A ban on literary allusion in rock lyrics strikes me as a good idea. Wouldn’t it be great if Led Zeppelin’s “Ramble On” didn’t have those Tolkienisms? Isn’t Grace Slick’s “rejoyce” more enjoyable as pure piano-driven dada than as a farrago of Ulysses references? Isn’t “Killing An Arab,” Camus via the Cure, a major drag? Is there anything in rock we really value that we’d lose with the ban?
Well—we might lose great songs that were inspired by literary sources. Without the Tolkien connection we might not get “Ramble On” at all (or “Sympathy for the Devil” without The Master and Margarita, or “Kid Charlemagne” without The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test—or the neat band name Steely Dan without Naked Lunch—or—).
All right, it would be madness to forbid literary inspiration, but wouldn’t it often be better to disguise the debt? Do I have to hear (every time) about Mordor and Gollum in the calm verse before the perfect storm chorus of “Ramble On”? —Worse, must we take seriously the kind of commentary that thinks literary allusions make rock songs more seriously interesting?
Allusion has a notable power to turbo-boost the action of thought in a purely literary context, but does any of this power carry over to rock songs, which are designed to appeal immediately and viscerally to a youthful audience (I mean all of us as youthful) for whom fresh experience must matter far more than either cultural reminiscence or artistic cleverness?
To the point, then: Is there any such thing as a great rock allusion hook, an exception that proves (or, if not so exceptional, wrecks) my rule?
Probably there are many contenders. One I admit I like is the Lolita reference, “just like the old man in that book by Nabokov,” in “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” by the Police. The allusion is charmingly external, simple and naked, and actually adds meaning, too, since the sexual deviance of the schoolgirl hitting on the teacher in “Don’t Stand” is complementary to Humbert Humbert’s famous perversion in Lolita, and we glimpse with the teacher the horrid possibility of being turned involuntarily into something like a Humbert. Plus it’s cute to rhyme “that book by Nabokov” with “he starts to shake and cough” in the preceding line (which sets the scene for his horrid transformation, as though into Mr. Hyde).
But the cuteness of the rhyme and the connection begins to undermine the whole experience. Is it a one-trick song after all, a gag? Without the allusion, this doubt wouldn’t have been sown.
I do know one allusion that impressively hits a rock nail on the head. It’s the reference to Lewis Carroll’s Alice books in Grace Slick’s “White Rabbit,” bridging two worlds of mind-expansion, the Victorian fantastic and the 60’s psychedelic, drilling to just the right depth of cultural memory and perfectly leveraging the implicit claim of all allusion that the mind can make a greater truth. Someone might object that my example isn’t a specific reference within a song but rather a whole song made of references to Carroll, like an Alice mini-opera. I contend, however, that (a) with its sharp thematic focus (in glaring contrast to “rejoyce”) the song really works as an extended allusion, for we never forget that its primary subject matter is not Alice, who remains relatively in the distance, but our own possibilities of out-of-bounds experience; and (b) the allusion is so effective because it is so dominant, forcing everything else in the song to agree: the bass line becomes a scuttling march over thresholds of wonder, the slightly dirty lead guitar becomes the sizzling forward edge of the exploring mind, the eventual big beat becomes the discovery of the hungry center—the head that must be fed.
Unlike “Sympathy for the Devil,” which alludes interestingly to a Russian novel that few of the Rolling Stones’ listeners have even heard of, “White Rabbit” makes a crackling connection with a book everyone knows well, a book that has already injected us with subversive joy. Never mind Slick’s boring claim that she wrote the song merely to make a point about how the flower children’s parents had set them up for drug use by reading them drug-allusive texts like Alice and The Wizard of Oz. “White Rabbit” reminds us that our original trip through the looking glass was an unsettling, exhilarating initiation into mental freedom, a revelation of the volatile truth that consciousness is—and can launch us again, whenever we want to continue the adventure.
1. See e.g. Michael Dunne, “‘Tore Down À La Rimbaud’: Van Morrison’s References and Allusions,” Popular Music and Society, 24 (Winter 2000), pp. 15-29, which is redeemed by showing that Morrison himself takes no high view of this.
2. Almost any of them will raise interesting questions about the nature of allusion. For instance, does Blue Oyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear The Reaper” allude to Romeo and Juliet as elements in Shakespeare’s play, or as the source idea that Shakespeare worked with, or as post-Shakespeare cultural icons? Consider also Dire Straits’ beautiful “Romeo and Juliet,” which uses R & J as a general archetype for star-separated lovers but specifically alludes to the balcony scene in the play (and also to West Side Story‘s take on R & J: “‘There’s a place for us,’ you know the movie song”).
3. Much of what I’ve claimed for “White Rabbit” could be claimed also for Cream’s “Tales of Brave Ulysses” in relation to the Odyssey, but “Tales” has to work too hard to make the Odyssey material vivid for us, so that Homer’s world becomes more like a contemporary Western tourist’s plunge into Aegean waters. But this migration among worlds could be seen as a strength.