Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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The Dionysus Theory:
Rock as Ecstatic Release, Tragic Knowledge, and/or Unmitigated Romantic Bullshit

book cover

I want to begin with a few excerpts from Robert Palmer's wonderful Rock & Roll: An Unruly History, which interrupts a narrative hooked to a PBS series with three essays that add up to an avant-primitivist revision of rock and roll history. Climaxing number two, "Delinquents of Heaven, Hoodlums of Hell," is a section oddly entitled "Safety Zone," the most inspired exposition I know of the trope or claim or theory I'll explore here today. It begins:

The ancient Greeks enshrined philosophical dualism in their hierarchy of gods and myths, identifying spiritual forces or powers that embodied two basic tendencies in society and culture: the 'balanced, rational' Apollo and the 'intoxicated, irrational' Dionysus. [147]

If this could be clearer and truer, that's nothing new. Western thinkers have always used the Greeks as a metaphor bank, imposing theoretical templates on a piecemeal historical record. Palmer's template derives from The Birth of Tragedy, Friedrich Nietzsche's long, murky riff on an Apollo-Dionysus polarity he copped from German romanticism. But Palmer never mentions Nietzsche. Having cited the reputable E.R. Dodds to establish that music and dance are means to, or is it blessings of, Dionysian "madness," he relies primarily on rogue ethnomusicologist Alain Daniélou, who equates the Greek wine god with the Indian phallic god, Shiva.

Palmer grants that "compared to an ancient Dionysian revel--trances, seizures, devotees tearing sacrificial animals to pieces with their bare hands and eating the meat raw--a rock and roll performance is almost tame." But he insists that in the wake of Your Hit Parade and Father Knows Best, early rock concerts became "temporary autonomous zones": "a kind of functional anarchy that manages to exist within a more or less repressive mainstream culture precisely because it is of limited duration and scope." Whereupon, in a wickedly if also lazily disruptive formal touch, he shelves scholarship and gives over half his six-page exegesis to descriptions of the Rolling Stones, not in concert, but wreaking mayhem at a Memphis hotel in 1975 and then, grayer and calmer 14 years later, turning into "mere musicians--professionals." But this is OK, Palmer quickly adds; in fact, "that's the beauty of rock and roll."

The lifestyle can be perilous, the rate of attrition remains high, but the survivors can go on practicing and perfecting their craft while the younger generation's best and brightest assume the Dionysian mantle and get on with the main program, which is liberation through ecstasy. . . . As rockers, we are heirs to one of our civilization's richest, most time-honored spiritual traditions.

We must never forget our glorious Dionysian heritage.

If this material sounds familiar, let me note that I've now quoted it in four pieces--including, unfortunately, Robert Palmer's obituary. Keith Richards survived; his prophet did not. But even if you've never encountered Palmer's version, the Dionysus theory you know about. Nietzsche's dichotomy is now boilerplate. Ruth Benedict held that whole cultures were Apollonian and Dionysian, although in the end she never described a Dionysian one. Ayn Rand, various Jungians, and endless New Agers have taken up the theme. It's proven so adaptable in the world of letters that a 1996 article in the journal of the Virginia Community College Association was called "Apollo vs Dionysus: The Only Theme Your Students Will Ever Need in Writing About Literature." And Nietzsche's full title, of course, is The Birth of Tragedy Out of the Spirit of Music.

The music whose spirit Nietzsche thought uniquely worthy of the Greeks was that of his soon-repudiated beau ideal Wagner. But Apollo-versus-Dionysus has since been taken up by Stravinsky, Britten, and most prominently Richard Strauss--whose greatest hit was named after Nietzsche's signature Also Sprach Zarathustra--as well as analyses of Beethoven, Liszt, Bizet, on and on. It surfaces frequently in jazz commentary too. So rock has competition for the wine-bringer. But Google the name of a rock demigod and the word "Dionysian" and you'll hit paydirt. The trick doesn't work with black artists, where who else but Jimi Hendrix is the only big winner, or with Bob Dylan, who's on record as insisting that Stagger Lee was "not some egotistical degraded existentialist dionysian idiot." But Beatles Stones Velvets Zep Patti Ramones Pistols Nirvana PJ Harvey Smashing Pumpkins--hell, why not? Tori Amos likes to throw the word around. Phish's corporate arm is called Dionysian Productions. LA's Dionysus Records has been purveying "the finest in Garage - Surf - Rockabilly - Exotica - and more" since 1984.

