The title of this book is a play on words of the Black Sabbath greatest hits record, We Sold our Souls for Rock and Roll. The idea of “selling your soul for rock-n-roll ” is a recurring theme in music (not necessarily rock music only) and dates back at least to the early years of the blues when Robert Johnson allegedly promised his soul to the devil if the devil would make him a supernaturally great guitar player. I don’t think anyone would argue against the idea that Robert Johnson was a great and influential musician and songwriter. We will never know if this was due to talent and hard-work or to a supernatural pact or both. I would most certainly think long and hard before making a pact with the devil.
The point behind the title of this book is that rock-n-roll music has played such a pivotal role in my life that I question whether I could have handled life's challenges without it. You may or may not believe that “I saved my soul through rock and roll,” but that is the conclusion I have reached after intensely reflecting on my life through music. My personality is such that “I don’t make sh#t up.” Thus, this had to be the title, even though it was not the original title. The working title for my book was “creating hope,” because rock-n-roll had led me to develop a theory of hope that has helped me to better understand how I’ve been able to survive life this long and discover a path for living life that was not so distressing. “Creating hope” has been an omnipresent driving factor yet unrecognized goal in my life since my college years. I want to be clear at this early stage in the book that when I say “living to create hope,” I mean “living to create hope in others.” I do not mean that one must be a hopeful person or have a hopeful outlook, although being hopeful can be very helpful when it comes to creating hope in others.
The self-reflection that I underwent in the writing of this memoir made the writing process swerve in wildly different directions. This was supposed to be a quick and dirty “story of my life” told in a fun way. What started off as an autobiography told through rock music turned into a story about a simple phrase, “creating hope,” that, I will argue, has far reaching implications for us all. In this simple phrase, I was able to see all of my life experiences, my likes and dislikes, and my triumphs and failures as a cohesive and forceful set of actions and reactions. There is nothing more unsettling than the realization that your entire existence may be summarized into a couple of words and/or that, unbeknown to us, there may be some unwritten rule/force that exerts its influence upon you based on what you do. And just like that, a spiritual element that I could not ignore entered the picture. As a few of my favorite ESPN analysts might say: “come on, man!”
Although the road to writing this book was a long and winding one, one thing that didn’t change was that rock-n-roll music would play an important role. I believe this approach will make for a more interesting read. I truly hope that you will take this story as one person’s attempt to make sense of the world and of this “crazy little thing called” life. In the end, we all struggle to ascertain the meaning of life. These writings are my attempt to break things down to the simple truths. The path to happiness and fulfilment is not found by dwelling on the complexity of the universe, but by identifying what truly matters in the universe.
The Genesis of This Book
The idea for writing a musical journal such as this started in Christmas 2011 (about two years before I actually started writing this book). For many years I had an idea to write an autobiography that would document my life through the music of three music groups that I’ve followed for nearly 30 years: Rush, Iron Maiden & U2 (listed in the order in which I was introduced to them). For Christmas, I received some cash and a gift card from my wife’s parents and grandparents. I took this opportunity to fill-in the gaps in my album and concert video collection for my three favorite groups.
It was also about this time that I started realizing that my children had no idea about my favorite songs and musical groups or even that “hard rock” was my favorite musical genre. It was depressing to think that if my life were to end suddenly, that my kids would live life not really knowing something so fundamental about me (i.e., the music that I love). So, first things first. I set out to document my three favorite songs of my three favorite groups: Rush, U2 and Iron Maiden. Seems easy enough, right? After three months of watching the concert videos and listening to the latest albums of these three bands, the incredibly important concept of “living to creating hope” emerged as a guiding principle for my life. So, I must say thanks to Nana, Grandpa, GiGi (AKA Great Grandma) and Great Grandpa (RIP) for serving as a catalyst for the idea for writing this book and to all the members of Rush, U2 and Iron Maiden for keeping their musical faith and, in so doing, giving me the inspiration to tackle what life has thrown my way in a constructive way.
Jump Starting This Musical Saga
In Chapter 1, I’ll touch on my childhood growing up in the small, South Texas town of Rio Grande City, from the earliest music I remember (1970’s era music) to the discovery of hard rock and heavy metal. My musical recollections make up the latter half of the chapter and is tied mostly to the TV shows we were watching. I find it interesting that the earliest shows I can remember were in black and white: The Little Rascals, The Three Stooges, The Lone Ranger and The Andy Griffith Show. The catchy theme songs of the Lone Ranger and Andy Griffith Show are quite vivid even to this day.
