Sex and Smells and Rock and Roll

Published on March 30th, 2009 in: Issues, Smell-O-Rama |

By James Thurston Davis

I had an extended affair with a member of the Lower Class Brats.
I used to hang out with a bunch of other punk acts. I liked ’em smelly and skinny back then.
No drugs.
—Jaime M., Yelp, San Francisco


We can record the song and hear it over and over. We can take a digital picture of the stage or film the performance and see it again and again. But we don’t have Maude’s Odorifics so we can smell the musical moment over and over again. Like sight and hearing, smell is one of the more immediate senses. It can trigger powerful memories, just like an image or a song.

But just as rock and roll has had many famous songs and images, it also has had many famous smells. The gymnasium floor where the Crickets are playing. The smothering mildew, stale smoke, and old sweat of the Cavern Club at lunchtime on a Tuesday. The mounds of muddy garbage at Woodstock. The stench of piss and puke at CBGBs. The earthy aroma of marijuana rising from a thousand joints burning at once. The smoke-filled demon gym where Kurt Cobain invites us to smell the excitement.

jim morrison

The smell of the rock and roll depends on the time, the place, the company, but most of all, the listener centered in the frailty of the present. Because scents are often intensely personal, every listener has a different answer. Some like their songs smelly and lean. Others prefer them doused in patchouli. Glam Metal had different smells than Progressive, which in turn had different smells than Punk, which had different smells than New Wave, No Wave, Hip-Hop, Trip-Hop, Girl Rock, or Grunge. Each sub-culture of rock has its own distinctive looks, sounds, and odors. But more to the point, each listener has his or her own bouquet of sense memories.

I was too young to understand everything in the store, but rock and roll to me smells like the sandalwood incense burning in that old hippie record shop up on the second floor just off Elysian Fields in New Orleans. I don’t remember the name of the place, but I can smell it now. It was 1974, and I had saved my allowance for two weeks to buy three albums at seven bucks a pop. Inside the gatefold of Dark Side of the Moon was a soothing berry fragrance, like Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill Wine. I’d press the cover to my face and breathe in the cardboard berries. Long-playing albums are visceral things, and the older the album covers are, the stronger they smell. Old, attic-y smells. Musty, stale-cigarette smells. Cardboard holds scents longer, and I feel closer to the Beatles because of the smell of old album covers. I was too young to fully appreciate them for what they were, so most of my old collection is gone. Still, the survivors trigger so many sense memories that I don’t even have to play them to experience them. It’s like remembering the new car smell of your old clunker.

I thought of the album-cover scent when as a kid I first noticed the aromatic smoke wafting up from everywhere at concerts. That smoke was nothing like my father’s tobacco. Rock and roll is about coming of age and all the new smells bubbling up in the wind. Tube amplifiers don’t just buzz and feedback, but scent the air with ozone. It’s very subtle, but if I concentrate long enough, try to listen with my teeth, I just may catch a whiff. Old oil and rubber in the garage mix with beer and cigarettes and the neighbors calling the cops. Every crowd has a different smell. Billy’s been wearing the same denim jacket since junior year. He thinks he’s Jim Morrison and wants his leather pants cut like jeans. The thick white theatrical smoke smells like shaving cream and hairspray.

And sweat. Those leather pants now hang in a Hard Rock Café somewhere and still smell like sweaty balls. People often seem surprised by how smelly their heroes are, but the animal odors swelling off of the stage are part of the microcellular appeal of music. Smell is, after touch and taste, the most physical of the senses. Sometimes music, when taken in the right doses and with the right company, can lead to synesthesia, when each note has its own aroma, each vision its own sound. These experiences are not apocryphal like Jim Morrison’s pants or Mötley Crüe’s Spaghetti Incident. We like to think we live in antiseptic times when everything is smoke-free, dental-dammed, and condom-sheathed. But rock and roll is not unscented. It stinks, it reeks. It goes four months without a shower and still gets laid. It seduces us with pheromones and weed smoke. It bathes us in delicious aromas, and eats our chocolate-garlic fingers in the Lamia’s pink pool. If we’re not smelling the sound, we’re not playing hard enough.

(with Robin Brownlee Smith and Michael Young)

2 Responses to “Sex and Smells and Rock and Roll”


  1. Mickey Rourke Tests The Limits Of Our Collective Female Devotion :: Agent Bedhead:
    September 11th, 2009 at 10:54 am

    […] up and allow him to motorboat to his little heart’s content. That is, until we smell the Jim Morrison-esque sweaty balls. On second thought, maybe those leather pants aren’t such a great […]

  2. Kim Davis:
    January 21st, 2011 at 12:47 am

    Nice piece.

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