GETTING MORE TALE #710: I Can’t Grok Rock
Before we proceed, we must put some time into trying to define the work “grok”. One of the greatest science fiction writers of all time, Robert A. Heinlein, coined the word in 1961 in his epic novel Stranger in a Strange Land. Perhaps you recall the “I Grok Spock” slogan from the late 60s when fans mobilised to save Star Trek from cancellation. There’s no easy definition of the word, although “I grok” can mean “I love”, among many other things. Depending on its usage, “I grok” can mean:
- “I hate”
- “I see” or “I understand”
- “I fear”
- “I live”
- “I am a part of”
- “I drink” or “I eat”
- “I think”
- To use Heinleins own words, grok means to understand something “so thoroughly that you merge with it and it merges with you.”
Grok means all these things, and according to Heinlein, “a hundred other English words, words which we think of as antithetical concepts. ‘Grok’ means all of these.”
Heavy stuff, but the more I think (or grok) on it, I realise (or grok) something very sad. As much as I love, cherish, adore and try to further my understanding of it, I think I can never fully grok rock music. In order to do that, I would have to understand it to a depth I have not reached yet. As a non-musician who has tried and failed to do play it, true grokking of rock music has eluded me my whole life.
Music exists in several ways simultaneously. There are the vibrations in the air that are soundwaves on different frequencies. There are the hairs on your inner ear, moved by the soundwaves. This physical action is converted to electromagnet signals, sent to your brain and then interpreted and perceived as music. I can comprehend these things, but true understanding of music means understanding its structure. Why do those frequencies sound good together? Why does a recurring rhythm sound good to you even if you don’t know it’s 7/8 time? Or even know what 7/8 time is?
There is an underlying mathematics to music, an almost mechanical precision. Well guess what. I’m no mechanic either! I have to pay someone to change the oil in my car.
I’m fortunate enough to have Dr. Kathryn Ladano in the family, who truly does grok music. As an improvisational musician, she creates living music in and of the moment. She and the players she works with can grok it on an instinctual and intellectual level. The funny thing about this is that I used to have to help Dr. Kathryn with her math homework. On paper, I was better at numbers. Within music, it turns out she can really grok math.
I’ve spent most of my life with music in my ears. There are bands whose history I have an understanding of deeper than my expertise in that of Canada, and I’m a history B.A.! There are songs that I have memorised down to the last note and beat, such as “Paranoid” by Black Sabbath. But I still don’t really comprehend how it’s was constructed, why it works, or what makes it unique. And it drives me insane.
I’ve tried, Lord knows I’ve tried! I thought I’d pick up the guitar again a few years ago and see if my older, wiser mind could grasp the universal secrets of music. Again, I failed. I put my guitar away, but now we have a couple acoustics. I’ve been strumming. You can’t kill this curiosity. I really don’t think I will ever grok rock in the truest sense, but I keep trying!
It’s a frustration situation, but rock and roll isn’t about quitting. That much I do grok.