I dig into the “essence” of rock-n-roll in Chapter 2. I will try to arrive at “the essence of rock-n-roll,” by using a few clever techniques to hone in on a the defining characteristics of rock music based on a review of classic songs as well as movies that prominently or memorably feature classic rock songs. I will also draw from rock musicals and movies that serve as spoofs of rock-n-roll and the rock-n-roll lifestyle since such movies, in the process of poking fun at rock music, can tell us a lot about the genre (or at least, the perception of the genre). This chapter was great fun to research and write. When the subject matter of the book got too heavy, I would come back and work on this chapter. Listening to these songs and watching these movies was highly therapeutic for me.
Chapter 3 is one of my favorite chapters because of the cool topic (the importance of dreaming) and the eclectic song list. The song list draws from classic rock icons like Aerosmith, Van Halen and Tom Petty but also other artists I may not have referenced outside of this particular theme like Blondie, Supertramp and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. This is one of two chapters that discusses science fiction themes. One of my favorite sci-fi movies, Inception, the Smashing Pumpkins’ album, Siamese Dream, and the research by Masaru Emoto on water crystal formations also figure prominently.
In Chapter 4, the personal revelations begin. I share the list of my favorite songs of my favorite bands. This chapter started as an exercise of revisiting the music of my three favorite bands, Rush, U2 and Iron Maiden, and turned out to be a window into my own psyche and soul. These two aspects of my being were foreign to me because I had never cared to peek in. The themes that emerged from that one song list helped me to recognize that personal characteristics that I valued (and have tried to embrace as best as I could) were love, respect, perseverance, determination and defiance. It was important for me to have discovered that these traits were in my DNA because the treacherous terrain that I would be traveling in this and the next chapter would require that I put them into practice.
A peculiar thing happened in the process of trying to explain why these bands/songs are special to me. I discovered that I liked the new material better than the vintage tracks. This was very strange since you never hear a die-hard fan say, “I dig the new stuff more than the old stuff.” Even though the old stuff is what had made these my favorite bands, it was their new material that I mostly chose to include in my list. How could that have happened? After all, these are bands that are associated with the label “classic rock.” The radio stations don’t even play the new stuff on the radio, because it’s not the stuff that made these bands into classic rock bands. The plot that was unfolding was already starting to thicken.
“Like a Ton of Bricks,” the title I have chosen for Chapter 5, describes the songs, albums and artists that best characterized what I felt as an 18 year old student plucked from a poor, rural community along the Texas Mexico Border that was 99% Hispanic and plopped into a prestigious private university in the San Francisco Bay Area (Stanford University). Although I don’t recall my experience at Stanford as being characterized by fear and loneliness (I remember it as a struggle for academic survival and a struggle to fit in), this must have been what I was feeling based on my emotional reaction to my favorite music of that time. Like I explained in the preface, my emotional condition is such that I don’t feel emotion when it is happening. I only feel the emotion in retrospect. Because I had a huge amount of pent up emotion (about 50 years’ worth), when I listened to songs that evoked the emotions that were pent up, then those emotions would come out, mostly in the form of tears. During my life, I haven’t spent much time thinking about why the tears come. I just continued to brush those feelings aside because … I could. I just told myself to “stop being a wuss” and would play a song of inspiration or defiance. I picked the songs, albums and artists in this chapter because they brought tears and helped me to persevere through those challenging times.
I’ve always been into science fiction and fantasy and that is the subject I chose to explore in Chapter 6, “One Part Sci Fi and One Part Rock-n-Roll.” As a kid, I greatly enjoyed learning about the unexplained (e.g., UFOs, freak phenomenon, hauntings, etc.) and superheroes. Thinking about these subjects made me feel two contradictory things: 1) we really can’t be as smart as we think we are because there is so much that we can’t explain; and 2) wouldn’t it be super cool if people could be superhuman like in cartoons and comics? Today, I will admit that we, as a species, are getting smarter in certain ways. We can explain a whole heck off a lot more than we could 40 years ago. The irony is that indigenous peoples seem to have already known what we only now are able to prove through science. And, people can, indeed, be superhuman. Watching Usain Bolt, Katie Ledecke, Simone Biles and Michael Phelps do what they did in the Olympics, seeing what the current era tennis champions have been able to accomplish (Venus, Serena, Roger, Rafa and Novak), watching a Cirque de Soleil show and watching Stan Lee’s cable television series, Superhumans, serve as ample evidence.
Not surprisingly, many rock bands also touched on topics that dealt with science fiction and fantasy. Chapter Six highlights the bands that dared to venture into this realm that is characterized by obscure references, album/song titles and lyrics as well as a belief that people can do anything and overcome anything if they put their mind to it. My interpretation of this music is probably going to be quite different than that of your typical rowdy rocker, but isn’t that the beauty of art? Someone creates something, and then their creation actually creates something in someone else. Their thoughts/ideas create thoughts/ideas in me/you which me/you can then in-turn use to create thoughts/ideas in other people, and so on and so forth. Now that is extremely powerful stuff.
