Saturday, November 10, 2007

The Greatest American Rock and Roll Musicians

"You know, my temperature's risin'
And the jukebox blows a fuse.
My heart's beatin' rhythm
And my soul keeps on singin' the blues.
Roll over Beethoven and tell Tchaikovsky the news."
Chuck Berry

I've been thinking about rock and roll this week. Specifically, I've been thinking about American rock and roll. Rock was one of the major musical forms of the 20th century, developed primarily in this country. So, looking back now, who were the great American artists that produced this music?

This is really a late-night barroom discussion over pitchers of beer, although I've been contemplating the subject during the bright light of day while perfectly sober. But pull up your bar stool and your Brooklyn Lager, or for the teetotalers, your vanilla soy frappe with blueberry and banana, and let's get this straightened out. It's important. This is one of the most vital and influential art forms of our lifetime. No pussyfooting (oops, sorry, Fripp and Eno were British) around. Now, pour me some more of that beer . . .

First off, I'm interested in American rock and rollers. To be honest, I think the British have outdone us at our own art-form, but that's a later discussion. I wanna talk about the artists from my own culture for a moment. Which means no Canadians either, even if it is a suburb of the U.S. [Canadian friends, the internet makes it hard to recognize a satirical voice sometimes, but that really was meant as a joke. At least for the most part.] Neil Young, though he has lived most of his life now in the U.S., is still, in 2007, a proud Canadian citizen. So he's out. So are Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Buffalo Springfield, and The Band, to name a few others.

Beyond issues of geography, there is the genre problem. Was Marvin Gaye a rock and roller? I love Marvin and think he was ultimately a greater artist than many of the people on my list, but have I ever played air-guitar to a Marvin Gaye song? Creedence Clearwater Revival's epic 12-minute version of "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" is rock and roll (and an underrated rock classic). I'm not sure about Marvin's version. Wasn't he ultimately soul? Or rhythm and blues?

And what about Johnny Cash? He did some rockabilly in his early days and ended his career covering Danzig. Rock and rollers revere him. But wasn't he, at heart, a country musician? I hate categorizing art like this. But damn it, you've got to draw some boundaries in this discussion. Otherwise, you'll wind up with a bizarre mishmash of a list like Unnamed Corporate Music Magazine's 100 Immortals, which, in the end, is neither a list of Great Rock and Rollers, nor a list of 100 Great Musical Artists. Especially when Miles Davis winds up at #88, 13 slots below The Eagles and six below Eminem.

If we include Marvin and Johnny, then what about Slim Gaillard, who happened to be Marvin's father-in-law and was knocking out some pretty hallucinogenic, proto-rock tunes on the guitar with his jazz group Slim and Slam back in the 1930s? I would argue that he may have been one of the true pioneers of the rock and roll sound, even though he never gets any credit for it. No, I'm going to be a purist. The artists have to be primarily rock and rollers. I don't care if Miles Davis did incorporate rock music into his jazz - Miles is a jazz demigod, not a rock and roll one. Call them Honorable Mentions, Fellow Travelers, or Friends of Rock and Roll, but they're not on this particular list.

Though I will listen to arguments for some of them to be included.

Finally, there's the whole conundrum of what constitutes a "great" artist. Innovation, originality, influence on others, craftsmanship, performance, individual voice, longevity, overall impact on the art form, overall impact on society . . . there are many qualities to consider. And, since I'm interested in exploring the idea of American artists, how much of the soil and spirit of the country do they convey? There's no easy answer. I've probably leaned more towards people who had an impact on the art form or overall cultural landscape. Someone else making a similar list might lean in another direction.

So, now that I've rambled on (oops, sorry, Led Zeppelin is British), let's get on with the list. After a few days of mulling things over, making lists and re-making them, here's my Top 20 Greatest American Rock and Roll Musicians.

The Holy Trinity

The first thing I realized when working on various versions of this list, was that there are three artists who belong in a realm of their own - the Holy Trinity of Rock and Roll, if you will. Everyone else on the list basically comes out of these three artists. They're the faces that belong on Mount Rock-n-Roll-More.

