Never really a rock 'n' roller, I do the best I can
Saturday, November 22, 2008
By Gene Jannuzi, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Some weeks ago a friend ended his e-mail to me with, "Rock on, Dude!"
That caused me many a watchful night. It was a first for me. No one had ever said "rock on" to me before, nor called me "dude." I didn't know how to take it. Since it came from a friend, I knew it couldn't be all that bad. Should I be pleased? Deflated? Should I ask my friend what he meant?
I decided not to do that. It would just accentuate my unhipness.
I figured that "Rock on, Dude!" was a sort of encouragement, like "You're doing fine, just keep doing what you're doing, and more!"
But that struck me as as arrogant. I needed clarity.
The more I mulled, the puzzleder I became. Sly attempts at discussion with my peers got my queries swamped with polite lack of interest. I was getting nowhere.
Finally I decided that I would have to probe, on my own and in secret, the meaning of the three-word admonition.
It's a command, really, and from my Navy service I understand commands. "Rock on, Dude!" is somewhat like "Forward, march!", but rendered with an avuncular smile and a friendly pat on the back.
For me the word "rock," aside from its geologic reference, goes way back to the birth of the music genre of rock 'n' roll. That happened in the late 1940s and early 1950s. And yes, I'm old enough to remember.
As I probed, I began playing in my head, with imagined guitar and drum accompaniment, "We're gonna rock, gonna rock, around the clock tonight." Was that Buddy Holly? (No, it was Bill Haley & His Comets.)
My sources tell me that the words "rock 'n' roll" are an analog for the motion of dancing, with a pinch of sexual suggestion tossed in.
I'm a Crosby-Sinatra-Bennett-Haymes relic, so I disdained the rock 'n' roll tide. I did, however, admire some of the Beatles' music, such as "Yesterday." So I'm not a complete rock apostate.
OK. That was as much as I wanted to know in this context about the origin of the word "rock." And I'm able to grasp the meaning of the word "on" as ahead/forward/upward/advance. But what about that third word, "dude"?
In the dim era of my childhood, a dude was a fop. You could look that up. "Dude" brought to mind a man -- and "dude" was entirely masculine -- dressed in a three-piece suit, with a Phi Beta Kappa key dangling from a watch chain across his chest, with a flower on his lapel, with a hat on his head and spats on his shoes. You can look up "spats," too.
Then, as my childhood slid beneath the decades, a dude became a tenderfoot Easterner out West. He might go to a corral called a "dude ranch," where such types could vacation, wear blue jeans, ride horses, herd cows and eat grub.
A 21st-century dude can be any man you want to canonize with that term of endearment. You know instinctively whom you can call "dude."
For example, I could call President-elect Barack Obama "dude." I could not call Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi "dude," and not only because she's a woman. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid? Never. Sen. John McCain? Ummm ... maybe.
The first time I recall hearing "rock on!" was on a British sitcom, "As Time Goes By." Lionel Hardcastle's father comes out of the blue with "rock on!", but without the "dude," maybe in deference to British couth.
And so, what shall we conclude from this circumlocution, this "Rock Around the Clock" search for meaning?
First, that you should say "Rock on, Dude!" only if you are a man and only to a man whom you like and respect.
And second, that if anyone chooses to say to me, "Rock on, Dude!", I will be pleased, flattered and lit with a glow, however fleeting, of my lost youth.
Then I'll proceed to rock on, as well as I am able.
Gene Jannuzi, who lives in Beaver Falls, is the retired CEO of the former Moltrup Steel and a former Post-Gazette reporter (email@example.com).