"When the mode of the music changes, the walls of the city shake."
Splashed on the screen in one of the feel-good videos shown at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland (admission $22 plus Ticketmaster service fees), this famous quote is attributed to Plato, though as with many things, that dubious institution gets its wrong: In Book IV of The Republic, the Greek philosopher is more accurately quoted as contending that, "When modes of music change, the fundamental laws of the state always change with them."
In either translation, the statement seems like an anachronistic notion in 2009 on a pop-music landscape cluttered with iPhones and iPods, which foster a view of recorded music as the ultimate accessory and disposable commodity; Rock Band and Guitar Hero video games, which create the illusion that simulating the act is equal if not superior to actually creating music oneself, and a mainstream concert scene where corporate sponsorships are the norm and a $200 ticket is considered a bargain.
Of course, even if it's never voiced quite so eloquently, the ideal lives on in many corners of America's musical underground, from punk to hip-hop and from avant-garde jazz to electronica. It didn't die in the '60s, it just became harder to find: Baby Boomers like to think that rock music helped to end the Vietnam war, but even if there was nothing as remarkable as Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young rushing "Ohio" from the recording studio to the airwaves in a matter of days after the shootings at Kent State, the Internet nevertheless was flooded with poignant and inspiring protest songs mere hours after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.
The transformative power of music also is alive and well in other corners of the globe, from the underground musicians challenging the status quo in basement clubs in China to the Iranian teens risking the wrath of the Islamic radicals who rule that country in order to buy black-market cassettes of Iron Maiden and Tupac Shakur (a scene brilliantly recreated in the animated film "Persepolis.").
With all due respect to the theater, photography, poetry and all of the other arts, for many young people, rock 'n' roll in all of its many permutations remains the most immediate and energizing embodiment of freedom, life and truth. And this is the central theme of playwright Tom Stoppard's "Rock 'n' Roll," which is being performed at the Goodman Theatre through June 7th.
The specific setting for the play may be the home of a diehard Communist in Cambridge, England, and various locations around Prague, and the time may jump from the days immediately after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968 to the Rolling Stones' first performance in Prague in 1990. But the message is universal: "Culture is politics," as Stoppard writes in his introduction, and the soundtrack is as essential as the dialogue.
Songs from the Velvet Underground (whose music inspired Czech poet and activist Václav Havel, was reinterpreted by the dissident band Plastic People of the Universe and became one source for the name of the Czech liberation movement, "the Velvet Revolution"), Pink Floyd founder Syd Barrett (whose tortured ghost haunts the play, serving as a metaphor for the tragic corruption and decay of the socialist ideal), the Stones, the Beach Boys and other rock greats are used as fragments to connect each scene, with the cover art for the albums flashed on a screen as the sets are changed.
The cynic may contend that it's hard to hear any political call to action in the lyrics of "Venus in Furs" by the Velvets or "Terrapin" by Barrett, and that's true enough. It's the life force inherent in the music itself that inspires, whether it's fortifying Stoppard's characters to risk imprisonment rather than submit to Communist repression, or simply driving a kid in the strip-mall suburbs to briefly consider that the barrage of marketing aside, unbridled consumerism may not really be the American dream.
Business is the dominant force in the world today, and genuine youth culture--much less "revolution"--is impossible when it's instantly turned in to a marketing pose; that's the central argument of Commodify Your Dissent, the excellent if distressing 1997 anthology of essays originally published by Tom Frank and the old alternative-era Baffler crew at the University of Chicago. But Stoppard is no empty-headed, patchouli-scented fool blinded by optimism.
"I was embarrassed by the '60s," the old Communist says in the play. "To this day there are men in public life who can't look me in the eye because I knew them when they were dressed like gigantic 5-year-olds."
When the one-time "world's only rock 'n' roll band' turned merciless marketing machines rolls into Prague to perform "Satisfaction" for the umpteenth time for top-dollar... er, koruna... ticket prices, the play doesn't portray the Stones' appearance as a victory lap. It's simply evidence that one battle was won, but the war rages on.
Rock 'n' roll can't change the world; only people can change the world. But rock 'n' roll can change an individual, Stoppard says, and there is no better place to start.
"Rock 'n' Roll" is showing at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, through June 7th; for show times and to buy tickets, visit www.goodmantheatre.org. Sun-Times pop music critic Jim DeRogatis will take part in a free discussion of the themes in the play with his "Sound Opinions" co-host Greg Kot at the Goodman on May 18; visit the Web site for more information.
Tom Stoppard uses 22 classic rock songs as narrative devices in "Rock 'N' Roll," including:
"Golden Hair," Syd Barrett
"I'll Be Your Baby Tonight," Bob Dylan
"It's All Over Now," the Rolling Stones
"The Universe Symphony and Melody," Plastic People of the Universe
"I'm Waiting for the Man," the Velvet Underground
"Terrapin," Syd Barrett
"Astronomy Domine," Pink Floyd
"Jugband Blues," Pink Floyd
"It's Only Rock 'n' Roll (But I Like It)," the Rolling Stones
"Chinatown Shuffle," the Grateful Dead
"Welcome to the Machine," Pink Floyd
"Wouldn't It Be Nice," the Beach Boys
"I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," U2
"Wish You Were Here," Pink Floyd
"Bring It On Home to Me," John Lennon
"Vera," Pink Floyd
"You Got Me Rocking," the Rolling Stones
"The Last Time," the Rolling Stones
"Venus in Furs," the Velvet Underground
"Break on Through (To the Other Side)," the Doors
"Give Peace a Chance," John Lennon
"Boys Don't Cry," the Cure