"Cultural Literacy" is the name of a book, a bestselling one in fact, that concludes with 63 pages of names, dates, events -- things! -- that everyone should know in order to be culturally literate. The first item on the list is "1066," the year the Normans under William the Conquerer invaded England, and the last is "Zurich," the Swiss city inhabited, at least in part, by gnomes. In all humility, modesty and honesty, I am compelled to admit that I know or recognize most of the items on the list. The same impulses (humility, modesty and honesty) compel me to admit that I am not culturally literate. I know next to nothing about rock music.
The Beatles make the "Cultural Literacy" list, but not the Rolling Stones nor, as far as I can tell, other rock groups. This should indicate that knowing zip about rock music does not exclude one from the shrinking fraternity of the culturally literate. I would like to believe that, but my experience tells me otherwise. Ours is, at least in part, a rock culture, and not knowing much about it makes one culturally illiterate -- a vegetarian among the cannibals. I know, because I have hated rock all the time it has been around.
Rock music came into my life in my early teens when, suddenly and for no good reason, love songs (often with literate and witty lyrics) about adults were replaced by groans of lust uttered by groups of boys, one of whom sang falsetto (for a long time, I thought Frankie Lymon was a girl). My friends were very excited by this new music, and they used to rise around dawn to try to get into rock shows hosted by Alan Freed. For this, you had to stand in lines with members of every street gang in New York and risk becoming a homicide victim. I stayed home and listened to Patti Page.
I was reminded of my own peculiar cultural illiteracy last month when most of the world marked the 10th anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley, the singing slug from Memphis. "The King," as he was invariably called, once again seemed to make the cover of every popular magazine, in which we were instructed in his genius. In some accounts, Presley was called a revolutionary, a regular Mahler from Memphis, who took one kind of music, combined it with another and produced something wholly new -- just don't ask me what. The man could sing. No doubt. He had a kind of sneering charisma, like Mussolini. No doubt. But why he remains popular after all these years is something I cannot begin to fathom. He was, after all, no Frank Sinatra.
My problem with rock from the very beginning had to do with the lyrics. Take those of the Beatles. I have read essays in which their early music is celebrated, but to me it was awful stuff: "I want to hold your hand" repeated ad nauseam throughout the song of the same name. It's childish, too: Even as a teen-ager, I had other, more exotic things in mind. I wanted the romance, love and supper-club ambiance of a Cole Porter lyric sung with the exquisite phrasing and timing of a Sinatra. Later, the Beatles produced songs of originality and complexity. "The Fool on the Hill" is good enough to have been written by Kurt Weill. Of course, rock purists consider that to be a product of the Beatles' decadent stage.
Worse than the lyric that says nothing is the lyric that I cannot understand. I am often amazed to hear people sing along with music that, to me, sounds like a subway rushing through a tunnel. "How do they make out the words?" I wonder. Sometimes I listen closely to a person singing. The experience is like reading the subtitles of a French movie. I am forever exclaiming, "Of course! Yes! I understood some of that!" But always I need help, a translator. I consider myself a stranger in my own land. How come, almost alone among my countrymen, I cannot understand what is being sung?
I had an English professor in college who admitted to the class that he knew nothing about baseball. It wasn't just that he wasn't a fan. No sirree. He knew nothing about the game. Never played it, never followed it and never had anything to do with it. I was shocked, as was most of the class. How could this man consider himself an American? What sort of person was this? The answer that came back was "weird."
I recognize that weirdness in me when it comes to rock music. Loathing it made me an outsider as a teen-ager and yet again an auslander in college. Now I hear people say rock defined my generation, and I haven't the vaguest idea how listening to rock would make the values of my peers significantly different from mine. The peace movement in the Vietnam war era was not possible without rock music, they say. Who knew? The wave of adult-loathing that swept the campuses? This, too, would not have been possible without rock. I'll take their word for it. They -- me! -- are all products of rock 'n' roll. I am what I am because of a music I never listened to. I think I finally know what existentialism is.
But I, at least, own up to what I am -- a cultural illiterate. Not so the snobs of academia who either slight rock when compiling a menu of what a literate person should know or who venomously condemn rock, as if it were nihilism set to a pounding beat. I recognize that rock is the anthem of our culture, an indigenous American music and that I, not the rest of the country, stand outside the cultural mainstream. I happen to prefer it here. It's so much quieter. ::