Only a certain type of assistant adjunct professor gets to ask this kind of question. John Costa, lucky man that he is, asks it kindly. “Do you mind if I put on some music?”
The respondent, a man finishing up his business with a standardized test form, obliges. The room they both occupy, a generously-sized classroom at the University of Utah’s Gardner Hall, fills with students as the 6 p.m. hour approaches. Costa loads a disc into the room’s formidable stereo system, replete with large speakers that hang from the ceiling. The sounds of Robert Plant and Led Zeppelin pour from the speakers, out of the classroom doors, and into the hall as more students enter.
“You need coooolin’! And baby I’m not foooolin’! I’m gonna send ya, back to schoool, yeah!”
Schoolhouse rock, if you will. But if Costa’s course—a thorough-going tour through the history of rock & roll—rises to the top of the list of “easy-A” offerings that naturally draw students wishing to fulfill a fine arts requirement, they might find themselves shocked by the rigor with which Costa approaches his admittedly groovy curriculum.
This is a class with sound, sure. But it’s also a class with a text. It’s a class with required reading. So sit up straight, perk up your ears and pay attention. Costa, a man of 45 with long, animated arms and a large voice, is here to testify. Maybe not with all the fearful pronouncements and telepathic energy of a preacher, but this isn’t about religion. As you’ll soon learn, it’s about originality.
“OK, let us get started here,” Costa intones. “When we talk about what originality is, we often talk about what makes people find their own voice. Some people incorporate influences from all over. But sometimes originality is about bucking against the prevailing trend. Not all British musicians were into the Liverpool sound of the Beatles.”
The class has just finished a lengthy segment on two seminal acts in rock music: Bob Dylan and The Beatles. Now it’s onto the British Invasion: The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds, The Animals and Eric Clapton. Paradoxically, however, the class will soon learn that in order to first invade America, the British would enthusiastically surrender to a slew of black, American bluesmen: Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Elmore James and Buddy Guy.
This was music ignored by white America at the time. To a select group of Brits, however, it was almost holy. It spoke to them, and they wanted to talk back. Although the music lost something in translation when it traveled from Chicago and the Mississippi Delta to the streets of London and Newcastle, it gained a new vocabulary. To illustrate his point, Costa plays for the class John Lee Hooker’s “Boom, Boom, Boom,” followed by two versions of the same song by two different British bands, the Yardbirds and the Animals.
“What they were trying to copy ended up sounding like something else,” Costa tells his class, a certain amazement in his voice. “There was a depth to this music, a seriousness these British musicians wanted to emulate. But when they tried emulating it, it sounded like something else.”
For further contrast, he plays two songs from the Rolling Stones’ first album of all original songs, 1966’s Aftermath. The first, “Dontcha Bother Me,” is blatantly influenced by American blues. The second, “Under My Thumb,” announces the Stones’ style in fuller, more original blossom, and the partnership of the Richards-Jagger songwriting team.
Then it’s on to the legacy of the Yardbirds and their various line-ups of rock-guitar heroes: Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and, finally, Jimmy Page. That naturally leads to a segment on Led Zeppelin, which sooner or later leads to Jimi Hendrix. But because Hendrix proved such a formidable, inimitable talent, and because a new generation of musicians no longer steeped themselves in the blues, the music took a turn.
“This style of music died out because it was very hard to emulate, so it was simplified,” Costa says, moving his arms and hands. “Limitations can breed originality.”
This is a mere set-up, however, for one of Costa’s most startling assertions. Of course Hendrix was great—perhaps the greatest electric guitarist of all time. Of course Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton took the fret-board to dizzying heights of rock & roll majesty. But the title of most imitated, and therefore influential, electric guitarist of all time belongs fairly and squarely to Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi. The sheer simplicity of his “all riff”-style plowed the competition, who were so accomplished that they could only bequeath their legacies to themselves, and lives on today in virtually every band with a distortion pedal.
Naturally, this isn’t the kind of information that will catapult undergraduates into top law or business schools. But Costa’s endeavor isn’t that kind of class. On its surface, his Music 2100 class is as rock & roll as you can get. At a deeper level, it’s about what constitutes creativity. And creativity inevitably leads to questions about originality. Once you open that box, a whole host of forces come into play, including sociology and history. Costa, though, prefers to stick to the music.
“The history of rock & roll is a microscope onto what constitutes creativity, or what we call the ability to see influences and act upon them,” Costa says. “It’s interesting to see what ideas people create and how those ideas are influenced in various ways from other sources. How many people actually do something with ideas? That’s part of the value in studying rock music. It gives us an idea of what generates creativity.”
