Rock & Roll Ethics

I like rock and roll. I may even love it. It’s close enough to my heart, it’s one of the few things I’ll defend. So when my father said for the dozenth time how he must not understand the rock and roll ethic, I went to its defense again.

“The Rolling Stones. Springsteen. The Who. They’re all a bunch of geezers,” my father scoffed. “I thought rock and roll was about youth and rebellion. Those guys are anything but young, so how and why they still fill stadiums and arenas – I’ll never get it.”

“Not everything’s got to be wrapped in ethics, morals and principles,” I said. “It’s convenient to see things that way sometimes, but they’re not the explanations to everything. Sometimes they’re just convenient for driving the narratives and themes of books and articles.”

I knew that spinning things into said ethics, morals and principles was the cheapest tactic for having an excuse to shit on something a person simply doesn’t like or understand. Any half-wit knows that.

I waited for a response, knowing it wouldn’t come, as all my father wanted was agreement with his witty assessment. I already knew he didn’t care about seeing anything other than the way he already saw it. For the world and all it contains is nothing, if it isn’t according to him.

Last time we had this talk, I’d defended my beloved music by saying a band like The Stones really nailed rock n’ roll. They captured its essence, whatever that essence is – a feeling, a sound, an energy, an ethic – maybe all and even more. I said it’s arguable that nobody else did it better than Keith and Mick. I said a lot of real music fans wanna see the music they love performed live, by the guys who created it, so long as their performance is still good. I said there’s something to a great performance and whatever the energy is that’s passed between the crowd and the performers. I said I’d never been to a stirring political rally, but I imagine at one’s peak, a concert where the band jumps into one of your favorite songs is probably close to the same thing.

I’d said I still hoped to see AC/DC, even though they’re old, because their songs are that goddamned good. I said I’d just seen Slayer two years in a row and they were tremendous, even though they were pushing 60. And even though they’re old songs, Raining Blood and Angel of Death pummel and assault like no other combination of sounds can. I’d said much of the crowd for Slayer was below 30. But my father hadn’t listened. He hadn’t cared because it hadn’t fit.

My father was young when music was great. He was a young man when The Stones and Zeppelin and The Who and Sabbath were in their primes. But he only went to one concert, Gordon Lightfoot, and that was on a double date. It had little to do with the music. It was mostly about winning the girl. But he must not have won the girl. And I have to admit, maybe he lost her because of a smugness and arrogance back then that he obviously still possesses – a smugness and arrogance that’s about the only thing he shares with the “ethics” of rock and roll.

“Mick Jagger’s old as me,” he said. “I don’t know why anybody goes to see them. Why do kids want to see old men prancing around on stage? Makes no sense,” he insisted.

I said that if Lemmy was still alive I’d go to see him whenever I could, so long as he could still get up on stage and play.

As I knew he would, my father asked, “Who’s Lemmy?”, a query that immediately and unconditionally disqualified him from having any worthwhile opinion on the subject of rock and roll.

“You don’t know Lemmy? He was the founder of Motörhead. You saying anything about rock and roll without knowing Lemmy is like talking trash about basketball without knowing Larry Bird or Kobe,” I said.

And as far as the ethics of rock and roll, I added that Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee were music rebels of their time, going against Perry Como, Andy Williams, Bing Crosby and the like.

“But that time has passed,” I said. “I don’t imagine Motörhead or Slayer gave a shit about Perry Como or Lawrence Welk. And if you wanna argue it’s rebellion against society, not just popular music, then I’d say you can be an outsider and a rebel while still being old. You heard of Charles Bukowski or Jim Harrison?”

“Jim Morrison?” my father asked.

“No. Harrison.”

“No. What band was he in?”

“Never mind,” I said.

“I just don’t see how it’s supposed to be rock and roll with those old geezers on stage. I can’t see why people’d go.”

I’d finally had enough. So I unloaded the clip.

“Well, if you want to talk rock and roll ethics, I’d say there’s something way more rock and roll about a sixty-year-old getting hammered and rocking out to The Stones playing live than sitting at home, rubbing their joints, swigging Maalox instead of Miller Lites and looking forward to Wheel of Fortune more than Jumpin’ Jack Flash.”

I knew that would piss the old man off. But I felt it needed to be done.

“I don’t even like Wheel of Fortune,” he said.

“I never mentioned you. You’re over sixty.”

Then I said how some people just like to have fun. They like to get out and hear some good tunes and get drunk with some friends. And music, new or old – like sports – is a pretty good reason to party. But he wouldn’t back down.

“Well, I’d never pay for it. I’d never pay to see or hear those geezers do their thing.”

