The Reservoir: Rock Music and Mythology - by Willi Paul, PlanetShifter.com Magazine
The Reservoir: Rock Music and Mythology By Willi Paul, PlanetShifter.com Magazine

"Evil hearted women, man they" will not let me be .... I love my baby, my baby don't love me..." "Kindhearted Woman Blues" is a piece of rock music history by wailin' Robert Johnson, one of rock's mythic heroes. He helped to create a soulful magic formula today in the songs of Bono, Dylan, Clapton and other sound alchemists.

This article cooks a cross-cultural pie, as the syzygy of rock music and mythology, the popular and the ancient, collide to make music magic. This material is from my unpublished manuscript entitled: The Reservoir, Rock Music and Myth, and uses songs and scholars primarily from this century. My goal is to initiate you into a deeper understanding of how mythic elements empower and enrich rock's impact in our lives -- while admitting from the outset that not every band is fueled by mythology and that most groups seem to quit after a short struggle.

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Would you consider the most successful albums as great books, with individual songs, or tales, as chapters?

"True stories?" Let's take a journey through a high tech, oral tradition evolution.

One major assumption is that not only are rock bands interpreting or rephrasing classic mythology, but they are also writing for a new mythic base, a nuclear age storybook, if you will. Like R.E.M.'s Fables of the Reconstruction or The Smith's Louder Than Bombs. Look at the cover of U2's "War" record, what do you see? And feel? Another key idea that runs throughout this work in that rock music shares symbols and themes from many cultures. What we have is a magic blending of influences, too complex for a feature story. African and Christian are two dominant mythologies that gave birth to jazz and the blues in America, and soon the Beatles tripped back from the mountain with Eastern myth and magic. From the Cross, to slavery, to beat crazy and the bomb, many lives are constantly guided by rock music. We find solace, angst, a consciousness and heroes in the pubs and CD's of "the business."

Andy Partridge of XTC stated In SPIN Magazine that: "today's pop songs are the nursery rhymes of the future."

And the San Francisco Oracle, a local paper from 1967, issued a credo for rock music, and offered, in part, "that rock is creating the social rituals of the future."

We need to separate this phenomenon into its parts to better understand the whole. There are four. The music is one. The sounds or the rhythms that propel everything else. Mickey Hart and other artists believe that rhythm is connected to a "mythic time keeping" that extends from our "big bang beginning," through our heartbeats, and into today's music. A collective cosmic drumming.

Album art, posters, and all of the media that rock music produces is the second component of the power of rock music and myth. These illustrations have reinforced and educated the listener, often with the musician's own designs, like Robyn Hitchcock's "post-nuclear croquet garden" painting on his "Globe of Frogs" album. While art is a transformational, or alchemical match, photographs of bands document their changes and bring us closer to our rock family. Third, lyrics say what we can't sing on our instruments. Dylan brought a folk poet troubadour spirit, to rock early on, and artists have been listening ever since. And fourth, live performance combines sound, art and words with anticipation in a mass communication dynamic, a shared ritual flow that mimics, to a degree, a religious service.

As a test of the four components I've just described, two definitions of myth are offered. Do they to fit together? Please try substituting rock music for myth here: Carl Jung, in Essays on a Science of Mythology, defined myth as a story about heroes involving the gods, and a rite or phenomenon of nature, with the capability of transformation. Joseph Campbell, writing in The Power of Myth, gave us four functions of myths: mystery, cosmological (or to explain), sociological, and pedagogical (or how to live).

If rock, like myth, is a road map, like writer Paul Williams insists in The Map or Rediscovering Rock and Roll (A Journey), we must learn to read it. We are children of a complex, dangerous and infinite Universe. From "Starfish," The Church sing for us. Notice how all of the parts spell magic in their hit song, "Under the Milky Way": "Wish I knew what you were looking for, Might have known what you would find, And it's something quite peculiar, Something shimmering and white...."

We hear and see symbols through rock music and art. Band names and titles of records and songs contain important cues, many political or humorous, but some for "mythic punch." Album art work is the first to be interpreted and often carries the same meaning all over the world. When musicians combine song lyrics with complimentary symbols, mythic meanings are reinforced and deepened. Symbols and metaphors are the seeds, our invitation to the feast. And many symbols, like numbers and colors, have ancient meanings and universal power.

Campbell might have asked at this point: Do we know the power of these symbols? Have we lost our connections to the mythic reservoir? Tough questions, but we do know that some symbols "work." So often, specific sounds of chords foster specific meanings or moods, like the frenetic thunder cry of Hendrix, or the unmistakable sonic wail of U2's, The Edge, or the vocal poetry of Joni Mitchell's rock signature. Do we use beats and sonic symbols from prehistory? Do we still listen to the sounds of rain and birds, like Hitchcock says? Is a thunderstorm an ancient soundtrack and a precursor to rock and roll?