1. Bob Dylan - Without Dylan, there is no modern rock and roll. It's that simple. Chuck Berry did all the early heavy lifting, and white-boy Elvis got all the early glory, but as great as those two were, by the early 1960s, their rock and roll revolution had led to . . . Pat Boone. Dylan landed on the scene like an atomic bomb, exploding the form and re-creating it into something almost entirely new. Suddenly, rock and roll could be about anything. The skinny Jewish kid from Hibbing, Minnesota, rolled in on a dusty road, carrying the ghosts of Woody Guthrie (folk), Hank Williams (country), Big Bill Broonzy (blues) and Arthur Rimbaud (French poetry). In the end, it was the Rimbaud element, the poetic sensibility, that changed rock and roll, and changed popular music in general. The world was now wide open. We were no longer held captive by banal and endless variations on frustrated love. Now, we could sing "Masters of War" in the shower if we wanted. If Bob doesn't hook up with the Beatles at Hotel Delmonico in New York City in August 1964 to smoke a little weed, and Lennon doesn't try to start writing some Dylan-ish tunes, the Fab four's entire oeuvre might consist of endless versions of "I Wanna Hold Your Hand." Dylan also may have captured the deeper mystical or mythological aspect of America more than any other rock musician. "All Along the Watchtower" takes the American west and places into an historical context, transforming it into a Biblical or eternal landscape. We, as a people, are now a part of the long tragi-comic story of humanity. Bob belongs in the same league as George Gershwin, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker and other giants of American music in the 20th century. He's our Beethoven, our Picasso, our Tolstoy.

2. Jimi Hendrix - The amazing thing is . . . Jimi Hendrix only made three LPs during his lifetime. If he had lived, what might he have accomplished? Think of all that bad music he would've made in the 1980s, with cheesy synthesizers and electronic drums! Think of the late night chats with Jay Leno! The Budweiser commercials! The duet with Whitney Houston at the Super Bowl Halftime show! It's enough to make your head spin. Ah, Jimi . . . He was our shooting star. A marvel among marvels. We all play air-guitar wanting to be like him. (Except for the choking on his own vomit part.) As Dylan revolutionized the lyrical content and overall mind's eye of rock and roll, Hendrix revolutionized the musical landscape.

3. Elvis Presley - I'm only a moderate fan, but the truth is, there's no escape from Elvis Presley. Hell, even Dylan said he wanted to be Elvis. Yeah, he took music from the blacks and made it easier for the whites to listen to, but so did George Gershwin and Benny Goodman. That's what we do in this country, right or wrong. And, he's ultimately the biggest STAR of American rock and roll. In fact, Elvis probably did more than any other person to put this new music on the map. He was the public face of rock and roll. All those bloody movies. The television specials. The tabloids. He's the Great (White) American Godhead to Marilyn Monroe's Great (White) American Goddess. Not my types, to be sure, but that's the way it is. It's Elvis' country - the rest of us are just illegal immigrants.

Two Too Hard to Place

4. Velvet Underground - The Velvets. What can I say? If Dylan opened the flood gates for serious rock lyrics, and Jimi did the same for the musical aspect, The Velvets sort of changed the course of the whole river. They gave rock and roll a cool, intellectual edge that balanced with the primordial earthiness of Dylan and Hendrix. An urban sidewalk, New York, art-scene sensibility. Do Talking Heads evolve without the Velvets? I don't know. Was I wrong in saying that everyone else springs from the first three titans? If so, then the Velvets are the other procreators of rock music. And while it's not really fair, considering his own solo career, I lump Lou Reed in here.

5. Chuck Berry - Maybe Chuck really belongs in the Holy Trinity instead of Elvis. I mean, really, isn't he the granddaddy of it all? As the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame says: "While no individual can be said to have invented rock and roll, Chuck Berry comes the closest of any single figure to being the one who put all the essential pieces together." And then there was his influence. When groups like the Beatles and Rolling Stones started out, they weren't recording Elvis Presley hits, they were recording Chuck Berry songs. The Stones included four on their first three albums: "Carol," "You Can't Catch Me," "Around and Around," and "Talkin' 'Bout You." The Beatles recorded "Rock and Roll Music" and "Roll Over Beethoven." When all is said and done, and people 100 years from now look back at the rock and roll era, maybe Chuck will be recognized more. Because he's never gotten enough credit in his own lifetime.

Rounding Out the Top 11

To be honest, placing people on the list from this point forward was kind of a joke. I moved names up and down several times, depending on my mood. One of you could say that #17 should be #7 and you'd probably be right. Here's the version I had when I got tired of the process. It's a reflection of personal preference, in the end, more than a considered analysis.

