Poster for the 2007 Robert Pasternak exhibition, "Drawing Breath: Intuitive Figure Drawings"
Originally published October 31, 2007, on my since-abandoned Myspace blog.
Breathing has played an integral role in rock’s development since the very beginning. It’s safe to say that the form was, indeed, shaped by the constant, rhythmic intake of life-giving oxygen. One can’t imagine “Rocket 88,” widely acknowledged in melodic annals as the first true rock ‘n’ roll record, had neither Ike Turner nor his Kings of Rhythm (and, conversely, Sam Phillips — breathing is just as important for non-musicians as well) been inhaling and/or exhaling. In fact, Ike recalled to Mojo in 2000, “Only cat that wasn’t [breathing] was the motherfucker we sang about” — an automobile, the Olds 88, which lacks the necessary circulation and genetic architecture.
Unsurprisingly, this sparked a trend that continues to the modern day. Musicologists may challenge the legitimacy of genres and artists — often violently so — but most concur that the best music is recorded by breathers. Of course, many breathers eventually become non-breathers, the fate that befell one-half of the Fab Four, generally considered to have been the greatest and most revolutionary breathing band of all time. But months of careful research have concluded that both John Lennon and George Harrison were, in truth, oxygen-dependent during the sessions that yielded Double Fantasy and Brainwashed, respectively.
Breath, or the lack thereof, has been a perennial subject for songwriters. Jerry Lee Lewis recorded the hit “Breathless” in 1958, but, despite rumors to the contrary, was inhaling and exhaling freely in the studio (“Lotta thangs The Killah don’t do, killah,” he confessed in 1988 over a Coca-Cola. “One of ’em is, I don’t not breathe.”), as were The Corrs in 2000. The only artist to have successfully acetated a song called “Breathless” while reportedly not breathing is Shankar Mahadevan, in 1998. However, since he’s still alive, we can assume this wasn’t a permanent condition.
One of the most famous (and staunch) advocates of breath were, of course, Pink Floyd, all of whom had been breathing since the 1940s. But it wasn’t until the mid-’60s, with the rise of Swinging London, that breathing became an important statement. “After marijuana and LSD, the natural high of breath seemed, well, natural, didn’t it?” Roger Waters explained to Rolling Stone in 1973, shortly after the release of his paean to breath, Dark Side of the Moon. “Besides, it was cheap to the point of free, although abundance and abuse could make you light-headed.”
“Most people think Dark Side is about insanity, the crisis of aging, the passage of time, things of that nature — critics especially,” he elaborated for Q in 1987. “But it’s not. It’s about what a powerful sensation breathing is. It’s got a fucking song called ‘Breathe,’ don’t it? ‘Breathe, breathe in the air/Don’t be afraid to care.’ That’s me saying, ‘Open your passages and let it all in. Air is wonderful.’ I tried a bit of the song earlier on a Ron Geesin album called The Body, but no one took it seriously, cos most of it was tape loops of yobbos farting and belching, and who wants to breathe that? Later we say, ‘Shorter of breath/and one day closer to death.’ I’m warning people, ‘This is what happens if you stop.’ As for [‘The Great Gig in the Sky’], Rick [Wright] told Clare [Torry], ‘Explode with the joy of breath.’ ”
David Gilmour agreed in a recent documentary for the BBC. “It was us who made breathing acceptable again, in the ’70s,” he said. “Look how many people were using their noses and mouths on a regular basis. They were breathing up a storm, among other things.”
Indeed, the ’70s proved to be boon years for breathers of all stripes. More people were breathing than ever before. But one artist in particular was about to turn the lessons of Floyd into an art form. In 1975, for the first time in rock ‘n’ roll history, someone audibly breathed on record: “Round and Round,” the penultimate track on Aerosmith’s Toys in the Attic. It’s a galloping electric assault whose only respite arrives when Steven Tyler invades a welcome hush with the harsh release of a whispered “chaaahhhh…” “The music was just so dense and heavy, I felt like people needed a breather, literally,” Tyler later explained. “I did it on ‘Uncle Salty’ too.” It became a Tyler trademark of sorts, thus inspiring what’s known as the hard-rock or metal “chaaaahhhh…,” evoking ominous images of screeching ravens, churning skies, and jagged vistas.
The “chaaaahhh…” school eventually split into innumerable camps, including the New Wave “CHA!” (see Big Country, et al), a curt call that mocked the bacchanalian excess of ’70s rock. “Elongating the word was unnecessary,” Mark Mothersbaugh said in 1981. “It represented the dinosaur that rock had become. We kept it short and simple, returning the music to its roots in short, ebullient bursts of breath. No one needs to breathe that much or that hard. That’s not where we were coming from. Treat it like a sneeze. Do it, finish it, then proceed to the next idea. It’s a motto Devo still observes to this day.” In fact, the brisk cracks and snaps featured in the band’s classic “Whip It” were a demonstration of this new ideal.
But, whatever its history, whatever its long-term effect, one thing is clear as mountain air: breathing and music are inseparable. One is impossible without the other. Much like rock itself, the act of breathing is here to stay. And as long as musicians continue to breathe, it will never die.