March 16, 2010

When "Rock and Roll" Only Meant One Thing

"One song which would really tear the house down was 'Tutti Frutti.' The lyrics were kind of vulgar. White people, it always cracked 'em up, but black people didn't like it that much. They liked the blues."
—Little Richard
"If rock and roll has to be only one thing, then you might as well say it can only be Little Richard."
—Bono
Like many struggling rock stars, I've endured all kinds of cheap taunts and envious smears in the foul underbelly of the music industry. It comes with the territory—when making the quantum leap from bleating opinionated man-child to Serious Ball-Busting Artist, the attendant fallout irrevocably mutates many observers into one-note projection machines. These poor souls are called "critics," and I know how they think, because I used to be one myself.

And let me tell you, rock criticism has got to be one of the most banally self-defeating jobs ever conceived by man, because you have to attach significance to songs that were, of course, all about fucking. You have to imbue thick, rich layers of meaning onto something inherently plastic and disposable; you must infuse the wisdom of age onto something made from the sweet nectar of youth; you have to pin down a moving target with taxidermic precision, freezing it like a museum piece to be analyzed by future generations.

Too many great rock & roll albums have been retroactively neutered that way—hell, at 30 years old, even hip-hop's an ossifying institution now—but that's what happens when any form of music gets wedged into an overly hip, self-referential niche, barely sustained by its own narcissistic feedback loops of bitter elitism. It's not a new phenomenon—jazz suffered similar criminal negligence in its twilight years during the staid '80s and bland '90s, and there's nothing more hopelessly bitter than certain white male jazz musicians—but rock & roll's extended episode of euthanasia during the past decade has been especially painful to witness.

That doesn't mean it's completely dead, but it's not for lack of trying; the "indie"-rock and synth-pop revivals of the 2000s was even more transparently false than the retro-'70s "grunge" wave of my youth. However, music industry obituaries of any kind are themselves meaningless anymore too; poring over fossilized minutiae in a quixotic effort to bolster one's own nerdy obsessions is the very definition of soul-death. But the impulse to dig deep is always there. The search for new magic bullets is endless, but it always starts at the same place.

I don't have to tell you when—some of you were probably even alive back then—but for the rubes, the gist of it is this: somewhere back in the hazy sepia-toned mists of time, an epic cataclysm tore our great nation in half, and nothing has ever been the same since. Much research has been done, though, and modern methods of carbon-dating have placed the epicenter square on the well-coiffured head of one Richard Penniman of Macon, Georgia.

Young Richard did not appear marked for success—being poor, black, and queer was obviously not a recipe for greatness in the mid-1950s, especially when paired with frenzied, shouted paeans to good booty—but success found him just the same, and that was that. Little Richard embarked on a career that became an endless brawl between his soul and flesh—drugs and orgies one decade, gospel and God the next. Rakishness and repentance. Sin and salvation. Rinse, jheri-curl, repeat.

That carno-metaphysical tightrope-walk has defined rock (and country, and gospel, bluegrass, disco, rap, etc.) for so long that it was rare to come across any superstar musician who was not, ultimately, a glutton for punishment in some way. There were a few, but they couldn't hold back the raging beasts of the emergent music business, who coasted in on Frampton's tresses and laid waste to paradise far more completely than any coke-addled junior health-insurance lobbyist brigade ever could.

Indeed, a whole phylum of the menagerie even named itself "Los Angeles," spawning slavish fans, lustful groupies, power-crazed monsters, ruthless emotional vampires and desperate corporate zombies all screaming "Eat it raw, righteous man, eat it raw!!!" whenever some earnest young fool with an acoustic guitar straggled into town. They'd kidnap the poor bugger and drag him out to the canyon somewhere as a karmic coyote sacrifice, and then five years later he'd emerge as some brilliant, demented genius—plunking out crude 8th-note solos on a battered Casio keyboard.

And why? Because the impulse of vengeful punishment for perceived betrayal is strong among rock's fickle fans. Pop fans won't care, country fans are laughably loyal (unless you're a Dixie Chick), and rap fans will recycle your grooves into immortality. But in white-dude rock music, artistic betrayal, selling out and giving in to the man are all fatal misinterpretations in the eyes of the naive hordes—all grounds for instant ostracism and immediate purgation from the history books. Well, at least until Rolling Stone or Spin or VH-1 or even (shudder) Pitchfork wonders "where are they now?"

Totally, dude—they always want more. They are never sated and they will nitpick for eternity. They recycle and reissue and repackage on vinyl and cassette and CD and mp3 and who knows what next. They burrow like leeches into your brain and suck out all the luscious tapioca they can find before flitting away to some other sucker's cerebral cortex to start the process all over again. The same way. For the same reason. With the same results.

On the other hand, that could be exactly what they want you to think. Trust me, I know. I've Been There, and at the end of this month, I'm going Back—and I don't care how gluttonously self-indulgent that might appear. There's always another song to write.

Yeah, because Richard Penniman is an old man now, but even he knows that there's always another way to Rock.

5 comments:

  1. God bless sex for inspiring generations of good tunes!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Amen to that.

    Of course, sex has inspired people into artistic expression since we've been people in the first place. Hell, Catullus sure as hell wasn't the first dude to write explicit poetry about what he wanted to do to someone, after all.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Catullus was the Prince Rogers Nelson of his day, fer sure. Speaking of Prince, well...no Little Richard = no Prince. Damn, you got to get off, you know what I'm talkin about?

    ReplyDelete
  4. On the one ya'll say housequake?

    ReplyDelete
  5. Housequake! Mah lawd!

    ReplyDelete

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