In an essay for The New Yorker about the origins of rock and roll, Louis Menand uses an anecdote Patti Smith told about going to see The Doors in the late 1960s. Smith claims she was not transfixed by Jim Morrison in that concert, like everyone else at the concert.
She saw what Morrison was doing and decided she could do it herself.
“For many people, that response is the essence of rock and roll,” Menand writes. By rock and roll, he means music associated with pioneers like
Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Buddy Holly, as well as the Beatles’ early creations.
“To this way of thinking, rock and roll … is music that anyone can play (or can imagine playing) and everyone can dance to,” he writes. “The learning curve for performing the stuff is short; the learning curve for appreciating it is nonexistent. The instrumentation and the arrangements are usually simple: three or four instruments and, frequently, about the same number of chords.”
It’s possible to add a whole lot more than that, but what matters – or so the argument goes – is the feeling.
“Rock and roll feels uninhibited, spontaneous, and fun,” Menand writes. “There’s no show-biz fakery coming between you and the music. As with any musical genre, it boils down to a certain sound. Coming up with that sound, the sound of unrehearsed exuberance, took a lot of work, a lot of rehearsing.”
Here is where I argue that writing is rock and roll.
It’s true that writing is sometimes like Chopin or Rachmaninov or Bach. This is the kind you did in high school or college, trying to master someone else’s idea of what made for a good essay, lab report or short story.
Maybe you went to journalism school like I did and mastered all kinds of story forms so you could plop names and dates and quotations into them and churn out five stories a day.
That’s not the kind of writing I’m talking about. I’m talking about the kind of writing you want to do, the kind you need to do in order to stay sane.
This is the stuff that flows out of you easily onto a computer screen, unpretentious and unadorned, without worrying what an anal-retentive professor might think.
The kind of writing I am talking about is as much about feeling as it is about form. It’s about saying what you want to say, or need to say, in the way you want to say it.
It’s about saying things simply – three or four instruments and about as many chords. It’s about swallowing at least some of your inhibitions and doing the work you are meant to do, if not professionally then at least in your spare time.
Menand argues no one contributed more to creating the sound of early rock and roll than Sam Phillips, who founded Sun Records and discovered Elvis.
Phillips opened a recording studio on Union Avenue in Memphis in 1950 with the slogan, “We Record Anything – Anytime.”
He recorded church services, weddings and funerals. But his dream – the reason he set up the studio, according to Menand – was to create a space where aspiring musicians could come and play. When they did, he listened to them and encouraged them.
“He hated formulas,” Menand writes. “He thought that music was about self-expression, and he liked songs that were different … Phillips preferred imperfection. It made the music sound alive and authentic.”
Castoffs and misfits started turning up in his studio, musicians no one else would record. He was the first to record B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Ike Turner, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison.
He produced and released some of the genre’s biggest hits, including “Blue Suede Shoes,” “I Walk the Line” and “Great Balls of Fire.”
Above all, Menand writes, he was supportive. He got musicians to believe in him by getting them to believe in themselves.
Here is where I try being your Sam Phillips.
I do not need you to believe in me, but I want you to believe in yourself. I want you to believe your stories matter, and so do your insights. If you are compelled to share them, you should.
Be careful not to hurt anybody in the process, but write what is in your heart. Tell us what you have learned so far, so that we can avoid some of your mistakes.
Formulas are fine, if you want to use them. But it’s better to say what you need to say in the way you want to say it. Your imperfections will make your writing seem alive and authentic and beautiful.
Chances are you have read a book or two that transfixed everyone and you thought, I could do that.
So do it.
Start telling your stories.
Rock on, man.