6. Creedence Clearwater Revival - Say what you will, but when I'm driving down the highway on a hot summer day, amid all the vital sexual greenery and brown rugged dirt of our country, with the railroad tracks gleaming in the sun, I'm not sure another band sounds as deeply American or as perfectly rock and roll as Creedence Clearwater Revival. That chooglin' groove. That delirious, dirty, fuzzy guitar work. Fogerty's backwoods howl. "I can remember the Fourth of July, running through the backwoods bare." Yeah, CCR doesn't strike me the same way walking down the streets of Manhattan as they did driving through the American West, but I love that sound. I still remember listening to "Green River" while driving through Green River, Utah. I have been to "Lodi," though, thank God, I never got stuck there. And then there's "Fortunate Son," an epic American novel in two minutes and 21 seconds.

7. Tom Waits - If Dylan is the Tolstoy of America, then Tom Waits is our Dostoevsky. Our Chekhov. Our slightly scary uncle who might have been in the Navy, probably in the Special Forces, stationed for a while in Shanghai, who now lives alone in a bus in the woods, you think, you're not really sure, but he always smells like tobacco and just a hint of rubbing alcohol. He scares the children. But once he leaves, you realize he's always been your favorite uncle. Deeply, deeply American. I mean, America underneath all that rusty junk out in the tall grass behind the abandoned Fina station. With the earthworms and the June bugs. And, if I may say so, the second or third greatest rock poet after Dylan himself.

8. The Byrds - I mulled over my choice of the Byrds for a long time. I mean, what a weird group, with so many lineup changes over the years that they could fill up Madison Square Garden - just with members of the band. But, really, they were just so important in the incubation period of rock music. 1965. They made Dylan go electric before he himself had plugged in, recording "Mr. Tambourine Man" as a rock song, which knocked Dylan out so much that he quickly followed suit in his own work. They introduced George Harrison to the sitar, which ultimately transformed the Beatles' aural landscape. The Byrds were, in fact, supposed to be our Beatles at one point, and for a brief shining moment - "Eight Miles High" - they seemed like they might be. I mean, they made a kick-ass rock song based on John Coltrane's great jazz piece "India." For a year or two, they acted as a bridge between Dylan and the Beatles. Alas, all those competing egos shattered the original group apart. Still, McGuinn, David Crosby, Gram Parsons, Gene Clark, Chris Hillman, some great names passed through this unit and left behind a lasting imprint.

9. The Grateful Dead - However good any of the other musicians on this list are, none of them actually engendered a new religion. The Dead are like the Mormons of Rock and Roll. Yeah, the whole thing might be a little nutty, but it's truly an American religion. And they brought in so many different elements to the mix - acid rock, country, folk, bluegrass, jazz improvisation, and spacious, rocked out solos. A rustic spirituality. The endless road. The West Coast. A psychedelic circus. A rock and roll corporation. Garcia & Co. encompassed much that is America.

10. Steely Dan - Steely Dan?!?! Yeah. Because they proved that rock and roll could be wide enough to embrace Bard College poets, William Burroughs, and Thelonious Monk. And their wicked New York wit and smart sarcasm (before they left for the easy life of LA) showed up later in the form of punk. (Go back and listen to "Show Biz Kids.") They could rock when they needed. And they could roll. (And a lot of rolling they did.) A few years ago, I started listening again to their 1970s work and was impressed by how well it held up over time. Mainly, I think, because it was so intelligent. I won't vouch for anything post-Aja.

11. Bruce Springsteen - Yeah, some people would place him higher on the list. It's funny - I have a lot of respect for Springsteen, but I've just never really connected. A couple of years ago, I borrowed several of his albums and set out to burn some CDs. "I'm finally going to get into this guy," I said to myself. But after a couple of weeks, I was basically down to a Greatest Hits compilation. Then, I had to return the discs and nothing got recorded. It's probably a personal character flaw (I have many), but I think Springsteen's music, apart from some of his big hits, is . . . well . . . kind of bland. It's fine rock and roll. I always enjoy hearing his songs when they come on the radio. But I just don't find him that interesting. He's been called a powerful mix of Elvis and Dylan, but I'm not sure how much he evolved beyond either of them. (Actually, he never even reached the level of Dylan.) He's certainly very "American." And he's probably one of the greatest live performers of the last few decades. But how has he changed or added to the art form? I can't answer that. And it's a big question. Maybe someone else can explain it to me.

