“Bored” is enunciated like the end of each couplet in Robyn Hitchcock and The Egyptians’ “Balloon Man.” Much like the latter, the trax centers on staging an example. (Unlike Hitchcock, it’s not concerned with identity production and explosion.) Alternating between first and third person limited, we witness the staging of ennui. Malformed embodiment: “skin like dirt” that’s both “sun kissed” and “burnt.” Neither actively pursuing nor straying far from whiteness. Overdriven instruments and vocals sound primarily in the midrange. Shared nostalgia for dissatisfaction, reanimating the realization that “life’s a chore.”
The funereal as first condition of love, albeit of the “too young to hold on” variety. Inside-out strategy documents this suffering, from the initial sharing of mortality to the infinite indebtedness and sacrifice necessary for pleasure. Huddled and awaiting the invited intrusion which would reinitiate this fateful exchange, singer must confess, accept responsibility, and hurl imperatives functioning as (desperate) invitations. (Reminiscent, really, of Bill Clinton’s putative Putting People First (1992): social support, for too long, has been a “way of life,” but it should really be a “second chance” so that we can “reward work” and “demand responsibility” in the name of reworking desire.) Occasional (and stunted) Leslie speaker intrusions imply a slowed doppler effect: exchange is in the passing.
It seems right that rock’n’roll’s first principle should be its prison ontology. Elvis was in the jailhouse and Bill Haley was a slave to working hours. So we “rock” because we’re stuck in Parchman Farm, or on a chain gang, or queer in a world of compulsory heterosexuality, or stuck behind the Iron Curtain. We don’t ask permission. It’s intentionally disruptive. Sometimes what we do may not rise above putting an occasional spanner in the works, or utilizing “the weapons of the weak,” as James C. Scott puts it. But, other times, rocking might rise to the level of the general strike, and make the walls and borders of the world tremble. So it’s strange to remember that Elvis’ “Jailhouse Rock” (1957) involves a rock show staged and strenuously promoted by the warden and capable of making the prisoners complacent enough to forego escape so they can listen to the beat combo. Rock here is exposed as nothing but an aural strain of the spectacle, as conceptualized from Machiavelli to Debord. So perhaps we’re all in jail, in one way or another, but rock’n’roll, as soon as it calcified and corporatized, became one of our wardens.
Beginning with concert vocals and sustained by a looping, minimal blues ostinato, the trax ends with backwards guitar. Disheveling the live/studio distinction, Lucas makes clear that work pervades stage and studio. Over the ostinato, various guitar solos are deployed (from Tubescreamer-like distortion to wah pedal to tremolo bar to tape manipulation), voicing these works as just technical variations. At two separate moments, all of this is interrupted (by “The Reckoning[s],” one assumes) with its alternating low, high, and midrange repetitions of the same phrase with an open-string drone. Life figured, at its base, as perpetual work. Homespun and high-end reflect this.
Presently positioned as the object of Jimi Hendrix’s affection, it’s also become common knowledge that Leonard Chess initially constrained Guy to sideman status and fairly tame guitar tones. But the beginnings of Guy’s (amplified) overdrive can be heard here in 1962. Restrained initially, the lines/runs slowly become more direct and shrill; in the solos, the distortion emanates from the note’s floor/base and occupies the majority of registers. The narrator’s main complaint: he’s betrayed by a lover who thinks his “little heart is made of iron.” Even his daughter knows this isn’t true, so it’s willful abuse. But this leads to a complaint about labor and location: slinging guitar in the North isn’t compatible with the clothes he’s accustomed to wearing. So, he’s going “back down South.” (But that’s not gonna happen; he’s just started ripping the top off of blues amplification, and the song goes on to be released in different forms on almost 50 different albums/compilations.) Devastated, overwhelmed, and speaking from a contractual/obligatory positioning, seeking an appropriate climate is a luxury. After the plaint: a throbbing, throttling identity whose work—levied at the point of a finger—begins.