As Costa makes abundantly clear in his class, rock music is a product of almost Darwinian forces. It expands and mutates as it’s passed on to new generations. It latches onto new mediums of production. It adapts to new environments, evolving over time into an astounding array of species. It’s easy to marvel at its instincts for survival, whether for art’s sake alone, or the less admirable end of commercial profit.
Sit in on a few of Costa’s classes, and you’ll soon realize that rock & roll also drapes over a large part of American history, sometimes even the history of the Western world. Trace rock’s development and you’ll cross the Atlantic more than a couple of times. As he points out in class lectures, this music has traveled from its polyrhythmic roots on the West African Coast, to the Mississippi Delta, to Great Britain and back again. It pulls a common thread through humanity. If pasty-faced Brits identified with the songs of Mississippi bluesmen, predicting the arrival of white gangsta rappers like Eminem should have been easy.
Costa isn’t the first academic of the opinion that rock & roll is worth the studying time. The University of Florida reserves its history of rock & roll class for honors students alone. Washington State University places the subject within the context of its American Studies department, rather than music. The University of Indiana even offers a summer program centered on the Beatles that lets students travel to London for an in-depth look at the band’s development.
Long before academic departments gave the downbeat for rock history courses, independent critics were churning out books and papers of their own. One of the first and best books on the history of rock examined the music as an extension of the American imaginative tradition. With lengthy chapters on Mississippi bluesman Robert Johnson, Elvis Presley and Sly Stone, Greil Marcus’ Mystery Train placed rock musicians on par with American literary figures to explain how and why they defined American culture. By the end of the book, Marcus centers in on the essence of America. While Europeans “inherit” an identity already formed by centuries of pre-existing cultural forces, Americans must “imagine” and create their identities in new works of literature and music. And that most certainly includes rock & roll. Know rock music, understand rock music, and then you can grasp all things American.
If a good portion of blues and American rock was formed along the tensions of racial lines, many British rock critics saw the music through the lens of economic implications along class divisions. American critics could wax romantic about how rock defined an American identity. The British were more often interested in politics.
After finishing a biography of Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, British writer and composer Ian MacDonald penned an entire song-by-song deconstruction of each and every Beatles tune, then bound them all up in the book Revolution in the Head. Before a lengthy index of terms including “melisma” and “tessitura,” plus a chart that matches the release dates of Beatles’ record with current events of the time, MacDonald concludes that the Beatles’ music is significant not only in and of itself, but because it left us a permanent cultural document of changing forces in Western culture during the ’60s. The Beatles’ music embodied, as he put it, the various shifts away from “progress for process, consequence for multifocal chaos, meaning for maximum impact.”
And you thought the music was good only for entertainment purposes. Clearly, there’s more to listen for. That’s part and parcel of the music’s appeal, and perhaps why Costa’s class sizes grow with each passing semester. With his first class in January 1998, a mere seven students dotted his classroom at the U’s Sandy campus. The jam really picked up when Costa’s curriculum got the green light for a fine arts requirement from the university’s academic committee. This semester, Costa teaches two sections of the same class. A third section opens up next semester.
Micki Sorenson, an 18-year-old psychology major, sometimes wishes Costa would concentrate more on her favorite bands, like Rage Against the Machine. “But if he did, then I’d miss out on all the other ones I hardly know about,” she says. “I’d always heard about Motown artists, but now I appreciate them more.”
Nate Martin, also 18, admits he got queasy in the stomach over Costa’s lecture on the relevance of the Grateful Dead. Martin eagerly awaits an exposition on punk rock. That’s more his speed. “But he knows a ton, and you really get a sense for the development of the music,” Martin says. “He [Costa] knows more about this music than probably anyone I’ve ever met.”
I don’t really like to say too much about the economics and social conditions of the music. I get arguments about that, actually. But I don’t want to get into that. My emphasis is on the music,” Costa says. “That’s what I like to focus on the most. Sociological implications are good for pop music, but not so much for rock music. Pop music is about fashion trends. Rock can be about that, too, but not in the same way.”
Sometimes, of course, talking about the political times that produced some of the best record albums and hit singles can’t be sidestepped. Before launching into Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, Costa feels duty-bound to discuss some of the competing political philosophies alive in the black community during the inner-city riots of the late ’60s and early ’70s. There was a widely-held belief at the time, Costa explains, that FBI director J. Edgar Hoover deliberately ignored the influx of heroin and other drugs into inner-city black communities so that people would become docilely addicted, quelling any impending riots. Then Costa plays Gaye’s 1971 album to demonstrate how key melodic motifs taken from the title track were placed in each progressing song, making it the first political concept album of its time, an important development in protest music, and an enduring influence on soul music.