The Best of the Rest

12. The Ramones
13. The Doors
14. Nirvana
15. The Allman Brothers
16. Talking Heads
17. Janis Joplin
18. Buddy Holly
19. Sonic Youth

20. There is no #20. I could put a dozen names in this slot. What about Jerry Lee Lewis? Little Richard? Roy Orbison? Roy's pretty great. Maybe he's #18 and Buddy Holly belongs in this paragraph. What about REM, Iggy & the Stooges, Prince, Frank Zappa (is he rock and roll?), or Lynyrd Skynyrd? Yo La Tengo (a personal favorite)? Or Black Sabbath? Metallica? Shouldn't there be some heavy metal here? Or what about Aerosmith? Or Fugazi, a band that never gets any attention?

Or the Beach Boys. Most people would include them on a list like this, and they would probably be #4 or #5 or something. But to rock and roll, you have to rock at some point. I don't know if they ever did. Influential? Yes, beyond a doubt. I'm just being stubborn, I know. But it's America. If you think the Beach Boys are one of our greatest rock and roll groups, then make your own damn list!

What's interesting to me, after working on this, is to see how thin the list looks in comparison to the overall universe of rock and roll. A list missing The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, Eric Clapton, The Clash, The Sex Pistols, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell just doesn't feel right. How many of the Americans I listed would actually belong in the Top 10 Greatest Rock and Roll Musicians of All Time? Three? If you made a list of The Greatest Jazz Musicians of All Time, the first 10 or 20 would all be American. So how did the Brits wind up out-rocking us? La Reina, who lived for a year in London, suggested that it might have something to do with British cynicism, or their sense of irony. Maybe. Perhaps a combination of English music hall and their long folk tradition prepared them for rock and roll. I don't know. It's a bit of a mystery to me.

[See Parts 2 and 3 of my trilogy on American rock and roll: The Greatest American Rock and Roll Albums and The Greatest American Rock and Roll Songs.

Finally, I can't go away without referencing my favorite barroom list of great rock and rollers, delivered by Martin Donovan in Hal Hartley's movie, Simple Men. Enjoy.

In the meantime, I'm gonna put on Bob Dylan's Blonde on Blonde and rock out. Start working on my list of Greatest American Rock and Roll Albums.

Texas girl rocks out . . .


crystal said...

The Byrds! I like McGuinn's 12 string guitar.

How about Crosby, Stills & Nash?

cowboyangel said...

Hey Crystal. I was thinking more of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, but Nash is British and Neil is Canadian, so I didn't really consider them. But yeah, if you only went with CSN, and you overlooked Graham's Britishness, they would definitely have to be in the discussion.

McGuinn's 12-string was awesome! Totally influenced Tom Petty's sound, among others.

Jeff said...

Knockout post, William. Awesome. We can talk about British PMs over Sam Adams; we can hash out greatest American Rock 'n Rollers over some Harpoon IPA!

This is too important to respond to off the top of my head. I'll be spending a lot of time on the playing field sidelines tomorrow. I'll mull it over.

You know, I never would have said Dylan, but you make a marvelous case for him there. Very true what you say about Jimi, too. I often wonder if he would have wound up like Quincy Jones or Buddy Guy, or if he would have completely weirded out and wound up like Miles Davis or Michael Jackson.

Springtsteen is way down in your pantheon? Interesting. I'm not much of a fan either, but other people would call us on it. No room for Rollins on the list? I might address that.

cowboyangel said...

Thanks, Jeff. I await with pleasure your own musings on the topic.

Who knows what would've happened with Jimi. He was supposedly working on a collaboration with Miles Davis before he died. that certainly would've been interesting had it come to fruition. I believe some of his initial explorations for that project were released back in the 1970s or early 80s on an LP called Nine to Universe. I actually had a pretty cool t-shirt of that cover. Yet I never see it listed anywhere anymore. I'm sure that as with most artists who have long careers, there would've been some highs and lows. And I'm sure both would've been interesting in the hands of Hendrix. Even Dylan's worst albums have some tiny jewels. Except maybe for Under the Red Sky. I really can't think of a single worthwhile tune on that one.

Rollins? I hadn't even thought of him, to be honest. I know so little in this case. Black Flag, a lot of spoken word, a lot of TV. I don't even know if I've ever heard any of his solo stuff. And I haven't listened to Black Flag in about . . . well, since they first came out. But make an argument.

As far as Springsteen being too low, I don't know. Actually, on Unnamed Corporate Music Magazine's 100 Immortals, he was the 18th American listed, so he did even worse with them. And his blurb was written by Jackson Browne, which only confirms my worst suspicions. How did Bruce Springsteen change or expand upon rock and roll? That's what I want one of his fans to explain.

Jeff said...

