Friends of the Devil
Towards a Posthumous Aesthetics of Rock and Roll
See the bottom of this essay-letter for some announcements and housekeeping.
1. The Primordial Rickroll
In 1987 I had a sort-of-girlfriend, let us call her Nikki, who came from a devout Catholic working-class family of French-Canadian heritage. When I met her she had just returned from a family pilgrimage to Medjugorje, in post-Tito, pre-war Yugoslavia, where her mother and father had hoped to see the famed weeping statue of Mary, fluentis lacrimis. I knew enough of Slavic etymology already to be intrigued by that town’s name, like the young W. V. O. Quine, who once found himself on a street in Prague that started with the preposition Pod, and thought: “I must be at the bottom of something”. The Medju clearly meant the place was between or amidst something or other, but what exactly? Mountains? Woe? I had to know.
The Virgin seems to have come up dry throughout the family’s Bosnian sojourn, but Nikki’s crisis of faith was in any case already in full flower, and it is unlikely that even a heavy flow of miraculous tears could have kept her sufficiently pious to avert the family drama that awaited on their return to California. For Nikki had been collecting tapes and records, 12-inch singles and albums, that severally and individually struck her mother as unwholesome: Depeche Mode, The Smiths, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Love and Rockets, and, most of all, The Cure. I don’t recall how many such artifacts she had amassed —the quantities get inflated by memory—, but there were at least several dozen recordings there, all vaguely suggestive, in the graphic presentation of their contents, of deviant sexuality, vampiric nocturnes, dangerous ecstasies, and trysts with the devil. So one day Nikki comes home from school and learns that all her cherished litanies of Satan, all these neo-Baudelairean baubles, have been thrown in the trash, hauled away to the dump, and replaced, by way of consolation, with a single item: a vinyl 12-inch extended remix of Rick Astley’s fresh new hit, “Never Gonna Give You Up”.
The mother presumably saw in young Rick an ideal quantity of transgression: sexy, but classically so; a lyrical content that is secular and romantic, but also chaste. And most importantly Astley was British, and therefore of the same genus that includes Robert Smith and Martin Gore, and somehow therefore also classifiable, from a suburban Californian perspective, as broadly “alternative”.
The switcharoo did not work, and Nikki only pressed on to ever more potent stuff with ever greater defiance: Alien Sex Fiend, The Cramps, The Damned. But the mother was not out of her mind to suppose it might work; after all, this was not a family of fanatical puritans, and together they enjoyed many moderately transgressive touchstones of late-twentieth-century secular life. It was at their home, for example, that I first saw The Princess Bride on laser-disc (it seems I absorbed a good deal of proto-memetic content in that brief season), delighting in André the Giant’s girth, in Wally Shawn’s somehow lisping even the sibilant-free “indubitably”.
But music, in our age, is just too central to identity formation to share it with your parents, and if for centuries the songs at the barn-dance or at the inn were only more freely strummed variants of what could also be found in the hymnals, in our age, or at least in my age —which lasted from around 1955 until the first years of the present century, from the jukebox to Spotify, from Little Richard to the final faint gasp of The Strokes et al., which is to say the entire lifespan of rock and roll—, the reigning spirit has been not simply one of freedom or “fun” (though this is often the manifest content of the lyrics), but of negation, opposition, inversion: a world upside-down; a world of evil.
2. Diabolus in Musica
Two years later, 1989, and I’m a dues-paying Teamster, working as a parking-lot attendant at the California State Fair and Exposition grounds in Sacramento. My job is to drive around the enormous lot in a golf cart during concerts and other large events, telling people to move their “vehicles” when parked incorrectly, radioing in to the Cal Expo police when I spot any trouble beyond my pay-grade. Much like the Czechoslovak waiter Dítě, protagonist of Bohumil Hrabal’s wonderful 1971 novel, I Served the King of England, I took pride in the proximity this work afforded me to some of the era’s most luminary figures: I attended the parking lots of Public Enemy, N.W.A., Jimmy Buffett. But by far the most arduous, and lucrative, part of the job was the week-long Grateful Dead festival, not so much a concert as an occupation, or perhaps an infestation, when, over several days, the entire nation of Deadheads gathered in my parking lot to do their thing.
Whatever else may be said of this thing, it was hardly conceived with any sensitivity to the rules I was duty-bound as parking-lot attendant to enforce. The main site of Deadhead traffic was a sort of commercial row known as “Shakedown Street”, where they spontaneously assembled to sell tie-dye garments and bowls of flax seeds from out of the backs of their VW buses, all covered with bumper-stickers that affirmed their belonging to this semi-nomadic community: the Jerry bear; the Deadhead skull; the classic slogan, “What a Long Strange Trip It’s Been”; and the self-aware jest, “Who Are the Grateful Dead and Why Do They Keep Following Me?” Now, notwithstanding their reputation for pacifism, I will attest from experience that even if not often prone to outright violence, hippies can at least be ornery. I will never forget one old duffer, straight out of Pynchon’s Vineland, sitting in a lawn chair, the gut of two decades of pot munchies hanging over his cut-off jeans, who indignantly stares at me, a teenager in a golf cart, when I tell him as firmly as I can that he is going to have to pack up the balsa-wood incense burners he has laid out for sale and move his vehicle to a designated parking space. “Smoke a fuckin’ fatty, ya fuckin’ Nazi”, is his only reply.
But what I recall most clearly from this chapter of my work history is sitting with one of my fellow attendants at sunset on the levee of the American River overlooking the lot, as the Deadheads slowly descended from their daytime commerce into their nocturnal revelries. My co-worker was some sort of evangelical Christian, a contemplative young man with a calm voice. “You know what all this is? Deep down?” he asked, nodding towards the growing drum circle, the cloud of smoke hovering above it, all the blissed-out pagans of Shakedown Street. “It’s Satanism.”
I laughed, in the way adolescents do when they are not ready to process something that is true. But the Christian Teamster was right; Nikki’s mom was right; Plato was right; the censors and scolds have all been indubitably right all along: rock and roll is, or was, satanic through and through.
Like some great cosmic Rickroller, the Devil’s greatest trick, as Baudelaire himself reminded us, is to convince you he does not exist. In rock music this trick is sometimes effected through retreat, a periodic camouflaging in other folk forms, notably the stylings and scales of country. The Grateful Dead are in fact born in just such a moment of retreat, coming to broad public attention in 1967 — the same year Jimi Hendrix released Are You Experienced? Although this album’s “Purple Haze” is more commonly noted for its paradigmatic deployment of the dominant seventh sharp ninth —better known as “the Hendrix chord”, which magically combines in a single sound both the characteristic blues resonance and the “Oriental” intimation of a sitar—, it’s the opening tritone intervals that give the song its sinister character.
The tritone, consisting of three adjacent whole tones, is the Diabolus in Musica explicitly condemned as early as the ninth-century Musica Enchiriadis, though in truth its centuries-long prohibition appears to have been mostly a myth of the Romantic composers who sought to ban it retroactively, in order then to use it to greater effect. When Slayer recycled the same Latin phrase for the name of a mediocre nu-metal-inflected 1998 album, they clearly had a similar aim in mind. But when Hendrix used it, he did so for the inscrutable private reasons in virtue of which we are right to call him a genius — not as an affectation, perhaps ignorant of its history, and indifferent to its effects, which are indeed earth-shattering.
At just the same moment, in San Francisco and elsewhere, white rock and roll was beating its retreat into country, even if some of the best of the new countrified rock, notably Creedence Clearwater Revival, had trouble fully extirpating the blues. In terms of the bare musical atoms from which rock and roll is constructed, anyhow, it’s not hard: all you need, to shift from the “blues blues” to the “country blues” scale, is to move just a few half-tones of the pentatonic, from minor to major, and voilà, you are instantly free of all the heavy hoodoo mythology about selling your soul at the crossroads, of centuries of brutality and suffering, and suddenly you are at a hoe-down instead, you are watching Hee Haw, Minnie Pearl’s got a price-tag hanging from her straw hat, the greatest violence imaginable is when a wooden plank in the fence comes to life and gently whoops your butt for telling a corny joke; you are white and everything is fine.