But mostly, Costa relishes talking about the ascent of truly original developments in the music. To understand how James Brown finally arrived at his trademark funk and soul sound in “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” which turned all melodic instruments into rhythmic instruments, you must first understand how he experimented with Latin rhythms and shuffle rhythms in previous songs. To understand the disco craze of the late ’70s, you must first understand the “Philly” sound created by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff when they produced such acts as the O’Jays. To understand the rise of punk rock and its call for back-to-basics rock & roll, you must first understand the excesses of stadium bands before the Sex Pistols.
Originality travels different roads before it reaches its final destination. Originality asks questions. Originality reacts against prevailing trends. Originality uses paradoxes and limitations to its advantage. Originality blends influences. Sometimes originality just happens. But as Costa likes to emphasize, paraphrasing a favorite historian’s dictum, “There is no one reason why something happens.”
To a certain extent, then, the mystique of originality is kept intact. Not that Costa won’t do his damnedest to break it down for explanation. His favorite bands and performers are the Fountainheads—the most original of the originals—and he holds an especially tight space in his heart for the early records of the Velvet Underground. Here is a band that combined poetic and literary influences, minimalist song structure and elements of theater. It’s questionable whether the “rock personas” of Jim Morrison’s Lizard King or David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and Thin White Duke would have happened without the 1967 release of The Velvet Underground & Nico, an album written by Lou Reed but produced by pop art legend Andy Warhol.
Costa testifies to his class between cuts of this seminal album. “Lou Reed was a poet. Poetry is wrought with lots of failure. Poets Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath both committed suicide. So, to some extent, poets are heroic failures. Lou Reed understood this, even though his main literary influences were people like William Burroughs, Hubert Selby and, most of all, Raymond Chandler,” he tells his class. “It’s so rudimentary, this music. But it doesn’t appear to us as totally obvious. Reed just talks the lyrics; he doesn’t even pretend to have a singing voice. He just recites it. My wife, who’s an opera singer, hates it when I play this CD at home.”
Costa reaches for his lecture notes, reciting some of Reed’s lyrics himself before moving toward the stereo to play the original song, “Venus in Furs.”
“Taste the whip, of love not given lightly. Taste the whip and plead for me,” Costa intones. “That, folks, is poetry.”
Or, at least it was to those who heard it for the first time. The most-oft cited saying about the Velvet Underground is that few people bought their records, but everyone who did formed a band. Morrison drove from Los Angeles to San Francisco to see the Velvets in concert, then went back home to form The Doors. Everyone from Bowie and Alice Cooper on up to Kiss mocked the Velvets’ theatrical stage show.
“All of this started with an album that was a commercial failure,” Costa tells a full class. “Who says you have to have monetary and commercial success to leave a legacy? Sometimes in the world of art, success starts with failure.”
There’s a certain recipe for success in the academic world that Costa must be mindful of as well. At least, if his pet project is to survive the sneers and jibes of anyone who might think he’s merely serving a personal fancy at the expense of students. Ever since the mid-’70s, when certain university campuses went so far as to offer classes in underwater basket weaving, loosening academic standards have been something of a running joke. Costa is determined to preserve the integrity of what he’s trying to do.
“My own nostalgic sentiment does not figure in this class,” he says bluntly. “As a matter of fact, when the nostalgic sentiment goes in, that’s when the red flag goes up. There has to be a reason something is included in the class. I might mention to students a certain Led Zeppelin concert I saw or a story about how my parents hated a picture of Alice Cooper on my bedroom wall, but that’s only because the course deals specifically with those artists. That’s as far as it goes.”
An East Coast native, Costa headed to the University of Michigan for his master’s degree and Ph.D. in music composition after scoring his bachelor’s in piano performance at the University of Rhode Island. Along the way he garnered the American Academy of Arts & Letters’ Charles Ives Scholarship and several commissions, and he won an international composition competition. The study of classical music—or what insiders call “performance” or “concert” music—dominated his school time. But he never forgot the music he grew up with.
Whether classical or rock, Costa avoids questions about his favorite music pieces, influential composers and the like. Grill him enough, though, and some preferences emerge. He admits an early admiration for Hungarian experimental modernist composer Gyorgy Ligeti. He has no qualms about restraining his enthusiasm for the Velvet Underground.
He nonchalantly name-drops both The Rolling Stones and Elvis Presley as somewhat severely overrated. Elvis was a fantastic performer, Costa admits, but never wrote a single solitary song of his own, and promptly abandoned rock music for ballads and a vapid movie career. As blues innovators, The Rolling Stones were important early on, of course. But for all their staying power over the years, it’s something of a pity that they never developed beyond the sum of their parts. Plus, the Stones almost shamefully jumped every bandwagon that came along, including glam-rock and disco.
