Chapter 7 – The Greats Create & Destroy
Lesson: Art and music are powerful instruments of creation. As fate would have it, sometimes in order to create, you must destroy.
The decision to introduce the concept of death into this rock treatise was a difficult one, but it became ever more clear that such a perspective was needed when the theme of juxtaposing creation and destruction emerged. I knew I would need to take the utmostcare in discussing bands who lost a band member to tragedy so as to not make light of the circumstances or be disrespectful to the artists, their bandmates, and their families. As I read the artist and band biographies for this chapter, I was looking to see if the artists recognized that they were operating in an environment that was rampant with risk as they pushed their personal and artistic boundaries on behalf of rock ‘n roll.
When we create, we feel like we are alive. We feel like we’re truly living life to the fullest. It is exhilarating to have a hand in creating something that did not exist before. But we are not creating something out of thin air. We are taking something that exists and creating something new out of it. This new creation may be unrecognizable in form as compared to the original. It is in this sense that I say that we are destroying as we are creating. It is not the base substance that is created but the form of that substance. But the form of the substance is what is known to us and if that original form is gone then isn’t that form destroyed, at least until it’s rediscovered?
I will use Jimi Hendrix as an example of what it means to destroy as one creates. Hendrix was well versed in the early styles of rock-n-roll which themselves drew from styles such as blues, swing/jazz, and gospel, among others. The bands that Hendrix played with early in his career wanted to make it big, and so they played the style of rock-n-roll being played on the radio at the time. This kind of rock music was not structured in such a way that allowed the electric guitar to shine. During live performances, Hendrix would at times embark on extended guitar solos which inevitably led to a reprimand if not a departure from the band.
He came to realize that his guitar prowess would never be accepted in the U.S. the way the music industry was structured. He was invited to England at the end of 1966 (around the time I was born) to form a band that revolved around his guitar playing and song writing. This was an era where bands with strong lead guitars, such as the Yardbirds, Cream, the Who, and the Stones, were greatly revered and sought after in the U.K. Unbridled by the limitations put on musicians by record companies and radio stations in the U.S., Hendrix could play the guitar the way he was moved to play it, the way he had wanted to play it all along. His guitar prowess was unmatched even by British guitar royalty, and he skyrocketed to rock stardom.
Hendrix died in 1970, about four years after arriving in England, having shattered established conceptions of the electric guitar. It is probably more accurate to say that in those four years, Jimi Hendrix established the fact that the electric guitar had no limitations. His experimentations with electronic devices that would alter the sound of the guitar when performing live and in studio recordings forever changed how musicians and fans viewed musical prowess on the electric guitar.
The new image that he presented for the instrument was so different that one could never look at that instrument in the same way again. Thus, what was destroyed was not the instrument itself but the image we had of the instrument. The world of possibilities for the electric guitar was so expanded by Hendrix that it is unfathomable to us how it is that we had accepted such a narrow view of the instrument. This new understanding does not negate the power or beauty of the previous uses and images of the instrument. Quite the opposite. This new conception of the electric guitar provides added freedom for fans and exponents of the instrument to explore its vast reaches.
If you study the meanings in his songs and the world views he expresses in interviews, you recognize that Hendrix also had an expanded view of the world and humanity’s role in it. It’s as if his expanded view of Creation led him to understand the potential of the electric guitar within the Universe, thus allowing him to push the limits of the instrument.
This is but one example of an artist who “destroyed” in order to create, but what might we learn from this example? What the Hendrix experience suggests to me is that our understanding of the possibilities/potential inherent in a particular artistic medium is what changes, not the medium itself. The medium always had that potential. The artists’ use of that medium in a particular way is what expanded our understanding of the medium. Artists like Hendrix expand our consciousness. As I have posited, if expanding consciousness is the fundamental purpose of the Universe, then the work of artists who expand our consciousness is something that is not only attractive to us but also to the Universe itself.
Live and Alive: How live music & live albums cemented my relationship with rock ‘n roll.
Before going into more depth about the fine line that musicians and rowdy rockers tend to walk, I want to begin by describing how important live music has been to me. I love going to concerts. Always have, always will. When I was an undergraduate student, I probably averaged two concerts per month, so I probably went to almost 100 concerts over the course of four years. Once upon a time, I had all of the ticket stubs and a mess load of concert programs, but they were all destroyed due to water damage. Now, as a father of two, I really don’t get to go to concerts as much as I would like, although I have seen Rush six times and the following artists at least one time each over the last 5 to 7 years: Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder, The Who, Iron Maiden, Metallica, and The Cure. U2 really doesn’t tour much and doesn’t typically come to Austin, so I haven’t seen them since The Joshua Tree tour.
