Sex & Cars & Rock & Roll

I entered the Rolling Stone Rock & Roll Bowl on a whim. How'd I do? Just call me Johnny Ca$h.

Eight months ago no one had heard of the Rolling Stone Rock & Roll Bowl, and I was just an obscure graduate student, a former New Times writer enduring a self-imposed five-year exile in the vast Midwest. Today a few dozen people -- perhaps even a few hundred people -- are familiar with the Rolling Stone Rock & Roll Bowl, and while I am still an obscure graduate student, the tenor of my obscurity has changed entirely. Every once in a while, someone calls to say congratulations, or smiles at me on the street. In the bowels of the library, I sometimes permit myself a chuckle. Hard to believe, I know, but it's all the gospel truth -- a national championship can change you that way.

It is, of course, impossible to distill the essence of rock trivia expertise. So much relies on those tiny chromosomal circuits that drive the mainsprings of our personality, and it's difficult to say why one person can live an entirely normal, well-calibrated life A healthy relationships, balanced meals, a new pair of shoes now and again A while another person feels compelled to spend hours scrutinizing the liner notes to an out-of-print Mott the Hoople LP on the slim hope that he will discover who supplies the backup vocals for "Jerkin' Crocus." Or at least it used to be difficult to say. Now, with corporations fighting for the right to line the pockets of the trivially gifted, finding an explanation for the craze for pointless facts seems pitifully easy. Want a little extra cash? Name the Brothers Gibb. Need a new stereo? List the Waterboys albums, in order. Still uncertain? Read on.

In the freezing drizzle of autumn Chicago, I'm trudging through another grad school day, force-feeding scraps of the Western literary canon to Northwestern sophomores and chafing against the mounting irrelevance of my own scholarly work ("Bad Heir Days: The Cosmetic Dimension of Inheritance in Victorian Fiction"). Tired and hazy, I suddenly encounter what looks like some futuristic archaeological dig. In a corner of the science building lobby, a table is littered with electronic equipment and empty quart cartons of Haagen-Dazs and surrounded by a handful of other tables at which students are seated, scribbling furiously. Women in white shirts circulate serenely around the perimeter, bestowing flyers and abstract smiles. Because my class doesn't begin for another ten minutes, and perhaps because I like ice cream, I decide to investigate -- by investigate I mean that I read the monstrous red-and-yellow banner that overhangs the group -- and learn that I have stumbled onto a preliminary audition for the inaugural Rolling Stone Rock & Roll Bowl. The flyers are short trivia quizzes, which will be used to narrow the field from thousands of hopeful students on 30 selected campuses to a few lucky winners. A game of skill, not of chance. No purchase necessary. Sponsored by Ford, Aiwa, and others. Fabulous prizes.

"Quiz?" says one of the women in white, taking a step toward me. "Sure," I say, taking a step toward her. At one of the writing tables, I move briskly through the 25 multiple-choice questions. What was the title of ZZ Top's first album? (ZZ Top's First Album.) Who is the lead singer of Soundgarden? (Chris Cornell.) Which famous rock star appeared on stage with Elton John in a 1974 performance? (John Lennon.) No sweat. I scrawl my name across the top, locate another woman in white, and hand in my quiz. Ten minutes later rock and roll is a fading memory, and I am listening to a lecture about the alienation effects of midperiod Brechtian dramaturgy.

Nearly a week later, the phone is ringing when I get home. By and large, such calls bring bad news, and I pick up the receiver fully prepared to decline whatever these people are selling. In fact, I'm already mentally rehearsing the part where I unprepossessingly inform the disabled veteran that my blindness would make it hard for me to get the most out of his long-life light bulbs when I realize that I'm not being threatened after all. "Hello," says a pleasantly bland female voice. "I'm calling from US Concepts, the public relations firm handling the Rolling Stone Rock & Roll Bowl, and I'm pleased to tell you that you're Northwestern's high scorer. As the campus winner, you now advance to the local finals, where you'll be competing against other area schools. All you need to do is select two more members to round out your team, and be on stage next Thursday night at Northwestern. Your opponents will be DePaul and Loyola. Thank you, congratulations, and rock and roll."

Rock and roll is essentially an energy, and as a result, many great bands exist in a state of constant instability, galvanized by the tensions between their principals. Think of Mick and Keith, Chuck D and Flavor Flav, Gunnar and Matthew Nelson. "Internal dissent," said Keith Moon, "is like an ever-replenishing battery, positive and negative charges productively conjoined, and I for one am thankful that my corner of the world has not surrendered to quiescence." For all these reasons, when it comes time for me to assemble my trivia team, I decide against selecting teammates who are merely echoes of myself. I vow to transcend the narrow boundaries of the English Department, to make use of the diverse university community. I pick two philosophy graduate students, Steve Weinstein and Will Getter. You see the difference? Literature grad student, philosophy grad student. One studies writers of fiction, the other writers of philosophy. Okay, maybe not. But you try working up a yin-yang miracle in a weekend. Steve is a wiry Wittgensteinian taking his second stab at grad school after a ten-year tenure as a Boston bar-circuit rock star. Will is a friend of Steve's, a specialist in the philosophy of humor who has recently embarked upon a side career as a standup comedian. Soft living has sentenced us to a certain kind of expertise, a certain ineffable toughness. And for some reason, I can't find anything in the rules that limits the competition to undergrads. It seems too good to be true A allowing people with our depth and breadth of experience to take advantage of callow children. Though I keep expecting a call from the rules committee, I'm optimistic about our prospects.

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