Purpose

Nor is it any part of my thesis to maintain that it [the detective story] is a vital and significant form of art. There are no vital and significant forms of art; there is only art, and precious little of that. The growth of populations has in no way increased the amount; it has merely increased the adeptness with which substitutes can be produced and packaged.

— Raymond Chandler
The Simple Art of Murder

Like many of my generation, I grew up taking rock music for granted. My interest in the form started with the first singles by the Beatles, when I was just entering adolescence, and continued through my college career and beyond. Certainly much of what was popular during this period, as is true for any period and any popular art form, was trite and annoying. But a generous portion of the rock music produced over these years was exciting, energizing and liberating. To be able to tap into all this energy — by turning on a radio, by purchasing and playing a record — seemed no more miraculous than breathing. It was part of the fabric of my existence.

As I grew older, and discovered other art forms — literature, cinema and jazz, to name those most important to me — my interest in rock music abated accordingly. I became aware that every generation rebels against its predecessors in matters of taste and style, and suspected that the musical preferences of my youth would eventually join those that came before it: one more fad that seemed all-powerful when it first rolled up onto the shore, but then left little trace once it had receded.

Over the years, I have become more aware of what I would call the artistic sensation, as distinct from feelings of novelty, amusement or animation. I can quite contentedly watch a new movie, be swept up in its action, and pass a couple of agreeable hours, yet leave the theatre knowing that I am done with it, that is has left no residue. This is quite different from the feelings engendered when I watch Hitchcock’s Vertigo, listen to Miles Davis playing “In A Silent Way,” read “The Second Coming,” by W. B. Yeats, or The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler — all of which I have had occasion to do recently.

No matter what the form, all art seems to produce a similar sensation — of timelessness, of implicit order, of connectedness. It is as if the work of art had sounded some deep note, and caused sympathetic vibration in a hidden string, a string whose one end is secured in the human heart, and from there ascends towards some unknowable summit, the existence of the termination point affirmed only by the tautness of this resonant connection.

What has surprised me is that, as my awareness of this artistic sensation has become more acute, there is a great deal of rock music that still reliably sets it off. Somewhere over the years I had lost my vinyl copy of Jesse Winchester’s first album. I recently became aware that it was available on CD, after a decade or so of being out of print. When I listened to it again, for the first time in many years, it sounded as fresh and new and appealing as it had when it first echoed off the walls of my dorm room in 1970.

I am aware too, that this music still has an enduring power to move others as well. How else explain the continuing popularity of Beatles reissues, the regular use of classic rock songs as themes for new television commercials, and the strong sales of greatest hits compilations featuring music from this era?

I began work on this book almost thirty years ago, just after graduating from college. Some typewritten pages still remain from this effort. I pick it up now from feelings of debts unpaid, of assistance unacknowledged. As I look back at my youth, I am startled by the wealth I took for granted. When I turned on my radio back then, there was a good chance of hearing what I now recognize as art — powerful, vibrant, alive. It was like living in a world where paintings by Renoir or Picasso adorned the billboards beside the highways. Art was being invisibly transmitted through the airwaves, ready whenever it was needed, at the flick of a switch. Or it was pressed into vinyl, available just down the street for a few dollars, ready to be heard at the drop of a phonograph needle.

The goal of this book, then, is to give credit to rock music as a legitimate and autonomous art form. Because rock has been a tremendously popular form of music, because it is still relatively young, and because it has had such an effect on our society, there has been a tendency to look at the music primarily in other ways: as a cultural influence, as a sociological force, as a popularity contest, as a business, or as a set of stories about the often colorful personalities of its performers.

Even books that have taken rock seriously have tended to focus on its influences and antecedents, giving the impression that rock music is nothing more than a recent trend in an unbroken musical continuum including pop, folk, blues and jazz, to name only a few other related forms.

The intent of this book, in contrast, is to focus on rock music as an independent art form. This is not to deny, of course, that it shares important elements with other musical forms. But just as film shares important elements with other narrative forms — yet also introduces important differences — I believe that rock music brings distinct elements into play: elements that have generally not been sufficiently recognized.

I need to explain that when I talk about rock music, I am using the term to refer to something larger than the genre of rock and roll, or related forms like the blues. I tend to reserve the phrase “rock and roll” to refer to music by artists like Bill Haley, Little Richard, Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry, mostly produced in the late 1950’s. In contrast, rock music to me is something broader and more embracing, not a specific genre, but an aesthetic that makes use of contributions from the blues, rock and roll and soul music, as well as other musical antecedents.

The purpose of this book, then, is to establish rock music as an important art form in its own right. If this work is successful, then I believe that rock will be recognized as the third great art form of the twentieth century, along with film and jazz.

— Herb Bowie

Scottsdale, Arizona
March 24, 2001

Next: Intended Audience