I do not mean to exaggerate my disapproval of the country turn. I think the Rolling Stones’ 1972 country-esque Exile on Main Street is the equal of 1967’s Their Satanic Majesties Request, and indeed of the greatest Satanic anthem in the history of music, the following year’s “Sympathy for the Devil”, which ingeniously fuses the genetic lineages of Baudelaire and Bo Diddley. And I even think a few of the Grateful Dead’s country ballads, notably 1970’s “Ripple”, are especially beautiful. But the reason for the shift is unmistakable. With some early white pioneers of rock and roll, it’s not just unmistakable, but also explicit: thus Jerry Lee Lewis, on whom I’ve dwelt at some length in this space, restarts his career as a country singer in an act of explicit repentance for his years of sinful errancy as a rock star.
The reason for the shift is the Diabolus in Musica, who keeps coming back, like nature itself, no matter how much you try to drive him out, no matter how much you brighten things up by shifting from minor to major keys, by prohibiting the aesthetics of romantic androgyny in favor of clean-cut dapper young lads, by Rickrolling your own daughter: the devil is still there, in the music. Concerned parents will forever be trying to prove it to you with evidence, wild quasi-kabbalistic theories of the real meaning of abbreviations like AC/DC (“After Christ, Death Comes” we were told, whatever that may have meant), of what you will hear if you play the record backwards or slow it down to just the right speed, of what words double as slang terms for drugs, and so on. But all this adducing of evidence is beside the point. The devil, you might say, is convoked by the tritone and the Hendrix chord and the blues scale; he is acknowledged by The Cure in their best moments (1989’s crowning achievement, “Lullaby”), or in such neo-Weimarian gothic masterpieces as The Sisters of Mercy’s “Marian”; he is unconvincingly ignored in “Ripple” or such charming bucolica as Creedence’s “Lookin’ Out My Back Door”, and he is irritatingly and temporarily deplatformed when Rick Astley sings “Never Gonna Give You Up”. But as we all know, deplatforming never works. And the devil is never far.
Do I believe in the devil? Not really. I don’t know. Maybe. Depends what you mean. But I definitely believe in the Diabolus in Musica, which to me is really just another way of saying that I listen to music.
3. Encyclopaedia universalis
Or at least I used to listen to music, from around 1977 to around 2005. In more recent years, I don’t so much listen to music as remember music, and when I go looking for a song on YouTube, this is not so much in order to hear it as to help me remember it; the actual recording only serves as an aide-mémoire. Even when I go and discover “new” music —for example, it was only with Don Van Vliet’s death in 2010 that I was led back to a serious appreciation of Captain Beefheart’s debt to Howlin’ Wolf—, I am not so much learning or experiencing something new, as I am gaining a clearer picture of what I have “always already” known (according to the theory I half-defended recently, that all learning is anamnesis). I suspect this transition to a different way of experiencing music as I age has an underlying neurological foundation that is similar in all or most people, but I also suspect that its particular expression depends on my having lived —sorry, my living— at a particular moment in the history of culture and technology.
My first albums are the ones I found around the house, as eight-track cassettes: Carole King’s Tapestries; Janis Joplin’s Pearl; Earth, Wind, and Fire’s That’s the Way of the World; something from Jim Croce; something from Cat Stevens; Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band’s Express Yourself of 1970 (whose title track would be liberally sampled by Wright’s nephew Eric, better known as Eazy-E, as I could clearly hear from the Cal Expo parking lot nineteen years later). The first vinyl I can recall is Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, which also made its way into our home through none of my own efforts.
