The Air Guitar
Half a century of essential American popular music in forty-five essays
‘Making music was never my ambition. What I wanted was to be music,’ writes Roel Bentz van den Berg at the start of his collection of reflections on rock music, De luchtgitaar. He could not have given a more telling self-portrait. For Bentz van den Berg the invisible guitar is an instrument of the imagination. In this book, comprising forty-five essays on American popular music between 1948 and 1992, the writer identifies so completely with the lyrics and music of diverse immortal soul, rock and folk hits that he makes the reader feel like a witness to the birth of these songs.
Bentz van den Berg adopts an appropriate idiom and chooses an unusual perspective for each essay. He allows his language to unfold until it becomes a musical instrument in its own right. Blessed with impeccable taste as well as profound knowledge, the author summons up well-known and obscure numbers to pass his revue: the satanic wails of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’s ‘I Put a Spell on You’, the bitter-sweet irony in Bob Dylan’s ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’, Sam Cooke’s desperate gospel in ‘Were You There?’ His description of the guitar intro of Neil Young’s ‘Cortez the Killer’, a song about the destruction of Aztec culture, is characteristic: ‘From the moment the guitar takes off – and that’s immediately – it’s obvious that its destination is not in the realms of history but mythology – where the account of what happened once is rewritten and fictionalised until it attains the significance of a story about what always happens, everywhere.’
Peter Pontiac’s black-and-white illustrations are emblematic representations of classic rock’n’roll scenes: Phil Spector’s name written on a classic American car, the title of ‘The Thrill is Gone’ by Gibson player B.B. King in the style of the Gibson logo. Bentz van den Berg has written a book which is essential for all those who are passionate about music: fans will feel the shock of recognition; for others it will be the start of a voyage of discovery.