Why so many concerts while in college? Partly because I would save up a good amount of money working in the summers so that I would have spending cash during the academic year. The fact that I was from a small town and was not able to go to many concerts in high school probably motivated me to go. I was making up for lost time. I also loved the intense vibe from the crowd and the musicians, the “not-knowing” if they would play my favorite song or do a memorable cover of a classic song, and the chance to share the experience with others who felt the same way I did about the band and their music. Mostly, it was a chance to forget my troubles and blow off steam. It really was a rejuvenating process for me.
My keen interest in live performances and albums also probably contributed to my desire to experience the shows first hand. The earliest live concert I remember watching on TV was Elvis when he played live from Honolulu, Hawaii. He wore a white outfit covered in rhinestones that just blew me away. There were also several HBO concerts that I loved watching over and over, Simon & Garfunkel-Live in Central Park, Neil Diamond, and Billy Joel. The versions of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and “The Sound of Silence” that Simon and Garfunkel performed live were just surreal to me. I could really feel and not just hear what they were singing about, and for me “to feel” was a big deal (both then and now). And that was the first time I had even heard either of those two songs. Neil Diamond is just a powerful singer, and, truth be told, I liked Billy Joel initially because he sang the theme song to the TV show Bosom Buddies and then later because of album, The Nylon Curtain.
Live and Alive II: When the music is live, we are alive.
When I was an undergraduate student, I wore concert t-shirts almost every day, except for my first year since I hadn’t amassed a collection yet. I just loved going to concerts, sometimes even by myself. I felt like I wasn’t alone but was sharing it with other people with whom I had something in common. And I loved duking it out on the floor (i.e., in general admission) and making my way to the front of the stage. The mosh pit was exhilarating but painful for a scrawny guy like me. The front of the stage is not a bad place to be because that is where the die-hards reside, so everyone is singing along and, the women who venture into those parts use very dramatic ways of getting the band members’ attention (i.e., exposing themselves to the artists, throwing their undergarments on stage, etc.).
The great thing about live performances is that you never know what‘s going to happen. You expect to hear the band’s standards but you also expect to hear and see things you’ve never seen or heard. For instance, if you go to an Iron Maiden show, you know that Eddie (their mascot, for lack of a better word) will make an appearance, but you have no idea what form he will take: life-size, giant-sized, old-school Eddie, new-album concept Eddie, etc. The whole show you are left wondering and waiting, and then it happens … and the crowd goes wild! The drum solo also creates a similar anticipation and maybe half the time, yields a state of satisfaction. Eddie satisfies every time, like a Snickers bar.
Chapter 7 Songs & Albums
Favorite Live Albums (Pre-High School):
War - Double Live
Isaac Hayes & Dione Warwick – A Man and a Woman
Ronnie Milsap - Ronnie Milsap Live
Favorite Live Albums (High School):
Cheap Trick - Cheap Trick at Budakon
Rush – All the World’s a Stage; Exit Stage Left
Concerts Attended (High School):
Triumph – Thunder Seven
Bryan Adams – Reckless
Concerts Attended (College/Graduate School):
There are too many to list but what I will say, with all due respect, is that the Stevie Ray Vaughn, Santana and Los Lobos concerts were the ones to which I would most look forward. There was that time when Santana came on-stage to play with Stevie Ray!
Favorite Live Albums, Concert Videos or Rockumenteries
U2 – Under a Blood Red Sky
Santana – Moonflower
Nirvana - MTV Unplugged
Talking Heads - Stop Making Sense
Metallica - Some Kind of Monster
U2 - U2 360 at the Rose Bowl
Rush - Beyond the Lighted Stage
Foo Fighters - Live at Wembley Stadium
Favorite Concerts Attended Not in the Hard Rock Genre
In the Bay Area:
Prince, Earth Wind & Fire, Kool & the Gang, BB King, Albert King
At Antone’s: Austin’s Home of the Blues
Fabulous Thunderbirds*, Doug Sahm, Buddy Guy, Maceo Parker
At the Victory Grill (Austin):
Bobby Blue Bland
At The Mercury (Austin):
At the Travis County Rodeo (Austin):
At the One World Theater(Austin):
Austin City Limits (TV Tapings):
Buena Vista Social Club, Etta James, Nancy Griffith, Willie Nelson @ ACL Live 2011
Concerts by Salsa/Latin Jazz Legends (Performing in Austin):
Tito Puente, Celia Cruz, Ray Barreto, Arturo Sandoval, Chucho Valdez, Oscar de Leon, Eddie Palmieri, Larry Harlow, Yomo Toro
*These live performances are the some of the most unforgettable because of a feeling of elevation and euphoria produced by Kim Wilson’s harmonica playing, Jimmy Smith’s organ playing, and McCoy Tyner’s piano playing. It was as if the sounds created by these artists permeated (and healed) every cell of your body.
