Mentored by rock ’n’ roll, ushered to truth and wisdom

By James Sullivan
Globe Correspondent / May 28, 2010

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Any high school yearbook from the past 30 years can confirm it: Rock ’n’ roll has given any number of budding adults a few words of advice, a catchy aphorism to pass along, even, in some cases, something like a moral compass. For Mark Edmundson, a mellifluous writer and notable scholar and professor in the English department at the University of Virginia, rock was apparently a Zenlike religion in his formative years in the 1970s.

Were it not for the title of his book, however, rock music would seem just one source among many for the writer’s youthful accumulation of wisdom and teachings. Author of books about Freud, goth culture, and an odd-duck philosopher who fired Edmundson’s mind at Medford High School (the rightfully lauded “Teacher: The One Who Made the Difference’’), Edmundson has written a coming-of-age sequel that looks like a Harley-Davidson but rides more like an old 10-speed.

Which still makes for a fine outing, just one with less throttle (Edmundson might call it “zoombah’’). The memoir’s central focus involves the years after college when the future professor takes a series of jobs and embraces a series of mentors.

Edmundson’s first job after graduation from Bennington is as a stagehand at a New Jersey concert arena. The man who got him the gig, a hulking social critic whom the author calls Pelops, becomes one of Edmundson’s postgrad mentors, his first “King of Rock and Roll.’’

When the two first meet, at Bennington, Pelops stalks Edmundson’s dorm room “like a Visigoth in a sacristy,’’ dismissing the books on his new acquaintance’s shelf as “bourgeois piffle.’’

Their friendship remains just short of believable. Though Pelops inspires some nifty turns of phrase — for him, Edmundson writes, rock ’n’ roll was “dancing bubbles on top of capitalism’s evil brew, made of human blood and broken human bones and groaning sinews’’ — the reader might be hard-pressed to understand why he was such an influence on the author.

Nor do the bands they work for and listen to provide much in the way of illumination. “The Stones, the Who, these were my liberating gods,’’ Edmundson writes. How so is barely broached.

While pursuing his career “at rock’’ (as he has the unfortunate habit of repeating), Edmundson moonlights as a New York cabbie. He befriends a colleague’s father, an unapologetic Wall Streeter who offers a counterpoint to the Visigoth’s hard-core Marxism.

Eventually, after an Outward Bound excursion in Colorado and a respite from rock ’n’ roll as a bouncer in a Northampton disco, the author lands at a Vermont boarding school, where another mentor helps him discover his true passion as a teacher and thinker. There, he finds a nice balance between his compassionate side (the teacher) and his “glory-seeking’’ other half (the noted scholar).

“When you push one of these drives, the heroic or the compassionate, to the complete exclusion of the other,’’ Edmundson suggests, “trouble usually spills over the brim.’’ Without compassion, the hero becomes ruthless. But without some desire for distinction, “people can go slack.’’

And maybe there’s a third hunger that’s just as necessary, he concludes: “the hunger to think about things,’’ to try to make sense of our often incomprehensible lives.

It’s a good thought, one that could fit neatly next to a yearbook photo. But when the author, who is conversant in Schopenhauer and Emerson, quotes Van Halen’s “Jump,’’ even a graduating high schooler might cringe.

James Sullivan, author of the forthcoming “Seven Dirty Words: The Life and Crimes of George Carlin,’’ can be reached at


Harper, 240 pp., $24.99