night games and do the play by play announcing of the football games, like they did on Sunday afternoon NFL games and on ESPN. We were good at play by play. I know this because the people around us would often chuckle. And it was a great time to be a Rio Grande City Rattlers’ fan, because those two years were both years where we made the playoffs. We actually took our color commentary on the road! I still remember the playoff game our Junior year: “Vela takes the snap at his own 20 yard line, fakes the handoff to Cantu, drops back to pass, has a Fernandez open along the near sideline. Nothing but daylight between Fernandez and the end zone. Vela launches the pass (the entire stadium goes silent while the ball is in the air) … and it is just off the fingertips of Fernandez (a collective sign of disappointment from the Rattler fans). What a golden opportunity, folks! You’re not going to get too many chances like that, not in the playoffs. No sir-ee!” I may have gotten the names of the players wrong in the re-telling of these actual events, but you get the gist of it. We lost that game 19 to 13 so the above play was important indeed.

The Musical Journey Continues

We now continue our journey to define the essence of rock-n-roll by perusing the songs from some of the albums listed above that were commonly blasted in the car stereo, on the boom box or on a Sony Walkman. It was really hard to pick these but in the end, it is a good combination, especially for the early 1980’s. Albums that didn’t make the list but are worthy of an honorable mention are: ZZ Top - Best of ZZ Top (1977), The Cars - The Cars (1978), Billy Squier – Emotions in Motion (1982), The Police - Ghost in the Machine (1981).

The only greatest hits album I will reference in this book is Black Sabbath’s greatest hits collection, We Sold Our Souls for Rock and Roll. I made it a point NOT to include greatest hits “albums” in my selection of albums. I really didn’t think going with “greatest hits” showed enough commitment to the artists. A lot of thought goes into writing and selecting songs for an album, and I wanted to pick something that provided more insight into the “soul” of the group. I decided to make an exception for We Sold Our Souls for Rock and Roll because it conveys almost the exact opposite sentiment as the title of this memoir.

Most of the songs in We Sold Our Souls for Rock and Roll, I put in Category 8, 5, and 3. The creepy ones, that are nightmare-ish and make you feel really afraid, I put in Category 8 as a type of bad dream. These may not be the kid of dreams you pursue, but they do allow you to use your imagination to escape the mundane. For those who may be familiar with this greatest hits collection, you may be wondering “what about the songs with clear drug references?” Generally, I place those in Category 3 because of how drugs make you feel (theoretically of course) or Category 5, because drugs can, and most likely will, kick you’re a$$....eventually. War Pigs didn’t fit in to any existing category, but it touches on the anti-war sentiment that has been a part of the lexicon of rock since the Vietnam War at the very least. “War Pigs” is one of the greatest rock songs of all times, so it must fit in somewhere. To do the song and our examination of rock justice, we’ll add Category 10: “Rock-n-Roll Despises War.”

To recap, below is the complete list of the essential characteristics of rock-n-roll that derived from the musical explorations in this chapter which I will from here on out refer to as “The Code of Rock-n-Roll.”. There certainly is much more depth to the rock genre than the “sex, drugs and rock-n-roll” mantra and image.

The Code of Rock-n-Roll

  1. Rock-n-roll is a Powerful Force . It matters. It is the real deal. It is a force to be reckoned. with. It cannot be stopped. No matter what anyone says.
  2. Rock-n-roll is an Attitude (fearless, free and carefree).
  3. Rock-n-roll is about Pleasure (Go wild, party, have fun and get it on).
  4. Rock-n-roll is about Pain (Life/love/drugs will kick your A$$. Be wary and don’t take it personally.)
  5. Rock-n-roll Demands Loyalty.
  6. Rock-n-roll Gives You Courage to Kick Some A$$ and Do What Needs to Be Done.
  7. Rock-n-roll Can Show You the Way (to redemption, to hope, to inspiration, to healing, to your true self).
  8. Rock-n-roll Wants You to Pursue your Dreams and Passions (with passion).
  9. Rock-n-roll Despises All Things That Are Fake (so be true to yourself and don’t succumb to the lies).
  10. Rock-n-roll Despises War (as we all should).

    Black Sabbath - War Pigs

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