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In Search of the Soul of Rock’n’Roll: SPIN’s 1991 Feature, ‘Looking for Rock in All the Wrong Places’

indianapolis, indiana

In August 1991 — a palindrome year incidentally, the only one possible in the 20th century, if you’ll forgive the digression — we published a special issue dedicated to the deliciously impossible search for the soul of rock’n’roll.

The idea was inspired by watching the eye-bleeding tedium of the Grammys “live” on TV. (I quote mark “live” because I think there is more life in the deepest, darkest nothingness of the farthest reaches of space than in any Grammys broadcast. I went once. It’s worse in person, FYI.) I thought to my agonized self, before turning the broadcast off, this can’t be what it has come down to. I flipped channels and saw MTV, and the car and beer commercials using their faux, de-blooded rock music and knew that, in fact, this was what it had come down to.

So the next day I told the editors and staff writers that we were going to go look for music’s soul. It was clearly in hiding — if not worse, extinguished. Then I told them I would assign each of them to somewhere in the country, to look for the soul of eternal and purposeful defiance and personal and cultural evolution, for which rock, at least then, was the glorious soundtrack.

Then I told them I wasn’t actually going to tell them where they were going until the morning they were leaving. This was not met with universal enthusiasm, but I wanted them to arrive somewhere with no leads, contacts, preconceived notions or biases and, essentially, no idea of what to do. This would ensure, I told them, a fresh and open-eyed way of approaching the mission. We met at New York’s La Guardia airport at 9:00 one early summer morning and I handed each of them tickets and some cash, and the first they knew about where they were each individually going was when they opened the envelope. One editor, a perpetual pain in my butt, I thought really should see Alaska…. (He did a tremendous piece there, and, unless it’s a trick of my memory, was less of a pain thereafter.)

So now we’re posting some of those articles; we’ve already run Jim Greer’s report from Tulsa, Oklahoma — here’s Celia Farber on Indianapolis, Indiana.

Everyone found the soul wherever I sent them. Turns out, it was with them all along.

— Bob Guccione Jr., founder of SPIN, October 15, 2015

[This story was originally published in the August 1991 issue of SPINIn honor of SPIN’s 30th anniversary, we’ve republished this piece as part of our ongoing “30 Years, 30 Stories” series.]

So there we are at LaGuardia airport about to be sent off to Jesus knows where, and it was all pretty exciting and seemed, almost, like a good idea at the time. It all started when Bob, our boss, sat watching a Pepsi commercial one night and thought to himself: “We can’t let it end like this. For the love of God, there has got to be more to rock’n’roll.” Next thing you know, this great idea was born: Turn loose all the SPIN editors like scavengers through the belly of America — and let them find the pillaged original spirit of rock’n’roll. An odyssey! A holy quest! Let them roam the land and sniff it out — like bomb dogs. To hell with these promo kits and key chains and glossy photos and CDs piled up on their desks. Rock’n’roll is gasping for life and we’re having lunch. Screw that.

So there we are at the airport with our suitcases, packed with clothes for all climates, because the deal was we were not to find out where we were going until we got to the airport. We knew somebody was getting sent to Alaska, but we didn’t know who. Bob was looking very gleeful indeed, shuffling the envelopes with our tickets and top-secret destinations he had selected.

So my name comes up and Bob lets out a hoot of laughter and shouts, “Indianapolis!” This is the most fun he’s had in years, our boss. I grab my ticket thinking, Thanks Bob, you’re a real prince, and beeline it to the airport bar with the rest of the more or less crushed editorial staff. At least Indianapolis had some kind of race or something. Even I knew that. Not much else came to mind about Indianapolis though, except that they grow corn and Mellencamp lives there; but so what, he was born there.

We all order double Bloody Marys and Bob comes over and tries to cheer us up. Music editor Steven Daly is more worried than anyone. He’s Scottish, see, so he never gave a rat’s behind about what we call “rock’n’roll” in the first place. He’s delighted it’s dead. If it is. “I still don’t understand what we’re supposed to do,” he says, staring at his USAir ticket to Toronto.

“Find the heart and soul of rock’n’roll,” Bob shoots back, like it’s all perfectly obvious. “Talk to the kids, knock on people’s doors, ask them how they define the soul of rock’n’roll.”

“You can get shot in this country doing things like that,” I protest, sucking down my second Bloody Mary.

Suddenly, Bob looks at his watch and starts giving us all bear hugs. “I gotta go,” he says. “Good luck, folks!” He darts off like a daddy-rabbit.

Good luck, my ass. I agree with Steven Daly, even though he’s Scottish — something is bogus here. It’s like an if-you-have-to-ask-the-question-then-you-won’t-understand-the-answer kind of situation. If you have to go out and look for the soul of rock’n’roll, then you probably wouldn’t know it if it stabbed you in the butt with an ice pick. Right?

Maybe we’re just too cynical and industry-addled, I’m thinking. We’re always getting these letters saying what clueless bastards we are and how we should just get a life.

Anyway, off we went.