Rock's champion Dionysian, however, is that egotistical degraded existentialist idiot Jim Morrison, dubbed Bozo Dionysus by either Lester Bangs or Lester Bangs's headline writer. Morrison is said to have named his band during a bull session about The Birth of Tragedy. And in Arnold Shaw's The Rock Revolution, he sums up the history he gleaned at UCLA: "In its origin, the Greek theatre was a band of worshippers, dancing and singing on a threshing floor at the crucial agricultural seasons. Then, one day, a possessed person leaped out of the crowd and started imitating a god." [155] This is a little garbled, but its dancing and singing and leaping and god act are clearly where rock's Dionysian claims reside--all evoke a Doors concert better than a performance of Also Sprach Zarathustra. Yet here's the odd thing. Not only do both Morrison and Nietzsche, with their intense commitments to different kinds of music, validate that commitment by reference to literature, but neither bothers to guess how the original Dionysian music might have sounded or, really, functioned. So I thought it might be instructive to try and find out.

To begin, say there are three Dionysuses: the Dionysus of myth, of cult, and of festival. Not that they sort out so neatly, of course--Euripides' The Bacchae, for example, was originally presented at one kind of Dionysian festival and purports to represent cultic practices that have since been imported big-time into the mythic record. In almost all accounts Dionysus is the son of the great god Zeus and the mortal mother Semele and gestated in Zeus's thigh after Semele was murdered. And although recent archaeological finds indicate deep Greek origins for the god, in post-archaic Greece he was universally believed to be an outsider--perhaps from Thrace, which we call Bulgaria, or Lydia or Phrygia in Asia Minor. Dionysus gathers around himself such a complicated entourage of tales and histories that ass-covering contemporary scholars find it convenient to subsume them all under the heading "god of paradox" [Henrichs 234]. Half human, half divine, he's the bringer of madness and the deliverer from madness, lord of masks and maenads, of the underworld and raw meat au jus; he's the phallus god who turned femme and lost his beard. And always Dionysus is the god of wine.

Leaving out lots of good stuff, that's the Dionysus of myth. In varying versions--only one of which, the Pentheus story Euripides and later Rene Girard made so much of, involved human sacrifice, and only one of which, the myth of Dionysus Zagreus that Nietzsche appropriated, has Christian overtones of divine suffering and rebirth--the Dionysus of myth was the god called upon in cult and celebrated in festival. Unfortunately, even more than most cults, the cult of Dionysus was exceedingly secretive. Palmer's man Daniélou defeats this inconvenience by positing that Dionysus was an essentially unchanged descendant of Shiva, whose jism-jetting erections are amply documented. But most settle for second-hand evidence by skeptical or hostile sources scattered over a thousand-year period. Here's Livy in Rome: "When wine, lascivious discourse, night, and the intercourse of the sexes had extinguished every sentiment of modesty, then debaucheries of every kind began to be practiced, as every person found at hand that sort of enjoyment to which he was disposed by the passion predominant in his nature." Although "the beating of cymbals and drums" is as musicological as Livy gets, Palmer would go for that. Problem is, all Livy knew for sure when he wrote it in 186 BC was that he wanted the Roman senate to ban the god then called Bacchus, as it then did. There's better info in that old muso Plato: "In a Bacchic frenzy, and enthralled beyond what is right by pleasure, they mixed lamentations with hymns and paeans with dithyrambs, imitated aulos songs with their kithara songs, and put everything together with everything else, thus unintentionally, through their stupidity, giving false witness against music, alleging that music possesses no standard of correctness, but is most correctly judged by the pleasure of the person who enjoys it, whether he is a better man or a worse."

