This all hit me in Buenos Aires a year or so ago when I turned the corner in a museum and saw a famous painting, described in the nameplate as:
“Self-portrait with Monkey and Parrot. Frida Kahlo, 1907–1954.”
I know it seems the height of philistinism, but I always read nameplates first. And, in this case, maybe because I’d seen the image on a million totebags, it was the nameplate, rather than the painting, that affected me most. And mostly because it told me I was alive at the same time as a nigh-mythical figure from impossibly remote history.
Now I’m sure it’s not a good and honorable way to respond to art (can you say “narcissistic personality disorder”?). But it did get me to wondering, who else? What other surprising historical figures from what seems like way, way back were alive — and maybe alive nearby — same time as me?
Doing the exercise, it turns out a lot of them were musicians, which is how I justify putting them here:
It is dark and it is cold in January in Detroit. Darker and colder than you’re imagining now. And you are broke. You’ve been amicably tossed, but tossed nonetheless, from your railroad flat in NYC because your childhood buddy, Mark the Shark (he of later Studio 54 celebrity), who more or less owns the place, wants his girlfriend to move in. Actually, she’s in already — they just want a little privacy. Besides, you are a few months behind on the rent, as dirt cheap as it might be, because you are really broke.
And here you are. Detroit in the dead of January.
You know John Morthland from Sausalito, where you lived for ten months, on a lark, after abandoning New York the first time and whom you had met through Ed Ward, the ex-Rolling Stone writer (now “rock historian” on Fresh Air), who gave you your start with an assignment to review Thomas McGuane’s 92 in the Shade. John Morthland’s a really good writer and editor and an amazingly prescient musicologist who was first to discover a lot of things pop-cultural that eluded most rock critics, or at least white ones. Things like rap music (before it was hip hop), Sacred Steel and Moe Bandy. He’s in Detroit to be interim editor — interim, because John is strictly freelance or die. And you know him, it should be clarified, only pretty well, though that may be as well as most anyone knows silent, staring, inscrutably smirking John.
You don’t know Lester.
You know of him, but barely, and as much on the strength of that seemingly concocted name — Lester Bangs — as his writing.
This is the full — really full — text, with notes for slides and music, from my, ahem, lecture (see News section) to Smolny College of the State University of Saint Petersburg in Russia on April 17, 2008. Keep in mind that it was geared for Russian students who, I was told, might not know very much about rock ’n’ roll (and if you do, don’t tell them where I lied). Anyway, I spent so much time working on the damn thing I couldn’t resist re-purposing it as a column. The complete, killer playlist follows the text.
My name is Robert Duncan, and I’m from San Francisco, California. I’m definitely not a professor, and I’m not entirely sure what I have to offer you. But I have been listening to, playing, loving, hating and writing about rock ’n’ roll for more than 30 years.
I played guitar in a band when I was 12. I left college to be the singer in a band professionally, with some minor success and mostly frustration. At 21, I started writing about music. At 22, I became managing editor of Creem magazine in Detroit, Michigan, where I worked with the famous rock critic Lester Bangs, who became my close friend. If you’ve seen the movie Almost Famous, you’ve seen the great Phillip Seymour Hoffman playing Lester.
After Creem, I went back to New York City to be a freelance critic, writing hundreds of stories for Rolling Stone, Circus and just about every music magazine there ever was. Among my quote-unquote “accomplishments,” as you may have seen on that lovely flyer, I’ve interviewed Bruce Springsteen, Freddie Mercury, Patti Smith, David Bowie, Bryan Ferry, Kiss, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Ted Nugent, War, ZZ Top, Kraftwerk, and many others I can’t remember or you’ve never heard of. I’ve flown on a private jet with Keith Richards, jammed with Blue Öyster Cult, sung to Sammy Hagar (accapella) and Liza Minnelli, but not at the same time, and have witnessed Phil Lesh, the famous bassist of the Grateful Dead, in his underwear. I’ve seen the Yardbirds when both Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck were in the band. I’ve seen Elvis, the Beatles, the Stones, in 1969, when they were cool. Dylan, though not in a particularly good phase. Hendrix, several times, and he was too cool. I saw the Ramones at Max’s Kansas City, before the album, and Talking Heads at CBGB’s when there were about 10 people in the room. I’ve also written three books about rock ’n’ roll.
Which is where I want to start today.
D/C’s own rock ’n’ roll expert, Robert Duncan, has just returned from St. Petersburg, Russia, where he delivered a two-hour multimedia presentation on the history of rock to a full house of students and professors. The former managing editor of Creem and author of The Noise: Notes from a Rock ’n’ Roll Era was invited to speak by St. Petersburg State University’s Smolny College, where pop is part of the curriculum. His lecture, titled “The Noise: Notes from a Rock ’n’ Life,” was a 25-year update of his book, covering his experiences with music and musicians from the ’50s to today.
It is probably no happenstance that Duncan’s son, a Russian language major, attends the school, the first liberal arts college in Russia. But when the faculty heard that dear ol’ dad, a widely published critic and scrivener of three books on rock, was coming for a visit, they asked the son to sign him up.
According to the utterly unbiased Duncan, the lecture was a smashing success, with much furious note-taking by the mostly Russian crowd (who are required by the college to learn English) and rousing applause to cap it off. During a Q&A session at the end, one professor politely protested Duncan’s dismissal of prog rock and the band Emerson, Lake and Palmer. Otherwise, controversy was kept to a minimum.
Though Duncan had been counseled that the young audience might be naive about both historical and contemporary rock, there was surprisingly broad recognition when the discussion turned to punk pioneer Patti Smith. And one young Russian, an aspiring rock critic, his blond locks combed over one eye, collared the errant D/C ECD after the lecture to talk about Sufjan Stevens. Another student sporting a jam-band beard danced vigorously in his seat through every song of the presentation, from Elvis’s “Hound Dog” to the Hold Steady’s “Chips Ahoy.” Duncan was later informed that said student usually just talks to himself.
The complete playlist and text of the lecture is posted in the Noise column on this site.