To "know" something or someone is no simple thing.
In fact, in most languages, "to know" is broken up into two or more words. For instance, in French, you might say "savoir" (or one of its conjugations) if you mean it in the sense of knowing a fact, or a poem, or a process. But you would use "connaître" if you meant it in the sense of knowing a person or a thing. In English, to "know" someone "in the Biblical sense" can even mean to have had intimate relations with that person.
In 1961, science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein introduced a new word into the language when he invented the word "grok" in the pages of "Stranger in a Strange Land." "Grok" was (so the story went) a Martian word meaning "to become one with the observed," to know someone or something so completely that you essentially merge with him, her or it. (And in Heinlein's book, like the Good Book, it also had a sexual connotation under certain circumstances.) As we learned last week, "Stranger in a Strange Land" struck a powerful chord among young Americans in the '60s, and lest you doubt it, just check out how many songs are either based on the book or use the word "grok" in their lyrics.
David Crosby wrote a song called "Stranger in a Strange Land" for the Byrds' "Turn! Turn! Turn!" album, but the song was never finished by the band (although it was subsequently recorded by other acts). Crosby also managed to alienate his bandmates by trying to insert his "Triad" (with its "Stranger in a Strange Land"-derived lyrics about "sister lovers and water brothers") onto their fifth album, "The Notorious Byrd Brothers," but the song was eventually nixed. (It can be found on subsequent compilations, however.)
Leon Russell, the great Wrecking Crew pianist who went on to a successful solo career with hits like "Tight Rope" and "A Song For You," recorded his homage to Heinlein's book in 1971 on his album, "Leon Russell and the Shelter People." Russell's "Stranger in a Strange Land" is clearly informed by Heinlein, with lyrics like, "When the baby looks around him, it's such a sight to see; he shares a simple secret with the wise man," evoking the novel's innocent main character, Michael Valentine Smith, who often says in the book: "I am an egg."
Nine years later, the Police based "Friends," the B-side to their best-selling single, "Don't Stand So Close to Me," on a cannibalistic subplot of "Stranger in a Strange Land." In 1994, Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields used "grok" in the lyrics of his "Swinging London," and six years later, Steely Dan (whose very name as a band was derived from an obscure phrase in a William Burroughs novel) did likewise in their "Two Against Nature."
Nowadays, "grok" is a word still used frequently, although it has become more common among computer geeks than the youth subculture in general. Not bad for the only word in the English language to have originated on Mars, albeit by way of fiction. Or did you already grok that?
Notes is funded in part by the Gill Foundation's Gay and Lesbian Fund for Colorado, a proud supporter of Colorado organizations like the Denver GLBT Center and their work to provide support and advocacy for Colorado's gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender population.
Craven Lovelace produces Notes, a daily cultural history of popular music, for KAFM 88.1 Community Radio, kafmradio.org. You can visit cravenlovelace.com for more of his musings on the world of popular culture.