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My years of living in rock

Doesn’t anybody remember laughter…? – from Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven

“Oh baby it’s a wild world…” – Cat Stevens

I recall one weekend many years ago I was not thinking deeply about what to write in my Malaysian column, Malaysiakini,  I contributed for 15 years. I was thinking about rock and roll. Yes – that music that was part of the wave of “yellow culture” our parents warned me about. We have known “sin” through rock and roll, some wise men would conclude.

That weekend I washed myself with the experience, binging through several YouTube videos on rock music. A visual of Queen’s guitarist Brian May tormenting his Gibson Les Paul atop Buckingham Palace excites me. Imagine Hillary Ang of Malaysia’s rock group Search or Man Kidal of Lefthanded playing a Jimi Hendrix-rendition of Negaraku atop the Istana Negara – that’ll be the day when things have already runamuck! That’ll be a serious latah-ization of this nation, of a psycho-cultural momentary loss of sanity common among the women of my people, the Malays. Yes, that classic Woodstock video of Jimi Hendrix playing Star-Spangled Banner came to me like a nice dream. 

That delightful moment, I wanted to feel how old ideas can teach me what newer realities mean. “Old school versus new school”, as they say these days, I wanted to test how my perception of the present can be altered by the music of the past. I was experimenting with my own stream of consciousness, as the Irish poet James Joyce would term it, as he narrated his story in the novel Ulysses.. If this column is a stand up comedy, it would be a Seinfeld; if it were an artwork, it would be Andy Warhol’s’ Campbell soups. Or “Oxidation”, perhaps, a wopr of art wherein the pop artist urinated on a canvas and let it oxidize and become yet another masterpiece of the New York-genre of a Western world. Early postmodernist art.  

I sought solace in rock music. I “chilled” with it, as the gangsta rappers would say. I had so much fun chilling – away from the “chilling” national issues of the day. I have “sinned” again, perhaps. It is said that the guitar is the instrument of the Devil. I went into nostalgia-mode – I felt that I had long hair, tight Levis blue jeans, smoking a Marlboro, had Fonzie’s “Happy Days'” leather jacket, and felt ‘groovy’. And I had China-made Boxer Rebellion- styled “Fung Keong” sneakers on too. Yes, the language of the mid-1970s came back. “Fag” was for cigarettes”, “stoned” and “steamed” was for the feeling drug abusers had after getting “high”, as sung by the group Deep Purple in “Smoke on the Water”. The song immediately made me think of Frank Zappa and his Mothers of Invention. This auditory and visual experience further brought me to my growing up years in a kampong in my village in Majidee, Johor Bahru where I joined the elders in listening to an album called Rolling Stones’ “Goat Head’s Soup” – in my head the tune “We Are an American Band” by Grandfunk Railroad playing. A truly gangsta Malay village back in the day, destroyed by gangsa ganja and dangerous drugs. 

Energy and inspiration

And yes, the Malay youth then were smoking something that smelled strange. Ganja. Smells like skunk juice from New Jersey, USA. Hard core weed perhaps from Vietnam or then the then junta nation of Burma. In between running around barefoot in the kampong I would stop by at the favourite hangout of the older “kutus” (wayward youth) in my kampong – to take a peek of what they were smoking. But boy – they really had good, fun, and they had uncomplicated and unpretentious album covers back then. “It’s a wild, wild, world…” as Cat Stevens would say. I could have been one of them street urchins and school drop-out (the kutus) if not because of an “imaginary friend” I had with me, all the time. And my mother., bless her soul in Paradise. Western influence was so pervasive – so addictive. It takes a new paradigm of consciousness to break free of its shackle. I narrated these in my memoir.


I drowned myself in the wave of old favourite music of “my generation”. Many old school rock enthusiasts would say that The Who – Roger Daltry, Peter Townshed, and Keith Moon – is the band of his or her generation. King Crimson, Procol Harum, Uriah Heep, early Stones, early Deep Purple, and the likes of giants of Classic Rock, these too. I have them in my few-thousand vinyl collection now, as artifacts of great memories of my gangsta hippie Sixties, when as a young boy I saw many of the older folks dying and finally dead of drug overdose.  I told my stories in a recent memoir Grandma’s Gangsta Chicken Curry and Stories from My Hippie Sixties published by Penguin Books. (available here: https://www.amazon.com/Grandmas-Gangsta-Chicken-Stories-Sixties-ebook/dp/B095SX3X26)

My kind of music was the “Stairway to Heaven” genre. The music of Led Zeppelin, Yes, Pink Floyd, Deep Purple, Rolling Stones (now “The Strolling Bones”), Carlos Santana, Rush, Queen, Genesis, Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, and Rainbow. And Eagles too. I explored “committed rock music” at one point in my life – the music of the Irish band U-2. Of late too I have been analyzing the music and lyrics of the most celebrated Indonesian rocker Iwan Fals. These are the lyrical poets of my generation.

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There is so much energy and inspiration in rock music of the mid-1970s that I had refused to listen to rock of this Malaysian Rempit generation, those kids on motorbikes doing daredevil stunts on the highways and racing each other to death, Because life is cheap to them. I hope our generation is not practicing the strange dance of the death metalists. I would prefer to listen to the sound of the whispering wind and my heartbeat than listen to bands such as Linkin’ Park, Korn and Peter Pan of Indonesia. My apologies to this generation for my confession. I think the global music capitalists have become too greedy to produce good, sensical, rock and roll music. The children of this generation I think are more stoned and are gathering more moss as an after effect of the over-consumption of today’s junk rock and death metal music. 

They do not know how to value the lyrics of the great rock and roll pieces such as “Stairway to Heaven”, a three-part Led Zeppelin classic that every youngster of my age were trying to learn to play on the old beaten China-made “kapok” guitar. They have not listened to Queen’s operatic masterpiece “Bohemian Rhapsody”, Pink Floyd’s simple yet profound “Wish You Were Here”, or Yes’ mystical magical “Turn of the Century” – or even Simon Garfunkel’s lyrical poem “I am a Rock” to appreciate the philosophical messages behind the lyrics that are serenaded with, at times shrieking and Earth-shattering guitar riffs. The youth of Cybernetic Malaya need to go back to listening to these classics and understand what freedom to think and explore means.

I do not know what the Mat and Minah Rempits and Mat and Minah Reformasis in Malaysia (again, those dare-devil-death defying-road rage-highway-stars-school-dropout Malay bikers) are listening to. I would assume that there is a difference – the rempits listen to death and thrash metal and maybe gangsta rap and the Malaysian political reformists listen to soft rock, and urban and alternative music. I might be wrong in labeling them. Readers may email me to enlighten me on this.

Back to Led Zeppelin – and what went into my head to shape my consciousness.

Hey, I wrote about something here – about my generation and how the spirit of rock music can also inspire one to embody and promote free speech. Now I am energised to continue with equally serious issues for my upcoming columns. I have surpassed the 500th. article mark for a few months now. 

Long live rock and roll? Maybe. 

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DR AZLY RAHMAN grew up in Johor Bahru, Malaysia and holds a Columbia University (New York City) doctorate in International Education Development and Masters degrees in six fields of study: Education, International Affairs, Peace Studies, Communication, Creative Non-Fiction, and Fiction Writing. He has written more than 350 analyses/essays on Malaysia. His 30 years of teaching experience in Malaysia and the United States spans over a wide range of subjects, from elementary to graduate education. He is a frequent contributor to scholarly online forums in Malaysia, the USA, Greece, and Montenegro.

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