I was but a child, and many of my first attempts at cultivation of musical taste reflect that limitation: Kenny Rogers, The Oak Ridge Boys. Somehow my father kept me aware of a higher standard, however, and the first CDs he brought home, around 1983, remain for me the primary canon: Talking Heads’ Remain in Light; Flora Purim & Airto’s Humble People; Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here. Something strange happened in that decade though, one that is easily traceable in the careers of so many of the innovative artists of the 1970s —Chaka Khan comes to mind— who by the middle of the next decade all sounded like unironic proto-vaporwave, like corporate Casio synth-pop at the end of history. This shift may also be tracked in my own father, who by 1986 loved nothing more than to open the sunroof of his Audi and gleefully bounce his elbows to the rhythm of Lionel Richie’s “Dancing on the Ceiling” (years later he would still be bouncing his elbows to Moby and Fatboy Slim), while meanwhile I had deviated sharply down some other evolutionary path. Pink Floyd and the Talking Heads were our common ancestors, but now I was on to the “hard” stuff, somewhat like Nikki, but with an exaggeratedly masculine inflection: Einstürzende Neubauten, Test Dept, Coil, Nurse With Wound.
A dogmatic new historiography set in for me, according to which 1976 was the absolute Year Zero of music, while anything before that date was decidedly Old Testament, lacking the spirit of conversion that animated punk and post-punk, new wave and no-wave, and all that would eventually be classified under the banner of alternative. It would later become obvious that this perception was little more than a measure of the success of a marketing strategy pursued by Malcolm McLaren and a handful of other business-savvy taste-makers. There are lessons here about the dynamics of any counterculture operating under capitalism, but I won’t attempt to draw them out.
I recall once, around 1988, between the autumn of Nikki and the summer of the Teamsters, I was working for $3.25 an hour at “Tan-Fastic”, a tanning salon in a strip mall in Natomas. A woman pulled up in her convertible BMW and came in wearing full aerobics regalia: leg-warmers, headband, the real deal. I sealed her into her tanning bed and proceeded to pipe Throbbing Gristle’s Grief into the stereo system. She complained to the owner, of course, and I was made to promise it would not happen again. So the next time Ms. Fonda returned I closed her into her bed and put on The Smiths’ The Queen Is Dead. I sincerely believed she would like it —it was exquisite and sensuous, it seemed to me to glow synaesthetically purple, like an ultraviolet ray— and was nonplussed when I learned I’d been fired.
Much of my sensibility in that era developed from a handful of chance encounters. 1986 was my freshman year in high school, in a poor rural exurb of Sacramento. The place was overrun with aspiring Klan members and assorted other derelicts on the school-to-prison pipeline, and I was terrified. I sought refuge with a trio of beautiful-souled sisters, three Mexican girls who wore dark eyeliner, winklepickers, narrowed their pants at the ankles with safety-pins, wore t-shirts advertising their appreciation for The Ramones, The Cult, The Smiths. Decades later the Mexican-American Morrissey fan would become a familiar type, but some of us from Alta California witnessed this peculiar sect at its birth, and when it grew up we looked upon it more with familiarity, like uncles, than with surprise. Like many Sacramentans of that era —of the entire rock-and-roll era— the middle sister worked at Tower Records, and with her store discount was able generously to comp me a number of treasures: a cassette of The Wolfgang Press, a CD of Cabaret Voltaire (as with “Bauhaus” the prejudice of the Year Zero prevented me at the time from wondering what early-twentieth-century avant-garde art movement may have been behind this name). The older sister was in her senior year, and played the role of an elder well, wise and silent, mostly only nodding approval or disapproval. The youngest was my age, and herself still learning the fundamentals of coolness.
All three sisters had a higher authority who shaped them in turn: a certain Larry Rodriguez, who is to this day a local Sacramento celebrity, regularly featured in that city’s free tabloids: the “legendary DJ” known as “Flower Vato”. Larry was out of high school already, but would occasionally come by at lunch hour, trespassing on our campus to visit the three sisters, and incidentally me as well. I do not recall whether it was a gift made for me or not, but somehow a mix-tape Larry had made ended up in my possession, and it was, for me, like the bible. It included some of the strangest dark German electronica I have ever heard, as well as the phenomenal psychedelic funk band War: such was Larry Rodriguez’s encyclopedic range.
I don’t know where it all came from. I believe Larry’s father had been a Chicano musician of some renown. I recall Larry once posted on Facebook (we remained friends there until 2016, when I closed my account) a picture of a trophy —in fact a modified beer can— that his mother had won, I believe, at the 1980 Stockton Lowrider Parade and Menudo Cook-Off, an event held annually in that Central Valley city. I also recall one night in the early 1990s at the Cattle Club, a concert venue in Sacramento that hosted touring bands like Pearl Jam, Primus, and the Reverend Horton Heat, when Larry showed up with his mom selling fresh home-made tamales. Incredible to me, now, to think about the life experiences that shaped this man into the local wizard and shaman that he is. I was, and remain, a devoted fan of Larry Rodriguez.
I am glad, for my part, that my own encyclopedism eventually spilled out into other things: into everything, for better or worse, as I am somewhat manically seeking to demonstrate in this Substack project. I have known some college-radio types in my life who declared that they hope to finish their days “crushed in my catacombs of vinyl”, and while there is some romance to that, I frequently find myself thankful that I moved on to other matters and put away childish things. And yet I am also certain that Larry Rodriguez is my superior in learnèd matters, and that he embodies the sort of authority through mastery of arcana that I have sought to attain in other fields. I am certain, moreover, that it was the model of such learning in the field of popular music —the discovery that a person could approach the world encyclopedically in that particular domain— that caused me in time to adopt such a disposition to the world in general.
4. Harmonia caelestis
Much more than this, though, it also seems to me that music is the paradigm of all possible learning because it is seared into memory like nothing else — this, again, likely for deep neurological reasons. When I am withered and vacant from Alzheimer’s, there is a good chance I will still have it in me to perk up on hearing the opening melody of The Cure’s “Close to Me”; the chances are much slimmer that you will get any such response by, say, reading to me the opening lines of Leibniz’s Monadology. Nothing, I mean, is more deeply a part of me than the music, even or perhaps especially the bad music. I know exactly how many times Paula Abdul repeats the b sound in articulating the word “bye” in her 1988 pop hit, “Straight Up”, and when I hear it, and that part comes, and I can feel it coming, this is not so much an experience, in the sense of an empirical bumping-up of my sensory organs against something in the world, as it is a transcendental reconfirmation that the structure of my mind and the quality of my memories are reflected in reality.
It makes sense that music should have been conceptualized for so many centuries in a Pythagorean vein, not just as a variety of sensual delectation, but as a structuring principle of the cosmos as a whole. Musical experience, I venture, is triggered by the audible harmony of the notes in a chord, but this is perhaps only the sensory emblem of a more profound experience of music that is the harmony of self and world. Yet there are at least three elements of this experience, in the particular inflections of the rock-and-roll era, that seem entirely new, even when we know that they emerge out of and build upon cultural forms and cognitive-evolutionary potentials that long precede them.
The first is radio. I turn the knob on the old solid state, it’s 1979 and Fleetwood Mac’s “Rhiannon” is channeled down from the ether through this apparatus. What is happening here? I am seven years old and I know nothing of physics, but I know that there is a beautiful woman’s voice that is surrounding us, everywhere, that is there even when you can’t hear it, and that several such similar voices are surrounding us at all times. Some philosophers of science have enjoyed saying that if our ancestors could be projected forward into our era, they would observe what our devices can do, and take this for a sort of magic. But that is not quite right. Human beings have always believed that there were spirits swarming around us, moving through the clouds and on the wind; modern wireless telecommunication only proved that this belief was correct.
The second is recording, which radically transformed the ontology of the musical work over the course of the twentieth century. Until the era of Edison, popular musical works only existed insofar as they were performed, and each time they were performed there was something at least slightly new and different about them. The genius of performance in popular musical and recitative forms was tied to this creative variation within a pregiven structure. Some twentieth-century musical forms continued to value improvisation — jazz, of course, but also psychedelic rock drawing on Indian ragas, and indeed jam bands like the Grateful Dead. Yet the paradigmatic experience of rock and roll is not an experience of improvisation, but rather of something that, when heard, is already determinately and definitively what it is: a recording, namely, as when I turn on the radio and I hear Paula Abdul saying “bye”, exactly the way she does every single time, or when I hear Paul McCartney’s fingers sliding from the third fret to the tenth in the chorus of “Blackbird”, or when I could swear Peter Cetera is singing: “After all the hooey we’ve been through / I will make it up to you / I promise to”, even though in fact the line is slightly different than that.