Of course, going to so many live shows leads to many memorable moments. The travel to and from the show can get pretty interesting in and of itself. I remember being stuck on the San Mateo Bridge (in the San Francisco Bay Area) on my way to a Pink Floyd show (A Momentary Lapse of Reason Tour). It is a very long bridge and there was an accident way ahead of us. We all missed the first half of the show, but we heard more Pink Floyd waiting on the bridge than we probably did at the show. It was pretty cool just walking around and listening to who was playing what album. Of course, I had to go to the show the next day so I could watch the entire show and not just the last half.
Another time, before I even had a car, I bought a ticket to go see Kiss at the Cow Palace in San Francisco. No one that I knew was going to the show, so I figured I would just take Cal Train and walk from the train station to the arena. I don’t know if I got off on the wrong stop, but I had to walk for an hour and a half and then I found myself up on a ridge and could see the Cow Palace at a distance. It was physically not far, but I would have to figure out how to get off the high ridge and to the show within 30 minutes to get there by the start time. I knew I wouldn’t make it on time if I tried to figure out how to get there via the street system, so I just made my way down the hill somehow. It would have been a lot easier if I would have paid for a cab, but boys from el rancho (the country) don’t pay for cabs. Besides, if I would have used my money for a cab then I wouldn’t have had enough money to buy my concert t-shirt…and concert program…and bandana.
One of the decisions I question was when my family was all meeting up in Houston for a reunion. I was in college in California at the time, so I didn’t get back to Texas but a couple of times per year. During the reunion, I got wind of the fact that Boston would be playing Texas Jam 1987 at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas that weekend. Boston had just reunited for their third album that had been rumored to be in the works ever since the last one (10 years earlier). Promptly …I mean after much soul searching…I purchased a bus ticket to Dallas in hopes that the show wouldn’t be sold out. Of course, the show was sold out because it also featured Aerosmith (headlining), Poison, Whitesnake, Tesla, and Fahrenheit. I had to buy a scalped ticket, and there went my concert t-shirt money. It wouldn’t have been right to just turn around and go back to Houston having missed the reunion AND the show. I realized while on the four hour drive to Dallas from Houston that I had made one of those bonehead moves that guys make by leaving my family, but the damage was done. My bad (and my good)! I would have never, ever seen Boston if I had not made that show.
The next year, 1988, marked one of my funniest concert stories. I was home for Spring Break and it happened that my favorite band at the time, Triumph, was playing the Spring Break Jam in South Padre Island. The sights and the sounds! How could I not go? I went and heard a great show. It happened that at this particular show, I had a recording device. After the show, I saw the members of Triumph going into a side stage area with a security guard. I thought to myself, I sure would love to meet the guys. Well, for some reason, as I was pondering the thought of meeting the band, the security guard just left his post. I took this as a sign that I should go meet the band, and I went through the door.
It turned out that that was the post-gig press conference with the band and all of the media. Being that I had a recording device with me, I pretended to be a member of the press. I had my recorder right up there with everyone else. The reporters really had no idea who the band was and were asking your typical, “tell us about your new record,” “how are you liking it here in South Padre,” etc. I decided to show the band that at least one person there was a true fan. When no one else had a question, I started with my own question. And I said something like: “This question goes back to your first album. Remember, there was this song on that album called “The Blinding Light Show.” Can you please explain what exactly that song was about?” An honest question from someone who clearly knew something about the band. After a very uncomfortable silence, I got the “if there are no further questions, this interview is over.” I’m not sure I even got to shake their hands, but I’m pretty sure I rubbed elbows (literally) with either Rick Emmet or Gil Moore. I’m not sure Mike Levine made it to the press conference. The bass player always gets the shaft.
The next concert story goes from my funniest story to a story of tragedy averted. It was U2’s Joshua Tree Tour at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum in 1988. A bunch of friends attended this concert, including my friend Gome. I kept bragging about how awesome it was to go to the front of the stage, so he decided to go with me. Keep in mind this is an outdoor stadium show. It is a mega-show featuring a mega-band. Some of the women at the very front were crushed by the force of the crowed pushing against them. The other fans would pick them up and throw them over the edge to the guards on the opposite side of the barricade so that they could get medical attention. Gome and I were 20 or 25 bodies back from the stage, a great vantage point for such a huge venue.
