Home > Uncategorized > An Ambivalent Commemoration: Wagner at 200 (Part 3 – The Original Rock Musician?)

An Ambivalent Commemoration: Wagner at 200 (Part 3 – The Original Rock Musician?)

In the midst of writing this series, two tragedies occurred very close to each other. One was the massive tornado that tore through Moore, Oklahoma, a city that I would drive through on car trips between my hometown in Ohio and the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, which became my new home for several years. It’s not very far from Stillwater, where my oldest brother (a specialist in disaster response) resides. He remains, as far as I know, a huge fan of The Doors, and has always had in his office a 1975 photograph of him with the band’s keyboardist Ray Manzarek (1939-2013), who passed away in a German hospital on Monday.

While easily associated with rock and roll, Manzarek brought in elements of other genres: the blues, of course, along with jazz and “classical.” Perhaps this was a key to his status as a rock legend; an interest in bringing in “whatever worked” from various genres, and making it an integral part of the music. In its biographical webpage on The Doors, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame quotes from an interview with Manzarek that makes the rationale behind this approach more clear:

We just combined the Apollonian and the Dionysian. The Dionysian side is the blues, and the Apollonian side is classical music. The proper artist combines Apollonian rigor and correctness with Dionysian frenzy, passion and excitement. You blend those two together, and you have the complete, whole artist.

The band’s frontman Jim Morrison (1943-1971) very much embodied the Dionysian. He had a keen interest as well in the works of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), who explored the Apollonian/Dionysian duality as an integral part of theatre in his work The Birth of Tragedy (1872). This goes back to the form’s ancient Greek manifestation. At the time he wrote The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche was under the thrall of Wagner, who idealized Greek tragedy (based on his own understanding of it) and wanted to use it as a foundation for his own works… this time with music as an integral part. Nietzsche had already become a family friend, whom the composer treated almost like a son.. This was before they had a major falling out, reflected in some of Nietzsche’s later writings.

Perhaps, then, it’s no coincidence that both The Doors and Wagner appear in Apocalypse Now (1979).

Thinking about the making of Apocalypse Now, as detailed in the documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991), it seems that the Apollonian just barely kept the Dionysian in check. Many uncontrollable elements seemed to conspire against director Francis Ford Coppola and his crew from completing the film on time and within budget.

Can traces of Wagner be found in The Doors? I can’t say for sure, but a couple of songs from the first album (1967) evoke for me associations with the nocturnal, death-devoted eroticism of Tristan und Isolde (1865), most especially the Liebesnacht from Act II: “Crystal Ship” and “End of the Night.”

What’s especially interesting is that the latter refers to the “endless night,” words that appear at a mini-climax near the end of the Tristan Liebesnacht (at around 10:40).

Was this a deliberate allusion in “End of the Night,” or am I making too much of a leap in logic? After all, I have yet to come across anything that makes it clear. Nonetheless, at least within my own mind, there is some connection, based on my own idiosyncratic music-listening experiences. For instance, in a posting about similarities between rap and opera, I connect 8 Mile (2003) with Die Meistersinger (1868). Just recently, I made another connection upon hearing the end of Das Rheingold (1869), the first opera from Wagner’s Ring. Doesn’t the loud, rhythmic final minute (starting around 10:39) of “Entrance of the Gods into Valhalla” sound like it would make a great sample for a rap song?

I’ve already written about other Wagner connections in previous postings, some based on my own listening experience, as well as others based on much firmer evidence. Along with mentioning Wagner in the aforementioned “rap vs. opera” posting, I’ve also focused on possible connections with Janis Joplin, nine inch nails, and Jimi Hendrix. Even some recording practices, most especially the “Wall of Sound” refined by Phil Spector, have a deliberately Wagnerian aspect.

Some even have spoken about Wagner as a proto-rock star (among other proto-things). Michael Berkeley proposes this notion in an article for The Guardian, and the documentary Metal Evolution namechecks Wagner (along with other composers) as a “pre-Metal” influence on the eponymous genre.

Music producer Jim Steinman very much acknowledges the Wagner influence on his own music. The Wikipedia entry for “Wagnerian Rock” even redirects to the page about him. Steinman is perhaps best-known as the producer of albums by Meat Loaf, including Bat out of Hell (1977).

Meat Loaf was at the top of his game, lending “Wagnerian” voice to a “Wagnerian” album. More recently, he appeared at a rally in Defiance, Ohio (not too far from my hometown) for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Starting around 6:10 in the video below, Meat Loaf gave a bizarre, rambling speech about his support for Romney. Here’s one of the more purple excerpts:

I have never been in any political agenda in my life, but I think that in 2012 this is the most important election in the history of the United States, because there has (sic) storm clouds come over the United States. There is (sic) thunder storms over Europe. There are hail storms – and I mean major hail storms! – in the Middle East. There are storms brewing through China, through Asia, through everywhere.

The mixture of politics and art, in all its various forms, is a difficult one to parse out. The two “should” remain separate, and it’s comforting to think about how works in various media can provide distractions from everyday angst. But perhaps it isn’t that simple. This is certainly the case for cultural theorists, who tend to believe that it’s impossible to separate artists and their works from their specific contexts. In music, this falls under the provenance of critical musicology (also known as “new musicology”), an interdisciplinary field that came to the fore in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

I have mixed feelings about this approach. On the one hand, there’s a tendency to disguise apparent personal axes to grind behind purported “objectivity” (provided that notion itself isn’t rejected outright), as well as proclamations that are barely comprehensible to those who aren’t familiar with the approach. (A hypothetical question: What do you think of the notion that a certain classical piece might be similar to an act of rape?) On the other hand, the ideas are compelling enough to take with some degree of seriousness; critical musicology might be on to something, but its arcane language and borderline neo-Victorianism can alienate (in a very real sense) practically everyone else.

Of course, such critique haunts Wagner more than most, because of his anti-Semitism and posthumous association with Adolf Hitler. And this doesn’t even include his involvement in the European Revolutions of 1848, associated with what would have been considered the political left at the time. The final installment in this series wrestles with the former two problematic aspects of Wagner; how to reconcile such beautiful, revolutionary, and influential music with the ideas of the man who created them… and the man who appropriated those ideas.

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