“Did you ever pay for it?” I asked. “Did you ever see Alice Cooper in his prime, when you had the chance? You’d have been about 23, 24 or 25 around the time of Billion Dollar Babies and School’s Out.”

“No,” he said. “But I had some records. You remember them.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I remember you had them stacked in boxes. But I don’t remember hearing them in the apartment.”

“Well, I had them. Led Zeppelin too. They’d probably be worth some money now.”

“Anyway,” I said. “You ever sat on the lawn in the summertime with some friends or a woman, drinking beer and seeing a live band? It’s not bad, regardless of the age of the band, so long as they’re good. A band can be old and still be really good. Sometimes they’re even better. People get better at their craft with age, sometimes.”

I waited. He wouldn’t answer.

“I’ve seen Alice Cooper two years in a row too. Different setlist. Different stage show. Obviously, he has a great catalog of songs. Awesome songs. And the dude’s over 70. Tearing it up on stage and he’s old. If nothing else, he’s got balls and grit. Can’t be easy touring when he’s that old.”

“You know who else is turning seventy?”

I knew. I refused to say, because that was too far off topic to make sense. I thought that by ignoring the question, we might allow a topic to exist on its own, for once. So I shut up, doing my part to stay the course.

But I failed.

“Me,” my father said. “Turning seventy in a few weeks.”

“Yeah,” I said.

I marveled at how Alice Cooper’s stage performance and longevity were so masterfully turned toward my father’s favorite subject – himself. It was a real work of art. He is lazy in most ways but he at least has the perseverance to see most things through to the end, so long as they can be ended with himself.

“Turning 70 in just a couple of weeks. And I consider it a blessing since, by all accounts, I should be long gone by now.”

“Long gone?” I asked. “Average life expectancy’s well into the 70’s.”

“Not for somebody like me with a heart condition,” he insisted.

I didn’t want to be combative or contradictory about that too, but the assault to my common sense was too much. I pulled out my phone. I looked it up.

“Average male life expenctency in the U.S. is 78.87 years. That’s for 2019.”

“Were you listening?” he asked. “I have a heart condition. It’s less for people with serious, chronic conditions.”

I put down the phone.

“The average is 79. The average ought to include people who’ve had heart attacks, cancer and diabetes,” I said. “All they do is move the average from like 85 down to 79. So, at seventy, you’re not even average yet. You got almost 9 more years to go.”

“I ought to be dead by now,” he insisted.

I knew his belief that he’d somehow conquered his life expectancy made him feel like he’d achieved something. And for those needing achievements, any one taken away is an unpleasant extraction.

“Average life for everybody’s almost 80. You’re part of everybody,” I insisted too.

I knew my father hated that people could still be so enthusiastic about people his age, but not him. And I knew of his need to shit on things that never appealed to him. It was never enough to simply have a preference – to simply like or dislike. Everything needed to be about morals and ethics and principles – like rock and roll’s ethics of youthfulness and rebellion.

“Nine more years is a long time,” I said. “You could learn to play the guitar in that time. You don’t even have arthritis.”

“I got it in my knee,” he said.

“Well, you play guitar with your fingers so how about I get you one for this birthday? I’ll get you a Fender or a real Les Paul. You say which one and I’ll buy it. I won’t even waste money on an Epiphone. I’ll get you a premium, first-rate geetar.”

But no. Petty acts of doing for him what he simply doesn’t want to do for himself are always far more meaningful and important than anything truly meaningful or important.

“No thanks,” my father said.

“Okay. Then what’ll it be? What do you want for your big 7-0?”

“I was thinking a pizza and some mulch.”

“That’s pretty rock and roll,” I said sarcastically.

“Funny,” he said.

I thought about adding that it was, in fact, the antithesis of anything cool. That the laziness in not wanting to buy his own mulch was the opposite of anything remotely “rock and roll”. I could have mentioned how I had a friend who was old and, for Christmas, I got him a book on Chet Atkins and how he was thrilled with it. And how we saw Buddy Guy and George Thorogood live. And for his 74th birthday – the year before he died – I took him to see The Reds in his wheelchair because that’s what he wanted. But not my father. For him, just pizza and 3 bags of pine bark mulch – pretty fucking Perry Como if you ask me.

And maybe that’s the reason my father seems to understand nothing about rock and roll or its ethics. Because in his youth – let alone old age – he never possessed any more than a mere flicker of the flame.

But we’d sparred enough for the day. So I kept that quiet until the next time he’ll want to sermonize about his misunderstanding of the ethics of rock and roll. According to the numbers, there are around 9 more years left, which means at least 9 more times to bring it up and completely ignore any real discussion about it.

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