At these large shows where the entire field is general admission, the mass of people basically begins to move in wave-like patterns, like waves of the sea. At some point, the wave of people receded from our back and left a huge void, throwing us off balance. I got down on one knee and bounced right back up. My buddy, Gome, fell down completely and before he could get up the wave of people crashed back over the void, on top of him. I thought to myself, “He’s going to die, and it’s all my fault.” I was pushing people out of the way, and I could see an outstretched hand which I immediately grabbed. For the life of me I could not get the people to move out of the way. It was physically impossible to move anyone, but I would not let go of his hand. I just kept pulling his hand and pushing people out of the way with my other hand, and he finally emerged from the wreckage (i.e., he was not the only person who was submerged). I think we just high-tailed it out of that area, just happy to have survived the situation. I don’t recall much else from that show after that except singing along to the song, “40,” as everyone was exiting the arena. “How long…to sing this song?” The sing-along ending to the U2 show led me to think about those shows where I recall other sing-along moments. Three particular concerts came to mind. In all three, I recall being on the floor near the stage pushing, sweating and, above all, singing along to the following verses of the noted songs with everyone around me. Picture a whole bunch of people singing in unison, at the top of their lungs with fists raised up.
Where you gonna hide when it all comes down…. don’t look back, don’t ever turn around!
It’s a light that shines but… never warms. Oh the light that never warms. Hey…hey, hey!
Run, live to fly, fly to live, do or die, aces high!
These sing along experiences are the most vivid of all of the concert stories I’ve shared. When I listen to these songs, I think of these moments, and I actually feel these moments as if they had just occurred. These are examples of “the power to feel” that music has granted me, something denied to me by early childhood experiences and the hum-drum nature of everyday life.
Why Jimi & Stevie Ray?
This chapter was originally to tip my hat to the most venerable of instruments, the electric guitar, by paying homage to two guitar greats, Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan. These are two guitar wizards who made you believe that, with the guitar, anything is possible. The depth of the emotions that they conveyed simply through the use of a single instrument was nothing short of miraculous. You combine this guitar artistry with the fact that Hendrix and Vaughan were excellent song writers possessing extremely unique vocal abilities, and you get a potency that cannot be contained. Unfortunately, this world could not contain them. We lost them too early, but we can still marvel and emulate. RIP!
The artistry of these two artists was such that you felt they could do anything with the guitar. More specifically, they made you feel what they were trying to say in a song because the lyric and guitar playing were unified in delivering the message since they both came from the same person. There was no division between the songwriter’s message in the lyric and the guitar player’s and vocalist’s musical interpretations of what the songwriter was trying to say because the songwriter was the guitar player and vocalist. This “clarity and unity in messaging” within the songs by Hendrix and Vaughan may be one reason that we felt such power in their recordings and performances. The song list below helps to drive home the power that comes with such clarity and unity. I’ll return to the dynamic between lyricist, guitarist, and vocalist later in this chapter to build upon that theme.
“If 6 Was 9”
“Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)”
“Peace in Mississippi”
“Star Spangled Banner”
“All Along the Watchtower”
Hendrix Playing Homage
Dylan, Cream, and the Beatles
“The Sky is Crying”
“Living Life by the Drop”
“Say What! (Soul to Soul)”
Stevie Ray Determined
“The Things that I Used to Do”
Stevie Ray Paying Homage
Albert King, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Wonder
There’s an honesty and vulnerability expressed in the music of these two artists. If rock despises “that which is fake,” then honesty must be something that is greatly valued. With Hendrix and Vaughan, the honesty was so intense that it was as if you could (and still can through their music) peer into their very soul. What we hear/see are two artists whose love for an instrument, love for a style of music, love for the opportunity to perform, and love/devotion to the fans greatly endeared them to us both then AND now!
All is Not Lost (When Death Comes Knockin’)
While writing about the electric guitar and about Hendrix and Vaughan seemed like it would provide enough material for an entire chapter, when I arrived at the lesson for this chapter (i.e., the greats create and destroy) then I had to grapple with what exactly the “greats” were creating and what they were destroying. Artists who break new ground smash existing paradigms and expectations for their mode of expression. They understand the past (i.e., how a particular style came to be) in such a way that they are aware not only of all that has been tried artistically but also of those things or paths that have yet to be explored. These groundbreaking artists see the whole picture while we only see a small fraction of the image. Thus, it could be that the destruction occurs only in the mind of the observer because what we perceive as “smashing” may simply be a broadening of our collective understanding of what is possible.