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Dateline Indianapolis, Interstate 465, Pizza Hut: Boy did I feel like a clueless boorvann trying to explain to the waitress that it wasn’t just a club I was looking for but a club or bar or basement — or whatever they had, where people were actually having some kind of true emotional experience over some form of rock’n’roll or related cultural expression. Like, the kind of experience people may not be having in hipper-than-thou places like New York. She looked at me real funny. “You want the name of a club, is that it?” she asked in thick Bible-Belt drawl. “I can give yew the name of a cluub.” “Great,” I sighed. She scribbled down a name and address with the assurance that this was the place for me. I thanked her and headed over there. It was called Bentley’s.

As soon as I walked in I had that sinking feeling. The place was pretty big. One wall was covered with a gigantic Budweiser sign. A terrible, terrible metal band was onstage — like a friendly, neighborhood metal band — and the guitarist had a V-shaped guitar with big white polka dots on it. (In Farber’s Inferno, an entire circle of hell will be reserved for the people who make those guitars. They will have to swim around for all eternity in a gluey pitch, and the sky above them will be one giant MTV screen with millions of morons standing in a windy cornfield, soloing on V-shaped neon pink and polka-dotted guitars, loud as f**k and out of tune.)

They all looked about 40 years old and they kept jumping off the drum podium every time they played a power chord, even though everybody was just sitting there, looking really bored. I’m sorry, I don’t mean to sound snobbish, but I have to tell it like it was. They didn’t look they were having one stitch more fun than anybody else I’ve ever seen in club. Just because you live in Indianapolis doesn’t mean you’re necessarily bursting with soul.

It was tragic. And it got worse — they started playing Led Zeppelin covers. They played “Rock and Roll,” and the drums were all wrong and it didn’t swing at all but nobody noticed, so all these women with big frizzy hair and late-night cable TV telephone-sex-type clothes suddenly got up and started shaking their stuff for these guys, who then not only jumped off the drum podium even more, but also started skidding across the stage on their knees and shaking their heads and playing loud, unforgivable guitar solos. I sat slumped in my chair, glaring like an angry old gorilla in a cage, who can’t wait to hurl dung at somebody who tries to get near it.

I know I was supposed to talk to these kids but I just could not bring myself to do it. All I could think was: Sometimes I wish rock’n’roll had never happened. Just like I wish the Exxon oil spill had never happened. Sometimes I feel like — this is crazy: My world is filled with rude, emotionally stunted overgrown children who can’t play their instruments and have eggs for brains and just want to take my money and sell me some illusion about rebellion and leave me half deaf and full of snotty values. And not only that, we’re supposed to spend our lives glorifying it — pretending that it has some sort of positive impact on humanity — when the people who trek across mountains bringing medical supplies to earthquake victims, they probably listen to classical music or something.

My mother would yell, “Why is it I work in a mental hospital and your boyfriend looks more insane than anybody there?” I told her he was really smart and that he had built his own guitar.

The next place I wound up was at a bar called the Slippery Noodle, where an R&B band was playing. They were called Rice and Beans, I think, and they were pretty good, but it wasn’t like my arm hairs suddenly stood straight up or anything. This whole thing is a little like saying go find God, and the thing about it is, you can only find God, or rock’n’roll, or UFOs or whatever, when you’re not looking. You can’t force these things. If you could then there would be no problem. Life would be swell.

I met a lovely young man who was in a band that played around Indianapolis a lot. He said, “There isn’t really any scene here because for one thing everybody leaves. I want to leave sometimes, too, but I think it’s important for musicians to stay here and try to shape an identity. We don’t have anything that defines us. We don’t have any attitude. We just have like, flat land, and cornfields. And the race. There’s no edge. Not like what you’re looking for. But there are people, like me and my band and some other bands we know, that are really trying to change that.”

After six more clubs filled with identical-looking people in shopping mall clothes and frizzy hair, dancing to Vanilla Ice and Paula Abdul, I started to give up. I sat on the curb outside a club for about three hours waiting for a taxi, thinking, This is the end of my life, right here.

Luckily, I had the book I’d bought at the airport: Lady Chatterly’s Lover, of all things. The only reason I bring it up is that there’s this line in the book that really said it all. It’s a scene where all these Very Intelligent Gentlemen are sitting around having an endless discourse on Life, and Lady Chatterly, who’s sewing and not allowed to say anything, thinks they’re all pretty full of it, in spite of everything. The way she describes that feeling is, and here’s the line: “Somehow there was a cat but it wouldn’t jump.”

And this is what I thought, no joking around: God, what a perfect sentence. All of life, except for maybe one percent, is like that. The cat will only jump a few times in your life, and that’s if you’re lucky. Rock’n’roll is strictly about making that cat jump and when it does — there’s your “soul” — you know the feeling: like your blood suddenly turned to rocket fuel and you want to start smashing things or diving off cliffs. It’s the opposite of classical music, but it’s not the opposite of love. It’s Dionysus electrified, and it’s easier when you’re young. The older you get the more you start to say, “F**k the cat, who needs it? I’m gonna mow the lawn.” But when you’re young, you’re too angry — you think you’re a freak, and rock’n’roll is the only place you can cash in on those feelings. The soul of rock’n’roll is the soul of the ugly duckling who knows it’s really a swan. But once swanhood kicks in, i.e., adulthood, experience, maybe even societal acceptance, the flame dies down. How do you slam-dance once you’ve realized that Life is nobody’s fault?

