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Rock and Roll and the Desire for the Infinite

John Waters Speaks of His Exhibit at the Upcoming Rimini Meeting

By Luca Marcolivio

ROME, JULY 26, 2012 (Zenit.org).- Where is rock music headed in the third millennium? Is it still able to convey a meaningful message to the youth of today? How do you reconcile this music with the desire for the infinite? These questions and more are intended to be answered at the exhibit “Three Chords and the Desire for Truth: Rock ‘n’ Roll as a Search for the Infinite” at the Rimini Meeting for Friendship Among Peoples next month. 

The exhibition is curated by John Waters, a 57-year-old Irish journalist, writer and music critic. As columnist and deputy director of the Irish Times as well, Waters is very familiar with the world of Communion and Liberation and has attended the Rimini Meeting for the past seven years.

In an interview with ZENIT, Waters explains the contents of his exhibit, and reflects on rock music and its dynamic in society.  

ZENIT: How did you first experience the world of Rimini’s Meeting?

Waters: I first attended the Meeting in 2006, when I was invited to speak about Giussani’s book, The Risk of Education. That was an extraordinary experience and I have gone back every year since then, and spoken each time, at different kinds of events. My initial invitation occurred after I had encountered the Dublin group of CL, in 2005, when the leader, Mauro Biondi, invited me to speak at one of their assemblies. Afterwards he gave me some books of Giussani, and later on asked me to introduce The Risk of Education in Dublin. It was as a result of this that I was invited to the 2006 Meeting.

ZENIT: What can you tell us about your exhibition?

Waters: It’s called “Three chords and the desire for Truth. Rock ‘n’ roll as search for the infinite”. It’s really an attempt to affirm for people what I believe many of use have long intuited about this music, and yet have rarely been allowed to relate to in the context of the general public conversation about rock ‘n’ roll. The music began as a cry from the heart of man – the blues – and so, at its best, it remains.

ZENIT: Which artists will be featured at the exhibition?

Waters: Many artists are featured, but unfortunately many more have had to be omitted, mainly for reasons of economy or space. We feature Muddey Waters, Hank Williams, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, U2, Amy Winehouse, Patti Smith, The Velvet Underground, Coldplay, Mumford and Sons, and quite a few more. The story is sketched from the beginning to the present.

ZENIT: Are you concerned when people refer to rock and roll as “devil music”? 

Waters: Yes, this is the cliched view. There are many reasons for this, historical reasons – the idea of some of the great blues musicians having sold their souls to the Devil in return for the ability to play and sing as they did – and also related to the ideological drift of our culture today – the association between rock ‘n’ roll and secular-atheistic thinking in certain societies, especially the UK.

But it is so untrue that one assumes that the only intention behind the idea of ‘the Devil’s music’ was ironic, at least in the beginning, but that this idea became intertwined with a sense of the hedonistic that seemed to go with the lifestyle of many rock stars. In fact, I would see this syndrome as an example of the natural human desire for something great, absolute and infinite being waylaid due to its being misunderstood, and we look at this aspect also in the exhibition. I would say that, far from being ‘the Devil’s music’, rock ‘n’ roll remains the most potent artistic medium in modern culture for engaging with reality in its totality, as Don Giussani persistently told us to do.

ZENIT: How can sacredness be manifested in pop and rock music?

Waters: In the creative impulse that is generated within the artist, the human seeking for something exceptional finds expression, and this is carried through a myriad of wires, through a hostile culture, through a commercial apparatus, through many loops and knots in our culture, to the listening heart of the receiver. Just because our culture no longer makes it easy for us to talk about this doesn’t mean that it isn’t happening.

ZENIT: It seems like rock and roll is becoming like a legend, linked to a more or less recent past. Each decade had a revival: for example the musical movie ‘Rock of Ages’ is set during the 80s. Moreover – especially in Italy – many teenagers of today are fans of Nirvana and U2, and they use to play their music more than current artists and bands. In your opinion, is this kind of music set to decline?

Waters: I think this bears out the idea behind our exhibition. Most music of the present time must exist in an ideological vacuum, whereby it is more difficult for the artist to speak truthfully about desire. Some bands and artists continue to do so – Mumford and Sons are the most interesting example, I think – but many artists fall back on simple mimicry of what went before, which is to say that they seek to replicate the form of the music while ignoring or denying its content, which is fundamentally a cry. As for the longevity of the music, I don’t know. One would imagine that it must have a finite lifetime, as most popular music forms have had, but still its power to touch and move the heart of listeners remains immense. The most successful artists still, the ones who have endured – Dylan, Springsteen, U2 etc – tend to be the ones who have taken the greatest questions most seriously, and have been least afraid to speak in specifics. Indeed, all three of the artists I referenced there have spoken in Christian specifics. Yet, this element of the music must remain largely implicit, because of the many contradictions which define the medium. 

So I’m unclear as to what can happen. In many ways it depends on how our cultures go on to deal with the great questions. The present phase is radically evasive and somewhat deluded in this respect, but we have seen before how quickly things can change. I have this sense that the rock ‘n’ roll is not yet exhausted, that indeed it may yet go full circle to its roots in blues and gospel music, and that this might well be a critical intervention in the evolution of our popular culture.

ZENIT: Are there today any young artists able to say something important and something new to their generation?

Waters: I think there are many artists who have this potential, although many are a little afraid of it at present. They want to be pop stars without facing the questions of human existence in a completely honest way. One exception, as I said, is Mumford and Sons. They are really exceptional, a band which looks at reality in a way that is quite astounding. I hope they endure. 

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