We know that Vaughan’s guitar playing was influenced in part by Hendrix’s so maybe if we can identify what draws us (including Vaughan) to Hendrix then maybe we can better understand the dynamic that is at play. I keep coming back to a couple of recordings of Hendrix’s that come from a “rarities” LP that I recorded from a friend who bought it during an excursion to Haight & Ashbury looking for rare recordings and bootlegs. I have not been able to find these particular versions of these songs on any Jimi Hendrix collections that are available on CD (but I would love to have them if they ever became available). The two songs are “Midnight Lightning” and “Peace Mississippi.”
It is important to note that Hendrix might have recorded several versions of a song before finalizing the lyrics and the music. The two songs I am discussing certainly fall into this category. The versions that spoke to me were not ultimately the versions included in studio albums or subsequent compilations. The first song, “Midnight Lightning,” was included in the album South Saturn Delta. So, this was a version selected by Hendrix himself. This version I will refer to as the 1970 version, and the version I like I’ll refer to as the 1969 version. The part of the 1969 recording that piqued my interest is absent in the 1970 version. In the 1969 version of the song, Hendrix talks about how in the middle of the night he sees these blue flashes of lightning. In the song, he doesn’t really get at what these flashes of lightning actually signify except that he thinks that something beautiful is happening and he’d like his darling to wake up and experience it too.
In the 1969 version, Hendrix doesn’t speak of anyone being with him when these lightning flashes are occurring. He’s alone, surrounded by lightning and mesmerized by the experience. I believe that this “Midnight Lightning” he’s describing is the creative process itself, and it was a process that he wanted to share with others, so he brought in the idea of waking someone up in the middle of the night to share it with them. I think Herbert Worthington, a friend of Jimi’s, put it well when he was interviewed in the documentary, Jimi Hendrix: The Uncut Story, and stated that Hendrix was about “understanding things for what they are and giving it back to us” and that “Jimi accepted that responsibility.” This statement led me to what I believe turns out to be a pivotal clue about why artists do what they do.
As I’ve alluded to previously, rock ‘n roll artists have decided to assume a very risky profession that brings fame and more but also the perils (or thrills) of sex and drugs. I think it is easy to think that it’s the thrills that keep the artists going, but I think that creative expression ends up playing a much bigger role in the decision to stay in the profession. In a second documentary, Jimi Hendrix: Voodoo Chile, which is told using interviews of Hendrix and letters that he penned himself, Hendrix talks about the importance of love, harmony, and freedom. He talks about being “free to live.” Thus, we begin to understand that Hendrix came to understand or identify those things in life that truly matter and actually sought to express these ideas in his music.
Given this assessment, the way I’ve come to terms with why many great rock ‘n roll musicians have died is that they were in one of two camps: those who knew “truth’ (about what matters most in life) and sought to share it and those to sought to know “truth.” You could say it’s the life of excess that led to the demise of these great artists, but it could be that the excesses pursued by these artists made the difficult parts of the creative journey more palatable and/or bearable. While there aren’t many of us who would say we have known “THE” truth, I would argue that Hendrix was one of those rare individuals who did know truth on some fundamental level. He was such a young person who achieved such a deep level of understanding that it appears to an outside observer that this connection with the truth was an innate talent of sorts.
Vaughan conveyed something about his life experience that was drastically different from Hendrix. Vaughan shared what most rock ‘n roll artists share in some way … the hardships of life. Vaughan and his music resonated with us because we could relate some of our own experiences to what he was sharing in his songs. At his concerts, he would just play his heart out. He “left it all out on the court or out on the field” to use a sports analogy. The intensity of his playing offered him an opportunity to release some of the pent up feelings of frustration with life and love that he may have been experiencing. At the same time, our witnessing that release made us appreciate the fact that he was confessing (or “truth-telling” as I prefer to see it).
The difference in the truth telling by Vaughan and the truth-telling by Hendrix is that Vaughan was sharing something true and real about himself while Hendrix was sharing something true and real about the very nature of reality. When you see Hendrix being interviewed about something that happened that he dislikes or is frustrating to him, he isn’t bent out of shape. He maintains his calm demeanor no matter what, as if to project this idea that those things that he is frustrated with don’t really matter. It might not be unreasonable to suggest that music is the only thing that mattered to him, but I think it goes beyond that. It’s as if through writing and performing music, he was able to gain knowledge about the true nature of things. The things that appear to perturb Hendrix the most are things that limit creative experiences and expression.
