As a poet and critic, Ruth Padel is fond of etymology, reminding us of the revealing historical complexity of the words we take for granted. On the evidence of this exploration of the links between ancient Greek culture and the contemporary mythos of rock music, it’s the simpler words that cause her trouble.
While ‘persona’, ‘authenticity’ and ‘electricity’ are all coaxed out of their respective Greek and Latin origins, the verb to be is contorted into violent analogy by Padel’s frantic effort to conjure significant connections between Orpheus and Elvis, Dion and Dionysus. ‘A guitar riff’, we’re told, apropos of the erotics of heavy metal, ‘is aural erection’. The misogyny of metal, the gunplay of rap, ‘are Mars throwing his weight around’. What’s the status of that stiff little ‘is’? What might the relationship be — beyond that brutal ‘are’ — between the god of war and the decidedly un-Olympian demise of Tupac Shakur? Presumably Padel means something more (and more interesting) than the clumsy analogies these statements suggest. Presumably, but not obviously. No Adorno when it comes to presenting the translation of myth to modernity, Ruth Padel has written a book that manages to inflate the metaphoric potential of myth and music to tenuous tumescence while reducing them to a bathetic battleground of armoured adolescent boys and Homeric warriors wielding startlingly electrified cocks.
The vicious schematism of Padel’s thesis beats the history of rock to a blank surface of homogeneity, a world where Henry Rollins cosies up to Alanis Morissette and Prince appears as a colourful addition to seventies glam. The lurking sense that Padel is reading all of this at some debilitating cultural remove is confirmed in her curiously combative introduction, where she effectively admits that the ensuing chapters are riddled with errors of fact, judgment and perspective. The electric guitar, unsurprisingly, prompts much of Padel’s metaphoric giddiness. But she seems only to have heard a handful of rock guitarists: Clapton, Richards and Hendrix keep returning here with the insistence of a Keef-locked riff. Maybe it’s in response to this radical canonical pruning that a small tragic chorus of entirely fictional players appears to fill the gaps. Bowie’s guitarist is called Mick Jonson, and Peter Greene leads Fleetwood Mac. Things are even odder in the realm of rap: Afrika Mombaataa spearheads the genre, and by the mid-eighties Aerosmith are re-recording ‘Walk This Way’ with that well-known trio AMC.
The seventies especially are subject to magical interventions by Padel’s enigmatic rock deities. The decade begins at Altamont with the Stones mysteriously misplacing Mick Taylor; Boy George weirdly manifests himself as part of Glam Rock, and Johnny Rotten travels back in time to write Iggy Pop’s ‘No Fun’. Padel tries to ward off potential critics by claiming that those who spot this sort of stuff are mere Hornby-esque obsessives (and worse: male), but it’s difficult to forgive an author who rewrites Lou Reed’s hymn to intravenous drug use with the words ‘when the smash begins to flow…’. One wonders what Padel thinks a song called ‘Heroin’ is about. Mashed potato?
It would be easier to dismiss such comic misprision as the result of editorial oversight if it weren’t for that telltale introductory admission that rock is pretty much all Greek to the author, and if Padel weren’t so intent on reading rock music precisely in light of its words. The real problem with this book (apart from the cut-price Calasso-isms and beyond the shockingly banal retelling of the history of the music) is that everything is argued in terms of rock’s text (song titles, lyrics, interviews, anecdotes) and nothing in terms of its texture. Padel never suggests what those rampant phallic guitars might sound like. In her stubborn insistence on significance, Padel misses seduction entirely.
Few of us who were awake in the late twentieth century would disagree with a statement like ‘potency is the extra-musical value of the rock guitar’, though we might want to question its originality. But a writing that truly understood ‘intra-musical value’ would have to give up such formulations and begin to listen. It’s not just a matter of ‘getting it’, intuiting some authenticity that Padel has missed, but a question of listening to what’s not merely significant (what Roland Barthes called the ‘grain of the voice’). Neither Padel’s analogies nor her cliché-crippled prose (‘Springsteen and Simon are in a creative class of their own’) are really capable of fulfilling that task. In its obsession with rock as expression of male selfhood, this book doesn’t come close to grasping music’s potential for pleasurable disintegration of the self, that mode of psychic dissolution that the Greeks knew as ekstasis.
Reviewed by Brian Dillon