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.