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The taxi never came so I started walking in a random direction, past hot dog stands and blinking neon, my mind reeling. I couldn’t stop thinking about when I was about 15 or 16 and how absurd I would have thought it if I knew I would be stumbling around around an interstate in Middle America ten years later looking for the soul of rock’n’roll. There was no question about it then, it was everywhere.

It was in the bathroom when my boyfriend and I spent a whole day dying our hair matching shock-orange while my mother pounded on the door screaming, “Why do you have to destroy yourselves?” Boy did she hate him. She’d yell, “Why is it I work in a mental hospital and he looks more insane than anybody there?” I told her he was really smart and that he had built his own guitar and that he was in this great punk band and all the girls wanted him — but she remained unimpressed. She banned him finally from entering our apartment. My sister, meanwhile, was dating a guy with waist-length hair who turned her on to the Residents, never wore shoes, and threw firecrackers at her in the bathtub.

We were in the middle of nowhere (a small city in Sweden) and the more you’re in the middle of nowhere the more important it becomes to make the cat jump. It was around 1980 and punk was phasing into post-punk and we were so desperate for rock’n’roll we’d hitchike to Denmark to see a show if we had to. Now I’ll barely walk ten blocks — and I get free tickets.

I kept walking and the memories kept coming. The soul of rock’n’roll? We took over an old shoe factory and made a club and rehearsal rooms out of it and started banging on instruments and if there weren’t any instruments we used garbage cans and vacuum cleaners and whatever we could find and bands came through from all over Europe and we made them cheese sandwiches and lugged their equipment and then danced as if to drive off the plague — in fact we were driving off the plague — the plague of apathy, and inertia, and society, and social democracy, and all the conventions and enforced Marxist morality and laws, laws, laws, more laws than anywhere else in the world. The point was to put a dent in Utopia — to make the cat jump — and to kick the suits (who in this case wore round glasses) right in the teeth.

So we burned a Swedish flag on the roof, blew up a shack where the police stored weapons, covered our walls with antigovernment graffiti, and most importantly — played rock’n’roll. Day and night, night and day. Until finally one day government officials came in and shut the whole place down — they had planted agents in there and had evidence that we were “subversive” and were growing marijuana in the attic. (We weren’t actually — they were tomato plants — we had a vegetarian restaurant.) One guy just stood and banged his head against the wall when they came in and told us. We were proud though, to be such a threat, to have this power through clothes and hair dye and graffiti — through rock’n’roll.

They said we could stay if we wanted to but the place would be run by the state — the “commune” — from now on. Uniformed guards would frisk people for alcohol at the door. (We had no liquor license — only the state can sell liquor in Sweden.) They painted over our graffiti. Gray paint. They changed the name of the club from the House of Rock to the House of Culture — I kid you not. The bass player in one of our two house punk bands asked me and a friend to help him cut his hair — one last time — in the bathroom. Then he went straight home and hanged himself, like the Jan Palach of our own little Prague Spring. After that, it was over. What was our club is now a parking lot for police cars.

How can you slam-dance once you’ve realized that Life is nobody’s fault?

Now, I’m not saying we weren’t morons because we most certainly were — pure scum. But I believe we were morons with soul as opposed to morons who watch too much MTV and copy what they see like monkeys, all because they want to be rock stars. I know I’m on thin ice here, and you’re bound to slag me off and say, “What’s with the Euro-tude, honey?” — but hear me out. The reason I told you that whole story is that I believe the soul of rock’n’roll has been lost to that exclusively American phenomenon — overkill. We are a bulimic nation — we gorge and puke on everything from talk shows to fitness to rock’n’roll. Rock’n’roll generates more money each year than General Electric. MTV never stops running videos — ever. Think about that. Isn’t there something vaguely Orwellian there? This may be a dated, romantic notion, but I think the soul of rock’n’roll was cooked as soon as its full commercial potential was realized. When something’s being rammed down your throat it’s very hard to want it anymore, and I think the soul of rock’n’roll hinges somewhat on the desire for it — the need for it, and the tension that fills the space where the need is left unsatisfied.

I went back to that old Swedish shoe factory just before they demolished it last year. It was deserted save for an old hippie I vaguely remembered who was in the garage doing pottery. The doors were locked and I stood with my forehead pressed against the glass looking in at the dusty vacant floor and my heart started pounding wildly, just to see that room. Energy doesn’t die, the ghost of rock’n’roll was in there, grinning.

Despite all the amputation, you can still just dance to a rock’n’roll station, and it’ll be alright. The soul of rock’n’roll is free, stupid as that may sound, and it can’t die, because it’s energy. Somewhere — in somebody’s basement, in some rehearsal room, at some show, maybe even in this city — the cat is jumping. The soul of rock’n’roll is hiding.

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