Rock 'n' Roll, From the Top & the Bottom
Our next band was The Prime Movers. Our enemies called us The Bowel Movements.
My brother and I shared a Kay guitar with punishingly bad action, played through a Vox amp with one 10-inch speaker and a killer reverb that sounded like you were coming from somewhere deep in the back of a walk-in meat locker. The Blenheims' first gig was at a backyard party thrown by the drummer's older sister. If I'm remembering this right we knew two songs, the inevitable "Louie, Louie" and a radically simplified version of "All My Loving" (imagine an "All My Loving" by the guys in Motörhead when they were 12), and we played them over and over all night, and the girls never got tired of hearing them.
This, I realized only much later, should have taught me much of everything I'd ever need to know about rock 'n' roll.
The big controversy among 12-year-old rock musicians at the time was whether you were down with the bright, poppy Beatles or the Dave Clark Five, whom we thought of as "dark" and "hard" because they had those stomping beats and that sax. Not much later the choice was between the Beatles and the Stones. I went with the Stones, once they started coming up with songs like "Under My Thumb" and "Satisfaction," songs that seemed to beckon to me from mysterious worlds of illicit, unknowable decadence. Which, in fact, they did?I was like 13, and this was back in an era when 13 still meant, you know, 13, and I didn't have the slightest idea what those songs were about. I just knew they were somehow bad, and bad's what I wanted to be, not goody-goody like the Beatles.
A fiftysomething rock historian today, James Miller would have been a few years older than me, 16 or 17, and I'm certain he was in the Beatles crowd. His Flowers in the Dustbin: The Rise of Rock and Roll, 1947-1977 (Simon & Schuster, 415 pages, $26) is, in my opinion, absurdly Beatlecentric, and wrongly dismissive of the Stones' contribution to rock. But I agree with him in other areas, mostly age-cohort-related ones.
It is not a question that would eat much clock for anyone under 40, I suspect, but most white guys in their 40s and 50s would probably agree with Miller that rock's "era of explosive growth has been over for nearly a quarter century;" that "rock has many of the features of a finished cultural form?a more or less fixed repertoire of sounds and styles and patterns of behavior"; that by the end of the 70s "the essence of rock and roll?as a musical style, as a cluster of values, as an ingredient in a variety of youthful subcultures around the world?had been firmly established," while as a wing of the entertainment industry the rock product and all attendant spectacle had become "ever more stale, ever more predictable, ever more boring." It is a matter of historical faith among older boomers that rock 'n' roll?the real, original, first generation, living, breathing Elvis-Beatles-Stones youth rebellion rock they grew up with?has been dead for some time, and that everything second- and third-generation, from roughly the Sex Pistols through U2 and Nirvana and on up to Limp Bizkit, pleasant though some of it may be, is mere imitation, rehash and ornamentation of the real, original thing.
As a boomer I find much that's appealing about this thesis?which makes it all the more important, I think, to resist it, or at least question it closely, and one of my larger problems with Miller (even though I guess it's churlish of me to be too harsh since he says a nice thing in there about my Elvis book) is that he doesn't do either nearly enough. (Then again, he just says a nice thing about my Elvis book in a footnote.) Boomers think we invented popular music, and popular culture in general, and that everything You Kids Today produce is slavish imitation of things we did first and better in the 1960s. I repeat, this idea is not wholly unattractive to me; I have whiled away countless pleasurable hours deriding post-historical young colleagues for having missed out on sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll all at once.
Recently I found myself staring darkly at Fox's Woodstock '99 highlights show as Dave Matthews managed to desecrate both the memory of Jimi Hendrix and the honor of Bob Dylan with his imbefuckingcilic rendition of "All Along the Watchtower." I winced as Alanis M did her spastic hippie twirl, and struggled to remember the name of that one-hit wonder frathouse band who did that utterly mediocre Mr. Jones song a few years back and were repeating it now for the 10,000th time with a show of feigned enthusiasm that could only be called "professional." Let's just say Woodstock '99 was not your least lame moment, kids. I mean, Counting Crows? Miller: "Like such other mature pop music forms as the Broadway musical and the main currents of the jazz tradition, from swing to bop, rock now belongs to the past as much as to the future."
You've got at least one excuse, kids, and I suggest you grab it. An instant conspiracy theory posting that made the Psychoceramics circuit right after the Woodstock "riot" began: "Dear Citizens, Patriots, Veterans, et al: MK Ultra Mind Control techniques were used on the Woodstock 99 audience crowd. Microwave antennas trained on Woodstock 99 crowd for mind control to set fires during songs played about fires. Please carefully read the following post about how the 'cell phone' towers that use microwave energy had their antennas directed onto the audience crowd..." Get the drift, wiglets? You weren't actually grooving on Kid Rock. You were Manchurian Candidates.