You can’t have a book about rock-n-roll without paying homage to the electric guitar. I use Chapters 7 & 8 to do so by honoring Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Carlos Santana. The focus of Chapter 7 is my love of live performances, both recorded and in-person. The title of Chapter 7 is “The Greats Create and Destroy” and delves into the hazards of being a rock star or, more generally, an artist who pushes his/her creativity to the limit. In addition to drawing from the music and life of Hendrix and Stevie Ray, I also draw on the experiences of other legendary bands like The Doors, Led Zeppelin and Metallica, all of whom suffered the loss of a band member at differing points in their careers.
In Chapter 8, the chapter about my experiences (musical and otherwise) relating to being Chicano/Latino, it is no surprise that the first artist featured is (drum roll) … Carlos Santana. The intent is not to chronicle Santana’s entire musical career or life story. Like with the other artists I reference, the aim is to focus on the songs he recorded/performed that struck an emotional chord. The interesting thing is that with Santana, the range of emotions that he was able to elicit in me was much broader because I can relate personally to the experiences from which he draws to convey his musical message. Other Latino artists to be featured in this chapter that also have helped get me through life include Los Lobos, Los Lonely Boys, Alejandro Escovedo, Patricia Vonne, Grupo Fantasma and Randy Garibay – The Chicano Blues Man from San Antonio (RIP). This chapter more than the others has a decidedly Austin influence associated with it. Keep Austin Rockin’, Ese!
Chapter 9 turns its focus to two bands whose music was included in the list of my favorite songs of my favorite groups, U2 and Rush. I have never really heard the bands U2 & Rush mentioned in the same sentence. This is odd to me because both have had extensive musical careers and have produced some of their best work in recent years. It was the influence that these two bands had exerted on me in my adolescent years that led me to follow their careers with some diligence. I am not trying to pit the two iconic bands against each other or to argue that either one’s approach is right/wrong or better/worse. I love them both. Both helped me immensely through the toughest times in my life. I have been doing a fair amount of research and reflection on the importance of hope, and in this chapter I draw from these two iconic bands as well as on a couple of literary sources and the secrets about living a good life that can be derived from one of my favorite pastimes, playing Candy Crush.
In Chapter 10, I provide context for “my theory of hope.” It is difficult to describe this theory out of the larger context that is laid out in Chapter 10 where I present “my theory of gratitude.” Hope is one of the three theological virtues outlined in St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, with the three virtues being faith, hope and love. Even though the epistle clearly states that “the greatest of these is love,” I initially set out to prove in this chapter that hope could/should play just as important a role as the other theological virtues. And while I could have made a practical case for this claim, I eventually concluded that “which virtue is most important” was not the right question. The important thing is that in expressing any of these virtues, one is expressing a form of gratitude towards the Creator. By expressing this sentiment toward the Creator, the gratitude is direct. When one expresses this sentiment toward something that exists, one is indirectly expressing gratitude to the Creator by expressing faith, hope or love for part of his/her Creation. While my favorite church hymns and bible excerpts/concepts play prominently in this chapter, so do Jerry Garcia, the Grateful Dead and Bob Dylan.
I conclude this book with a collection of albums and songs that promote behaviors that seem to be advantageous in our life because of their alignment with my “theory of hope” from Chapter 9 and my related “theory of gratitude” that I outline in Chapter 10. Bob Marley plays an important role in this chapter as do a set of songs from legendary rock bands and up-and-coming bands alike. I included the up-and-coming bands in a section called “signs of hope” because the fact that artists who so early in their careers are exhibiting such depth of knowledge bodes well for them and us. The key for these artists and us, as individuals, is to continue to learn and develop. It is the evolution of rock music as a collective action and the evolution of individual bands/artists that has permitted a book such as this to be written. It is on us to use the examples and insights inherent in the genre and in successful rock-n-roll artists to help us evolve as individuals and as a society. If you doubt that this is possible, please remember (per Chapter 3), that what we believe to be possible is the most critical determinant of future outcomes. So, don’t be afraid to hope for a better future and to believe that it’s attainable. I choose to believe that hope and gratitude are important components of this reality. I also choose to believe that rock-n-roll is able to play a critical role in helping humanity reach this better place. Would it be such a bad thing if these things turned out to be true? Actually, it brings me joy to think that I may be a part of a world/universe with these characteristics.
Thus, we embark on this journey, and it wouldn’t be proper to do so without enlisting the help of a rock-n-roll band, in this case the classic rock band, Boston. As we learned from their song, “Feelin’ Satisfied,” please always remember and never forget:
When you let go, nothings gonna help you more than rock ‘n rollFeelin' Satisfied (Boston)
Feeling' Satisfied - Boston