My friend Jay, who played in a high school garage band with me, used to argue with me about the essence of rock 'n' roll. Was it all about drums and bass, or about guitar and vocals – rhythm or blues? Was it the backbeat or the "roll over Beethoven?"
Since I was a drummer, the choice was easy: Rock is all rhythm. He was a singer/guitarist, so he felt that rock attitude was in the hands of the vocalist.
Citing chapter and verse to clinch the point, he would say "It's all Robert Plant."
To which I would answer: "It's all about John Bonham." Mick, Roger, or Jack? Nah, Charlie, Keith, and Ginger.
Perhaps this is the rock 'n' roll dialectic?
Fast forward through time. I'm now an adult and a school principal. The day before Thanksgiving, I heard both the beat and melody going on in the school's music room across the hall from my office and thought of another dialectic taking place.
We have two "garage" bands at school. One is the eighth-grade power trio playing across the hall – drums, bass, and guitar. It's gratifying to see the next generation of rockers and hear the obligatory drum riffs and three-chord songs that everyone goes through in the rock 'n' roll band evolution. You need a name (power trio: "We call ourselves The Infected Soles"), some equipment, years of listening to the radio – now, iPods – and aspiration.
"Where are the Marshall amplifier stacks, fellas?" I asked. "It's not nearly loud enough." This is not a very principal-like thing to say, I realize, but some days this is the School of Rock. The school's small bass amp would suffice for the time being. (Note to self: Can I hide a 100-watt Marshall stack in the "new equipment" line of next year's school budget?)
It also brought me back to Saturdays in the basement of my high school, where Jay, Brook, and I would wear out the latest Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Cream, and Deep Purple records in preparation for the next dance or paying gig. It was about eking out each note, our heads cocked to the stereo speakers straining for the notes and lyrics and developing calluses in our ears from playing with the amps on 11. (The volume dial only went to 10.)
It was bliss to work on achieving unison and all-important presence, as well as perfecting solos.
It was also about having a very particular sound in mind – feedback, wah-wah, sustain, treble boost – and the frustration of how hard it was to reproduce the same thing that we heard on the record.
It was difficult to play on the beat, in tune, and in keeping with the verve and swagger of our band heroes – in a recognizable cover of, say, "Smoke on the Water" or "Sunshine of Your Love."
Experience is hard work. Hard work is experience. That's what I hear across the hall.
The other garage band here at school is the Apple computer software that many of our students love to use to make instant music. It's amusing to press a laptop key and record perfect guitar sounds, percussion, bass, and even synthesized voices. It's fast, easy, and the results are high-fidelity, instantly gratifying, and very entertaining. But there are no calluses, and it can't be rock without those calluses.
As I thought about it, I realized that these two garage bands mirror much of the current digital aspects of our lives.
GarageBand software allows us to use a sound that someone else has made, rather than requiring that we make our own. It gives us instant sounds rather than experience – the feeling we get when we've mastered an instrument to the point that we actually enjoy the sounds we produce. But to progress and achieve the band level in the nondigital world, we must master the experience of playing our instrument alongside others.
In other words, GarageBand software doesn't give us the garage-band experience – it gives us an easy facsimile. It's the difference between reading a map and taking a walk.
It seems worth contemplating what other dichotomies we're experiencing that are similar to the differences between hearing musical information and making music. One can't replace the other. The real thing is much better: volume 11, calluses, and that all-important mojo.
I think my buddy Jay would agree that our rock 'n' roll garage band couldn't be duplicated by these digital incursions.
I like both garage-band avatars – old school and new school. The software gives a certain encouraging instant gratification, imitating sound realistically, while the amps, drums, and guitars help kids imitate the swagger and attitude of the rock 'n' roll characters they admire. You can't digitize that!
But real rock 'n' roll can't be reduced to clicking on a keyboard and playing back sound information. There's really no rock there – no rhythm, blues, or soul.
Information may be at our fingertips, but experience only comes by playing the real thing ... taking that walk or dancing to a walking bass line. You can't argue with experience.