Or you could answer your parents and grandparents with their own history. Scan Miller's book and you'll see that a little concert rioting is a tradition that goes back to the foundations of rock. Alan Freed's very first rock 'n' roll concert, the Moondog Coronation Ball, infamously ended in a riot in 1952. In 1956, teens throughout the U.S. and UK rioted after screenings of Rock Around the Clock, prompting one shrink, Miller writes, "to call rock and roll violence a 'communicable disease,' spread by a 'cannibalistic and tribalistic sort of music.'" You hardly need mention Altamont to them.
I've been reading two rock books. Miller's is an overview of rock from the quintessential boomer perspective. It's a serviceable, intentionally lite historical survey by a noted professional rock critic.
The other book has a title that sounds like Spinal Tap, but I actually liked it a lot: Harris M. Berger's Metal, Rock, and Jazz: Perceptions and the Phenomenology of Musical Experience (Wesleyan University Press/University Press of New England, 334 pages, $22.95). Berger, who teaches music at Texas A&M, did a standard ethnomusicologist's study (I'm figuring it was fieldwork for his PhD) on the hard rock club scene in Cleveland, the death metal underground in Akron and what there is of a jazz scene in both towns, 1992-'93. As silly as that sounds, it's an excellent, richly detailed and, for long stretches, highly readable work of cultural anthropology.
The crucial difference between them is that Miller treats rock as essentially a dead language, while Berger examines it as lived experience.
Miller doesn't just reflect the standard boomer rock esthetic?he's long been a principal architect of mainstream rock history, along with friends and contemporaries like Greil Marcus, Christgau, Guralnick, all those. He wrote his first rock review in the third issue of Rolling Stone in 1967, and kept doing it up through the 80s, writing for The New Republic and Newsweek, editing The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, consulting on a Time-Life Home Video History of Rock and Roll. He teaches at the New School now. In short, he is the Establishment.
And Flowers reads like it. (The dedication?"For Greil"?is a clear warning.) It's a History Of Rock history of rock, written like the narration for a two-hour VH-1 special. He begins with the now-conventional starting point of Wynonie Harris' "Good Rockin' Tonight" of 1947?not quite rock 'n' roll yet, but very clearly an immediate jump blues ancestor. He ends it, also conventionally, with the year Elvis died and the Pistols rose and fell. He confesses that trying to get all that into a relatively short book means highlighting only the big events and big stars to the detriment of much else, but I think it's more than that. His personal tastes clearly lean toward mainstream pop, which means not only his esthetics but also his historical perspective is very commercial.
Broadly speaking, rock is for him a subset of pop music, which is a subset of the entertainment industry. Thus he overdetermines the importance of various performers or trends based on their commercial success; figures like Dick Clark, Fats Domino and Ricky Nelson get way too much play, at the expense of people I'd consider a fuckload more significant and influential, like Zappa, the Who and the Ramones, to mention only three of dozens. He seems suspicious of any notions about rock that hint at a greater purpose than selling hit records and making lots of bucks. While there's plenty of worldly wisdom to this?there can be no doubting that rock 'n' roll was from day one seized on by entrepreneurs like Freed and Dick Clark and sold with unprecedented vigor to the newly discovered teen market?it also seriously warps Miller's view toward the Philistine.
Where Miller's best, I think, is on the early years, the 50s into the early 60s. He remembers and can clearly describe the sense of discovery and wonder, the pure excited rush of rock 'n' roll when it was new. Concerning its curious and unprecedented global power to charm, he writes:
"It has been said that rock and roll, like popular music generally, was never meant to last... But through sheer repetition [popular recordings] became a permanent factor in the psychology of countless listeners. Specific recordings functioned like cue cards, reminding people of where they had been and what they had felt when they first heard a song." Rock 'n' roll had the power to "facilitate an unprecedented outpouring of almost instant nostalgia, fueling a wistful longing for the past?the most profound sentimental basis of rock and roll, and one reason for the surprising durability of its most popular recordings."
This is smart and true.
Though Miller pays p.c. lip service to the notion that the white man stole the black man's music to create rock 'n' roll, he knows it was a lot more than that, more the "mongrel music" a Billboard writer called it early on: "A melange of vernacular styles," Miller writes, "the genre combined aspects of jump blues and Tin Pan Alley pop with country and gospel and fiddle hoe-downs from long ago and far away." He notes how Elvis' 1954 cover of "Good Rockin' Tonight" takes Harris' good-naturedly rolling version and amps it up with nervous, ungainly white-boy energy?thus creating something new in the world, something literally unheard before then: rock 'n' roll. More a borrowing than outright theft, and the borrowing has continued back in forth in both directions across the great racial divide ever since?maybe even, Miller suggests, helping to close that gap a little. Elvis' version of the song, he opines, "is a shock. Hearing it, one can easily imagine people reeling with pleasure; that certainly is how many Americans reacted to Presley on television two years later. Like a Pentecostal enthusiast bursting with the spirit, the young man is trembling in ecstasy and speaking in tongues."
