Rock and Roll by the Velvet Underground
Rock and Roll
Some songs document moments, but the best create moments. So it goes with “Rock and Roll,” the Velvet’s wall of sound coursing through us as if the band plugged not into amps, but directly to us, Moe Tucker’s drum beat becoming our pulse. The song sweeps us up and as an earlier New York author wrote, “Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and knowledge that pass all the argument of the earth.” It’s not the idea of rock and roll; it is rock and roll.
Lou Reed sings of Jenny, but it could be you and me, so much happening, but nothing happening at all. A world blurring around us, then she puts on the radio and the music rivets her into a time and place:
Then one fine mornin’ she puts on a New York station
You know, she don’t believe what she heard at all
She started shakin’ to that fine fine music
You know her life was saved by rock ‘n’ roll
Despite all the amputations you know you could just go out
And dance to the rock ‘n’ roll station
It was alright
This song captures that moment when we hear a song that connects to the world. It’s not a cure or an answer or therapy, but a way of seeing the world, a way of feeling. Growing up we’re told by parents, teachers and preachers of how the world is, of what it is we’re supposed to see and how we’re supposed to act. Only the world never appears as we’re told and the prescription of how to act can only carry us so far. What we see inspires fear, anxiety, joy and anger. And when we turn on the radio, sometimes, not often enough, but sometimes, we hear that song which allows us to see the world we experience, which validates us, which invites us to get up and dance or sit down and cry or punch our fists in the air.
I love how this song pegs the source of light and life to New York City. Think Dean Moriarity and Sal Paradise pushing towards the City and knowing they’re getting close when they hear Symphony Sid. The physical location matters less than the music. Bob Dylan spoke of how he’d lie awake at night in the Minnesota hinterlands tuning his AM radio to pick up WDIA out of Memphis and the rhythm and blues, country and blues that still fill his head today. Or Van Morrison, listening to his father’s Leadbelly and John Lee Hooker records or playing with the dial until he could pick up Radio Luxembourg.
For me, a Catholic school kid on Long Island, I understood what Jenny meant:
You know my parents are gonna be the death of us all
Two TV sets and two Cadillac cars –
Well you know it ain’t gonna help me at all
Not just a little tiny bit
When I plugged into Dylan, Springsteen, Van Morrison and Patti Smith, the disconnect between the world the others described and the world I could see became tenable. The ability to see and act differently became possible. No matter how I felt, no matter how messed up things became, I could immerse myself in the music and feel a connection to the singer and a larger world. As if the music vibrate with the pulse of the universe and those vibrations ran right through me.
I remember a teenage afternoon, surprisingly alone in the house, going down to the living room with a small stack of records, putting them on the turntable in the console on which my parents listened to show tunes and Christmas albums and I had once listened to Disney music and “The Little Engine that Could.” I played the Eagles “Take It Easy” as loud as the speakers would allow, cranked “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” and the Stones “Beggar’s Banquet.” I didn’t see or hear my father come in, until he lifted the needle off the record, and shook his head, in disappointment and disgust. I was a lost teenager and we both knew it. “This music will ruin you.” We couldn’t have been farther apart. I knew what he meant, yet I understood that my life was saved by rock and roll and had no way of conveying this to him. It would be years before we could hear each other.
The music heard over a lifetime envelopes me though those moments when I hear something new still has the opportunity to shock me, to quicken the pulse. Like the Avett Brothers “Murder in the City” or the Hold Steady or Arcade Fire or even Bob Dylan’s “Red River Shore.” Songs that connect me to mysteries, that tap into some unknown reservoir of energy and emotion. Songs that tell a truth and create a moment.
Ooh, She started dancin’ to that fine fine music
You know her life is saved by rock ‘n’ roll,
Yeah, rock n’ roll
Despite all the computations
You could just dance to that rock ‘n’ roll station
And baby it was a l right
And it was all right
Hey it was all right
It was all right
Hey here she comes now!