“Rock And Roll (I Gave You The Best Years Of My Life)” — Kevin Johnson
The final song in our short series of songs which tell a complete story is Kevin Johnson’s “Rock And Roll (I Gave You The Best Years Of My Life)”.
This is a great storytelling song. And while it’s got some sad moments in it. “Rock And Roll (I Gave You The Best Years Of My Life)” ends up a surprisingly empowering song and perhaps demonstrates that, in the end, the only things which really matter in life are the lessons we learn and the people we meet along the way.
When it first came out in 1973, reviews of “Rock And Roll (I Gave You The Best Years Of My Life)” almost universally described the song as as “sad”. But I think that’s a slightly simplistic interpretation of the lyrics.
For me, this song is actually about love and redemption, but Kevin Johnson, who wrote it and sang it originally, had to paint the backstory first.
Whilst I accept the backstory could be seen as a little sad, by the end of “Rock And Roll (I Gave You The Best Years Of My Life)” Kevin Johnson finds everything he’d been been looking for all along, just not perhaps in quite the way he’d expected.
That’s by no means a bad outcome…
“Rock And Roll (I Gave You The Best Years Of My Life)” also has an unusual claim to fame…apparently it’s one of the music industry’s most-covered songs written by an Australian…and, no, I can’t think of all that many others either…
As a great storytelling song, you won’t be surprised to learn it came to the attention of the country music industry. If there’s one genre of music that loves a good story, it’s the country music genre…
So in 1975 Mac Davis took his cover of “Rock An Roll (I Gave You The Best Years Of My Life)” into the country charts. It was even a crossover hit into the pop charts, peaking at number 15 in the Billboard Hot 100.
Mac Davis’s version wasn’t a UK hit, but Kevin Johnson’s original did make it to number 23 in the UK charts that same year.
I don’t particularly recall “Rock And Roll (I Gave You All The Best Years Of My Life)” from back then…in fairness it was only a minor hit and I was very young at the time. But in the 1980s a DJ I often listened to on the radio played it reasonably frequently and I got to know the song and grew to love it from there.
It’s hard to remember the pre-internet, pre-YouTube, pre-iTunes, pre-Spotify era, but in those days it was hard to find records which were no longer in the charts, unless they were by some mega artist like Frank Sinatra, steady sellers whose albums record stores would stock for years after they were released.
Each time “Rock And Roll (I Gave You The Best Years Of My Life)” came on the radio it really connected with my own life and experiences in a profound way, which is why a relatively obscure hit by a little-known Australian singer/songwriter is still one of my favourite songs, over 40 years after it was first recorded.
Many, many years later…and with the help of the internet…I did track down an Australian import version of today’s song on CD. It cost me 20 quid, but now I had my own copy I could play any time I liked. I still remember how it felt when I pressed “play” and heard…
Oh, I can still remember when I bought my first guitar
Remember how good the feeling was, put it proudly in my car
And my family listened fifty times to my two song repertoire
And I told my mum her only son was going to be a star
After all, where would we be without our families to encourage us and indulge us. That verse always makes me think of the hours my granddad spent sat in the corner listening to me practice the piano when I was younger.
I’m sure I was dreadful for quite long periods of those practice sessions, but he always tapped along to the beat and told me when I finished how much he’d enjoyed listening to the music.
I cringe slightly at the memory now because I know my rendition of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” on the piano as a fourteen year-old wasn’t nearly as impressive as Larry Knechtel’s fabulous playing on the original recording. But still, he encouraged me. That’s what love is.
But back to our song…
For a while things looked hopeful…
Sixty-six seemed like the year I was really going somewhere
We were living in San Francisco with flowers in our hair
Singing songs of kindness so the world would understand
That the guys and me were something more than just another band
But, as they do for us all, the years go by and sometimes we’re too busy doing what we’re doing to take stock and put our own lives in context. We’ve set ourselves on a path and we’re headed for our objective. Nothing will stop us till we get there.
Often it takes a change of circumstances to make us pause and rethink out priorities. Heaven forbid, it might be a health scare for ourselves or someone close to us, even the loss of an elderly relative.
However, sometimes we’re in luck and the path of our life crosses the path of someone else’s life. In time, that comes to give us a fresh perspective on what really matters during our time on this earth…
Seventy-one in Soho when I saw Suzanne
I was trying to go it solo with someone else’s band
She came up to me later and I took her by the hand
And I told her all my troubles and she seemed to understand
The love and redemption in “Rock And Roll (I Gave You The Best Years Of My Life)” comes from Suzanne not just “seeming to understand”, but demonstrating that she understood in the most tangible way possible.
It’s clear she’s brought a lot of love into his life…she’s kind and understanding and she’s with him no matter what.
Initially she might have been attracted by the possibility of having a major rock star as a boyfriend, but what she felt for him clearly went much deeper than that…
And she followed me through London through a hundred hotel rooms
Through a hundred record companies who didn’t like my tunes
This part of the song is what makes “Rock And Roll (I Gave You The Best Years Of My Life)” such a great record. This is where we find out what loving someone completely, totally and absolutely really means.
There are all sorts of reasons Suzanne might have gone to one or two unsuccessful auditions with a would-be rock star, almost no matter what she thought about him.
But I imagine repeating that experience many times over is something most people would tire of pretty quickly…especially if you had to coax your boyfriend out of his inevitable post-audition disappointment just so he could try to land that record deal one more time the following day.
Even though we’ve got a strong sense that Suzanne is a particularly special person already, if what she does next isn’t the truest form of love, I don’t know what it is…
She followed me when finally I sold my old guitar
She tried to help me understand
I’d never be a star
To love someone enough to follow them through a hundred unsuccessful auditions and then stand by them and help them through the no-doubt difficult process of putting their childhood dreams aside and coming to terms with the fact that they’ll never succeed at something they’ve spent their whole life trying to do...
Well, for someone to love another human being that much is incredibly rare.
Which is why, for me, “Rock And Roll (I Gave You The Best Years Of My Life)” isn’t a sad song, even though a casual listener might think it is.
Rather, just below the surface, it’s a surprisingly tender tale of kindness, love and understanding.
Love is what this song is really about, not the years of not making it and disappointment at missing out on record deal after record deal.
Those experiences just set the backdrop for a story which shows us what true love really looks like, and how we might stumble across it in the most surprising places, even when we’re not expecting it and probably don’t think we deserve it.
Suzanne’s love and kindness through the years of unsuccessful auditions is what “Rock And Roll (I Gave You The Best Years Of My Life)” is really all about. And her love and kindness helps our singer move on when he finally realises he’s taken his hopes and dreams as far as they’re ever going to go.
Someone who stands by you through all that has more love in their little finger than most of us encounter in our entire lives.
For that reason, when you really understand the story of “Rock And Roll (I Gave You The Best Years Of My Life)”, it’s a delightful, fragile and vulnerable tale of love and redemption, not just the sad tale of a musician who never quite makes it.
In the end, our singer didn’t get what he wanted. But he ended up with far more than anyone has the right to expect…a love that will see him through for the rest of his days.
Would that we all find our own Suzannes somewhere some day…
Here’s Kevin Johnson with the very touching “Rock And Roll (I Gave You The Best Years Of My Life)”…
If you’ve read this far, thank you for spending a few moments in the company of one of my favourite songs. The video is below, but if you prefer listening to your music on Spotify, you can find today’s track here… https://open.spotify.com/track/1nspp6wYG65GQONsOxmp6p