Turn Plato's values upside down like they deserve and you have a presentiment of popular music, as well as period details I'll fill in later. But the "enthralled by pleasure" doesn't mean much. As with Livy, Plato's facts are second-hand at best--third-hand is likely. And while like any good postmodern I shrink from blanket generalizations about human behavior, I'd like to suggest a tentative one, which is that the guy who didn't get invited to the party always believes the guy who did is having a ball. Historian of religion Walter Burkert is part of an antisex wing of Dionysus scholarship that includes Nietzsche and goes back to Euripides. But Burkert has studied ancient cult practices as scrupulously as anyone, and he finds it impossible to "associate them with the concept of orgies." [1] He also concludes that most if not all of Dionysus's initiates were women, usually women of means, and that after "days and days of fasting, purifications, exhaustion, apprehension, and excitement," their big debauch was the chance to wolf down some roast sacrifice. Yet Burkert does allow that for "a few special individuals" initiation could provide "a veritable change of consciousness in ecstasy" to which wine was essential, and adds that "certain kinds of music" opened up pathways to the divine. He also quotes a Christian-era source: "This is the purpose of Bacchic initiation, that the depressive anxiety of less educated people, produced by their state of life, or some misfortune, be cleared away through the melodies and dances of the ritual in a joyful and playful way."

With their trances, seizures, and gore, these barely documented initiations are as close as we're going to get to Palmer's "ancient Dionysian revel." Yet cults weren't the ancient Dionysus's main venue. Far more amenable to outside observation were uncounted festivals in rural and urban places. These were more open-ended and less momentous for most partakers than initiations--more rock and roll. A festival that jumbles rural Dionysia and what was called the Anthesteria climaxes Aristophanes's The Acharnians, and even correcting for the playwright's comic will and dirty mind, it smells like one of those orgies Burkert can't find as Aristophanes's farmer hero calls for "dancing-girls" to grab his "rejoicing prick." We know a lot about the Anthesteria, the spring festival of new wine, because we have a thousand of the illustrated 3.2-liter jugs from which the watered wine was quaffed. These depict dance moves ranging from capers and acrobatics to mimetic set pieces, often by satyrs or men in satyr costumes, and many varieties of music-making.

As even Livy knew, the true Dionysian instrument was the drum. Greece was not a percussion culture compared to Egypt, where Osiris's celebrants were far more polyrhythmic. But the tympanon, which generated a deep thump from a single animal-skin side, always came out for Dionysus, as did giant castanets called krotala. Symbolically, however, the double-reed aulos, which used to be translated flute but had a bigger oboe sound, also ruled. Charles Keil suspects that the Macedonian dauli music he describes in Bright Balkan Morning, music he claims is unrecordable due to its fluctuating overtones, descends from aulos-and-tympanon. The Anthesteria made room too for the panpipe, and for Apollo's ax, that cornerstone of a ruling-caste education the lyre. Then there was song. Remember Plato? "They mixed lamentations with hymns and paeans with dithyrambs"? Happy-sad speaks for itself, but you should know that paeans were for Apollo, more dignified than Dionysus's dithyrambs. In absolute terms we have barely an inkling of how all this sounded--we can imagine only the sonic palette, not the rhythms, tempos, or God knows scales. But most likely it was perceived and received more like rock and roll in 1955 or rock in 1967 than Wagner in 1872. And its social history is redolent.

Dionysus was a minor god in Homer's time. Only in the seventh century did his renown start spreading, in festival at least as much as cult. This was a grassroots movement--a grassroots movement of people who liked to party. Did it have graver meanings? Perhaps something to do with how inadequately paeans palliated mortality. Did it threaten the state? Made it nervous, maybe. Was it explicitly "versus" Apollo? Seems the Germans made that up. Did it offend bigshots and bigdomes? Plenty, but it also attracted some--most people like to party, and Dionysian partying featured big jugs and wild music. So get this--various Greek politicians proceeded to coopt it.