Miller's also very good at recalling the extraordinary flush of exuberance that was Beatlemania. I suspect this is in part because he never really got over it himself. To Miller, the Beatles are the apex of rock 'n' roll in every way?as pop music, as art, as a social movement and as a highly successful business. Before reading Flowers, I would've thought it was impossible to overstate the Beatles' significance in rock history. If a cataclysm swept the world of all recorded pop but one copy each of Rubber Soul and Sgt. Pepper, Miller'd be content that all the very best and brightest the genre had to offer had been preserved.
Consequently he's ludicrously dismissive of the Stones (and by extension, virtually all of the darker, harder rock they represented). Where the Beatles version of "Twist and Shout" is arguably "better than the original version by the Isley Brothers," Miller goofily states, the early Stones' far more extensive and sincere appropriations of r&b and the blues he writes off as little more than "burnt-cork minstrelsy." "Satisfaction" is shrugged off as a "minor" example of the kind of bad-boy rock Miller doesn't like anyway, Satanic Majesties' Request is derided as pathetic Beatles imitation, Altamont is the Stones' bad-boyism come home to roost, and on and on. While I'm as appalled as anyone by the hideous spectacle the Stones eventually became, Miller just makes a fool of himself by not giving them their due for anything.
(Contrast Miller's take with that of Peter Guralnick, an even higher-powered fashioner of boomer rock esthetics, who wrote back in his first book, 1971's Feel Like Going Home?recently brought back as a Back Bay paperback?that "whatever else they have been, The Stones have always proved the best advertisement for American black music outside of the music itself. Where a group like The Beatles retreated quickly into studio seclusion and, more important, never really did anything to see that their influences were recognized, The Stones from the first have paid their respects.")
But it's not just the Stones. Miller dismisses Bowie as The Beginning of the End, the first overtly ironic reflection of rock's hype and its tropes back on itself. Springsteen here is in a sense an American Bowie, without the irony or glamour but just as obviously second-generation mimicry in which the hype eclipsed the modest talent (in this case I agree). And Miller's take on punk rock is the boomer-approved, and wrongheaded, view that punk rock begins and ends with the Pistols, in 1977, and that the Pistols, moreover, represent the apotheosis of what Bowie had begun, of rock as a completed form, which from the Pistols on has been just repeating itself. If it's post-1977 and it's mentioned at all in Flowers, it's summed up (i.e., shrugged off) in a few lines in a tacked-on epilogue.
This is to say nothing of the countless performers and songs Miller doesn't mention along the way. Radically oversimplifying and focusing only on the big events and giant acts that fit his 30-year life-arc, he completely fails to give any impression of the rich bouillabaisse of styles, songs and influences the music really is?oh all right, was. Literally hundreds of garage bands, one-hit wonder soul singers, acts who put out maybe two or three great albums before fading out, go unmentioned. Whole genres like 70s funk, disco, heavy metal and art rock get swept aside. It's just too reductionist.
"Rock, when it is entertaining, offers the sound of surprise: not the surprise of virtuosos improvising new ways to play (the thrill of jazz), but rather the surprise of untrained amateurs, working within their limits, finding a voice of their own?and sometimes even elaborating new song forms unthinkable to more highly skilled musicians," Miller declares. "Without an air of ingenuous freshness and earnest effort, rock as a musical form is generally coarse, even puerile?full of sound and fury, perhaps, but characteristically spurning the subtle creativity and seasoned craftsmanship that is the glory of such other mature vernacular pop music genres as jazz and the blues, country and gospel.
"The apparent reason for this difference is both simple and, in a sense, self-evident: unlike every other great genre of American pop, rock is all about being young, or (if you are poor Mick Jagger) pretending to be young."
I agree wholeheartedly that "rock"?if I may use the word here as an ageist trope for all "youth music of today"?must be by, for and about young people. The Steel Wheelchairs tour shocked and deeply depressed me. It's been 20 years since the Rolling Stones have made anything like rock 'n' roll. What they've made for the last 20 years is just spectacle, closer in mood, spirit and audience reception to a football game or fireworks display (which indeed it incorporates) than to rock 'n' roll. If the Stones began as a cover band they've also ended that way, as kind of the ultimate Rolling Stones tribute band. And don't get me started on Springsteen. This weekend I overheard a guy in his mid-20s, I'd say, telling a pal how he'd been out to Jersey to see the Boss six nights in a row?bringing his total lifetime Boss Attendance to an estimated 36 concerts. There aren't many guarantees in this world, he told his friend, but you're always guaranteed the Boss will put on a show. That's Springsteen for you?the Delco battery of rock performers.
