When I was a wee bairn in the seventies, a mass-market paperback called The Poetry of Rock was often to be found among the macramé and marijuana seeds. This anthology was a weird little bible to me, its concordances the records that were always lying around with their mystically resonant titles—Aja, Slider, Sticky Fingers, Dixie Chicken—and glorious gatefolds. I’d pore over lyric sheets the way Harold Bloom claims he immersed himself as a child in Blake and Hart Crane. My earliest act of literary exegesis was attempted when I was eight or so, as I listened again and again to a secondhand eight-track cassette of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, trying to understand what it could mean to know “how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall.”
Paul Muldoon writes of Leonard Cohen, “his songs have meant far more to me / than most of the so-called ‘poems’ I’ve read.” The list of artists of whom I could say this seems long until I remember why “most” of the “poems” I read are “so-called.” Popular music—rock and roll at first, soon followed by pop, country, jazz, disco, R&B, the blues, soul, hip-hop, metal—has been for me less a passion or obsession than what Kenneth Burke said poetry was: equipment for living. I remember listening to “Tumbling Dice” as a teenager and wondering whether even the Stones themselves understood what perfection they had achieved. I didn’t get people who simply put music on in the background as they talked or read or ate. You had to, yes, immerse yourself in it, like a religious mystery. In college, before I quit drinking, I rarely got laid, in part (only in part) because the end of the night would inevitably find me pressed against a stereo or jukebox, trying to filter out the sounds of a party or bar so I could concentrate on the Ramones. It was ridiculous. I was ridiculous. Rock and roll is, among other things, our profoundest celebration of the ridiculous.
Reading The Poetry of Rock again decades later, I was impressed by how self-aware it is. I’d assumed I would find it a kitschy cash-in, radio wisdom for the Carlos Castaneda set, full of wimpy crap like “The Sound of Silence.” That excretion is indeed to be found within the anthology’s pages, but for the most part editor Richard Goldstein, a rock critic for the Village Voice, was too savvy to fall for the sententious philosophizing of callow young folkies like Paul Simon and Phil Ochs. Goldstein says of the latter’s unreadable “Crucifixion” that it is “infuriating in its insistence on expressing everything in allegorical terms.” Meanwhile, interpreting Dylan is like “running a U.S.O. in Hanoi”; Procol Harum’s lyrics “reek of random allusions and post-graduate funk”; “you can almost feel the lurch of brakes between the lines” of the Beatles’ “In My Life.”
For Goldstein, rock “poetry” is about the ability “to express the forbidden within the context of the permissible.” “Poetry” poetry can, on occasion, afford to express the forbidden within the context of the forbidden, because it doesn’t aspire to go platinum. (The same could be said of punk, I suppose.) Context is, of course, why the answer to the tedious question of whether popular lyrics are poetry can only be “it depends.” Goldstein notes that “mere linearity can destroy a rock lyric,” and claims, despite his anthology’s title, that it is a mistake to expect pop lyrics “to move like a poem.”
The point is that pop music is music, duh, and without the klaxon and clamor of guitars or beats, the words don’t really rock or roll.
I spoke recently with Craig Finn—the leader of my favorite contemporary rock band, the Hold Steady—while doing research for another essay, one that eventually defeated me. It was meant to be an entry in that hoariest of archives wherein are stored considerations of creativity’s relation to mental illness. Nothing came of that essay, but it seems a shame to let my conversation with Finn go to waste. The problem is I am terrible at interviewing people over the phone, as my experience with Frederick Seidel should have taught me. According to my notes, at one point Finn said, "I think rock and roll is at its worst when it's at r. of the n." Given the importance he places on "staying positive," I suspect n stands for "negative." Other than that, no idea. I have written "GBV—better—Bob Stinson." GBV is the nineties indie-rock band Guided by Voices, and Bob Stinson, lead guitarist for the Replacements, died at 35, his health ruined by drug and alcohol abuse. Better to fade away than to burn out, I suppose.
Finn has received more attention in poetry circles than is usual for rock musicians, because of his song "Stuck between Stations," which name-checks John Berryman. "When I read about his life," Finn told me, "it seemed like a song I already should have written." But most Hold Steady songs are suffused with a kind of romantic anti-romanticism that reminds me of Berryman at his dreamiest. "Bars will be closed," Dream Song 44 says: that's the premise from which Finn begins, both in his songs and, according to my notes, in his life: "There's nothing glamorous" about Jack Kerouac's life, he told me. "My whole day is focused on being able to play well."
"Rock and roll can be a really positive thing," Finn said. "It's been a positive thing in my life." At one point he misquoted Joan Didion, who said "I write to find out what I'm thinking." Finn changed "thinking" to "feeling" and concluded, "Things we like in art are very emotional."
I've been thinking about that sentence a lot lately. Things we like in art are very emotional. In the mid-nineties, in my early twenties, I backpacked around Europe for a summer. I had about ten cassette tapes with me and a Sony Walkman. One of the tapes was Exile on Main Street, and I listened to it at least twice a day for over a month. Now I listen to it once every couple of years. I no longer respond to it the way I did then, and that is a great sorrow. It just reminds me of that time, how young I was, how little I knew about how much I would want those days back. I listen to Exile on Main Street and I remember standing on a bridge in Florence with a slightly older girl I'd met in Mexico the winter before, watching the sun go down over the Arno. That girl's in her forties now. We're Facebook friends. "I'm zipping through the days at lightning speed."
There's a moment toward the end of A Positive Rage, the Hold Steady's concert album, that almost kills me every time. Finn is talking to the audience while the band plays the intro to "Killer Parties": "I say the same thing almost every night, I'm not fooling anyone. But I only say it 'cause it's true. The thing is, is, is, uh, well. It's just that, I don't, well. It's ... the ... there is so much joy in what we do up here. I want to thank you for being here to share that joy with us." Finn almost shouts the word joy. It's equipment for living, rock and roll is, and poetry is too. "I mean, look at the Stones," Dave Hickey writes. "Keith Richards is always on top of the beat, and Bill Wyman, until he quit, was always behind it, because Richards is leading the band and Charlie Watts is listening to him and Wyman is listening to Watts. So the beat is sliding on those tiny neural lapses, not so you can tell, of course, but so you can feel it in your stomach.... This is the delicacy of rock and roll, the bodily rhetoric of tiny increments, necessary imperfections, and contingent community.... Rock and roll works because we're all a bunch of flakes." We're trying to stay on the beat. We're trying to hold it steady.