Between Rock and a Hard Place
A reflection on rock and roll music in my hometown from a political perspective
Society failed to tolerate me
And I have failed to tolerate society
Still I can’t find what you adore
Inside I hear the echoes of an inner war
Nothing can take the horror from me
Your sick world the loss of all morality
My hate has grown as strong as my confusion
My only hope, my only solution
Is a violent revolution
— Violent Revolution, Kreator
Far away from the razzle-dazzle world of rock and roll music in the West, in one corner of a strife-torn hinterland, it found an unlikely home—in my hometown of Imphal near the Indo-Burmese border. It was before I was born so I mostly heard in my teenage days about its birth and how this form of music took root in the region when there was the least chance for even ageing rockers to come down for a gig. These days, they do, apart from sporadic shows in mainland India. Then in school, I came across classic metal and nothing has been the same again.
Growing up with daily doses of Sabbath, Led Zep, Deep Purple, Jimi Hendrix and others, rock and roll was all about expressions that you hardly find in the finest works of Wordsworth and Keats and their ilk. Rock was then raw yet stylish, crude yet beautiful. In those days of teenage angst, regardless of the time of the day or night, playing one side of a Judas Priest’s Painkiller cassette on full volume on a ubiquitous stereo player—in those pre-digital days of the Nineties—was more therapeutic than the so-called music for relaxation, available online galore in this SoundCloud-Accuradio-Earbits era.
I used to go around with an overused marker and every chance I got, anywhere, I’d scribble like ‘For Those About to Rock, We Salute You’, ‘Born to Be Wild’ and all sorts of those rock-inspired slogans. It was plain stupidity, I realise it now. Gradually my taste has changed drastically. Earlier in high school, my genres of interest used to ‘rock’ from MC5s to Quiet Riots and from Metallicas to Obituarys and so on; but now the taste is all about politics in their contents and form while the style hardly matters anymore.
It would not be wrong if I refer to it as a trend. In those formative days of rock and roll in the town, 99.9999% of the bands perform only covers. Local pioneer bands like Phoenix and the Cannibals, in this style, did have quite a fan base in the town and beyond. Their experience was measured by how much they can play like the original, while their ‘composed numbers’ aka original songs were just unasked bonus though there were some scarce exceptions such as the Cannibals’ Dirty Boy and Sweet Reggae, Jagdish’s Blue Moon, the Drixian Empire’s Nowhere to Run and the likes. (Footnote: Phynyx’s Woman with its Eighties’ tinge is so overly sentimental and equally overrated.)
Now they are too old to rock and roll and the trend has changed too. We have a current crop of musicians today, who know the politics of our time and it is reflected clearly in their original works. Those who do not follow this trend are like the outcast rockers of the Eighties when anything related to this form of music implied simply drug addiction, early death or a la 27-Club member and all kinds of stigma in our conservative society.
The situation has changed and the present cover bands face little discrimination but there is one certain thing: they are superficial, unimaginative and senseless. It is personal but that is how the things are now. There is no need for explanation but for arguments’ sake, rock is a powerful medium of communication but they are squandering it away without utilising the medium except by a few of them. It is a kind of unnecessary wastage.
Alternatively, when Sepultura performs Roots Bloody Roots, we can relate to it, but not when white musicians present a blues song that tells of ‘a defunct microwave oven’. (A George-Carlin blues break!) Our rice-eating rock and rollers—or the I-hate-politics kinds of artists and headbangers—simply do not consider the irrelevancy and blind imitation of music that would have been appropriate only in its place of origin or a similar place elsewhere. In the name of rock and roll, a mackerel would hardly survive at the Loktak.
|Image: Hand Painted Graphics/Glenn Wolk/Behance|
Rock historians consider that this form of music played a crucial role in the collapse of the erstwhile USSR and the Berlin Wall. In fact, from the original home of rock and roll, the US, propagandists and policy makers appropriated this music to further public diplomacy in those days. Briefly, rock became a tool for resistance and an instrument, which shaped worldviews that were simply unimaginable before. That age succumbed to rampant commercialisation of music with the advent of MTV and music videos. Still, the influence of rock and roll has been deep and as diverse as its sub-genres.
This is the problem again. Other non-western listeners understand politics and incorporated and fit it in accordance with their context and soil. In our case, we are either so passive or else further hitting the rock bottom of identity crisis, which ironically we know it consciously. We consume the music like cows graze indolently in a meadow no matter it is death metal or nu metal. Rock and roll is not at all supposed to be passive.
Anyway this music can be of two types if we look at it from political perspectives. One is the overt political overtones in lyrics and performances like those of Rage Against the Machine, Bruce Springsteen and several punk bands. The other is the group of bands, which fell into occasional political sound pits by virtue of circumstances, such as the Beatles and Pink Floyd.
When the era of protest music was at its height in the Sixties across the world, we had missed the show by one good decade. The region’s literature did catch up with the rise of Thangjam Ibopishak & Co in the same tide as the Beat Generation and Hungryalist Movement but in rock and roll, the blues had still no baby in our town though Muddy Waters had been already around then for a considerable time.
