Long Live Rock ‘n Roll

It’s not easy to lose a friend.

The best way to deal with loss is to celebrate life, as the Irish do.

Southern Europe, on the other hand—like so many other parts of the planet—celebrates grief. In Italy, Greece, or Iberia, it would be very unusual to tell a joke about someone who has departed this world, or play a song, unless it has a religious context.

In the UK, the most popular song at funerals was written by Eric Idle and performed by Monty Python in the Jesus-pisstake movie The Life of Brian. The song is so popular it was performed at the closing ceremony of the London Olympics—to the utter perplexity of the rest of the world, I suspect.

In Britain, the supermarket chain Co-op has diversified into the funeral business and, bizarrely, maintains a top 10 list of funeral songs. They take their work seriously, providing you with Top of the Pops lists from contemporary, film, classical, and sport. For dads, Match of the Day is particularly popular.

When my rabbit died, over twelve years ago now, I stuffed one of her favorite books down her bra before the casket was sealed, to make sure it went with her—she would have smiled at that sneaky move.

We took a guitar along and played her a song before she was cremated—it was a happy song, but it made us cry—and that catharsis was curative. The rabbit was into Reiki, as much as she was into physics—a paradox that would also have made her smile.

Laying of palms to tap into ‘universal energy’ doesn’t pass the smell test for me, but the rabbit had a more spiritual nature—in the end, we live our lives inside a belief system, and that system makes us what we are. My perspective doesn’t match yours, although we might converge here and there—nevertheless it is distinct enough for you to read what I write.

If you read my books, you’ll get yet another perspective—this time through the eyes of my characters. Abraham Zacuto, the astronomer in The India Road, reflects a lot of what I learned from a family of scientists. Totio, the young ‘Guanche’ spy from La Gomera, who sails with Columbus and turns into a man along the way, also has much to teach.

And if you have small children or know anyone who has, Folk Tales for Future Dreamers gives them a few zany ideas—a must-have for kids who plan to thrive in this crazy world.

Music was my friend’s passion, so this article celebrates life through that amazing human manifestation. As usual, we think we have the exclusive, but of course sound is a key form of communication for many species.

Birds, in particular, use song and so do insects, humpback whales, and mice.

But humans should get credit for the sophistication we’ve introduced to song, turning it into music and adding a wonderful human invention—musical instruments.

The oldest instruments still extant use wind to produce sound—the National Museum of Slovenia has a sixty-thousand year old flute on display; the flute has four holes, two of them intact—it dates back to Neanderthal Man, a mere 50,000 years before the date when creationists believe God made the world and all creatures great and small.

The flute is made from a bone from a young bear—horns, conchs, and other wind instruments are part of human history and musical tradition. But it seems likely that percussion preceded wind—stretching animal skins and drumming on them—although no drums have been preserved from ancient times, probably because the materials decomposed.

Mind you, some hounds can belt out a pretty good tune.

At some point, the sinews of animals were stretched and plucked, using a wooden frame as a scaffolding, and lo and behold, the first string instrument was born. From there, came harp and dulcimer—a short hop to a resonator box of some kind, and you have the lute, mandolin, and guitar.

Meanwhile, someone discovered another way to hit a string, and the dulcimer begot the clavichord.

At that stage, les jeux son faits—all the precursors of modern instruments were in place, apart from the more esoteric electronic devices such as the Theremin.

Strings were sourced from animal intestines (gut), so it could be argued that our carnivorous habits led us to the guitar—there aren’t a lot of stringed instruments based on fish. Of course, nylon and steel replaced gut in the developed world decades ago, but if you want to capture the classic sound of a Hurdy Gurdy, you can still go for gut.

But for all you Vegan and Pescatarian folks out there, let me introduce the Vahila, a string instrument from Madagascar made entirely from bamboo—how ecological is that?

The instrument belongs to a class called tube zithers, where the tube is simultaneously a neck and soundbox—super-zen, eh?

Not the sexiest band you ever saw, but if you close your eyes you’ll enjoy the music.

Then, after decades when the most interesting novelty in music was the microphone, the planet went electric. I was lucky enough to grow up in that crazy world, and ever since childhood I’ve been mesmerized by electric guitars.

And with all that came rock ‘n roll, garage bands, and music for the masses—the world never looked back.

Rest in peace, Mister Bassman.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

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