Inspirations: Rock ‘n’ Roll

Tonight, I begin a journey as music director for a community theater production of Return to the Forbidden Plant. Because this is a jukebox musical of Oldies from the 1950’s and ’60’s, I thought this might be an appropriate time to return to my occasional series, “Inspirations,” wherein I discuss the influences that helped me develop as an artist. In this installment, Rock ‘n’ Roll.

In the Beginning

Before I aspired to becoming a novelist, there was another dream. I had the usual little-kid plans of growing up to be a fireman, a police officer, and (because we used to watch Emergency! on TV every week) a paramedic.

But the first real career dream I had — the first passion I wanted to pursue in a real way — was to be a Rock ‘n’ Roll star.

I know that sounds foolish, as airy and unrealistic as wanting to be Johnny Gage at Station 51. But music, particularly the popular music of the 1970’s got inside my blood early on.

My father was a music lover, and he introduced my brother and I to many of the artists of the early ’70’s — Jim Croce in particular. Croce looked about as badass as they came. Dark, curly hair, macho-man mustache, and dressed all in denim. He sang about “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” and warned “You Don’t Mess Around with Jim.”

But this rough-looking customer, who told tales of stock car drivers and scofflaw truckers, was also incredibly sensitive. His biggest hit was the tender love ballad, “Time in a Bottle,” and he remembered “Walkin’ in the Alabama Rain” with his lover and pined over others as he sorted through “Photographs and Memories.”

I was blown away. Here was a guy who could be badass and sweet at the same time. He sang and wrote these awesome songs, and people bought his records and mourned his loss when he died tragically in a plane crash.

Dad also introduced us to early classics from Chuck Berry, Chubby Checkers, Danny and the Juniors, Buddy Holly, Bill Haley and His Comets, and of course, The Beatles. Watching Happy Days, with its 1950’s and later ’60’s soundtrack helped broaden my education.

But perhaps the biggest vehicle for getting music from the dawn of Rock ‘n’ Roll to my developing cultural awareness was Sha Na Na. Dave and I watched their syndicated show every Saturday, and Dave got a Sha Na Na record for his birthday one year. We learned these songs and sang along.

I didn’t understand what was happening at the time, but I was discovering important musical concepts and falling in love with them. The backbeat became the rhythm of my heart. The I-IV-V-IV-I chord progression was the rule of how I heard. I learned to think in 4/4 time.

As I grew up in the 1970’s, music was becoming my lifeblood. I wanted to sing, I wanted to play, and I wanted to be a star.

Guitar John

There are Rock ‘n’ Rollers who play a variety of instruments — piano, drums, bass, saxophone. But for me, the essential component of Rock has always been the guitar. Chuck Berry made it famous, Jimi Hendrix made it essential.

As I moved into the 1980’s, rough and artful guitar work became the kind of music that moved me more fundamentally than anything else. It all came together for me in a largely forgotten song from 1983, “On the Dark Side” by John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band from the Eddie and the Cruisers soundtrack.

It opens with an arpeggiated piano line. The guitar hits the main chords as Cafferty sings the verse slowly. Then the drums kick up the tempo, and the guitar gets its feature — that perfect I-IV-V-IV-I progression — before the whole band comes back in and we rock out.

It’s perfect. It makes my heart sing. It’s pure, unadulterated Rock ‘n’ Roll.

It found me when I was a freshman in high school, when I was just getting started in the music program. It grabbed hold of me and wouldn’t let go.

I’d been writing songs for a few years at that point. They were mostly ballads, and they were largely influenced by the country crossover music that was popular at the turn of the decade as a result of Urban Cowboy and The Dukes of Hazzard.

But “On the Dark Side” and Bob Seeger’s “Old Time Rock ‘n’ Roll” (also popular in 1983, when it scored the touchstone scene in Risky Business) made me want to write up-tempo, backbeat Rock.

I didn’t know then how to do the growling Rock voice. I wouldn’t learn that until college. But I did start writing a steady stream of Classic Rock- and Oldies-influenced songs that I dreamed of getting recorded behind a five-piece rock combo with me as the front-man.

Morphing Message

Unfortunately, I lived in De Pere, Wisconsin. There weren’t any music agents, no major recording studios, and no real way I knew of for a high school kid to get out and get exposure.

I sang very briefly in a short-lived band. We never found a guitarist. My music went largely unheard.

I went to college and majored in music to try to bring my dream to fruition. But the music program at my alma mater was classical. They had no interest in teaching me how to growl, how to record music, and how to make it in the Rock ‘n’ Roll scene. I performed one year in the pop music show choir, but as the New Guy I had to pay my dues and didn’t get many features.

Something else important happened in my musical education, though. I learned the power of message. Suddenly, it wasn’t just the music that spoke to me. The lyrics, which I had largely written for the purpose of telling love stories, took on new meaning. Popular music could be used to fight for justice.

As the social issues of the day (homelessness, the first Gulf War, Wall Street corruption) took hold of my imagination, I began writing songs that expressed my feelings on these topics. I went from writing diddy-bop dance tunes and plaintive love ballads to raw political missives pleading for a culture change.

And I met some guitarists. Renting a four-track recording machine from a local music store, I recorded three albums of my angry, socially conscious Rock.

But now I didn’t have a drummer, and I didn’t really know how to use a drum machine. So, sincere as they are, those early ’90’s recordings are missing a certain something that makes Rock ‘n’ Roll, you know, rock.

The Day the Music Died

I graduated from college with a degree in English and left Wisconsin to pursue a Master’s at Kansas. I was still writing music at that point, but my focus was turning more and more to literature. I wrote some good songs (in my opinion) while I was in graduate school, but by 1993, my Rock ‘n’ Roll dreams were effectively dead. I didn’t know any other musicians, and I didn’t really know how to find them.

By 1996, I founded a company to publish roleplaying games, and from that point forward, I was dedicated to pursuing art through literary instead of musical media.

But the power of Rock ‘n’ Roll lives on in me. When I hear a really good guitar progression or a bitchin’ solo, I am carried away.

Moreover, music requires putting multiple parts together harmoniously, and that’s important in literature too. Plot, character development, conflict, and theme have to weave together smoothly if you want to craft a fine piece of literary entertainment. Just as the guitar can’t be out of time with the drums, the characters can’t be out of synch with the themes. It all has to tie up neatly, even if the ending is left open.

Rock ‘n’ Roll was important to me from an early age, and I still find it easiest to express an emotion and idea in the right song. I once told a young woman I was trying to date that there was a perfect song for every situation. It wasn’t just a come-on line. I believed it passionately, and I still do.

And with that in mind, there’s one perfect way to end this reflection on my development as an artist:

I love Rock ‘n’ Roll. Put another dime in the jukebox, baby.

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