I guess what we lack is groundbreaking artistes like Pete Seeger and Woodie Guthrie who could lay the foundation like these duo did in the decisive period of early rock and roll in the US. We have simply somersaulted from that period when rock was no more a baby but a fully grown rebel, sometime in the late Sixties or early Seventies, apparently with no roots or whatsoever.
On hindsight, we appeared to have developed the art form just as rock and roll did in its birthplace: a kind of pop music devoid of authenticity and tradition that puritans would underestimate it—just like they did when the American blacks first created it in the late Forties and early Fifties.
Legend has it that Bob Dylan, who had then earned himself a niche in the world of American folk music, was criticised as a sell-out artist when he performed in a folk fest with electric guitars in 1965. Yet it was also the time rock had found its place in the history of music. It has been so swift and with essence, and the pace and styles continue till today. However, we have been lagging behind as always like sluggish cows. Unsurprising though, because what it takes usually a year or two elsewhere takes a decade for us in every sphere of our lives. This is the tragedy of backwardness.
Nevertheless the times they are a-changin’ and the growth of new media has been a blessing for both the musicians and their listeners.
The local bands and individuals at their height won college rock competitions and influence as well some prominent Indian musicians in the mainland. These are a few facts that local rock fans are very proud of. In others, it was again the comparisons: that Jesse Ralte of Dark Crusaders/Drixian Empire was the Ozzy of the region thanks to such an attribution by the popular Rock Street Journal, that Phynyx’s Lien Gangte was the Ronnie James Dio of here-and-there, that the Cannibals’ Paul Kamei was the Bruce Dickinson of the land and so on. It was a sort of great achievement considering these guys cover the songs meticulously that they heard only on radio, records and stereos—with hand-written tabs and staves in those days sans guitarmagic.com, satrianifingering.net and malmsteensecret.org. Above all, rock and roll has always been a minority in the land of adhunik kalakar aka the band party of matam esei.
I had the first chance to see some of these guys on stage for the first time when I was nine, when I accompanied a local senior to the SMART concert at Kangjeibung. Then gigs were common in our community playgrounds; so were those in the rock Shangri-la of Yaiskul Range, Thangmeiband THAU ground, BOAT, NCC Ground, GM Hall and other such places.
All these factors were responsible for spreading rock and roll and giving us the chance to appreciate it. Well and fine, but rock is a form of art and art is life. But where is ‘life’ in the currently existing rock that we popularly know of?
|Image: The Celebrated Negro Melodies, as Sung by the Virginia Minstrels, 1843/Wikimedia Commons|
The father and mother of rock and roll, or the blues developed as an expression against harsh realities faced by the blacks in America. It was as well a legacy of the blacks who brought their music from Africa. Comparatively we are in the same sorry state of affairs and face all kinds of problems, in fact worse in some aspects, but all we produce is ‘the representation of a representation of a representation’ without any artistic or creative input.
Rock music is subjective and can be interpreted according to a listener’s choice. Indeed, it is this flexibility that it has been able to transverse international borders and roll inside a ‘hard’ place like Imphal with apparent ease. But again, the setting is significant and this realisation is the reason behind the successful raise of rock and roll to the present level by its pioneers. Otherwise it would have been an annoying music form like the local Hindustani with styles that have been appropriated from others while its patrons aka fascists present it as an original form of music so ridiculously.
To remind again, in its original native place, rock musicians have used it effectively to amplify the voice of oppressed people, raise environmental issues, resist the evils of racism and capitalism, publicise social insurrection and protest against war and so on. What we do is, again, almost a hokum except producing ‘the representation of a representation of a representation’.
The razzmatazz of rock and roll survives in my hometown and it will also thrive if the musicians and artistes take a single step back and reconsider its essence.
Check Rock n’ Roll, Summarised: A collection of songs summarised as poems
1. Paranoid - Black Sabbath
2. Rockin’ All Over the World - Status Quo
3. White Rabbit - Jefferson Airplane
4. Masters of War - Bob Dylan
5. Killing in the Name of - Rage Against the Machine
RECOMMENDED FILMS FOR ROCK FANS (A RANDOM COLLECTION)
Top 10 Rockumentary:
1. Global Metal (2008)
2. It Might Get Loud (2008)
3. American Hardcore (2006)
4. Metal – A Headbanger’s Journey (2005)
5. The Blues – Feel Like Going Home (2003)
6. Meeting People Is Easy (1998)
7. Heavy Metal Parking Lot (1986)
8. Pink Floyd: Live at Pompeii (1972)
9. Woodstock (1970)
10. Don’t Look Back (1967)
Top 10 Rock Flicks
1. Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny (2006)
2. School of Rock (2003)
3. Almost Famous (2000)
4. Detroit Rock City (1999)
5. Airheads (1992)
6. The Doors (1991)
7. Pink Floyd – The Wall (1982)
8. The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle (1980)
9. Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (1979)
10. Quadrophenia (1979)