It is this identity in repetition that is at the core of aesthetic experience of pop music at least since the 1930s, and that, compounded by the power of wireless radio transmission, so strongly reinforces the impression of pop music’s transcendental power to preserve the harmonic order of the world, and that enables us to identify our place within that order.
And what is that place? Here we come to the third peculiarity of rock-and-roll aesthetics: the rigorous historical contingency of it all. It seems evident that nostalgia, again, is grounded in our evolution and our neurology. Yet it seems equally evident that nostalgia could not be experienced in the same way in a material culture in which technology, and styles dependent on technology, remain more or less the same over the course of a single life. An elderly medieval peasant might have a bittersweet memory of falling in love two years after the great locust swarm came and ruined the crops; he might also have held onto some farming tools from that period. But the tools, even if they look old, will not look outdated, and nothing about the memory of the world as it was in former times will have the quality of being “vintage” or “retro” or “cheesy”. It is impossible that he should conceive it as having happened in another “decade” (as late as the eighteenth century, the great majority of people did not know they were inhabitants of the eighteenth century). Even bracketing the fact that there was no technology for recording songs and transmitting them from the past to the present, there was in any case no possibility of wincing at the terrible music one used to like in one’s youth, since music remained more or less the same from one generation to the next.
What is nostalgia like, under such historical conditions? I fear any attempt at answering such a question, today, will necessarily come up short. Today this is how we experience nostalgia: we become anchored to an era, and when it dies, when it is subducted under the ground of time, and we are reminded of that every day in the way other people around us are now dressing and talking and being themselves, in some important sense we die too, and live out our days as ghosts.
5. Retaking the vampire’s castle
And yet this “hauntological” predicament is complicated by the fact that we are perfectly free —nothing is preventing us— from pulling “Rhiannon” or “Close to Me” up on YouTube or Spotify whenever we wish. But what is this experience like? It is, plainly, different from pulling them down from the ether through the radio, or hearing them on a mix-tape made with love. The idea that there might be anything satanic about even the second of them, the idea that Nikki’s mom saw through to the truth of the matter, seems laughable now. I’m sure if I worked in a tanning salon today my customers, now reconcieved as “Karens”, would be delighted for me to put on some “eighties music”: The Smiths, The Cure, Paula Abdul; it’s all good! But this only makes the music hurt more: when to hear it is to be reminded that Satan is dead now too.
Or rather, it may be, Satan did something far more diabolical than Nikki’s mom could ever have imagined. In retreating from our world, he killed the artistic counterculture that was once animated by the idea of him, that scared parents and blew minds, that was in some respects worthy of the efforts at censorship it inspired. He killed it, and left only the empty form of art —algorithms and award shows, trending topics and vain “influencing”— in its place.
To save ourselves from this mundane and literal evil of our new social reality, we might do well to consider reviving evil as an aesthetic value, as was most awesomely done for several decades of the last century, to which I will always belong, in the musical style those alive at the time called rock and roll.
Housekeeping and announcements
I would not have thought I’d ever have to say this, but here we go: in spite of what some of my subscribers think, I don’t take requests. If you don’t like what you’re reading, simply unsubscribe. This became an issue after my essayletter two weeks ago, where I chose to reflect on the legacies of Jerry Lee Lewis, Eminem, et al. A handful of people subsequently wrote to tell me they would prefer, going forward, not to see me writing about pop culture. Today’s post is my definitive reply to them.
In other news, I continue to pursue various creative and intellectual endeavors in the genre of what I prefer to call the “very serious joke”. Here’s one such.
In this same genre, I’ve also been growing interested in Non-Fungible Tokens (NFT’s), and the potential these open up for new forms, let us say, of creative mischief, or “interventions” in the world of art/commerce. To this end, please visit my profile page at Mintable.app, where I have, alongside other strange epicyclical meta-objects, dared to mint and put up for sale a token of the type/token distinction itself.