Dr. Love or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Cock Rock
I came up in Catholic school, so I cottoned to the concept of canon in ways I would not understand until I’d put enough past between the Sacred Heart — Christ parting his gown to give you his thornful and flaming heart –and me. So, when I found punk and metal (which in Internet 1.0 days meant stalking the public school kids in my town hedgehogged with mohawks and convincing them I was worthy despite my crew cut and pleated navy slacks), I made the Catholic move of creating a dogma. I held that hagiographies existed for Henry Rollins, Ian MacKaye, Ozzy, Max Cavalera, Kathleen Hanna, HR, etc. There was a right and wrong way to understand the trajectory of punk and metal — misremembering, mistakes, mishearings, and other miscellany I slated as heretical and backward. My recital of the history set it up as more “serious art” than “kids having fun.” Certainly, it’s both. Definitely, focusing only on the former is a fucking bummer.
I was unfun and sorrily unself-conscious in my snobbery. Some things were in and some things were out. A “good time” was out. My discerning criteria for good music tallied three categories: music to fight to, music to pine to, and music to die to. God forbid the existence of music to party to, let alone get laid to. I didn’t go to parties; I wasn’t having sex. I was congenitally embarrassed to be alive and all-around ashamed my body was where the living had to happen. It took me a long time, not until my late twenties, to start having fun.
One of my first insights into how stiff I was — how desperately I needed to lighten the fuck up — came at a karaoke bar in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. I’d gotten into a prestigious poetry seminar right after I graduated from college. I walked for graduation one day, and the next I was on a train to Bucknell University at 5 a.m. We (the poets) had gone out for drinks one night. A local in a KISS shirt, his hair long beneath his backward Steelers flexfit, sang all of “Calling Dr. Love” without using the lyric screen and without giving a shit about how he sounded. He was doing the “All my people in the back!” finger points to where there was no “back” — there were forty people there, tops. He ruled.
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I coveted his freedom and resented his poor taste. I thought KISS fucking sucked. I felt the same disappointment upon hearing KISS that I felt when I heard The Grateful Dead for the first time. I’d seen the badass iconography with which I felt the music did not line up. I lumped them in with all that “weak shit” lunkheads and hippies liked. But Dr. Love looked happy. He was having the time of his life, whereas I was having what I thought was too much time to live.
A hard-handed clutch of years had to careen my life downward both economically and emotionally before I could come out with anything like the “educational” variety of cash and prizes we call “takeaways” or “lessons learned.” I won’t bore you with the details. But before my metanoia, a brief detour into the man most responsible for my aesthetic sensibilities: my father. He’s a painter and a musician. He took me to art galleries and museums, to see a sizable swath of the Bloodshot Records roster live, and had pointed positions on what was good and what was bad. One thing he told me — I was maybe one year clear of grade school — was that, “if you had to use more than three chords, you were probably overthinking it.”
I have listened to tirades on Yes before I’d ever heard Yes, been made to pay attention to Ginger Baker’s drumming, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane’s hand-offs, listened to boozy country songs about burning your family alive, and been told Journey was for cowards. He had a joke mix of cock rock he’d play to reminisce about his teens years — Deep Purple, Foghat, and a few others. I found it in his art studio (our basement). “The Pompous and the Precious,” he’d called it. All of this was bad art because it is bad art. I’m not making a post-modern inversion where I “prove” Van Halen’s “Running With the Devil” find its place in the Parthenon with Vivaldi. What I’m saying is that I was given a good rubric for aesthetic discernment that also limited what music could mean to me, an self-serious, precocious child who took to sketching the crucifixion over and over again in first grade.
The rubric was simple and true: life is largely an ongoing catalogue of losses and longings about which we feel overburdened and over which we often feel bereft of power or competency. The world is fallen — there’s a “throwness” to it, as Heidegger would have it. And we all die someday to boot. So what better way to blow our time as the palace burns around us than to take what we must endure and make something true out of it, something that speaks to the ham-fisted task of waking up and walking out the front door? This is art’s task, as I learned it. And isn’t there a kind of mercy in that? A recognition we feel as a succor or suture for our ongoing agonies?
Yes. But that’s not all of life.
