Ten years ago I was in Santa Fé, sitting by the window of a converted army barrack, framed by a blur of rolling mountains made soft pink in the gloaming. I was talking with my hallmate. He was enlightening me about his fascination with Industrial. He rolled his sleeve and showed me his KMFDM tattoo. Me, I was a record punk through and through. Unfamiliar, I was treated to the genre’s nearly complete history. Complete up to Downward Spiral. He insisted Downward Spiral had ended it. Nine Inch Nails seamlessly bound the worlds of Industrial music and Pop music, and in the process created a work that could not be topped and must be followed. Industrial had always seen its vast distance from Pop music as an integral element, he argued, and now was Pop. It had lost its purpose. The project, so to speak, was over. Industrial was dead.
The idea fascinated me. At the center is a question of defining anything at all, but more specifically the point when something becomes something else. His answer distinctly Aristotelian: when it fulfills or defies its essential purpose. As elegant and simple an argument as it is fallaciously vague.
In that moment I realized I, too, held some form of that belief. It rattled my connectome. I had picked an arbitrary starting point – the punk movement – and distorted all that surrounds it.
Punk represented some epiphenomenal rebirth of Rock ‘n’ Roll. A restoration of the immediacy, virility, passion, and showmanship that won over a generation of teenage hips. But to be reborn, Rock ‘n’ Roll must’ve more than lost its way, it must’ve lost its purpose.
If Rock ‘n’ Roll had a purpose, some deeper thread that separated Carl Perkins from Bing Crosby and connected Little Richard to The Velvet Underground, I would find it.
The next ten years were an excavation of wax graveyards. Document after document without an answer. The years waned, and the wax grew heavier and heavier. I had amassed as many data points as possible. I was the Tycho Brahe of riffs. Yet, just as nowhere in Brahe’s data existed the image of elliptical orbits they would later identify, nowhere in my collection of LPs was an obituary. The revelation wasn’t in the facts.
I may never know to my satisfaction what killed Rock ‘n’ Roll. But, I do know this: Four chords, concealed by phase and interlocking leads and then demanding your full attention served as its last words in November, 1970.
“Standing on the corner” the narrator enters “suitcase in my hand.” Sung in one of Rock ‘n’ Roll’s most nuanced vocal takes, by one of its poorest singers. “Jack is in his corset, Jane is in her vest. And me, I’m in a Rock ‘n’ Roll band.”
Typical Lou Reed gender bending, it should be mentioned that in the initial versions of ‘Sweet Jane’, these characters were absent and earlier demos have them clothed according to our society’s expectations. Curiously absent, as well, is the narrator.
“Ridin’ in a Stutz-Bearcat, Jim” Reed rejoins, “Y’know, those were different times” A distinction in eras, the times have changed. “Oh, all the poets, they studied rules of verse, And the ladies, they rolled their eyes. ” We have changed too.
“Sweet Jane” delivered like anthem, is conciliatory. Initially a simple love song, it served to say: Sweet Jane, the shape of the world has torn us apart. And we are okay. I am okay. And you, my love, are okay.
By the time they entered the studio to cut Loaded in late 1969 the VU had run a gauntlet. Their first three albums would become essential listening in the decades to come. In the late 1960’s they were still waiting in dustbins. They were known, primarily, as a live act and had dragged themselves across the continent for the better part of the year like the Johnny Appleseed of Punk Rock. And what would become Loaded evolved.
As the song transformed, so did its meaning. The love between Jack and Jane became the foundation for another story of despondency. A snapshot from a world changing, and a narrator who no longer knows his place in it. Where the old rules no longer apply. “Sittin’ down by the fire, the radio does play that classical music there, Jim.” This second verse, this scene of domestic tranquility – Jack and Jane returning from work to save money and sit by the fire spending the evening with the radio – to which world does this belong?
Sadly, Reed alludes, to neither. That underneath our constructions of gender, partnership, loyalty, and trust there may be nothing at all. Love itself is a construction, and we’re losing engineers.
In this new world, there is no difference between the wooden soldiers and the protest kids. Some people like to go out dancing, and others they have to work. The cynicism of failed generations, these evil mothers, are going to tell you that life is just to die.
And what do we have to say back? The very certainties we were taught and then told weren’t true?
That women never really faint, and villains always blink their eyes?
That everyone who ever had a heart wouldn’t turn around and break it and inversely that anyone who ever played a part wouldn’t turn around and hate it?
No, Sweet Jane. Because we all are blinking and we always hate it. Because sitting there by the fire, between worlds, with Jack in his corset may be the only happiness and who knows how long you will have it. And meanwhile, the world is still spinning and shifting with complete indifference.
‘Sweet Jane’ tells us how pointless and complicated this meaningful simple world can become. And how caught in the middle of it all is us, the Jacks and Janes. Stalwart against the tide, or victims of it drifting apart. It may very well be Rock ‘n’ Roll’s most encompassing love song.
When ‘Sweet Jane’ was released in 1970 it was adored by the few who heard it, and more so by the even fewer who listened. It solidified the underground coalescing around it. It became the anthem of an outsider generation. Nobody else was listening. In November 1970, the Top Hit of the month was ‘I Think I Love You’ by the fucking Partridge Family. It’s no smoking gun, but that’s when Rock ‘n’ Roll lost its purpose. That’s when Rock ‘n’ Roll died.
Either that or the co-opting of the blues and AM radio. Or whatever Don Mclean was rambling on about. The jury’s still out on that I guess.