Jung long studied dreams and the subconscious and discovered that certain patterns in our dreams are common to everyone. These "archetypes" often relate to the symbols that rock artists utilize to charge their songs. While many mythic symbols or archetypes come from prehistory, the Bible or the Middle Ages, many twentieth century fears are precipitating new images and symbols for folktales and myths still to be fully realized, like those surrounding nuclear destruction and global warming, AIDS or Apartheid.

New or borrowed symbols have appeared as social catalysts and glue. The peace sign, for example, is synonymous with rock music. Symbols and music, bound together in many ways - both light and dark. Archetypes bridge our dreams with our ancestors, our myth making with myth interpretation. Symbols are alchemic, meaning that they combine science and spirit, known and believed. They are dream pieces, soul windows, and assist us in seeing how the many parts rock and roll music fit together as a conscious force. There are endless examples such as R.E.M.'s name itself which refers to a sleep/dream state. R.E.M.'s images evoke the dark and demonic, like their gargoyle on Chronic Town, or their weird dash of "reality and madness" on the cover of "Document #5," or their "Green" record cover?? that isn't green at all, but orange. What does orange mean to you?

The Church, from Sydney, illustrated their first release, "Of Skins and Heart," rather simply, until a deeper meaning is gleaned through the scientific heart image and colors. They could be saying that while we have different colors of skin, we all share the same life force symbolized by the heart: a symbol of courage, strength, and of the cosmic Christ in mythology. The colors, red and blue, mean the fresh blood -- tired blood cycle in the flow of life.

Why can't the heart symbolize the earth?

David Byrne, in a Rolling Stone interview, said, "In my teens, a lot of us felt that rock was a very direct kind of communication and not just music. There was also a lot of visual things that went along with it, a lot of the things that were making very direct connections that bypassed any need for translation." Now his Talking Heads make this connection magic.

Why do the followers of the Grateful Dead do their self-affirming dance with blood red roses and skeletons? Why the devil tattoo on a Guns 'n' Roses fan? Did you know that the letter X, i.e., the band formerly from Los Angeles, is defined in part by Random House as "Christ," "Cross," and "a person, thing, agency, factor, etc. of unknown identity?" When we begin to fill our musical reservoir with understanding through these mythic symbols, then we approach what Joseph Campbell meant by The Power of Myth.

What is on Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon" album cover?

The number one symbolizes the unity, three is the Trinity. Seven symbolizes musical balance. Look at your musical collection. What numbers are used by whom and when? And what about colors? Under a "Blood Red Sky;" "Yellow Submarine!"

U2's recording entitled, "The Joshua Tree, "is a famous desert plant important to a Biblical home. Do you know the Christian symbolism surrounding it? Bono's great symbols keep spinning from the Irish foursome; 21st Century sound alchemists? One song from their experience describes a dream, a desert journey "In God's Country": "Desert sky, dream beneath the desert sky, rivers run but soon run dry, we need new dreams tonight, Desert rose, dreamed I saw a desert rose, Dressed. all in ribbons and in bows... Sad eyes, crooked crosses, in God's Country...."

Often mythology incorporates two important story themes: initiation and tradition. Our history is found in our social codes and rituals of passage. As we mature, we learn how to choose, how to select the best path for success to the ends that we desire. We are initiated as we pass various institutional tests.

In short, we are products of social, political, and religious rules of behavior. Rock musicians have been sharing their passages ever since the blues banged into the electrical sixties, passing on their experiences and challenges to the new guard in the Age of Aquarius.

Jackson Browne is a storyteller from the heart, a soul who shares his passages through a folksy rock swing. He sings a song of growing pains on. "Fountain of Sorrow" from The Pretender, and about a journey with maps and charts on "Farther On" from Late for the Sky. Cat Stevens' Tea for the Tillerman is a classic collection of songs from the road to find out, especially his ballads "Where Do the Children Play?" and "Fathers and Sons." These tunes are adding to our growing body of rock mythology. Have you shared your life passages with your children?

As young people, we require honest feedback such as testimony and direct experience. Our traditions are now more fluid, under attack from apathy and extremists, alike. From our first day in Kindergarten, to the Girl Scout Oath, Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Birthday, and on to our first rock concert, traditions help form our attitudes and ritual bases for adulthood. These social cues and rules are our personal responsibility. For many, rock music this provides information, guidance, and alternatives on our journey to acceptable initiation rites. Lennon demanded that we "Give Peace A Chance." Are you listening? Or just buying?

Think for a minute. How many love songs do you know? How many do we need? We all lose when the planet goes to war, divided. Perhaps it's time you sang: "Get Up, Stand Up"?

Rock music scholars D. Hibbard and, S. Kaleialoha, in The Role of Rock, A Guide to the Social and Political Consequences of Rock Music, wrote that, "the rock songs of the late '60's brought forth alternative values and visions on many levels. The music was in itself a bold statement with all sorts of fantastic phantasms swirling around and through it. Whether denouncing the war, celebrating drugs, or redefining love and sex, the songs declared freedom, sensation, and life. They made the young aware of themselves, reconfirmed their beliefs and acknowledged, within a positive framework, the changes taking place. The sound brought together a generation, created a 'mystical fusion' and gave the young a shared experience and an articulate, although not necessarily accurate, expression of what is and what will be. Even more important, rock music transcended dreary reality to offer America an optimistic utopian view of the future."