Shortly after 600 Cleisthenes of Sicyon cut into the authority of the Dorian nobility by transferring a local choral festival from the Dorian hero Adrastus to Dionysus. And by 500 or so, Dionysus and his dithyramb were fixtures of Athenian life, because the midcentury tyrant Peisistratus, in an end run around both the aristocracy and a potentially anarchic popular force, had by then instituted the Great Dionysia, a rival to the aristocratically controlled Pythian Games. In other words, Apollo versus Dionysus reduces to a power struggle between hereditary rulers and the populist big men who supplanted them. And so Dionysus's dithyramb, once what a rakish classicist calls "a merry song sung by anybody who was feeling up in the world (usually after a few jars)," came to be performed by an elaborate chorus, complete with choreography as contained and "noble" as all official dance in Greece. Pindar, the untranslatable poetic titan who was the last great spokesman of the Greek aristocracy, was one of its masters.

Before too long, the dithyrambic chorus morphed into tragedy, considered the most sublime of art forms even by some Chuck Berry fans. You can read whole books about tragedy and never guess that a third of it was sung, but for the most part its musical history is off topic. Note, however, that tragic music was dominated by the aulos, which like Dionysus himself came to be regarded as exotic, disreputable, low-class--at best non-Greek in origin (which like Dionysus it wasn't) and for Plato and lesser snobs a carrier of cultural contagion. Tragedy enjoyed a creative life of barely a century, but the classics continued to be performed along with the New Comedy that succeeded it. Actors toured and professionalized, and so did musicians--there were virtuoso auletes, kitharodes who wowed the crowd with runs on the concert lyre. They formed guilds that lasted for centuries. The first harbinger of the American Federation of Musicians translates as the Commonalty of the Artists Concerned With Dionysus. Perfect.

Mere musicians-- professionals. Over a longer timespan, it's Palmer's story, an exotic music of freeing frenzy brought to heel by rationalizing exploiters, only "the younger generation's best and brightest" don't do their part. So rather than an avant-primitivist continuum we have the kind of decadence decried by, of all people, rock criticism's most distinguished classicist: Nick Tosches, a major Pindar and minor Doors fan who believes rock was formally exhausted by the late '60s. But before we get too disillusioned, let's remember that in the bargain we get tragedy, which for all its overrated sublimity is some kind of recompense. And remember too that the Dionysian reality that got rationalized was rarely if ever as ecstatic as that postulated by Palmer or Nietzsche. Wine festivals certainly didn't occasion as many rejoicing pricks as jealous playwrights and censorious legislators believed; the Dionysus who embraces death in affirmation of the collective life-force is a Nietzschean figment; the maenads who tear Pentheus limb from limb in The Bacchae are a Euripidean device. Nor need we altogether regret this loss. One of the hundred reasons I wish Robert Palmer was still alive is so I could ask him how he felt when Alain Daniélou, the most extreme contemporary Dionysian of any standing, argued that the caste system is a natural way of life and a small price to pay for Shiva, whose maxims include: "Women are light-minded. They are the source of all trouble. Men who seek liberation must avoid attaching themselves to women." [212]

Probably he'd shrug in bemused dismay. For certain rock and rollers, the program will always be liberation through ecstasy, and all the rest of us can do is thank them for creating temporary autonomous zones and hope they don't die before they get old. Early in The Bacchae, before Dionysus starts illing, the Asian chorus sings his praises. I don't know the tune, so I'll just read:

These blessings he gave:

laughter to the flute
and the loosing of cares
when the shining wine is spilled [170]

And later:

--The deity, the son of Zeus
in feast, in festival, delights
He loves the goddess Peace
generous of good,
preserver of the young.
To rich and poor he gives
the simple gift of wine,
the gladness of the grape.
But him who scoffs he hates,
and him who mocks his life,
the happiness of those
for whom the day is blessed
but doubly blessed the night;
whose simple wisdom shuns the thoughts
of proud, uncommon men and all
their god-encroaching dreams.
But what the common people do,
the things that simple men believe,
I too believe and do. [171]

Experience Music Project, Apr. 2003