Hi William,

I'll definitely get to it, although it might take a while to put it together as well as you have. I ask for your patience.

In truth, as far as an international list goes, Martin Donovan in that movie clip pretty much has in nailed perfectly. "Old Who!" I loved that.

Henry Rollins, in addition to Black Flag, has done some writing, some poetry, had his own band, and now has a political talk show on IFC. I thought the song Liar by the Rollins Band was sort of a minor masterpiece. You could ask Brother Charles, the Minor Friar, more about Rollins. He's seen him in concert.

Liam said...

Great list, batman. I have been thinking if there is anyone you missed. Perhaps the Talking Heads? Patti Smith?

cowboyangel said...

Jeff, no worries. The bar at Zone is always open.

Yeah, the list in Simple Men is great - even better in the actual movie, where the timing of his list and the overall context of the discussion makes it much funnier.

Now that I have cable for the first time, I'll have to look for Rollins' show. Political, eh? Not a surprise, I guess.

cowboyangel said...


I hope you're doing closer readings of your charters than you did of my list! :-) I've got the T-Heads at #16.

Patti Smith is a great suggestion. I thought of her but wasn't sure how to place her. So important in some ways, but where does she fit in the overall picture? Do I replace Sonic Youth? Talking Heads? Janis? I don't know her oeuvre well enough, in the end. Hard to judge.

Garpu the Fork said...

I've been listening to a hell of a lot of Grateful Dead lately, namely because a lot of their shows are available to legally download and because money's tight. I can't think of another band that did as many covers, had as original a sound, and did as many genres as they did. Can't help feeling a little sad that I didn't get into them until after Jerry passed.

cowboyangel said...


Thanks for dropping by. The Dead did do a lot of covers - interesting covers, bringing attention to people who deserrved it sometimes. (Dylan does that as well, I think.) And great covers. They did a version of "Wild Horses" - don't know when or where it was done - that was absolutely amazing.

Interesting that you mention them - since you're up in the Northwest. Having lived out west (Colorado, New Mexico, Oregon) and now in the east, I'd say that the Dead definitely had a stronger following out west. Just as the Velvets are a much bigger band in New York than anywhere else I've ever lived. We forget sometimes in our mass-mediated country that regionalism still exists. Skynyrd and Allman Brothers from the south. And then some bands/people transcend the regional thing completely. If I didn't know better, I'd never guess that Jimi was from Seattle. I'd have guessed midwest or east.

Garpu the Fork said...

Ironically, some of Jimi's family goes to my parish. ;)

cowboyangel said...

Interesting. Do you know if the family was always Catholic?

Liam said...

So they are. That's strange. I read the post, thought, "damn what a good post," and then spent a couple days thinking about, forgetting that you had the Talking Heads on it.

Wait a second... was Duran Duran English or American?

cowboyangel said...

Duran Duran . . . Im going to kick your ass the next time I see you. I don't care if you are bigger and stronger. I will be driven by a righteous anger.

After, of course, I get my lovely flask back from you.

BTW, please empty said flask of its contents, if you haven't done so already. The beverage isn't supposed to stay in there too long. Sacrficie yourself for the flask's sake.

I'm still torn over my list. Is Sonic Youth really that good or important enough to be in the Top 20? What about Tom Petty? Simon & Garfunkel? Link Wray?

cowboyangel said...

Or the Beastie Boys?

Liam said...

Flock of Seagulls was English, right?

cowboyangel said...

Now you're just being nasty.

According to Wikipedia, they were started by a haridresser in Liverpool. But they eventually relocated to Philadelphia. And then, in one of those wonderfully and totally useless pieces of information that people on the internet like to add to wikis (IMDB has a lot, too), you get this:

"In 2003 A Flock of Seagulls performed for the unveiling of the Syracuse A-league football team's name, Syracuse Salty Dogs and logo in Syracuse, New York. The band returned later that year for a performance at one of the Salty Dogs' games at Syracuse's P&C Stadium."

The one Flock of Seagulls fan in Syracuse is obviously a member of Wikipedia. I'm sure he/she has the scholars at Grove Music scribbling that down for the next edition.

Wall of Voodoo (I know you were headed there next) is from LA. So, technically, they can be considered in this discussion.

Though we are not going to discuss them.

cowboyangel said...

Wang Chung is also British, so don't even think about it.

Same goes for Depeche Mode and Spandau Ballet.

I give you credit for this - you've made me rethink my statement that the British have outrocked us.

Garpu the Fork said...

Hm, not sure. They're longterm parishioners, though.