My forays into primal music composition invariably turn up rock. I'm not sure what I thought I might come up with with all my banging and hollering. Indigenous people around a fire, pow-wow drums, African polyrhythms, prisoners singing a trench- all of that rattling around in my head and chest, but it all just comes up rock.
A lot of it is in working alone. You can't really sound like a tribe by yourself. And a lot of it is in the composition. Line by line. Hit on a nice rhythm, mumble nonsense, find the hook, vocal patterns coalesce, memories and ruminations find their way into my mouth and I scream.
And it's all rock.
I send songs to a friend of mine. He's an amazing drummer, a wonderful songwriter, and just a really good guy. I'm working on primal music, I tell him. He tells me it sounds like rock.
I send songs to another friend, maybe one of the best singers I've ever heard. "You sound like you need a guitar, a band."
It got to where I was apologizing. I sent another song to another friend, a classically trained singer who grew up to spin records as a DJ before growing up again to stop listening altogether. "I'm sorry," I said. "I know it sounds like rock."
"Don't apologize. It sounds like you."
He's the one I go to when I need clarity, God bless him.
I sound like me. And that doesn't sound like whooping African caterwauling or medieval Arabic chanting or Native American night-shrieks. I came from none of those places. I was born in the 70s, raised on Joan Baez, Peter, Paul, and Mary, a touch of Willie Nelson, and much later, when these things began to matter, Metallica.
It was 1988. I was going on 14 and I heard somebody mention a radio station that they liked. I tuned in and heard music I'd never heard before. Dark and abrasive. It had a forbidden feeling. These people sounded angry. I'd never heard an angry song.
It became a tonic. My parents had recently divorced. I didn't know what made sense or where I belonged, except maybe with these angry people. The first CD I ever bought was Metallica's . . . And Justice for All. I remember playing the opening strains of Blackened for my brother. It was like nothing we'd ever heard. I'm not sure that we liked it, but we were tied to it by a strange gravity.
We went on to buy their other albums. And we met people. Angry, disaffected people. People that smoked cigarettes and drank. They'd been dealt a raw deal. They weren't like all of the smiling, toothy people on billboards and walking through malls. Our new friends shared other songs, other records, and we learned about punk, the early 80s bands that we had missed. And then we fell in love with Minor Threat. Later, Fugazi. To this day, I check up on Ian MacKaye. What's he doing? What's he saying?
And our sense of community grew. We were skateboarding now, rolling around and carving up surfaces made for gentler things, listening to loud, angry people, people that made so much more sense than all of the candy and glitter. But it wasn't enough to listen. We had things we wanted to say. We were angry, too, and we wanted to scream.
Mom took us to a music store. We promised good grades and I got my first electric guitar. My brother got his first bass. Later we found a drummer. We made a lot of noise and called ourselves Fury.
There were other bands, shows, records, and eventually we were signed to a local independent. And it was all rock.
There's nothing else I know. Not like I know rock.
Rock and roll represents the first real fusion of black and white culture. Way down south, white country music came up against black swing, rhythm, and blues. The only people to get it were the kids, on both sides of the color line. Right out of the gate, rock was the voice of youth and rebellion. When rock becomes the status quo, it isn't rock.
Which makes what I do even more rock.