Chapter One: A Rock and Roll Chronicle
The history of rock and roll now spans half a century a chastening thought for anyone ever excited by the novelty of this once freshest of popular forms. As innovative artists have continued to come and go, from Little Richard to the Sex Pistols, from Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention in 1966 to Radiohead some thirty years later, my own interest in rock has waxed and waned, but never quite disappeared. Still, if I'm honest, the most thrilling moments all came early, in the Fifties and Sixties, when the music was a primary focus of my energy, shaping my desires, coloring my memory, and producing the wild fantasy, widely shared, that my generation was, in some inchoate way, through the simple pleasure we all took in rock and roll, part of a new world dawning.
It was a world that I had first discovered in 1956. I was sleeping over at the house of an older cousin he was eighteen, I was nine. It was Christmastime. Every night he fell asleep with his radio on. And every night, as I lay in the upper deck of his bunk bed, I would hear the beat and blare of a late-night disc jockey's theme song, "Night Train," a honking saxophone playing a lazy blues to a striptease beat. As the music faded, the disc jockey started up his patter, a manic rush, words tumbling, pure jive, mainly nonsense to me. Then came the records. I had grown up on the decorum and consonance of symphonies and Broadway musicals, so I was unprepared for the offhand directness of a song like "Green Door" with its chintzy ragtime feel, or "Don't Be Cruel," with its sultry vocal, bounding electric guitar line, and a slap-happy drum sound unlike anything I'd ever heard.
These records touched me in ways that I'd never been touched before. Enthralled by this noise, I began to seek it out, to the consternation of my parents. I became a fan short for "fanatic." I began to collect records. I looked forward to seeing my favorite artists when they made a television appearance a relatively rare event in the beginning. I bought an electric guitar and learned enough licks to form my own band, write a few songs, and make some money by playing at dances in high school and college. When I wasn't listening to records or practicing the guitar, I was reading Dig, 16, or Hit Parader, all full of stories about the latest teen hairdos and dance steps and up-and-coming rock idols.
And so it went for much of the next thirty years of my life: I could not hear enough, or know enough, about the sounds that had first moved me during that winter of 1956.
Time passed. What had once seemed exotic grew familiar. Inspired by the Beatles, a new generation of performers, from Bob Dylan to Jim Morrison and the Doors, helped choreograph a cultural revolution that turned rock and roll from a disparaged music for kids into a widely watched, frequently praised mode of serious cultural expression. By the end of the Sixties, rock had turned into a multibillion-dollar global industry. And my passion had turned into a job.
I became a professional critic, publishing my first record review in Rolling Stone in 1967 it appeared in the third issue. For the next quarter century, I covered the pop music scene for a variety of publications, from The New Republic to Newsweek, giving my readers tangible evidence of rock's mainstream respectability.
As a young fan in the Sixties, I had seen the Beach Boys in Hawaii, the Zombies and Searchers and Rolling Stones in a Chicago amphitheater, the Byrds on Sunset Strip, Janis Joplin in Berkeley, the Grateful Dead at a Love-In, and Eric Clapton's band Cream at the Savile Theatre in London. I had also made frequent pilgrimages to the old Regal Theater on the South Side of Chicago to see James Brown and Jackie Wilson and the Four Tops and Bobby "Blue" Bland in their prime.
As a professional journalist in the Seventies and Eighties, I got the chance to see a great many more artists in even more intimate settings: Bob Marley and the Wailers in their first North American appearance (with only thirty other people in the club); Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band on the brink of fame; the artist formerly known as Prince on his first important American tour. I also got the chance to meet and talk with a great many of my musical heroes, old and new, from Sam Phillips and Paul McCartney to David Bowie and Elvis Costello and Bono of U2.
In many ways, it was an exhilarating time to be listening to popular music, and to be writing about rock and roll. Yet despite a steady stream of new artists and a relentless flood of publicity for every passing fad and despite the fact that for many years I made my living by contributing to the flood of publicity the rock world as I came to know it professionally seemed to me ever more stale, ever more predictable, ever more boring.
What had seemed mysterious to a nine-year-old boy, and what augured a revolutionary youth culture in the mind of an impressionable nineteen-year-old, became, to the adult critic, a routinized package of theatrical gestures, generally expressed in a blaze of musical clichés.
Not that rock and roll was diminishing in popularity; on the contrary, more people than ever bought records and flocked to hear the latest bands. The best-selling album of the twentieth century, Michael Jackson's Thriller, was released in 1982. And the scale of rock's biggest theatrical events has grown ever more gargantuan. Once upon a time, the music had been performed live in clubs and small halls, the kind of venues where I first saw Jimi Hendrix and the Who in the 1960s. Thirty years later, to see a major rock act like U2 or Pearl Jam, one usually had to journey to an arena or stadium where the artists were dwarfed by their surroundings, never mind the size of the crowd assembled to witness the event.
Disenchanted yet still intrigued, not least by my own disenchantment, I sensed that it was time to step back, take stock, and try to untangle and think through a series of events, a great many of which I had either undergone with impassioned abandon or been asked to write about with factitious enthusiasm (a constant temptation for cultural critics who are expected to celebrate the new).
Since leaving Newsweek in 1991, in part because I no longer felt able to feign enthusiasm, I have worked primarily as a teacher, currently at the New School. By academic training, I am an intellectual and cultural historian: and like a good historian, I resolved to understand, to my own satisfaction, where rock and roll had come from and what it had come to.
Hence this book: a reflective look back at selected episodes in the history of the world's most popular form of music.
