Sympathy for the Devil: The Antihero in Literature and Rock and Roll

Note: I presented this paper yesterday at a high school symposium here in Los Angeles. Obviously, it is a big departure from what this blog usually is, but I might as well put it up anyway. At some point in the future, I am reasonably certain this one will morph into another piece entirely.

The story is rock legend. The drug bust at Redlands cottage on February 12th, 1967 which led to the notorious arrests of two Rolling Stones was the first of many times that the thriving rock and roll culture of the 60s truly and publicly came to a head with the law. After 20 police officers descended on the raging party around 5:30 AM and left with samples of several suspicious pills and powders around 8 AM, Rolling Stones Mick Jagger and Keith Richards found themselves with a court summons, and eventually jail time. It was later found that the bust was a set-up—a dealer that the band had grown to trust had been previously arrested by the English secret service, and agreed to expose the band’s drug use to the law in return for his freedom.

But many do not realize that The Stones were not the only group at the party. In fact, Beatle George Harrison and his then-wife had been present at as well, but the police purposefully waited to raid the property until the two of them had left. To the English police, The Rolling Stones were fair game—in fact, their arrest was considered a great victory— yet the equally guilty Beatle was untouchable. The story of the Redlands drug bust typifies a pattern not uncommon in popular music.  Some artists become national treasures, but others are cast in the role for which rock is best known—that of the antihero.

Sometimes, in music as well as literature, antiheroes are underdogs. We wish they would succeed, but for reasons of their mental, social or physical ability, or any other disadvantage, we believe them incapable of doing so. However, in a classically-structured hero narrative, they are able to beat the odds and triumph. In both literature and popular music, the underdog is a powerful tool. As a narrator, he can engage readers who do not identify with a more typical heroic character, and as rock star, he can inspire others to follow in his footsteps.

Jeffry Ross Hyman is a classic underdog. Born into a broken home, a Jew in 1950s Queens, he began to exhibit an extreme case of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder in his mid-teens that made it difficult for him to complete even tasks like climbing a flight of stairs, crossing the street, or cleaning his house. An ungainly six-foot-five, he was physically disadvantaged as well, and struggled with health problems and injuries for his entire life. Yet somehow, Jeff, awkward, sweet, and shy, would shed his former name for a new one, Joey Ramone, and become a seminal voice of the New York City punk scene. Although he is now one of the most beloved frontmen of all time, that was not always so. For their 22 years of existence, The Ramones toured unceasingly to make ends meet and sold few records in the US. Joey and the other members of this band remained much like they began—a group who hit at the wrong time, catalysts who did not receive their full dues until it was too late. Eight years after the band split, the three core members, including Joey, had all died rock legends, but barely had a chance to live that way.

Joey’s story calls to mind another one canonized into American legend long after its time—Mark Twain’s immortal tale of Huckleberry Finn, the marginalized but resilient boy who rises from the lowest levels of white society, where he is impoverished and abused by his alcoholic father, and becomes an individual who will not let the intolerance and cruelty of his society shape him. Through his friendship with a slave named Jim, whom he accompanies on a quest for freedom down the Mississippi River, he manages to uphold his own beliefs despite his community’s derision.

Just as Huck did in his journey down the river, Joey Ramone was able to find success by bucking the norm and being anything but normal. At the beginning of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, an old widow has taken in the normally homeless Huck, and is attempting to “civilize” him—teach him the manners, skills, and beliefs that she has deemed necessary for one living in 1840s Missouri. However, throughout the first part of the book, Huck resists her guidance, knowing fully well that taking heed would be compromising himself. Just as Joey Ramone chose in 1974 to be an atypical frontman, Huck chooses to be an atypical citizen, his ideas completely his own. Today, it seems impossible to imagine how long it took for Joey’s and Huck’s respective communities to catch up to them.

Underdogs are easy to follow and to root for, but they are not the only kind of antihero. Some are equally compelling in the context of literature, but are personally more difficult for readers to identify with and support. Of this sort of antihero, there is no finer example than Holden Caulfield, the unstable teenage narrator of Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Holden is anything but a standard hero character, irrational, paranoid, and irresponsible. His demons are largely internal, unlike the demon of society that keeps characters like Huckleberry Finn at the bottom of the ladder. Holden has a place to live, many chances at education, and financially successful Northeastern family. True, his parents are largely uninvolved in his life, but they are probably somewhat invested in him, if only for reasons of family tradition and ego. But from the unsettled grief of losing his younger brother, Allie, Holden rebels constantly, and eventually leaves school to wander without direction around New York City. He is a commentator, willing to complain and to feel victimized but not to take action or change himself or his situation. Yet somehow, Holden’s voice is so strong, his point of view so compelling and his words so resonant, that he provokes extremely strong, polarizing reactions, both positive and negative. Whether or not you like him, you respond.

In rock and roll, this type of antihero is reflected in the streetwise, abrasive persona of Lou Reed, a performer whose unique delivery and gritty cynicism made him a revelation in the 1960s, and an icon in the years to follow. Raised in a well-off Jewish family from Long Island, his adolescence, much like Caulfield’s, was much more complicated than it might appear from the outside. Just as Holden’s parents had him psychoanalyzed, Lou’s parents attempted to cure what they feared were their teenage son’s bisexual leanings with electroshock therapy, which altered his temperament and outlook permanently. Starting with his tenure in The Velvet Underground, an avant-garde blend of rock with pop art, and even in his solo career, Reed dwelled in the darker side of life, love, sex, and culture. His lyrics are brutal and self-aware, but unapologetic.

The trauma that shaped the young Lou and the one that shaped the young Holden is very different, but the manner in which the two dealt was essentially the same—repression left both young men crippled. Lou and Holden are both victims of their own self-sabotage, and their lives and relationships suffer from it, yet their perspectives are unforgettable. We are disturbed when we see ourselves in them, but they are almost irresistibly unsavory, on some level, liberated from seemingly everything but themselves.

Rock and roll and literature are two art forms uniquely sympathetic to embracing the underdog, the outcast, and allowing him to flourish. Perhaps we keep reading and keep listening because we desire the second chance that those forms offer to so many. The hero of a novel and the singer of a song do not have to be perfect individuals. In some way, we find strength in their imperfections, and their ability to succeed can enable us to carry on even in the worst of times.