Donnie Iris is Rock and Roll!
Updated: Aug 11, 2018
A friend recently posted "Ah! Leah!" on his facebook page. Donnie Iris had slipped my mind for a while, so I went back and listened to "Love is Like a Rock" and "The Rapper." Soon I was strutting around my living room, pumping my fist in the air (at least in the retelling), and mouthing the words that indeed "Love will rock you!" and that "Love is Like a Rock!!!" And I meant it! Only thing is, what did I mean?
It occurred to me that Donnie Iris' songs don't really have a lot of meaning. They tend to be repetitive, and Donnie won't go down in history as one of rock's great vocalists. But THAT IS ALL SUPREMELY OKAY!
Because Donnie Iris IS rock and roll!
We all know about the great rock musicians and songwriters such as Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Bruce Springsteen, and Bob Dylan. Players with great technique, innovative sounds. Songwriters whose words inspire the imagination or sum up the feelings of a generation. A lot of great rock and roll doesn't include any of these elements. There's something special about rock and roll: It doesn't have to be good to be great.*
A little bit of lyrical analysis:
"Love Is Like A Rock"
By Donnie Iris
"You can't depend on your teacher
You can't depend on your preacher
You can't depend on politicians
You can't depend on superstitions"
True dat, but no great insights into the human condition, cliche' actually. Last couplet (politician/superstition): slightly above average rock and roll rhyme.
Love can rock you, Never stop you, Ah, ah, ah, ah, Love is like a rock
I agree totally! The word "can," though, leaves the meaning a little bit open.
"Never stop you?!?!" (my punctuation added) There must be SEVERAL BILLION songs written about how love has messed up someones life! We need to consider this since Donnie sings "can" in the first line.
"Ah, ah, ah, ah" Once again I agree totally, but we ain't talkin' Shakespeare here.
"Love is like a rock!" Now I believe in the Rock of Ages, but I don't think that's what Donnie is talking about. I think the aforementioned several billion songs makes this statement highly debatable especially since not much other support has been given for this sentiment.
You can't rely on Mother Nature, You can't rely on your paychecks, You can't depend on your doctor, You can't depend on your lawyer
Again kinda cliche'. Note the lack of rhymes. At least there was a rhyme scheme in the first verse.
Chorus repeats several times to fade out
There are several million rock songs like this. AND THEY'RE ALL AWESOME!!!
A few examples:
"Wild Thing" by the Troggs
Reg Presley, lead singer of the Troggs, looked at the sheet music and lyrics for the song and thought it was ridiculously stupid. Upon listening to the demo tape, he was convinced that it was worth recording. The rest is history. (A large percentage of the Troggs' catalog is awesome in this way: failing to stand up to any reasoned analysis.)
"Louie Louie" by the Kingsmen
The triumph of ineptitude! The musicianship is sloppy. So sloppy that the drummer dropped his stick and yelled "fuck!' 54 seconds into the recording. So sloppy that the lead singer starts into the third verse before he's supposed to and then stops and starts again after a spontaneous drum fill. The recording quality is terrible. One story I read said that the microphone was suspended above the band so that Jack Ely had to look up at the ceilings while singing--no voice teacher recommends that posture. As a result the lyrics were unintelligible. How unintelligible? So unintelligible that many in the prudish 1960's United States decided the song MUST be obscene. So unintelligible that after a 31-month investigation, the FBI announced that it was "unable to interpret any of the wording in the record."
Who among us hasn't played air guitar while imitating distorted power chords to the tune of "Louie Louie"?
The Rolling Stones
There's a difference between good bad and bad bad. A stupid lyric like the Stooges'
"I Wanna Be Your Dog" is good bad. Some lyrics, though, get in the way. The Rolling Stones and/or producer Jimmy Miller understood this. Many consider "Exile on Main Street" to be the Stones' masterpiece. If you can understand more than twenty or so words on the whole double LP, you're a better person than I. Special mention goes to "Tumbling Dice." REM also understood the murky lyric principle, especially early on.
Other random examples:
Sam Phillips told Charlie Rich to come back to Sun Studios when he had learned to play as badly as Jerry Lee Lewis.
The Sex Pistols.
Who told Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, Rod Stewart, Ray Davies, Joan Jett or Eric Burdon they could sing? Would your high school's music teacher have chosen any of those four for show chorus or or the school musical?
So. . .
We all want to make some sense of the world. So what's going on here? How is it that literary mediocrity, instrumental incompetence, and tone-deaf singing have led to immortal art?
Bob Dylan has a very important point about song. It's a medium that meant to be performed and heard. My analysis of the lyrics "Love Is Like a Rock" doesn't really do them justice because you can't FEEL them when you read them in black and white.
He also recognizes that lyrics don't have to make sense. While discussing a poem by John Donne near the end of his Nobel Prize lecture, he says, "I don't know what that means either, but it sounds good." ***
Picasso said, "It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child." Have you ever seen a drawing by an adult, usually in some cutesy ad, that is supposed to be a child's drawing? They're easy to spot. The same goes for music. Elemental expression and enthusiasm are surely 99 44/100% of rock and roll! It's easy to hear who has made that special connection with the muse. It can be someone as amateurish as the Kingsmen or as sublimely simple as the Beatles, or as complex and rococo as "Bohemian Rhapsody."
I can scream something unintelligible and bang out a power chord. I can play "In My Life." (I won't attempt "Bohemian Rhapsody." I have a hard time spelling it.) It won't have the same effect. Why? It goes beyond standard reason and analysis. Something more is at work, a wonderful mystery, a connection with something special.
But how do we identify it?
Here's my variation on U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's famous quote. ALL CAPS and + = my replacement of a word.
"I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description ["ROCK AND ROLL+], and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I HEAR+ it."
Donnie Iris is a good singer. He's an ordinary lyricist. His band is a step up technically from your favorite bar band. And for some reason that I'm still not able to explain, from the first note of the opening riff to the last flicker of the VU meter at the final fade out, "Love is Like a Rock," "Ah! Leah!," "The Rapper" and several other million songs are compelling, glorious rock and roll!
Listen for yourself:
"Ah! Leah!" by Donnie Iris and the Cruisers
"The Rapper" by The Jaggerz (It took me at least a decade to realize that the chorus actually included words!)
"I Wanna Be Your Dog" by the Stooges
"Exile on Main Street." by the Rolling Stones
"Tumbling Dice" by the Rolling Stones
"Rip This Joint" by Green Day (The lead singer purposely garbles the lyrics of the Stones classic!)
"In My Life" by the Beatles (live just for fun)
"In My Life" by Johnny Cash
Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen
*I think this phenomenon works for many media and genres of music, but it's especially pronounced in rock and roll. For contrast: Sviatoslav Richter, the great Russian pianist, insisted that notes be put on his CDs because he had played F# instead of F in Bach's "Italian Concerto." He had been doing it for forty years, and no one had ever pointed it out to him.
***I'm sure an English literature professor can make sense of the line, but that's beside the point.