ROCK AND ROLL
Rock & Roll was liberating. Age fourteen in 1954, I was going to the American Community School of Paris (my father had a year’s job with the Marshall Plan) when rock and roll erupted. “Rock Around the Clock”, Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene,” Fats Domino’s “Blueberry Hill.” Rock captivated me instantly. I could try to reconstruct now why I love rock but I didn’t ponder it then. Rock & Roll MOVED, exuding energy, sensuality, and was inherently rebellious, not music for Puritans. Even I, no dancer before, wanted to bogie to rock & roll.
Before Rock, there was a nadir of pop music. Eddie Fischer, Patti Page, Teresa Brewer, Perry Como. Bland music, sappy lyrics, or worse: “How Much is that Doggie in the Window?” “Oh Mein Papa.” I’d never imagined that pop music could speak to me, until suddenly it did.
From 1955 to ‘57, back in my New Jersey suburb, the early flood of great rock singers and songs captured me. My buddies and I listened to rock on the radio, bought 45 records, played them at home or at parties. Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, Carl Perkins, The Everly Brothers, more Fats Domino, more Chuck Berry. “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Whole Lotta Shaking Going on,” “Johnny B. Goode.” I loved them all, and Berry the most. As John Lennon aptly said, “If Rock and Roll had a name, it would be Chuck Berry.” None of us dreamt of attending a rock show, or even knew that they existed. Then the King, Elvis: “Hound Dog,” “Don’t be Cruel,” “That’s Alright Mama.” You had to move to Elvis. The youth of America literally moved to Elvis. His music (if not his lyrics) and his Elvis-the-Pelvis performance were erotic. My parents, not instinctively partial to rock & roll, thought it absurd that the Ed Sullivan TV show showed Elvis only singing from the waist up. In the snarky, apt words of Bob Dylan, “Something is happening here and you don’t know what it is, do you, Mister Jones?”
Next, college days at Amherst. Freshman year a lifelong friend introduced me to Jimmy Reed, Bo Diddly, Muddy Waters. Then Tex introduced us to Johnny Cash. Later we discovered Ray Charles, and his epic “What’d I Say?” the most overtly erotic song yet. We played our discoveries at our fraternity weekend parties, in our rooms, and dancing with weekday Smith dates at the City Café, a semi-dive bar in Northampton with a superb rock juke box.
Into the 60s, when rock reached a peak, or, in my view, its highest peak. Our heroes from before rolled on, except for the tragic death of Buddy Holly. Plus—The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Simon and Garfunkle, Aretha Franklin, The Who, The Kinks, Janis and Big Brother, Jefferson Airplane, with Grace Slick the Grateful Dead, Motown, Roy Orbison, The Beach Boys, The Doors, Crosby Stills Nash & Young, and many, many more. And of course Dylan, our prophet, going electric with “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” “Twenty years of schooling and they put you on the day shift.” Got that right, Bob. “I Ain’t Gonna Work on Maggie’s Farm No More.” Me neither, Bob.
A Golden Age of Rock, music for “The Movement,” the Counterculture, a wave of young Americans determined to live authentically (whatever that would turn out to mean.) Sometimes rock lyrics spoke directly to us. Lots of Dylan. And Creedence’s “I ain’t no millionaire son;” the Stones’ “I can’t get no satisfaction;” CSN&Ys’ “We can live in peace;” The Grateful Deads’s, “What a Long Strange Trip It’s Been.” But deepest, rock remained ecstatic, tribal. Moving to San Francisco in 1967 (”the summer of love”) I soon went to shows at the Fillmore and the Avalon Ballroom. Stoned and more than a bit intimidated by the wildly dancing crowd, I also felt that the world (well, at least the U.S.) must be moving my way. My boss at Legal Services, married with four young children, said, ”We sure got better music than the bad guys.”
But that didn’t turn out to be determinative. Ronald Reagan was elected President in 1980. Even earlier, in 1976 The Bee Gees turned to disco, which became a brief rage. Rock slowly diminished into sometimes-terrific music, but without a Movement to interact with. More often, to me, rock seemed to have become corporate, homogenized, and dull. But perhaps it’s only that I became forty. Surely in recent decades there have been great rock performers: Bruce Springsteen, Bonnie Raitt, Bob Seeger, The Talking Heads, Mark Knopfler, many more. My soul-mate Merv mentioned to his daughter recently that he’d heard a new rock band called “The Killers,” that he really liked. She said, “Dad, they’ve been my favorite band for eight years.” As Neil Young sang, “Rock and Roll will never die.”