In The Uses of Enchantment, Bruno Bettelheim told us: "Myths and closely related religious legends offer material from which children form their concepts of the world's origins and purpose, of the social ideals that a child could pattern him or herself after. These were the images of the unconquered Achilles and wily Odysseus; of Hercules, whose life history showed that it is not beneath the dignity of the strongest man to clean the filthiest stable; of St. Martin, who cut his coat in half to clothe a poor beggar. And Freud referred to (Oedipus) to make us aware of the inescapable cauldron of emotions which every child, in his or her own way, has to manage at a certain age."

Our cauldron "boileth over." Late sixties rock music was protest connected, anti-war, anti-establishment, perhaps even anti-tradition (or for new traditions?). Paradoxically, Woodstock celebrated free love and global unity under a war-angry, drug infested and disillusioned black rainbow. Punk music captured this energy after a commercial "Top 40" backslide in the 1970's.

It is clear that if mythology and rock music can guide us through a confusion of bent traditions, shooting matches at City Hall, and TV-centered materialism, must learn to distinguish between our heroes and the clowns. We are always standing at the crossroads. The Police, from Synchronicity, lament our faltering human baton pass in their classic song, " Walking In Your Footsteps": "...If we drop the atom bomb, will they say that we were dumb, ya ... walking in your footsteps...."

Joseph Campbell, in U>The Power of Myth, described John Lennon as a hero, an innovator who brought a new spiritual depth to popular music through the meditative powers of Eastern and Oriental music. Campbell told us that "a hero must leave the old and go in quest of the seed idea. By experiencing something for everyone and reporting back his or her findings, a broader shift in understanding is possible." Heroes speak with our symbols, to our traditions, and challenge our surface initiations. The hero is key to the power of rock music and myth.

Greil Marcus, writing in Mystery Train, states: "It's easy to forget how young this country is; how little distance really separates us from the beginning of the myths, like that of Lincoln, that still haunt the national imagination. We make choices . . . about what is worth keeping and what isn't, trying to create a world where we feel alive, risky, ambitious, and free . . . We make the oldest stories new when we succeed, and we are trapped by the old stories when we fail."

The shaman, or medicine man, or healer, or Buddha, is an ancient title and. community role, a hero and teacher common to many world people and their myths. Are there shamans with guitars today? Both Robyn Hitchcock and The Church's Steve Kilbey in recent interviews (Night Sites & Sound, Soundcheck) feel that role is possible, that the rock show is more than a performance. Both felt that they were evoking and/or invoking something through their work and live gigs.

What about the electricity and the sheer noise levels of modern rock concerts? A trance generator? Is this gathering an attempt to share a common consciousness? An initiation? R.E.M. is a band that has brought many people together with a magical mixture of surrealism and pop appeal. Consider Michael Stipe a shaman on a voyage: "Take your turn,...take your fortune...." (from "Pilgrimage," on Murmur) and "Take your instincts, by the reigns. . . " ("Worksong," from Document #5).

By combining symbols from mythology and pop culture with common themes from the human experience and music from across the world, rock music seems to work a universal beat. A mass communication electric. Love. Peace. Safe energy. Farm assistance. Freedom. A template and score for a better planetary way. We are calling ourselves with music again. Rock music talks about love a lot of the time, but we all know that obtaining it is difficult.

Just as myth works through culture?based fact and fantasy, rock presents its share of broken hearts and heroes, benefit shows for the poor and the imprisoned, and psychedelic trips to the moon and beyond. Is it plausible to think that rock has kept our faith in magic in dreams and personal visions alive
in a world dark with war and greed?

Rock music today is less of an escape and more a medium for understanding; more a way to check up on the powers that be. The music soundtracks our own initiations and brings the emotions of racism, environmental destruction and war into our headphones.

Carl Jung, writing in Aion, stated that, "The present age must come to terms ... with the facts as they are .... absolute opposition is not only tearing the world asunder, politically but has planted a schism in the human heart. We need to find our way back to the original, living spirit which because of its it's ambivalence, is also mediator and uniter of opposites."

The theme of all mythology (is) that there is an invisible plane supporting the visible one."

Isn't the magic of rock music an ideal auger for communicating new ideas and shared consciousness?

We learn how man has treated this planet though the myths and folklore of our ancestors. And now we rework them for our children. Jung and Campbell might be saying that we should combine the forces of good and evil into a unity (or understanding); nurture and share all sources of world spirituality; and begin to work for a healthier planet. William I. Thompson explains, in The Time Falling Bodies Take To Light, that "the effort to displace the female seems to be at the archetypal foundation for civilization, for mankind has been at it for ages. Whether he is challenging Mother Nature in flying away from her in rockets, or changing her on earth through genetic engineering, man has not given up the attempt to take away the mystery from the Great Mother . . ." Does your mother, sister and/or daughter share and contribute equally in the patriarchy?

What myths are you buying for your iPad?