Rock Hope: The Long Ryders, “I Had a Dream” (1984)

Rocking, as such, doesn’t really have a thrust.  The beat is always fundamentally just bashing.

That pointless bashing is rich with potential, obviously.  Various sorts of song use it with variously compelling results.  I bet one could write all of rock criticism on the premise that rocking gets drawn into larger worlds of meaning when it gets connected to ideas and values on a higher cognitive level.  Nevertheless, I want to say that a real rock song hits some nail on the head by drawing its theme right out of the beat dynamo, showing with complete visceral conviction “This is what rocking means now.”

Here is a case:  the Long Ryders’ “I Had a Dream” is a real rock song, and an unusual one, because its violent beating bursts out as the insistence of genuine optimistic hope—just the sort of theme one would have expected to swoop down from poetic or political heights above, looking for a little musical cooperation.  In “I Had a Dream,” the beat isn’t borrowed to be the vehicle of a higher faith, it makes the faith, or at least a place where the faith is inescapable.

Here is how the event is staged:  we’re hit first with a loud but rather all-purpose Byrdsy guitar and drum attack in part A of the verse.  The singer starts a frustrated plea for friendship:  “I tried so hard to explain . . . but you’ll never listen, you just turn your head.”

“I Had A Dream” A

In verse part B the beat lets up almost entirely to allow a reconsideration of where we might be heading:  “I had a dream last night . . . everybody was laughing, nobody was fighting . . . still some hope in sight,” drawing us outside of the driven now, preparing us to reenter the present in a better way.

“I Had A Dream” B

We do this twice; the suspense about the better way grows.  Then in the final resumption of the verse structure the drums re-enter differently, in crescendo, pounding on a door—the door being the stubborn listener but also the whole deal of life—passionately wanting the door to open, knowing the door must open, not knowing yet how the door can be made to open, wanting what’s on the other side without knowing what it is and wanting it partly because we don’t know what it is (since we repudiate inertia), clamoring for the future even though the one thing sure about it is that it holds our demise (“no one knows what they’ll leave when they’re through,” we’ve been reminded), our insurgent optimism charm-powered by the timeless dream we accessed in verse part B.

“I Had A Dream” C

The lyrics speak of hope, to be sure, and the rocking hope moment wouldn’t happen if they didn’t.  On paper it’s a relatively preachy song.  But the flesh-energy of rock does the hoping that counts.  The beat takes over.  It makes me talk about a door the words never mentioned; and you have to be there to find this out.

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About Steve Smith

Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies and Director of Film Studies at Millsaps College
This entry was posted in Passions & Attitudes, Rock Aesthetics and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Rock Hope: The Long Ryders, “I Had a Dream” (1984)

  1. Sid Griffin says:

    I think this is a very well-written and quite accurate description of a fine Stephen McCarthy song. It is, by the by, my all-time fave Long Ryders song.

  2. Paul says:

    I concur having just revisted Native Sons after far too long…

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