Monday, 5 October 2009

Philosophy at 33 1/3 rpm: Themes of Classic Rock Music

By James F. Harris

True friendship, true community, social and sexual alienation, the death of God, the importance of the present moment, individual autonomy, the corruption of the state, revolution, the end of the present age - such are the intellectual themes of classic rock.

Sixties rock music left behind the harmless bubblegum and surfing ditties of the 1950s to become a vehicle for thoughtful commentary upon the human condition. Theories and motifs from philosophy, theology, and literature were reshaped, refracted, and transfigured in this intelligent new popular art form.

Classic rock, argues James Harris, should be taken as seriously as the loftiest creations of art and literature. In Philosophy at 33 1/3 rpm, he lays the groundwork for an informed appreciation by exhibiting philosophical themes in the finest rock songs.

Professor Harris's examples encompass all the major rock artists of the classic period (1962-1974), including Paul Simon, Elton John, Pink Floyd, The Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, The Moody Blues, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, The Kinks, Cat Stevens, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, The Who, Jefferson Airplane, and Joni Mitchell.

His analyses draw upon the ideas of Aristotle, Bonhoeffer, Camus, Descartes, Freud, Kant, Laing, Marcuse, Marx, Nietzsche, Nozick, Rousseau, Sartre, Thoreau, and Tillich, as well as the Bible and other scriptures, to situate the preoccupations of the classic rock lyricists in the Western intellectual tradition.

James F. Harris is Chair of the Philosophy Department at the College of William and Mary and an amateur musician whose tastes have for 35 years included rock 'n' roll. He is author of the provocative and widely-acclaimed work of pure philosophy, Against Relativism, and of numerous philosophy articles. Professor Harris's outlook was profoundly shaped by his participation in the upheavals of The Sixties. He is co-author (with Mark Waymack) of Single-Malt Whiskies of Scotland (1992) and The Bourbon Book (forthcoming).


Of all the many classic rock songs which acknowledge the delicate balance between deliverance and destruction, one of my favorites if "Crucifixion" by Phil Ochs from his 1967 album, Pleasures of the Harbor. A compelling version of "Crucifixion" was recorded by little-known duo Jim and Jean on their album entitled Changes. In "Crucifixion" Ochs tells the tale of the morbid delight which we all take in the sagas of our fallen heroes. Which heroes? Well, take your pick - from Jesus to John or Robert Kennedy to Martin Luther King, Jr. to Jim Morrison or Janis Joplin. When iconoclastic rebels become "an assault upon the order" and represent "the changing of the guard", we embrace them and follow them and urge them on in their fight against "the establishment" and "them" and "evil". It's the battle of a hero of truth, justice, and right against overwhelming odds, and we love them for it. But the terrible truth is that "beneath the greatest love is a hurricane of hate", and "success is an enemy of the losers of the day", and "in the privacy of the churches, who knows what they pray?" Until finally, with "the cross trembling with desire", the rebel and savior is crucified and "the eyes of the rebel have been branded by the blind." We who are left and who, of course, are innocent of the rebel's death, must know every detail. "Do you have a picture of the pain?" we ask. And "as the cycle of sacrifice unwinds", the important thing is that it's "good to be alive when the eulogies are read." And "with the speed of insanity, then he dies."

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