My narrative combines research into contemporary sources with an analysis of what I take to be the essential issues, informed by a quarter century of experience working inside the music business. I have eschewed any effort to be comprehensive, or to indulge my own continuing affection for the music of various artists, such as Bo Diddley, Sam Cooke, the "5" Royales, the Moonglows, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers, the Flamingos, James Brown, Phil Spector, the Beach Boys, the Searchers, Bobby Bland, Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions, the Kinks, Otis Redding, the Byrds, Led Zeppelin, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, Captain Beefheart, Al Green, Donna Summer, Elvis Costello, and the Pretenders to name only a few of the musical figures scanted in the survey that follows. I have also resisted the temptation to cover up the sometimes embarrassing centrality of "bad" white boys in the cultural history of rock and roll after the advent of Elvis. Among artists popular in the Sixties, for example, it seems to me obvious that Aretha Franklin and Dionne Warwick and Dusty Springfield all are greater musical artists than, say, Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones, or Jim Morrison of the Doors. But it has been Jagger and Morrison, for better or worse, who symbolize various aspects of the cultural essence of rock and roll in a way that the others have not, however glorious the music they made.
In order to clarify this elusive cultural essence, I have focused on a sequence of events, some well known, others not, that led to the invention, and subsequent refinement, of the musical genre and set of emblematic values that we, today, associate with the word "rock." In addition to describing, briefly, what really happened, I have also tried to explore its broader implications, using anecdotes to elaborate a tacit critique.
The story I tell is, superficially, one of triumph. As an integral part of the entertainment industry, rock today is glamorous, profitable, vibrant. For teenagers from Tokyo to Topeka, the music remains a large part of growing up, offering a focus for shared fantasies of romance and rebellion.
As a mode of social interaction, on the other hand, 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. The music I once found fraught with strange, even subversive meanings now often seems to mean nothing at all. Its essential possibilities have been thoroughly explored, its limits more or less clearly established. Though new variants of rock have continued to appear, from rap in 1979 to grunge, trance, house, and trip-hop in more recent years and though new acts, from Queen Latifah and En Vogue to My Bloody Valentine and the Cardigans still sometimes catch my ear I believe that the genre's era of explosive growth has been over for nearly a quarter century. 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.
My narrative thus ends with the death of Elvis Presley in 1977, because by that time, in my view, 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.
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. 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 was nine when I bought my first rock record it was "Don't Be Cruel" by Elvis Presley. At the time, my interest in such music was regarded as relatively precocious. A generation later, when my oldest son turned nine, he was already a veteran rock fan who had long shared his interest with his peers, collecting songs, swapping tapes, offering proof if proof were needed that rock can still produce a shared sense of exhilaration, not least among preteens and young adolescents just discovering the world.
Meanwhile, most of my friends (discounting those who have continued to make their living by writing about, or recording, popular music) long ago stopped listening to rock. As they settle into middle age, their old albums gathering dust, their current musical tastes are now attuned to quite different styles of music, from country-western to classical, from show tunes to patriotic women's choruses from Bulgaria almost anything, in fact, but the once beloved soundtrack of their adolescence and early adulthood.
How did such a distinctively youthful form of music come to play a defining role in the global culture of the postwar period? Why should rock have become the musical lingua franca of the last half of our century? And what can its evident power and equally striking limits tell us about the broader cultural character of our time?
As I quickly discovered when I began to address these questions, my knowledge of rock history, even after all the years I had written about it, was surprisingly incomplete. In the last decade, there has been an outpouring of celebrity memoirs, often painful to read, but also often full of new information. At the same time, a handful of revelatory new works has appeared, for example John A. Jackson's carefully researched studies of Alan Freed and Dick Clark, Fredric Dannen and Fred Goodman's insider accounts of the seamier sides of the rock music business, Peter Guralnick's eye-opening biography of Elvis Presley, Mark Lewisohn's painstaking day-by-day chronicle of the Beatles, and Jon Savage's richly detailed recounting of the rise of punk rock in England in the 1970s. Record companies have meanwhile thrown open their vaults in search of previously unreleased scraps of music. It is now possible to hear Elvis Presley auditioning for Sam Phillips, Little Richard rehearsing "Tutti Frutti," the Beatles playing live in Hamburg, Germany, and the Sex Pistols working through multiple versions of "Anarchy in the U.K." It is also possible to read solemn academic treatises on how the heavy metal played by rock bands like Iron Maiden and Megadeth "articulates the anxieties and discontinuities of the postmodern world." (No, I'm not making this up.)
A generation ago, without the benefit of all this new material, I took a different approach to the topic as the original editor of The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll. I structured that volume by inviting prominent critics to write essays on a pantheon of distinguished musicians: within this framework, Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson and Otis Redding and Buddy Holly and the Beach Boys got equal billing with the Rolling Stones and the Doors. Like the subsequent institution of The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, The Rolling Stone Illustrated History made it seem as if the music revolved around an admirable group of natural geniuses. To some extent, of course, it has: without Elvis Presley and the Beatles, there might not be a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Still, a survey only of heroic musicians cannot help but leave a misleading impression of what rock and roll is, and of how it has evolved. By breaking apart a familiar and essentially romantic narrative, and exploiting the latest memoirs and research to look again more closely at a handful of events, one can see the story of rock's global triumph more clearly for what it is: an enduring puzzle that has yet to be properly appreciated, much less explained.
Here, then, is a look back, a chronicle of some critical moments in the advent of rock and roll when, for better or worse, the course of events changed and a new form of popular culture appeared.
© Copyright 1999 James Miller
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