Dionysus in Music: On the ‘God of Sex and Drums and Rock and Roll’

In memoriam: Michael Lee Aday: 1947-2022 —

If one could think the Dionysian in music, what would that be like? What would that sound like? Better still: who would that be?

Nietzsche tells us in a book, starting with the very first section through to the end of The Birth of Tragedy Out of the Spirit of Music.

He tells us that the Dionysian — via Schiller, who wrote the words, but also via Schiller’s theory of ancient tragedy — is Beethoven. The Beethoven of the symphonies, not his string quartets and not the Beethoven of The Creatures of Prometheus. Yet the little vignette Nietzsche pays for out of pocket, commissioning Prometheus unbound, liberated from his manacles with his tormenting vulture shattered and broken on the rocks, can make us wonder.

In fact, Nietzsche quotes Goethe’s creative verses on Prometheus, the titan who steals the human-forming thunder of Genesis, not least because Homer gets there first, with Prometheus forming humanity out of clay.

Nietzsche starts as musically verbatim as possible, quoting The Ninth Symphony, the choral ode, all to go on to play with the spur, the thorn, the edge of dissonance.

Elsewhere, in The Hallelujah Effect, I revisit Adrienne Rich’s reflection on the protracted endurance of dissonance, The Ninth Symphony of Beethoven Understood at Last as a Sexual Message, like a rapist, so the cultural musicologists said. Her poem makes her point plain, had that been her purpose (it was not, not quite), his would be another name to add to a list of the cancelled.  There are already so many names on the list, all of them, arguably, with reason.

And the connection, the same, we find in Nietzsche’s extended praise for Archilochus, the self-avowed rapist of antiquity, difficult to comprehend no matter how much care scholars care to give it, not that they usually do. In the book they wrote, Nietzsche on Tragedy, Silk and Stern can make neither head nor tails of Archilochus: it is Nietzsche who has to be wrong. Classicists continue to make the same claim for their own reasons but still it got under their skins — ‘Nothing to do With Dionysus’ even when they were writing about neither Nietzsche nor Archilochus.

But the Dionysian in music: could it be Hallelujah? Hard to argue, no matter how it’s sung and no matter who sings it, k.d lang or Bob Dylan.

Here is the question of sex appeal and preference in music is less for the song sung than for the one who looks the part: this, Nietzsche tells us, is the Apollinian. In the case of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, that’s not Cohen himself but Jeff Buckley — after all these years.

Similarly there’s gotta be a looker for rock and roll.

In search of a modern Prometheus, a modern Beethoven, candidates of choice will be all about public taste, popular, that is: vulgar eros.  The Dionysus of choice is not via Nietzsche’s Dionysus book, even if these days, waiting for an update, we are ready for relevance. We still need a text, a record or an album cover, a video frozen in time.

Riders on the Storm. Cue the Doors, they covered Dionysus.

Jim Morrison looks the part. College educated, smart as fuck: and he had the decency, not too, too unlike Mozart, to die young.

Nietzsche scholars along with students of 19th Century Music in Comp Lit, cast their vote before they read anything at all about the Dionysian, sparing them the Archilochus problem. Archilochus, the name is already a syllabic choker: who was he?  Didn’t he talk too much about himself, lyric poet, I poet, and was he not, on his own account, a literal rapist, ‘howling from the climacteric,’ as Rich wrote of Beethoven? No metaphors for Archilochus, so he insists, writing his lyric to tell us, with rhythm too, so we believe it? One cannot quote Archilochus without shuddering, awful man, nasty man, vile, technically impotent as he smoothly informs us, praecox, or it would have been worse. Like the current narrative about vaccine injuries: how it could be worse is unclear. Archilochus tells us that because of his song, three at one blow, the daughters along with their father, Lycambes, hung themselves rather than bear the shame of his word.

As for me, I still hold a torch for Morrison. Beauty’s beauty.

Morrison is not the god of sex and drugs, didn’t Steinman write drums? that’s rhythm, and rock and roll? It wasn’t Sid Vicious, nomen est omen, or various Ramones, but it was, odd and dissonant, Meat Loaf, of all things, and he didn’t write the songs. 

Jim Steinman (1947-2021), who died last April and never stopped being an Amherst undergrad, wrote the songs. That’s the point when it comes to Dionysus. The lyric is no personal confession, you learn nothing about the man when you hear the song sung: it’s a drama the singer inhabits, just as Nietzsche tells us that in any Greek tragedy there is only one actor on stage, however many actors are on stage, including the chorus, everyone, everybody, even the audience.

Dionysus.

Meat Loaf is as unlikely as Archilochus, basically oafish, offensive and harmless and harmful, lustful and sweaty and messy, way messy. Uncanny vocal register, between male and female.

Like the god of wine.

Meat Loaf, a jock from Dallas, Texas who played football in high school and college, would have brushed that off. Should have been, so he tells us: Roger Daltrey, who, along with the young Brian May, looked the part.  Taller too.

And at the same time, Meat Loaf easily, off-hand, as it goes without saying, claimed the crown for himself: sex-god.

One should think about that because the song sung, the way he sang it, made Steinman’s song work — and otherwise not — I would do anything for love,* resurrecting their top selling album in a line: I’d run right into hell and back.

*Official video

Now Steinman wrote opera — Wagner never dies — and said so. And part of what Steinman wrote and Meat Loaf sang is myth, in this case, the myth of Orpheus.

There is a power in doubling metonymy: Orpheus, the original myth of the myth, who did and did not — and this is the way of all love songs — retrieve his beloved from hell. After finding the way to Eurydice, Gluck also tells us this in his opera, and almost bringing her back, before Orpheus yielded to the one ‘no’ he needed to remember, to keep as sacred vow, a pact he would not break, that’s a fact, until he broke it: I won’t do that, as he had assured himself and Hades, part of his pitch. 

