First off I must make the usual disclaimer that while this is the Louder Than Dirt blog, the primary contributor so far is DK. Since there is little drama among the members of the band, who are hardworking comrades, I find that the conflicts that affect me in my relations with the band are internal to me.
My daughter recently wrote a song for her excellent band The Romero Sisters with the refrain, “Rock and roll is a masculine artform.” The song asserts that women should occupy a more prominent place in the manner of music my daughter loves. She professes to enjoy LTD shows, and I’m not so egotistical as to think that that the song is about me. Nevertheless, Louder Than Dirt consists entirely of men, and manly men we are too. Julian is tall, tan, and athletic. Both Lawsky brothers sport ultra-masculine shaven pates. I’m a bit overweight but also heavily muscled, and I display a big, bushy beard. None of us is particularly concerned with image. Our appearances are the mere byproducts of our ordinary lives. So before I consider whether LTD is particularly guilty of machismo, I think it’s worthwhile to take a historical perspective.
And as usual when you survey broadly, you find diversity. Undoubtedly, the extreme of macho bullshit is represented by Ted Nugent, who is not only a dangerous nut case but also a total dick. It’s a shame because The Amboy Dukes and Nuge’s work in the early 70’s weren’t completely horrible. Like dumb guys generally, Nugent often comes up with what he imagines to be a clever phrase and repeats it incessantly. Case in point: “My guitar will never gently weep.” Well, there you are. That Nuge is no sensitive male like George Harrison or Eric Clapton is unquestionably true. But hoo-boy, he can’t hold a candle to those towering artists. Of course, I cite him as an extreme. Much more prevalently in the history of rock, androgyny is the rule, starting with Little Richard but including also the King himself, Elvis Presley. Jerry Lee Lewis was no girly man, but even he wore longer hair than was the norm of the day. The fourth star in the constellation of 50’s rockers was Chuck Berry, who did not seem particularly in touch with his feminine side. But Berry showed a softer image than that of the jazz/bluesman T-Bone Walker, from whom he acquired many of his onstage antics.
And it occurs to me that androgyny is more a visual and verbal thing than an auditory thing. The most famously androgynous appearance in rock was David Bowie in the role of Ziggy Stardust. The lyrics coincided with the gender bending look: “Lady Stardust sang his songs of darkness and disgrace.” But Bowie had a baritone voice that matched well with the crooner Bing Crosby. Is there an androgynous sound? An interesting test would be Boy George, who sang in a higher register than Bowie. (Setting aside the question of whether Culture Club qualifies as rock.) But Boy George’s voice was a rather effective imitation of Smokey Robinson’s. Smokey’s tenor was soft and smooth, but not to my ears particularly feminine. Indeed, high male voices have never been associated with femininity in popular music. In the sixties the joke circulated about The Four Seasons: “Walks like a man, talks like a man, sings like a girl.” But nobody seriously confused the falsetto of a Jersey boy with the singing of a girl. And Robert Plant, for all his curls, was closer to macho than maiden. I rather think that if you did not see Ziggy’s costumes and makeup, and you ignored his words, and you heard those Jeff Beck-like guitar shreds from Mick Ronson, you would hear the bending of no genders.
Following the glam era, masculinity asserted itself unselfconsciously. The next item in the series Bowie . . . NY Dolls . . . is The Ramones. And after that, the punk deluge, in which a certain male menace was de rigeur. (We’ll consider female rock stars like Siouxsie anon.) But at that very moment we saw Springsteen’s big biceps and Sting’s Nautilized pecs. And machismo for the first time became a normative position. Sting, for example, was reputed to be an impressive sexual (and not bisexual) athlete. Now rock stars are, as a rule, sexy. The exceptions are instructive: the Buddy Holly school culminating in Elvis Costello. Contrast the Beatles with the Stones in this regard. But sexy is the norm, and sexy need not mean masculinist. The women in rock have been sexy, Crissie Hind, Grace Slick. The greatest woman in rock, Janis Joplin, is perhaps not remembered as hot, but R. Crumb’s cartoon image of her on the cover of Cheap Thrills features a pair of prominent nipples. As a boy I found that picture stimulating. Still do, if I’m honest.
Certainly sound can be as sexy as sight. “Whole Lotta Love” is sexy from beginning to end. Bonham was a manly, perhaps macho, man with his love of hot rods and booze. The other three–not so much. But I think it is safe to conclude that while hypermasculinity is not missing from rock–Nuge is out there–it is not intrinsic. And machismo, when it occurs, is a matter of word and image and not really of music.
So is Louder Than Dirt an obnoxious proponent of masculinism or male domination? Hell no. Certainly not in our music, and not indeed in our lyrics. On the other hand, as I look at the new pics in Facebook, I notice that one of us strikes what may appear to be rather dominant, possibly male-dominant poses. Now, Joseph is seated behind the drums, and Adam behind the keyboard. Julian often makes a long stride, but it is the other us who pumps a fist in triumph or thrusts a Keith Richards-like kick. Maybe it’s the muscles. I know that when I raise my free hand, it is lightly clenched–I use a pick and I don’t want to make the three-fingers-extended OK sign. Yes, I’m a dude, but no I don’t uphold a doctrine of male supremacy. Rock and roll may be peripherally a masculine artform, but it it not so intrinsically. There may be some room for my reflection and amendment.