Miller offers the obvious concession that as a middle-aged man he's simply too old to be interested in, let only excited by, youth music in the 90s. Yet he seems curiously blind to how this might bias his thesis. While it may be true that for some time now there's been little new in rock in the formal sense?that is, nothing new for a rock critic to write about?it does not logically follow that "rock" isn't experienced as new by young people today, that your first electric guitar isn't still your first electric guitar, that "Fatboy Slim Is Fucking in Heaven" wasn't just as new and exciting the first time some kid heard it as "I Want to Hold Your Hand" was for Miller. I mean, how would Miller know? Rap, rave culture and 90s punk may not tickle the fancy of an old fart like Jim Miller or Greil Marcus, but there'd be something terribly wrong with these musics if they did. Punk, a scene Marcus has specialized in gibberizing about, is a great example. If you're a young white male today and you want to shock your parents with some real youth rebellion music, what better way than to start a hate-edge band, give it a name like Adolf Hendrix (back off, I just invented it) and play to the skinheads? No wonder the boomer rock critic establishment continues to declare punk dead by 1978; it absolves them from dealing with what it's become today.
(BTW, don't hold your breath waiting for Marcus to get wise in his new-old column in the increasingly mainstream Salon, either. Expect a continuation of the same Pere-Ubu-is-God senior-babble that presumably got him canned at The New York Times, Artforum, et al. Much like the Stones, this is a guy who wrote his last big hit 20 years ago and really really ought to stop now.)
Which brings me to a brief mention of Berger's study of Midwest heavy metal subculture. It follows an admittedly curious 90s subgenre of ethnomusicology that focuses specifically on heavy metal, treatises like the 1991 Heavy Metal: A Cultural Sociology?written by occasional NYPress contributor Deena (Dasein) Weinstein?and Robert Walser's 1993 Running With the Devil. One is tempted to crack wise that scholars find Metallica so simplistic and lunkheaded it's easy to study as a primitive culture. Then again, academics have done this for folk music, r&b and other genres?why shouldn't the headbangers get their turn?
I found Berger's deadpan academic approach delightful and loaded with insight, especially vis-a-vis the death metal scene. Where the hard rockers are just hoping to make a hit someday, and the jazzbos are, well, jazzbos (if anybody's less articulate about what they do than rockers...), the metal scene is inherently more mysterious; like, indeed, some tribal cultures, it is rich with all sorts of social, political and esthetic complexities. Like an anthropologist in Borneo at the turn of the 20th century, Berger takes his notepad into beat-down local rock clubs?most often just a bar with a little stage in the back under the tv?and describes the goings-on in precise detail, from the parking lot ("I parked next to a Camaro and went inside the club") to the beer signs and arcade games to how the audience subdivides into little all-girl cliques and "the Silent Men," his borrowed nickname for those guys who stand off to the side, arms folded across t-shirts, and just stare at the bands all night, nodding their heads slightly, nursing their beers. There's one long, carefully observed description of how a mosh pit forms, builds and dies off that I found priceless.
I lost interest when Berger went into great detail on formal aspects of the music-making?long analyses of how bands rehearse, write songs, develop their shredding guitar solos (which he dutifully transcribes in page after page of musical notation)?although I admire the stamina. I was far more interested in his interviews with band members about what the music and the scene mean to them. Midwestern metal is largely a blue-collar scene: Dann, his principal informant, is in his mid-20s, still lives in his parents' basement, works six days a week, 10 hours a day, in a factory where he polishes plastic parts. He and Berger have very interesting discussions about the scene's politics (mostly conservative to libertarian, with some ultraright patriotism), religion (more Crowleyan do-what-thou-wilt individualism, less outright Satanism), its flirtations with racist ideologies and Nazi symbolism, the sense of community the metalheads maintain through zines and cassette-swapping, the sense in which metal (and thrash and punk) can be seen as inchoate, not-quite-ideologically-formed expressions of frustration and rage for the working class young people involved in them.
I found it an absorbing exploration of a rock subculture that flies so far below the radar of an establishment critic that Miller only mentions heavy metal, I believe, once?and then only to make a single joking reference to books exactly like this one. Miller's top-down, trickle-down theory of rock is all about a few salient geniuses and their chart-busting hits. Berger's metal heads are the masses way down below whom those geniuses impress and influence. Just like Miller?just like Lennon and McCartney and Jagger and Richards in a bygone era?they're imitating the records they love. Does it matter if formally the music stopped developing 20 years ago? Not to them, I think. That's more a rock critic's concern. The metalheads are just living the stuff when they're not at work.
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Letter: A Sad Farewell
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