Costa’s class gives way to arguments sometimes. Students chide him for spending too much time talking about hippie music and the Grateful Dead. Students chide him for not spending enough time talking about hippie music and the Grateful Dead. The true origins of punk rock have always been a field of contention. Did it start with the Ramones, Television, Patti Smith, Talking Heads and other “art bands” of New York City’s CBGB club? Or did the British rescue it from its pretentious poses, infuse it with working-class politics, and give the world true punk rock in the form of the Sex Pistols and The Clash? Here Costa throws a curve ball.
“No, no,” he says. “Punk started in Boston, Massachusetts, with Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers, and they were influential in the New York punk scene. Then you had the proto-punk influence before him with the Velvet Underground and the Stooges.”
Some people would come to fisticuffs over Costa’s final assertion that London music manager and clothes-shop owner Malcolm McLaren created the Sex Pistols, not singer John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten. How can you chide Elvis for not writing his own music on the one hand, then credit McLaren for creating the first-ever international punk band when it was Lydon who penned “God Save the Queen”?
Costa poses the unique challenge of his class thusly: “This really is one of the few subjects you could teach where a lot of students enter the class with a fair amount of prior knowledge beforehand. You don’t get the same kind of effect in, say, a beginning physics or first-year economics class.”
One student, an ardent blues fan, gave advance warning that he would listen to Costa’s blues lecture with a close ear for any mistakes, omissions or exaggerations. Costa rose to the challenge, reexamined his notes and did some more reading before launching his lecture in front of the class. “When I finished, he came up to me and said, ‘You’re never going to top this one,’” Costa remembers. “When you hear that from someone who really knows a certain style of music, you feel like you did something right.”
By concentrating solely on rock & roll’s developmental and influential history, Costa naturally has to leave out a whole host of albums and singles that, although not quite the definition of influential, are works of art just the same. The list could go on and on: Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, the Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset,” West Coast punk bands X and the Gun Club, Nick Drake, Wire and Big Star. Then there’s the illustrious list of great bands bequeathed to the world by Manchester, England: Joy Division/New Order, The Smiths, the Stone Roses, Happy Mondays, The Fall and the Buzzcocks. While we’re at it, what about the large shadow Miles Davis cast on whole areas of rock music? Davis’ On the Corner album no doubt influenced hip-hop and rap. Well, Costa would argue that John Coltrane cast the longer shadow over rock music. And he’s right.
Listening to people argue about who does and doesn’t matter in the rock pantheon is really more like listening to a lovers’ quarrel. Lines have to be drawn somewhere. Costa loves a great many other bands, too, that don’t make the cut for his syllabus. He loves The Who, for example. But that doesn’t mean he has to talk about them in front of the class. There’s simply no place for that. But what personal favorites would he talk about in class if he could? This is one area where Costa absolutely refuses to capitulate. Or maybe not.
“OK, I’ll tell you one favorite that I might mention,” he sighs. “When I talk about punk as a reaction to the overproduction of technically accomplished bands like Emerson, Lake and Palmer I think I might play the ‘Tacotta’ by Albert Ginaster off of Brain Salad Surgery. That way students get a good idea of what progressive rock is all about as contrasted with the raw energy of punk.”
Disappointing, perhaps but that’s his answer. Any piece of music or band mentioned in the class must be relevant to the history of rock & roll. “That’s the way it has to be, otherwise the course would lose credibility,” Costa says. “That’s the one thing you have to do in a course on rock history—preserve its credibility.”
The irony, in a way, is that the credibility of rock music is more secure than it’s ever been. These days, the best place to buy classical music is through the Internet, but you can always find rock and pop CDs for sale. More people listen to this music than ever before. Once at the margins, it is now permanently in the mainstream. Some might say it’s even grown lazy and complacent in its security; that it’s no longer an innovative force. Not so, says Costa. To understand why, you’ve got to differentiate between pop and rock music, and insiders and outsiders.
Pop is about creating media icons for profit, á la Britney Spears. Rock & roll is more about, well, for lack of a better term, art. Sometimes rock & roll can be in the pop domain, but not of it. If that sounds confusing, simply recall all those finely polished Motown hits of yore. Of course those songs were pop music, but they were so carefully crafted as works of art that they entered the rock domain of art without being rock. Get it?
Costa’s concept of insiders and outsiders is easier to digest. The insiders are those who streamline a rougher, grittier form of the outside to make that form more profitable. Think of Alice Cooper’s incorporation of the hard-edged sound of MC5 or the Stooges, as Costa cites. For that matter, think of Marilyn Manson