The Rock and Roll Escape Route

Rock and roll is a vibrant, dynamic art form in all its permutations from classic, punk, metal and alt to roots and country (and hundreds more*). Rock and roll emerged in the 1950s from popular music forms such as blues, R&B, country and rockabilly; it has grown to dominate popular music sales (now downloads), and live music performances to become a ~$67 billion industry globally. While the death of rock is often predicted, it continues to thrive as young musicians join the industry veterans, now in their 60s and 70s and still recording and touring.

What keeps rock vibrant and dynamic, I believe, is that it is an escape route for young musicians, usually male, from the humdrum lives their parents and peers settle for. This is a socioeconomic story as much as a rock and roll story. 

I’ll use Bruce Springsteen as the avatar of this kind of escape artist. The lyrics in his early albums in the 1970s expressed his escape goals, most famously in the iconic “Born to Run.

SPRINGSTEEN_BORN-TO-RUN_5X5_site-500x500”In the day we sweat it out in the streets of a runaway American dream
At night we ride through mansions of glory in suicide machines …
Baby this town rips the bones from your back
It’s a death trap, it’s a suicide rap
We gotta get out while we’re young
`Cause tramps like us, baby we were born to run

Peter Ames Carlin, author of the 2012 biography, Bruce, says that the core of most of Springsteen’s early songs is “the perpetual yearning for somewhere else.”

Bruce, like other young men who refused to settle for their parents’ lives and lack of prospects, grabbed a guitar and never looked back. The fact that he was a talented writer, poet and lyricist enabled him to also become a storyteller. (And as I have written elsewhere, he also became a skilled frontman and leader.)

“Escape was the idea,” Carlin quotes him as telling a reporter in 1978. It connected everything from Chuck Berry’s “School Days” to Dylan’s “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again.” Bruce said: “The song is a release. It’s an expression of the humdrum, the daily existence that you break out of.”

Today those young men (and a few women) have plenty of role models in contemporary rock stars. In the 1960s when Bruce Springsteen got his first guitar, there were not many role models. But he knew that he wanted to escape from the life his parents lived – his mother working hard every day as a secretary and his father caroming from job to job and taking comfort in his beer and cigarettes at the end of the day.

The same story can also surely be told about young mostly African American men who see basketball as their route to riches and a better life. But today I’m talking about the lure of rock and roll as an escape route.

Billy Corgan, frontman for Smashing Pumpkins, talked about his early life on NPR in June 2012. The interviewer asked about Corgan’s rough life as a lower middle class kid in a Chicago suburb. His immigrant family lived by the motto “must work, must save or die.” His talent and intelligence were recognized in school but not supported at home or school so “I had no place to put my creativity.” The reason for his success, he says, is “the drivenness of someone who wants to get out…. I didn’t say some day I want to be Andy Warhol; I just said let me get the heck out of here.”

theclash1977Joe Strummer, frontman for The Clash, was raised in a middle class English family and has been called a lower class wannabe. His father was in the British diplomatic service and the family lived in several countries while Joe (whose real name was John Graham Mellor) was young. But Joe yearned to break free of that environment and make a life in music. After trying several types of school and work, he moved into a West London squat with other musicians and played in several bands until forming The Clash in 1976. He and guitarist Mick Jones talk about their efforts to escape from the lives they grew up with in the Clash documentary, Westway to the World. (Strummer died at 50 of an undiagnosed congenital heart defect ten years ago this month.)

Paul McCartney also talked about his need to escape from his life in Liverpool in the film about George Harrison, Living in the Material World. His mother’s death when he was 14 was traumatic. His father, also a musician, bought him a trumpet but Paul traded it in for a guitar because he wanted to sing and play.  (He restrung the guitar so he could play left-handed). He was a fan of American rhythm and blues music; Little Richard was his musical idol and “Long Tall Sally” was the first song Paul performed in public.

Charlie Fink, frontman for the British indie band, Noah & the Whale, is an example of a younger musician for whom rock and roll provided an escape. He talked about how music provided him with an escape from his past in a video interview filmed during the Isle of Wight music festival in 2012.

My last example (for now) is American guitarist, drummer and singer Jack White, who yearned for something else while he was growing up in a working class neighborhood in Detroit. In 1990, Jack (whose name was Jack Gillis) began working as an upholsterer’s apprentice, supposedly training for a life in the furniture trade. However, that was not the direction he had in mind. He and one of his coworkers recorded a demo album under the band name, The Upholsterers. Soon after that, Jack got his first paid musical gig, playing the drums for a local punk band called Goober & the Peas. He met and married Meg White and took her name; the two formed the White Stripes with Meg on drums and jack playing keyboards and guitar and doing vocals. The White Stripes were very successful but dissolved in 2011. Jack White plays with the Raconteurs and other bands and is a music producer in Nashville. Not an upholsterer.

A great example of Jack White’s guitar skills is the fun film It Might Get Loud, where he performs and demonstrates guitar techniques with two other notable guitarists:  The Edge of U2 and Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin.

* Note:  In his 2012 keynote speech at SXSW, Springsteen reeled off many of the rock genres: “There are so many sub–genres and fashions, two–tone, acid rock, alternative dance, alternative metal, alternative rock, art punk, art rock, avant garde metal, black metal, black and death metal, Christian metal, heavy metal, funk metal, bland metal, medieval metal, indie metal, melodic death metal, melodic black metal, metal core, hard core, electronic hard core, folk punk, folk rock, pop punk, Brit pop, grunge, sad core, surf music, psychedelic rock, punk rock, hip hop, rap rock, rap metal, Nintendo core, huh?

“I just want to know what an Nintendo core is, myself. But rock noir, shock rock, skatepunk, noise core, noise pop, noise rock, pagan rock, paisley underground, indy pop, indy rock, heartland rock, roots rock, samba rock, screamo–emo, shoe–gazing stoner rock, swamp pop, synth pop, rock against communism, garage rock, blues rock, death and roll, lo–fi, jangle pop, folk music. Just add neo– and post– to everything I said, and mention them all again. Yeah, and rock and roll.”

4 Comments on “The Rock and Roll Escape Route”

  1. Joan Chandler says:

    Creativity knows no class or other categories. Anyone can get in touch with it and find satisfaction. It can be music, or writing, or baking a cake.


  2. Steve the Scrivener says:

    Nancy — has Bruce introduced you to The Gaslight Anthem? They’re a hard-rocking band out of New Jersey that is equally indebted to the Boss and the Clash. Springsteen has helped them out on rhythm guitar and vocals at a few of their shows in recent years. If you haven’t heard them, I recommend starting with The ’59 Sound.


  3. […] by a father who didn’t care and a mother who cared too much). Like many rockers who used music as an escape route from boredom or poverty, Bangs’ life was changed by a song and a sound. His mind was opened to […]


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