THE MOVES ARE rough, tentative, spastic almost. Eddie Money staggers, jerks, lumbers his way on and around the stage, attempts a slick twirl and barely catches himself before tangling in the mike cord and tipping over. He punctuates his energized, raucous rock songs with ungainly gestures.
His body language recalls a rock 'n' rollin' Victor Borge: He sticks thumbs up, wags a finger, flanks his hips with his hands, snaps his head to one side in time with the crashing cymbals, caves in his chest, bringing his elbows close to his sides and snaps his fingers like Steve Martin aping Mr. Las Vegas Cool, a nightclub warm-up singer. Later, he stiff-legs into a semijackknife and then slides across the floor on his knees (ripping his green cords in the left leg).
The image projected by a performer has always been the galvanizing element of rock. Rock has paraded itself through outrageous, outlandish posturing. Elvis seems mild by today's standards, especially when compared to groups like Kiss or The Sex Pistols, but in the '50s he was shocking. And if Elvis was shocking, Jerry Lee Lewis was scandalous; Little Richard, downright bizarre. Over the years rock performers have embranced such flamboyant formulas for their shock value.
Klutz rock provides an alternative to the current extremes of theater, glitter and punk rock. Not necessarily a new development in rock (remember the egregious insult to decorum posed by Johnny Ray in the early '50s as he tore at his shirt, half-strangled himself with his tie and collapsed in sobs to his knees), the studied clumsiness and awkwardness of some recent and rising acts appear to be partially technique.
Elvis Costello, who has received extensive critical acclaim, flatfoots it, smacking the stage and pigeon-toes up to the microphone; his movements are energized yet jerky. A former computer programmer, his body projects mechanized intensity in the process of short-circuiting. In one Washington concert he practically decapitated his bass player twice with his guitar as he swung around.
Ron Ross, a product manager for RCA in New York, believes there is calculation in Costello's stage persona. "It's a stylistic technique for bringing the audience and performer closer together through mutual identification. He addresses himself to a male, teen-aged audience that is disaffected sexually and substituting rock 'n' roll for sex." Costello expresses their sexual frustration through his awkwardness while intimating that rock 'n' roll is more fun than women anyway, and that making it on stage as an unconventional performer is a far more attractive option. "Costello let's you off the hook of competing with Robert Redford."
The responsive chord struck in a gawky teen-ager reverberates - if someone as unsmooth as Costello can make it, maybe there's still a chance for all of us gawks.
Ross traces one inspiration for klutz back to Iggy Pop. "Both Iggy Pop and Costello would like you to believe they are intentionally accident prone on stage. The sense of possibility of danger to the performer himself, the audience or a combination of the two is titillating."
Warren Zevon is safe as long as he stays on keyboards, but when he moves from behind the piano, his intoxicated cloddishness is eminently apparent. He trips over the amplifier, his body overanticipates the beat, and about all he can manage to get going in time with the music are his shoulders. His body stutters the syncopation.In one concert he accidently knocked his glasses off with the mike and practically ground them into the floor with his foot before the song was finished.
Willy Alexander of Willy Alexander and the Boom Boom Band clambers around stage like a clubfooted mandrake root. he turns his backside to the audience, Van Morrison style, and offers an uncoordinated wag of his rear end. Unfortunately for him, his music is as clumsy as his stage presence.
Joe Cocker, perhaps the father of spastic rock, is well-known for his flailing, flapping, unpredictable moves, now immortalized by John Belushi's extraordinary imitation of him on "Saturday Night Live." Described by Nik Cohn as waving his arms "like some demented windmill," Cocker's movements have given rise to rumors and speculation about some sort of basic nervous disorder (denied by Electra and by Cocker's manager). That is just his natural singing style.
The unaffected, naturally clumsy stance of klutz rock is itself a somewhat startling dadalike put-down of musical pretensions; and it's an effective put-down of numerous pretensions in the entertainment business, not the least of which is the conviction that beautiful is beautiful.
Meat Loaf is not beautiful. At the first glance of him, the mind boggles. This unhappy-looking, fat-Albert type couldn't possibly be a star. But at first note, at first pointed, sudden movement, it is clear; his dynamism transforms him and his audience.
Mike Pillot, director of special projects at CBS, feels that "there is a trend toward naturalness. . . . Audiences are interested in performers being natural. People are shying away from the slick shows. Naturalness is the key to effective communication of a rock song."
Naturalness has not always been the case, however. One-upmanship in rock has had numerous gambits. There was the violent, so-called "destructive" rock practiced by The Who, Jimi Hendrix, The Move, who smashed instruments, televisions, anything handy onstage in grand finales of fractiousness.
Other forms of outrageous overstatement were explored by groups attempting to extend to the limit the theatrical potential of a rock show. Frank Zappa, Alice Cooper. The Tubes and Kiss deliver shows encompassing the most bizarre fantasies and nightmarish theatrics. Props, surrealistic story lines, elaborate makeup and audience participation create shock rock suitable for occult orgies. (Alice Cooper's 1973 "In Concert" television performance was so alarming to one station manager in Cincinnati that he withdrew it from the programming and replaced it with a horror film.)
"Glam" or "glitter" rock surfaced in conjunction with unisex clothing styles. Out of the closet and onto the streets strutted all the ambiguities about sexual identity as flashy androgynous posturing, fey fashions: "rock in drag" was epitomized by the likes of David Bowie, Gary Glitter, the New York Dolls and Elton John.
Some might argue that the first glimmers of glitter appeared in the exhibitionism of Little Richard in the '50s and were polished to a satin sheen in the movements of Mick Jagger who preened and strutted around the stage like a peacock in the mating season.
Short of self-immolation, what's left for the young and struggling rock performer to do on stage?
"I wanna be a rock 'n' roll star," sings Eddie Money five or six nights a week. And as he sings and shouts it, his body works like a fevered marionette trying to catch up with his puppeter.
Eddie Money is also mining the vein of the spastic as rock hero. Bill Grahm, Eddie Money's manager, believes that Money's rough edges make him more vulnerable, open, more appealing. "We want to leave the slightly spastic movements; we don't want to take away the rough edges." Money, devoid of self-consciousness onstage, expresses his words through his body. A rough-hewn, hulking persona, frequently a millisecond out of syne with the music, emerges.
Klutz rock offers an engagingly unchoreographed roughness that allows the opportunity for artistic tension between the music and the moves.The appeal is not only in the lack of pretension; but in the honesty, the vulnerability communicated. Klutz is the I'm okay, you're okay of rock.