But you never don’t do the thing, the one thing, you must not do. Afterwards, if you don’t die, you live a broken life as Orpheus was thereafter broken until the Thracian women found him and gave his body in pieces — the original corps morcelé, after the Dionysian original, baby Zagreus — to the river. Milton catches that, as When, by the rout that made the hideous roar, / His gory visage down the stream was sent, / Down the swift Hebrus to the Lesbian shore…

I Would Do Anything for Love includes the mysticism of love, caught between the parallel reference to difficulties in life, some days it don’t come easy, and the frustrations of eros, some days it don’t come hard, seemingly a simple variation into clever, moving inside the genius of everyday words, easy turned to hard, and then the erotic point in any case, now a love paean because that’s the song it is: some days it don’t come at all / and these are the days that never end. The song swings in different versions between neutral reference to life and time and personification, so that an unnamed woman might, from night to night, be breathing fire or carved in ice.

But how does one get inside a lyric that sings tantra to the world: no mysticism, just earnest admission, an admission that happens to be the height of love, of eros, mystic union, paradise by any light?

This is not about prowess, this is admitting the impossible to replicate wonder of connection, love, that most love songs, most memories simply pass over: But — and one needs the conjoined connector for this — I’ll never do it better than I do it with you, there is a pause, a breath, so long, so long. In various videos singing this, sometimes, Meat Loaf’s eyes are closed, but the audio alone makes it clear.

When the operatic vision turns, as opera must, to a duet, there is the small town vision of the woman’s voice, like Archilochus’ lyric, opera is misogyny or it is nothing, and she asks, in the touchingly simple faith of women, the Gretchens as Nietzsche teased, if her suitor can or cannot bring this or that to a proposed tryst, Can you get me out of this godforsaken town, turns into pure relief, is that all you want: Oh I can do that. As the song goes, it turns out that women already know the tune, cannier in such exchanges than they seem, asking the world and already guessing, Cassandra like, the apocalypse: we all fall down and we all turn to dust. The lyrics are malleable, does she sing we’ll all fall? ashes, ashes, we all fall down: dust to dust?

We will.

Meat Loaf died in Nashville on the 20th of January 2022. The year matters because of the state of the world given over to the terror of the very idea of a possible death from just one thing, one virus, as if that were or could ever be the only way to die. Thus, as he died he was mocked for having the misfortune to die at all, heaven forbid, bless his soul, after speaking out on the wrong side of mandates and restrictions. Of the many things he happened to have died from, he was rebuked for testing positive for — because that’s all it takes — before ‘immediately,’ dying from Covid.

In truth at 74, the aging rock star, old man as he was, was some fraction of two years older than the average age to which an average man might live, these days. Certainly, to think as actuaries do: he was twenty years older than his parents had been when they died.

Like an elderly lady who cannot stop dying her hair jet, jet black — or wearing high heels — ‘underlying conditions’ are a life-time coming. Meat Loaf who eagerly told every interviewer who, just as visibly, did not care to listen, had cancer after cancer, crippling back troubles (someone should encourage people to steer clear of the surgery that does nothing for them, crippling the victims and the doctors who recommend it should quit, but there’s money in it and sick people can’t complain). His was a chronicled decline. In 2000, Meat Loaf’s life story was a made-for-TV documentary, with someone else playing the part, singing his songs for copyright reasons but not less because he was too old to play himself, already, twenty-two years ago.

Rock stars, sex-gods, do not have a long half-life.

For many years, this man could not walk unassisted, suffered illnesses of various kinds, stress of various kinds, two or three strokes, and the other things that come with getting older.  Age is a thief and, when it is not sudden, death is cut by cut: loss after loss after loss, until at the very end, sick with desire, as Yeats teaches, a tattered coat upon a stick, as Shakespeare taught him to say, sans everything.

To settle these many depredations as injuries bring one to one’s final downward journey, to reduce all that to just one thing is prevarication.  And this new disease, Covid? As was made perfectly clear from the beginning of the pandemic and the new world order: any illness, any possible way that one might die, to remember another of Cohen’s songs, who by fire, who by water, or, indeed as this would hold for sex-god rock stars, who in these realms of love, any and all of these ways can be ascribed to Covid, as for two years now, they do do that.

This old man, who had been old to himself — and everyone else: it is never a secret — since his fifties, dying on camera as stars do, on social media, for the past few years, who pulled himself together to give interviews to interviewers looking for a headline and not for the details he gave them as old people will, just to say this again,  tell you details until you turn away, a man who kept trying, and who would in death, on the day itself, be mocked by the cruelty of the crowd he lived for, denounced now not for his looks, as part of what age steals is that: he lost the fat, only to be condemned on the same social platforms that drove the pandemic in the same way from the start.

As for the passing of Marvin Lee Aday, as he was born, Michael as he preferred, and Meat Loaf? That was Archilochus, lyric poet, soldier for hire, as Nietzsche tells us his fate could only be tragic: warlike votary of the muses, who was hunted savagely throughout life.

As Meat Loaf lived, he died: transparent while insisting on his own depth, taking insult bitterly and abandoned to angers, mildly savage, curiously gentle, bemused by theatre and seeking his public to the end.

Published by Babette Babich

Babette Babich is Professor of Philosophy at Fordham University in New York City. She has wide-ranging interests, with a special focus on the philosophy of science, philosophy of technology, including digital media, as well as art and aesthetics, conceived from the perspective of (classical) continental philosophy. She is interested in themes associated with classics, museum studies, political philosophy, and such.

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