There is a quote in the Vaughan biography by Joe Nick Patowski & Bill Crawford (Stevie Ray Vaughan: Caught in the Crossfire) that I read where Stevie poses the question to someone, “I don’t know why [Jimi] died and I am still alive, going through a lot of the same problems.” This comment is in reference to the fact that Vaughan was able to bounce back from the downward spiral induced by drugs that put his career at risk. He was able to get clean from drugs, get a new lease on life and jump start his career. In my opinion, some of Vaughan’s best song writing is on display after he emerged from drug rehab. He just seemed grateful to have been given a second chance and wanted to convey something useful about his experience to folks who were going through similar trials. I would argue that people who pay attention to what influential people are doing don’t mind those celebrities sharing with the general population about how life sucks and is difficult. When an artist like Jimi Hendrix starts speaking truth about politics, war, and the nature of reality, then that appears to come across as more threatening to someone. Could that be a reason why Vaughan got a second chance (albeit a short lived second chance) but Hendrix did not?
To finish my examination of Hendrix and Vaughan, I’ll do an examination of the song “Little Wing” which is one of the most popular songs and most covered songs written by Jimi Hendrix. My interpretation of the Jimi Hendrix version (1967) of “Little Wing,” is that of a fairy type being who comes to comfort him from time to time. These visits by Little Wing make Hendrix feel special since he has this thing going with this supernatural being who possesses special powers, particularly the power to bring him joy and to help him fly away (i.e., “ride with the wind”). She is so committed to him that she’ll allow him to “take anything’ that he needs or wants. Who really offers themselves up to another in that way? It reminds me of the sentiment in “The Giving Tree” story except in this case it appears that the relationship is more symbiotic and not destructive.
The Jimi Hendrix version of “Little Wing” can bring a tear to your eye, depending on how you are feeling at the particular time when you are listening to the song, but the Vaughan version (1991) can be devastating (in a good way, if that’s possible) in terms of its emotional impact if you are feeling even a wee bit vulnerable. It is an instrumental (almost 7 minutes long) version of the song that so masterfully captures the range of feelings Hendrix just barely touched on in the two and a half minute version of the original recording. I attribute this intensity to a couple of things: the incredible influence that Jimi Hendrix had on Vaughan (and Vaughan’s heartfelt desire to express his gratitude); and the issue to which I alluded earlier about Vaughan feeling like he had been given a second chance at life whereas Hendrix did not get a second chance.
Even though I feel that Vaughan’s version of the song can be interpreted as celebrating the Little Wing conceived or experienced by Hendrix, I think the sentiment in Vaughan’s interpretation of the song can almost be interpreted as an homage to Hendrix himself. It is almost as if Hendrix himself has become Little Wing for Stevie Ray. I say this only because Hendrix holds a singular place in my heart and soul. His music has a uniquely intense impact on me and a quality that remains unmatched in my mind. It is almost as if Hendrix has become a patron saint for rock ‘n rollers who seek to find peace or peace of mind. My feeling is that anyone who appreciates real music (i.e., musical sounds produced by real people playing real instruments) will be blown away by what Jim Hendrix accomplished in his brief period as a rock superstar. I think one can be blown away solely by the sounds Hendrix invented. When you couple that with the fact that he composed the lyrics to the music he recorded and sang his own songs, creating a most distinctive sound, then one cannot help but marvel at the genius. His musical style, his style of dress, and the way he articulated himself made Hendrix a most impressive individual. I will end by noting that if there was a guitar player that most closely resembles the things I’ve just describe about Jimi Hendrix, it is most likely Vaughan. May they all RIP!
What about other iconic figures of rock ‘n roll who passed before their time? What does what I’ve just described in my comparison of Hendrix and Vaughan suggest about groups such as Led Zeppelin, The Doors, AC/DC, and Metallica? With these four bands we have two examples of bands that disbanded after the loss of a band member and two examples of bands that decided to continue performing under the same name. I figured there was something to be gleaned by the fact that bands can grapple with a similar situation but make decisions that are diametrically opposed.
I arrived at two ideas that seem to come into play: the spirit of the band and the purpose of the band. These are issues that have probably never been articulated by the bands themselves, so please take this analysis as the opinion of just one fan. We know that all four of these bands are significant, and I will not attempt to count the ways in which they are significant since books have been written that do just that. I will try to keep the focus on the overarching themes of “spirit” and “purpose.”