And I know it will, uh, please many IO readers to learn that the fulcrum here is none other than Sergeant D, a.k.a. Finn McKenty, and his tragically defunct, unarchived blog Stuff You Will Hate. He was the first to show me, despite it being in my face for years, that Henry Rollins was in Black Flag for five years, but made a career of talking about it for thirty. He was the first to point out that maybe it was good you didn’t have to be totally fucked-up to play punk, that fun was important, and go easy on the kids because they’re, well, kids. And Sarge was the first to demonstrate that polishing your canonical knowledge of punk and metal and deepening your Fugazi live catalogue was lame and made you a fucking pain in the ass to talk to. No one cares about Unwound anymore. Shut the fuck up about how that demo of “Seek and Destroy” you accidentally downloaded on WinMX right before the Iraq War was better than anything Metallica ever officially released. Does that trve kvlt black metal record sound like someone stapled an microphone to the ceiling by its cord and swung it around to “capture the room”? Burn it. Sergeant D woke me up to the fact that I wasn’t having any fun and that being a pretentious asshole had a lot to do with that.
It was around this time that I started moving a lot. In a couple of years, I’d moved from Tallahassee to Illinois, from Illinois to Vermont and then back, and then from Illinois to Santa Fe, New Mexico. The stereo in my car doesn’t work, but the radio receives as good as any. And when you’re moving around that much you’ve got to build a wall of sound between you and the dead backdrops of rurality or suburbanity that contour the highway. You have a couple choices on FM: mostly country or oldies. Sometimes Top 40. Contemporary country is life-negating, so I picked oldies, which instead of pulling from the back catalogue of Motown monster-hits as it did when I was a kid, hoves closer to the cock rock era of the 1970s and and 1980s.
And let me tell you something: lonely is a long time. And the longer you go and the longer you think staring into it is going to solve it, the most self-centered you become and the harder it is for life to make itself more than anything other than a packed down days in which you can hardly get full lungful of open air. I couldn’t keep living like that. And at some point in North Texas, during my final move, the roadside rucked with slat-ribbed roadkill, Van Halen’s “Panama” kicked in and I couldn’t help it. This was my last move, I was telling myself. This is the last time I try and smuggle myself into some city I’ve never seen before. This is the last time I let myself be lonely. I started to pound the roof of my car and sing along. Life is for living, I’d decided.
I’ve made a lot of mistakes so far in life, but I made two here: I equated musical interests with an identity (common, understandable), and I thought it haughty to expect enjoyment from life. What a shitty way to live, comrades. What a boring life. To get a life where I can experience some modicum of solidarity and serenity, some kind of getting-out-of-myself to make a day workable, I had to give both of these up. Like it or not, pain becomes a part of your identity. You built yourself around it. It’s all a question of how much of yourself you want to give to it. And since I had built myself around the premise that I’m an artist making the “beautiful wound” of art, which represents the truth of life, then to focus on anything other than the pain was to lie. The arrogance here is astounding. Cock rock was a great way out: it’s fun, it’s about getting laid, and it’s about being excited for life. I have rarely had all three of these going on in my life, so the music has taken on an aspirational bent for me –“what if I acted as if I was having a great time?” It’s the musical version of the good advice my mom gave me years ago: put a smile on your face. You’ll feel better.
Maybe eight years ago, I sat in the Crossett Library on Bennington College’s campus. Spring, humid, Commons Lawn covered in a snow of apple blossoms. I was in a poetry workshop run by my mentor Mark Wunderlich. Someone wanted to know why everything she wrote is sad, a good and earnest question to ask. The simple ones usually are. Mark replied, “Sad songs are the best songs.” In my aforementioned penchant for dogma, I cited this as evidence that I’d been right all along: sad songs are the only songs.
But, look, I’ve never fucked to Converge’s Jane Doe, and I never want to. I don’t like walking to work to Machine Head because I will probably end up incarcerated for killing a customer by the time I clock out. And if I play Rites of Spring before a first date, I may as well ghost lest I arrive all gussied up in a fussy attitude about “life” and “my pain” and whether its “them” or just “me.” Still, I love those bands. They make up some of the most important experiences I’ve had listening to music and learning how to live with the world. But I can’t do that all the time now. There is a such thing as feeling too much, there is a such thing as drawing too much from the negative end of the battery. Sometimes focusing on the pain and sadness is a way of being afraid. And if you’re like me, fear expresses itself as rage. And anger is just being terrified but with a personality. You can’t hate your way to a place where the world won’t hurt you — believe me, I’ve tried. It just makes you lonely. So, sometimes I need to show up to karaoke ready to throw down a decent “Calling Dr. Love” on a Friday night because fuck it, dude, if life is mostly pain, then what do I have to lose by loosening up a bad time?
— Emmet Martin Penney