As you know, almost all of the songs we write tell stories. We want to share those stories with you. We’ll post the story behind the story for each song on 13 here for you to read. The plan is to feature one song each week for the next 13 weeks.
Here is the story behind Rock and Roll as related by Clark Hansbarger.
The song “Rock and Roll”
A funny thing about our generation—a lot of us have guitars sitting around the house. We were raised on rock. Go to any open mic night, and you’ll find a few aging Boomers signed up to belt out a song or three.
I’m the senior member of The Bitter Liberals. I like being older (and wiser than the others too, of course). I don’t miss my twenties, and my thirties and forties were fun, but also filled with angst and a huge load of responsibility. Now, instead of smoking joints, I’ve got aching joints—but I enjoy life more than ever. Like an old beagle lying in the sun, I’m happy these days more often than not. Peace and tranquility trump youth, for me.
Even still, a little secret…this song is about aging and still rocking, still “searching for the sound.” (A free Bitter Liberals CD to the first reader who names the Dead song that line comes from!)
The first verse of Rock and Roll catalogs a few random events in my life. Heavily significant events? No more than others I can think of, but I do touch on some physical, social, and spiritual experiences that left a mark on me. The repeated use of “I have” puts these things distinctly behind me, though they still live somewhere in the spark of my synapses and the calcified neurological passageways of my grey matter.
When we first started working on this song, I sang “I have rocked,” in the chorus. Amy Barley, Gary’s wife, came in and said, “You gotta change that to ‘I can’ instead of ‘I have.’ You’re still rocking, Clark!” She is very kind, indeed. [Ed: all of us Bitter Liberals second, third, and fourth that, what with musica regularly invading the living room. Thank you Ame.]
The second verse cuts deeper, to the most significant aspect of my life: fathering two remarkable, independent children. Climbing mountains in Scotland, building a home, achieving a certain amount of stature in society — these things seem damn slight now compared to getting my children off to school in the morning and watching them grow into adults. Raising children enriched me, defined me, taught me to love deeply, and left me vulnerable, a hostage to the whims and whorls of world. What’s Lou Reed call it all? The great adventure.
The chorus is aimed at breaking the perhaps too serious tone of the verses. After all, I was trying to write a rocker. So the chorus mocks the situation, and contradicts the line in Bye, Bye, Miss American Pie, (which was written by a young guy, after all). Music can’t save our mortal souls—at least not mine. It’s a lot of fun, but “it’s only rock and roll.” (No prize offer for that line: too easy, even if you’re not a Stones fan.)
Frankly, there is something ironic and humorous about an old guy rockin’ and rollin’. And we all better smile, because age happens regardless of how we feel about it. The world turns, people move on, and we all get old. It’s the dirty little secret of every generation.
The last verse is a catalog of emotions and behaviors that color me. The verse makes me sound cranky, which I can be. Some days, I even like being a curmudgeon. But then, the line about sorrow and loss softens things and re-emphasizes the vulnerability. Aging is a sad and relentless fact; and the road to the end is paved in loss.
The song then blows back into the light with the final chorus and my favorite part of all—the jam at the end. It’s a real “do not go gently into that good night” moment. Gary and Allen tear at it on violin and electric guitar for a rousing, stadium rock close-out that is just way too fun to play live. Surely something that fun should be illegal!
And, for just a transcendent sparkle of a moment, we get to forget that dirty little secret, and just rock.