Liberty appears in so many ways that it’s easy to forget how self-contradictory it is. As a civil institution, liberty is an entitlement undergirded by the power to shape and condition (y)our community. It serves as a concept in thrall to oligarchic interests (e.g. the Tea Party movement) and as a foundation for various strains of Occupy movements and libertarian causes. In rare and outdated usage, it can also mean that which goes beyond propriety or, literally, a district beyond one’s border that is still within its jurisdiction. For B. Traven in The Death Ship, it means shore leave, forced servitude, and the “opportunity” to be stateless. And Watt’s sailor’s opera/concept album equates the concept with the same boiler men Traven focuses on. Liberty here is secular, unwed to state-based aspirations. The sailors enjoy shore leave since they can escape the “hell-ride” in order to “learn” and to “take on fuel and burn!” Expenditure redirected, they visit “other lands” with “our” liberty. Constantly shared and appearing intermittently, we catch a glimpse of what liberty could mean: a “need[ful]” thing consisting of “histories” and “mysteries” that we simultaneously “figure” and, more positively, “trip” out over.
When I.G. Blanchard and the Reverend Jessie H. Jones penned the most popular American labor song of the nineteenth century, “Eight Hours” (1878), they imagined a hard-working man as having “eight hours for work, eight hours for rest,” and eight hours to “feel the sunshine” and “smell the flow’rs.” But this successful demand for limitations on the length of the working day can only be deciphered from within capitalism’s prior imposition of clock time, and it’s this root cause which rock’n’roll disputes without overcoming. “Rock Around the Clock’s” surreal twenty-two hour shift (with breaks at noon and midnight) leaves no time for the great outdoors or contemplation. It’s a serious business, this constantly jumpin’ at one’s leisure.
This trax fits well with Newton-John’s tradition of disarming. Elsewhere, it’s in confessions of love: “I’m not trying to make you anything at all.” Calls for action: “I wanna get animal, let’s get into animal.” Analyses of the other: “Now, you’re not hard to understand.” And in tacit condemnations of the head/heart divide—after each speaks in “Hopelessly Devoted to You,” listen for the vocal acting-out/mockery of affect. Here, with ELO’s minor-key undulations, we have an interlocking four-part argument concerning the future. With a properly imagined—hence provision(al)—future in mind, there must be a commitment to work. There’s no time to waste; “dreams” begin to exist with the thinking. The other is always “guiding you” and not the other way around. Finally, you are “home free” already, save for the traps and follies of manifest life. “You,” eventually, will be evacuated on nobody’s authority.
Both Rush and Joni Mitchell are worried that others, who have done nothing, desire to have “something” or “everything.” These are the takers, and they aspire to grab it from the song makers. Dire Straights wrote about these folks, too, but with a hint of masculinist satire: laboring men want “money for nothing,” just like the “little faggot” on MTV. But let’s step back a moment and remember that once upon a time all property came from nothing. One day everything was held in common, and the next–poof!–there was stuff. “Something from nothing,” as the Foo Fighters say. And once there was stuff, property became “theft” as Proudhon’s famous, “perfect” maxim reminds. Anyone who had anything was now a robber. Yet the O’Jays remind us that the capitalists still dream of “something for nothing” like Twain’s Tom Sawyer at the whitewashed fence, producing pure surplus value. We might say of this stack of trax that they finally have little in common. But they do have “nothing” in common, which in all these cases stands in for the communal–both missing and forgotten.
Following a strict Biblical logic, work is a curse (“In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return into the ground” [Gen. 3:19]). Double-barreled vocals indicate that one will “sweat ‘til I’m wrinkled and grey,” which is both daunting and depressing for the singer; but also, as the song swells, that the Sun poses an ecstatic, negative example of “paradise.” What’s missing: an account of a rigorous laziness (or what Nancy calls “an extremity of play”) which might thread these seemingly exclusive domains, and place work in the service of what Blanchot calls unworking. As is, one is still conceptualizing the Sabbath, and thereby reinforcing the primacy of labor.