I’ll start with Led Zeppelin because they reached the top of the hill of hard rock and, I would argue, have yet to be toppled. Their recordings represent one of the most impressive bursts of creative energy since they hit the scene. The band members were asked how they could possibly sustain the pace they were keeping in terms of producing albums and being on tour, and they would say that it was not sustainable and that they would keep it up as long as they could. I feel the idea that may have helped to prolong their success is that the purpose of the band was to celebrate life in the fullest sense. To be clear, I don’t mean to enjoy the good or happy things about life, but to appreciate the fact that life represents such a roller coaster ride. Their music covers the highs and the lows, the good and the bad, the raunchy and the tender, the humble and the arrogant, the mundane and the mystical, etc. This “band of joy” approach, which is the name of one of the bands Robert Plant was involved with prior to joining Led Zeppelin, may be one of the reasons they enjoyed such a long stretch of musical accomplishment. They were embracing life in the fullest sense, and”life” may appreciate being fully embraced. Yes, it came to a halt, but that’s what happens in life. Things that go up must come down. You just don’t know what is going to give, when it’s going to give, or what form the give will take.
The Doors are a little tougher nut to crack in terms of spirit and purpose. Like the Jimi Hendrix Experience, the band predates Led Zeppelin and everything that came after Led Zeppelin, so they were a band of immense influence in terms of what was happening in the music scene when they were active and also from a historical point of view. I think that there is no denying that The Doors had a love of music and the creative process. They really pushed things to the limit lyrically in their songs and thematically/theatrically in their live shows. Their musical style was, for the most part, straight ahead rock ‘n roll when there wasn’t an epic tale being told, in which case the feel tended more towards the ethereal. In the classic book, No One Here Gets Out Alive, it becomes apparent that The Doors were experimenting with the musical styles and structures, and equally, with the impact that those styles and structures have on people during their live concerts. It’s almost as if the goal of the live performances was to elicit specific responses from the crowd that were not necessarily related to “have a rockin’ good time.” It seemed that the end goal at times was for a show to have a trance-inducing effect on participants. At other times, the goal of a live show was to work the crowd into a frenzy, which could be triggered given the frenetic social upheaval of the time (and the fact that the cops were not very fond of the band). I would argue that the approach taken by The Doors is quite distinct from the “embracing life in all of its fullness” spirit that I describe for Led Zeppelin.
The second set of bands to which I will devote some attention, AC/DC and Metallica, experienced the loss of a band member, but were able to remain mainstays of the hard rock scene for several decades afterwards. The question of why they were able to continue as a unit is a very personal and complex one. I, for one, am grateful that they did continue.
What I’ve come to believe about AC/DC’s and Metallica’s ability to persevere through the difficulties of losing a band member is the notion that the bands highlighted in this chapter have their own “spirit” or a “purpose” even though these things may not be explicit in any way.
I’ll start by considering the loss of AC/DC’s front man, Bon Scott, in 1980 (RIP). Scott died in February 1980, and AC/DC’s next album was recorded and released in July of that same year. The band was about to begin recording the album when Scott passed. They decided to release the album in tribute to Scott. One may wonder how the band could have moved on so quickly, and it is here that I argue that the idea of AC/DC was larger than one band member. Scott was most certainly the face of the band (coupled of course with the school boy look of Angus Young) but his persona is what stood out the most for fans and the thing that would be difficult to replace. He seemed to embody the rock ‘n roll lifestyle portrayed in the songs recorded by the band. I think the very thing that allowed the band to continue is that fact that they had already very clearly and consistently articulated in five albums what the band was about.
AC/DC was 100% about rock ‘n roll, the music and the attitude. No apologies. No reservations. As we saw in Chapter 2, they not only lived the lifestyle, they also described in very great detail the music and attitude of rock ‘n roll. They had already said a ton about what the band was about and the image that fans had of the band was based on the narrative that the band created for themselves. The lead singer tends to get so much more attention than other band members, so it is easy to assume that if the head of the unit is gone, then the unit has no focus. I think that what has emerged is a consistency in the band’s approach to making music that has an internal coherence. It leads me to believe that what AC/DC was at the time of Scott’s death was an idea of what they wanted the band to be. That idea had not died with Scott. The other band members were bought in to the idea 100% and thus the idea still had life. The criteria for bringing someone into the band would be if the person understood the idea behind the band. I think history has borne out that Brian Johnson was the right person to keep the idea of AC/DC alive.
We proceed along this highly dubious path to Metallica’s loss of their bass player, Cliff Burton, in 1986. Metallica had three albums under their belt, so they had not reached the milestone achieved by AC/DC (i.e., five albums released at the time of Scott’s death). It could be that Metallica’s identity may not have been cemented as much as AC/DC’s when they suffered their loss. I would note that Metallica had been steadily expanding their fan base and notoriety with each album and Master of Puppets, the album for which the band was touring when the tour bus accident happened, was a critically acclaimed album. Metallica was at the peak of their popularity at the time of Burton’s death. And even though Burton was the bass player and not the lead singer, he was integral part of the band. Burton was a highly skilled musician, so much so that Metallica included a track on their first full album that was a solo bass guitar instrumental. Yes, you read that correctly, an entire song featuring nothing but bass guitar. It was and probably still is unparalleled on so many different levels.
