There ought to be a law with no bail
Smash a guitar, and you go to jail
With no chance for early parole
You don’t get out till you get some soul
— “Perfectly Good Guitar” by John Hiatt
At the ’67 Monterey Pop Festival, Jimi Hendrix infamously lit his guitar—which he had painted earlier that day—on fire. Of the attendees—and sharing the bill—was Steve Miller, of his eponymous band’s fame, who would later attest to thinking the entire display was “pathetic”. On the day of Hendrix’s death, Miller would cut a live recording entitled “Peppa Sauce” as tribute. Unsurprisingly, Miller’s exacting pop style doesn’t get anywhere near capturing the freewheeling spirit of this titan of musical expression. If this was Miller’s impression of the late great guitarist, it especially rings hollow knowing Miller’s view of Hendrix as gimmicky. Oddly, there’s no apparent record of Miller’s opinions on any other well-known musician’s destruction of their instruments, which was common practice for his contemporaries The Who, among many others. Whether he never made these opinions public, or if Miller simply saw Hendrix’s act as particularly transgressive, we’ll likely never know.
Five decades later, David Crosby, a renowned musician of the same era as Miller echoed this supposed anti-destruction sentiment, in response to Phoebe Bridgers smashing her guitar during a performance on Saturday Night Live. For me, Crosby’s dramatic statement begs a number of questions. How is the value of a performance to be judged? What are the limits to expression in rock music? At what point is something considered a stunt—and how much do the context and participants matter?
An aside: in recent discussions, several have cited references to John Hiatt’s 1993 hit, “Perfectly Good Guitar”, viewed by some as an embodiment of this anti-destruction attitude. Ironically, those associations belie an apparently limited understanding of lyrical subtext and metaphor. The confusion likely comes from those who listen to the chorus alone:
It breaks my heart to see those stars
Smashing a perfectly good guitar
I don’t know who you think you are
Smashing a perfectly good guitar
If you only heard this section of the song, it would in fact seem like Hiatt wrote a screed against those like Bridgers, who would destroy such a precious and valuable instrument. Nevertheless, just prior to the chorus is a line that throws everything into relief:
Off in the dark you could hear somebody sing:
The verses detail that the narrator of the story isn’t the one “singing” the chorus. On closer observation, the song’s “protagonist” (if you can call him that) is a man trapped in a cycle of abusive relationships ultimately fueled by an unhappy childhood. In Hiatt’s own words, the song is about “hurting […] the ones we love most.” Further evidence on the pile is, that at the height of the song’s popularity, Hiatt expressed ambivalence at Pearl Jam’s then-recent guitar smashing snafu, and likewise he admitted to having done the deed himself on more than one occasion, including on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.
In Ted Gioia’s book “Music: A Subversive History” he makes a compelling and detailed argument about the origins of musical forms as cultural movements. Namely, outsiders and provocateurs push the boundaries of what is acceptable by creating new genres, which rattles existing power structures. This continues until the popularity of an outsider movement reaches a breaking point, wherein the existing power structures must consume and embody the traits of the movement. In other words, the music of the prevailing power structure of the day must absorb these qualities in order to survive. It’s not hard to see how this story has played out, for example, in the history of Black music in America—nearly all popular genres have their roots firmly in Black music traditions. These genres eventually became normalized, sanitized and mainstreamed. For every Chuck Berry, there were a hundred Elvises ready to launder that creative energy and make it acceptable for the masses. For every Hendrix, a hundred Steve Millers.
Thus, Hendrix’s act of destruction cemented his outsider status; the goal wasn’t pure hedonism. His music’s connection to spirituality, voodoo and darker nature was apparent in his subject matter, his performances embodied this connection. The appeal of mysticism, occult and violence in music is a strain that remains popular to this day across many genres. It’s easy to look at Hendrix’s main contributions to rock music as technical innovations, as evidenced by nomenclature like “the Hendrix chord” and endless analysis of his solo technique. But arguably, his greatest contribution to music was metaphysical. From this outsider, entire genres sprang forth, not from his technical approach, but in spite of it—new worlds, all from feel. Yet, forces who were within that very counterculture still want to strip the most subversive elements from the language of his performances.
In the internet era, our culture wars are decentralized to some degree, but this internal dichotomy is apparent in modern music as well. Even among those listeners who consider themselves progressive, the urge to contain or shame an act considered transgressive continues. Whinging about Bridgers’ ability to sufficiently destroy the guitar is just more evidence of the valuation of technical prowess over expression and emotion. In this worldview, something can only be reified with symbolic relevance if it achieves exacting standards of performance. The power structures of maleness that permeate the genre create a psychic boundary that cannot be crossed, just as Hendrix’s reclaiming of rock from hegemonic whiteness ruffled more feathers than a poofy 1960s blouse. Even if Bridgers had smashed the instrument more definitively, to some, her very attempt would still be viewed with distaste by nature of her gender’s “latecomer” status to the field.
Then, others decry that the act wasn’t spontaneous; Bridgers had the blessing of the manufacturer, Danelectro, and she bashed the guitar against a fake monitor. It would follow that those with this complaint would then dismiss any performance that has any pre-planned component. This isn’t just an unwieldy philosophy, it’s an impossible one. How should one go about separating what is essential to the music and what is essential to the performance? Is the line between them not incredibly hazy, if practically non-existent? Someone who views themself as a traditionalist might argue Ozzy Osbourne’s orally-induced bat decapitation is a prime example of “actual” spontaneity. Nonetheless, Ozzy now hawks a plush toy commemorating the incident. If there is something resembling spontaneity among rock legends, it can be assumed that they’ll retroactively capitalize on it and sap it of its essence.
In a sense, Bridgers has already won: arguments over the relevance of the performance have continued for nearly a week, which is substantial when compared to the minimal buzz generated by other performances on the faltering sketch comedy show. Destruction is an act that people are unlikely to turn away from, even if they believe it’s a hamfisted or trite rendition. Controversy has a tendency to shore up opinions of both appreciators and detractors alike, and in a sense having prominent critics in the old guard of rock is a blessing, since giving them the middle finger simply cements outsider status.
Ultimately, destruction reminds us that music is attached to the real world, and has real consequences. It isn’t just “auditory cheesecake” as the famously and unendingly misinformed Steven Pinker rationalized. To those who would say “let the music speak for itself”, I would counter that music is itself, one of the means by which we in fact “speak”–and hardly the only one. And when what you want to express can’t be fully captured by music, make sure you’ve packed the lighter fluid.