Rock songs, you may have noticed, are full of questions. How many roads must a man walk down before you can call him a man? Do you know the way to San Jose? Can your pussy do the dog? Is it hard to make arrangements with yourself when you’re old enough to repay but young enough to sell? Scaramouche, Scaramouche, can you do the fandango?
The best music makes you want to answer all those questions. (For example: five; not without Google Maps; with enough lubricant; yes; let me get my fandango shoes on.) That’s not where the questions end, of course. Rock music (and by “rock,” I mean “the whole magillah of popular music since 1955, based on the union of blues and country, but encompassing soul, folk, distorted electric guitars, and the funky chicken”) inspires whole new lines of inquiries. If you’ve ever wasted hours ingesting intravenous MTV, or spent an afternoon with headphones on, trying to decipher the lyrics of either 50 Cent or Michael Stipe, then you know the landscape of rock is a strange place, weirder than even its most devout fans sometimes realize.
That doesn’t stop them from going on a quest for knowledge, not unlike the one for fire engaged in by Rae Dawn Chong. Once you start asking questions, you never stop. Why is Metallica’ “One” in waltz time? Why didn’t the word “hateration” from Mary J. Blige’s “Family Affair” catch on? If you stripped Tom Petty and Bob Seger to the waist and gave them each a machete, who would win in a fight?
For several years, I wrote a column in Rolling Stone called “Rolling Stone Knows,” where I answered similarly inscrutable queries from the magazine’s readers. I avoided trivia stumpers designed to test the boundaries of my knowledge. (“The guitarist for Strawberry Alarm Clock went on to play in what band?” asked one letter; the answer is, of course, Lynyrd Skynyrd.) If you want to use any of the contents of this book in trivia contests, well, who could blame you? But my goal was to increase the human race’s sum total of rock knowledge, one question at a time. That meant debunking or detailing myths, researching the half-forgotten origins of favorite songs, and in general, uncovering the secrets of rock music.
This book not only compiles my column, it expands many of the answers (there wasn’t always space in the magazine to give as detailed a response as I would have liked) and adds dozens of new entries. For the most part, however, I stayed away from questions of judgment. If you want to know the five greatest rappers in history, the ten best Bob Dylan songs, or the three greatest uses of the woodblock, you’ve come to the wrong place. It’s not that I’m shy with my opinions, as anyone who’s ever had dinner with me will attest. In my life, I’ve written literally hundreds of record reviews: musical opinions bubble out of me like natural spring water from, well, a natural spring. But when you look something up in this volume, I want you to rest assured that it’s as thoroughly researched and documented as possible; if an answer is a matter of conjecture or my opinion, it’s clearly labeled as such.
Here’s one free opinion, in case you don’t have dinner with me anytime soon. One friend who did, Bill, asked me, “What’s the least cool band to be a passionate fan of?” The rock calculus in that question is deceptively complicated, since the question’s answer is not the same as “What’s the least cool band ever?” The nonironic modern-day fan of Air Supply or Styx has an unusual glow: slightly eccentric, but not totally unhip. The answer to Bill’s question, it turns out, is Creed.
Rock music also asks questions without words, interrogations that express the primal longings of the human heart. A rough translation of the best possible answer to most of those questions: Yes, I do want to get up and dance with you.