The members of Metallica made a pretty quick decision about whether or not to continue as a band, and clearly the decision was to proceed. They took a few months to audition bass players, picking Jason Newsted who was at the time a part of the group, Flotsam and Jetsam. The meteoric rise of the band continued unabated. The reason for which it was possible for them to not skip a beat I feel is quite different than it was for AC/DC.
As I described above, AC/DC had a well-defined image of what the band was about. I think that Metallica also had an image to which it could cling if it needed to find a reason to keep the band together. My sense is that they were not concerned with image so much as they were with continuing to serve as pioneers in this new musical genre called speed metal or thrash metal. Metallica had a purpose and Burton’s passing had not changed what was driving the band to do its thing. They made the decision to go full steam ahead and have amassed an amazing body of work as a result of their dogged determination.
In our discussion of how to assign meaning to the death of a talented artist, it seems more appropriate to everyone involved to look at the band as a unit and not the artists as individuals. Regardless of the role in the band played by the person who died, in the end they were part of a unit and there is great strength and potential in making the decision to sacrifice part of oneself to be a part of a collective. Unless the band mates are the best of friends from childhood, there will be an inherent tension present. Different people with different personalities will cope with such situations differently. Because acting as a collective is a better way for humans to behave than acting individually, I feel that the Universe rewards people just for simply trying to behave in this way. The longer you stick with it, the greater the rewards. If a band shows positive qualities and shares positive messages in the process of expressing their art/music, then this too is embraced by the Universe.
You may be asking, if death has entered the picture, then how is that a reward? My thinking is that some sort of tragedy could have come sooner without this approach to making music/art. It is clear from the “code of rock ‘n roll” from Chapter 2 that people who choose to be rock artists are driven by much more than pleasure and excess. We also find that rock ‘n roll artists exhibit loyalty to rock ‘n roll and to their band (Characteristic #5), exhibit courage for choosing a risky profession (Characteristic #6) and pursue their passions with passion (Characteristic #8). I would also argue that there is a fourth characteristic at play (#7): rock ‘n roll can show you the way to redemption, hope, inspiration, healing and your true self. In sharing their stories and experiences, rock ‘n roll artists are offering guidance to those who choose to listen. The message may be, “don’t do as I do because it may come at a great price,” but even this message is a powerful one.
The Destructive Part of Creation
What I am arguing in this book is that rock ‘n roll has played a critical role in helping me survive the madness of this world. Could it be that what is important about what rock ‘n roll artists are trying to do is that they are trying to help people? It seems illogical to argue this point when referring to a genre dominated by personalities and egos that are larger than life and often self-centered and self-serving. The important point here is not a stated or overt purpose of the artists, but the effect of what they do on others. Many times, you’ll hear artists in all genres of music say that they do what they do for the fans. So there is some measure of selflessness in the art being expressed. But what is it that artists are doing for us?
In the end, I believe that musicians and other artists are trying to help us to understand our world, our society, and our lives. It may not be that they have everything figured out. Most of us are nowhere close to actually having life figured out. However, when artists share what they like and dislike about what is happening around us, then it helps us come to grips with how WE are feeling. Whether we agree or disagree with what the artists are saying in their work, we begin to make sense of things for ourselves. The gift to us from the artist is increased understanding. With greater understanding comes the ability to make better decisions for ourselves and for the world around us. In the end, it appears to me that what these cutting edge artists are destroying is “the B.S. of life,” which is apropos because Principle #5 in “the Code of Rock ‘n Roll” states that rock ‘n roll despises all thing that are fake!Daily Prayer 2
To the Creator and Our Lord Jesus Christ:
Thank you for this day.
Thank you for this life.
Thank you for all of the blessings you’ve given to me and my family.
Thank you, especially, for my family for without them I would not have been able to understand your love and your truth.
Hammer of the Gods: The Led Zeppelin Saga – Stephen Davis
No One Here Gets Out Alive – Jerry Hopkins and Danny Sugerman
Stevie Ray Vaughan: Caught in the Crossfire – Joe Nick Patoski and Bill Crawford
Birth, School, Metallica, Death – Paul Branigan and Ian Winwood
Bon: The Last Highway – Jesse Fink
Jimi Hendrix: The Story Behind Every Song – David Stubbs
Jimi Hendrix Gear: The Guitars, Amps & Effects that Revolutionized Rock ‘n’ Roll – Michael Heatley