I have wanted a tattoo for several years. At least since they’ve become popular, that is. I can’t say that I was one of those people who wanted tattoos before tattoos were cool. In fact, twenty years ago my ex-wife got a tattoo, and I took it as a sign that she had lost her mind somehow. So she was one of those who got a tattoo before tattoos were cool—back when tattoos were for bikers and biker chicks, porno stars, and rockers and punkers.
But the thing is, deep down, deep beneath my bow-tied philosopher image, I am a rocker. That’s how I’ve always seen myself. I’m not a philosopher, but an artist who loves philosophy because philosophy is the greatest aesthetic experience. But who am I as an artist? Dunno. But somehow it’s connected with rock and roll, even when I play the banjo.
I once told a friend that I personally play the banjo as a “fuck you!” instrument. She didn’t understand. For me, the banjo is a statement of my individuality. Same with wearing bow ties. Wearing a bow tie also says, “fuck you!”, because it spits on conventionality. And rock and roll—at it’s very core (and this is what ELVIS gave to all of us as the greatest gift of the twentieth century)—is “fuck you!” music. It is the “fuck you!” music.
What do I mean by that?
Compare rock and roll to, say, country music. Country music is about the vicissitudes of life: about love and lost love, dreams and lost dreams, life and death and trucks and dogs and good times and bad, and so on. Country music suffers and contemplates. That’s why it’s music for adults—and even people who grew up with rock and roll often gravitate to country as they get older.
But rock and roll says, “get up and MOVE!” It’s that moment in “Milkcow Blues Boogie” when Elvis says, “Let’s get real, real gone for a change!” That moment—to me—is the very moment of the birth of the rock and roll era. Yes, let’s get gone. Let’s throw out convention. Let’s have sex and get drunk and get into fights and have some more sex and LIVE LIFE LARGE! You don’t like it? Fuck you! Rock and roll is born in that moment of denying the suffering and contemplation of life, and choosing to live life instead. Stop thinking about it. Stop suffering.
(I could digress and talk about what was somehow so very wrong about the Sex Pistol’s style of punk, but I’ll save that for another day.)
Last summer I played my banjo for the departmental picnic.
Here’s a picture:
I played some old-timey clawhammer music. I played “Tammy’s in Love”. But—wanting to live life large and to yell “fuck you!” in my own personal way—I played my banjo version of Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)”. I’m not sure whether anyone liked it. I’m not sure whether anyone even really listened. I didn’t care.
My only regret is that my arms were un-tattooed.
See, that’s what it’s about. What should have happened is this: when I took off my blue blazer, khaki trousers, oxford shirt and bow tie and put on my Carlsbad Caverns T-shirt, jeans, and hiking boots and strapped on my banjo, that audience should have seen tattoos. Because what I was really doing was dropping the disguise, ripping off the uniform, exposing myself. That is the “fuck you!” moment of rock and roll. It’s the moment of risking exposure to say, “I’m me: deal with it. Or don’t. Whatever. I’m having fun right now.”
Now that tattoos have become popular, I suppose they don’t make quite the same statement they used to. But at the bare minimum they say at least this: I’m thinking of right now rather than what I’ll look like when I’m 80. They say, in essence, “I’m me: deal with it. Or don’t. Whatever. I’m having fun right now.” And regardless of their popularity, they remain quite rare among the professors and students in the humanities in Germany, so had I sported a few tattoos that night people certainly would have noticed.
So a couple of weeks ago I went to a tattoo parlor and made appointments to get my first tattoos. If I can stand the pain, I’m planning to get at least four or five.
And those few people who read my blog will know what those tattoos mean.
PS. I might as well put a link here for Milkcow Blues Boogie: