Scorn Again: Dan Graham’s Rock My Religion proves ripe for reassessment
by Jim Supanick
For over 40 years, artist Dan Graham has made works that answers questions you never thought to ask. Were tract-housing developments like Levittown the vernacular counterparts to Sol LeWitt’s combinatorial art? (See: Homes For America.) Could a work of conceptual art somehow cater to the underserved readership of Screw Magazine? (Detumescence.) Was Jerry Lewis’s former sidekick a Brechtian, but just didn’t know it? (Dean Martin/Entertainment as Theater.) And could Barry Shears’s 1968 Wild in the Streets finally, after all these years, be ripe for adaptation as a puppet opera? (Don’t Trust Anyone Over Thirty.)
Graham’s career, subject of a current traveling retrospective, has been an unending dance along the interstices of contemporary culture—between artistic disciplines, art and criticism, high and low, and against the arbitrary diktats that stifle serious reflection upon “non-serious” phenomena. That last point has long plagued rock critics as well, where any conspicuous display of intelligence risks dismissal as a needless deployment of heavy artillery (or just an out-and-out waste of time). One may recall Elvis Costello’s assertion that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture”—surely one of the most idiotic statements ever cited as wisdom. Costello proved incapable of distinguishing true futility from the merely difficult.
When critic Richard Meltzer transcribed the lyrics to “Surfin’ Bird” as an epigraph for his articulate and uproarious The Aesthetics of Rock, that difficulty was confronted head on. The glossolalic Trashmen classic of 1963 (used to such great effect in Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket) makes a curious case study if we consider that the referred-to bird of which everyone’s heard might be none other than the Holy Spirit.
Stryper notwithstanding, can music be thought of as a conduit through which higher powers speak? Graham sensed something of this in the words and music of Patti Smith, and from that came one of his greatest achievements, a 1984 work titled Rock My Religion. This asymmetrical 55-minute video essay placed rock music within the continuum of ecstatic worship that courses through U.S. history—the strains of communal faith born from resistance to the collusive powers of industrial capitalism and the religious ideologies in its service. All tongues and tumult, Smith’s charismatic abandon and Jehovah’s Witness upbringing suggested for Graham a direct kinship with Ann Lee, founder of the Shakers, who followers believed was the Second Coming of Christ.
Their working-class origins had a profound psychic impact on both women; in reaction, each envisioned a new world unencumbered by gender hierarchy and the Piss Factory of thankless labor. In 1774, Lee had left England for America with her blacksmith husband, who in turn left her shortly after their arrival. Along with the sadness of her stillborn children (and others who died in early childhood), the Manchester mills where she had labored left their deep and sooty imprint. As Wikipedia and countless bronze plaques tell us, that city was the cradle of the Industrial Revolution; how though might this relate to its equally recognized status as The Land of a Thousand Dances? Was it the belligerent ghouls that run the schools, or something (and there was plenty) in the air and water?
In an interview with Tony Oursler, Graham said that all rock music “comes from industrialization . . . when people worked they couldn’t talk, it degraded sociability, it made for permanent anxiety, it made for repetitious and demeaning work . . . so it’s what to do with repetition, noise, all the ugly things . . . to somehow turn those into a positive religion.” Clearly Ian Curtis (whose moves are by now familiar to filmgoers via Control, Joy Division, and 24 Hour Party People) was effective in driving that point home, as was the Fall, the Smiths, A Certain Ratio, and, yes, even the Bee Gees. Like Lee, these proud Mancunians transformed their brutal native soundscape into sonic and terpsichorean glories.
The years prior to Smith’s arrival on the New York scene had included long shifts on an assembly line and an unplanned child given up for adoption. Some of her first poems borrowed both the imagery and cadences of prayer, and a trans-historical dialogue between she and Lee would suggest itself with her very first records, growing stronger and more explicit with her 1978 album, Easter, and much of the work that was to follow.
Right from the get-go, Rock My Religion crosscuts like a rusty saw between Graham’s own footage of punk shows and Shaker villages, and an array of archival material. At the points where they merge, the montage gets rather thick; while Graham’s voiceover introduces Mother Lee, we see a Black Flag performance accompanied by the a Sonic Youth soundtrack. No Shaker craftsmanship here, despite four editors listed in the credits. Graham’s own material, shot surreptitiously with a mid-Eighties camcorder and accompanied by the music of Glenn Branca, can be disconcerting both conceptually and cinematically, and yet, somehow, the visceral energy of ideas collide with a force that more than makes up for the absence of anything resembling technical skill. It’s all purely amateur, a badge that Graham wears proudly.
Graham further complicates his thesis by integrating (among other things) the Sioux Ghost Dance, Rebel Without a Cause, and the man who put the ham in shaman, Jim Morrison, into a complex yet surprisingly coherent matrix. The latter appears, extremely wasted, as Graham recasts Morrison’s infamous self-exposure and subsequent arrest at a 1969 Miami concert as a gesture of unwitting solidarity toward Smith, and her desire as a woman to play upon notions both fixed and phallic. On paper, situating rock music as a place where concepts of gender and power are explored may not seem so radical now, but through the ways that Graham engaged then-contemporaneous discourses—Marxism, feminism, psychoanalysis—and offered his own twisted twists, Rock My Religion has aged remarkably well.
Later in the video, we hear an argument between Sam Phillips and Jerry Lee Lewis that encapsulates age-old struggles (and ones that Jerry Lee’s cousin Jimmy Swaggart must have understood)—between art and commerce, the sacred and profane, authenticity and the debased—prior to recording “Great Balls of Fire”; sadly, that creative friction would soon be extinguished in the quest for a new consumer demographic. This is where the “teenager” was born, asexual breeders of a hedonism fueling the post-Eisenhower leisure-industrial complex. And here is where Graham is funniest and most astute, as we witness the blasphemous tensions contained within the Sun Recording Studios that day diminished to the frivolity of a soft drink commercial, a pack of squeaky-clean teens playing tug-of-war on the beach.
In moments like these, Rock My Religion truly takes flight; despite a guttersnipe aesthetic, it earns a special place alongside the cine-essays of Marker, Varda, Godard, Bitomsky, Patrick Keiller, and Adam Curtis’s work for the BBC. It’s not just a remarkable video but also a vital work of rock criticism. (It seems quite likely that Greil Marcus found inspiration in it as well, despite his rather snide published comments about Graham’s writings.) And if you’re reading this, Elvis Costello, forget about Sting: here’s the perfect guest for your new talk show.