Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Sunday, January 17, 1960: The Classic

After two weeks at #1, Marty Robbins’ “El Paso” (see my entry for January 4) was displaced at the top of the pops by Johnny Preston’s “Running Bear”—which, like “El Paso,” is also a narrative about sexual obsession and death. The song’s eponymous protagonist is cast as the Romeo figure in love with “Little White Dove,” the Juliet of a rival tribe (the river and the rival tribe function as obstacles to the fulfillment of their desire). Unable to consummate their love, they choose death instead, in the form of a double suicide.

Not that anyone remembers. It’s “ancient” history, a perception that is encouraged, no doubt unintentionally, by historiographers of rock and roll. The problem is that rock and roll historians have derived their crude historiographical method from the science of paleontology (crude in the sense that it presumes a sort teleologically-driven process governs the progress of rock and roll), and hence the history of rock and roll has been emplotted as “eras,” with the period 1959-1963 perceived as a sort of anomaly, a non-period, in an otherwise rationally developing and coherent system. The history of rock would seem to be conceived of as follows (at least in the North American geographical region):

--Stone Age: Development of the “blues,” once known as “race” music, then “jump,” then, eventually, following a period of hybridization enabled by the war years and the post-war collapse of the swing industry, around 1951 or so, “rhythm and blues”
--Bronze Age: Early elaboration and experimentation with rhythm and blues elements beginning ca. 1951. Artifacts from this era: “Rocket 88,” early Little Richard recordings on Peacock, Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock,” as well as other materials of interest only to (musical) archaeologists having an arcane (specialized) knowledge.
--Iron Age: Began around 1954 in the rock and roll equivalent to the “Fertile Crescent,” i.e., the Mississippi Delta, in diverse villages. Developed by Little Richard (New Orleans) and others, popularized by Elvis Presley (Memphis), followed by the subsequent sudden and widespread dissemination of rock and roll, primarily among Caucasian populations, 1956-58. As above, material artifacts from this era are now of interest only to those with a specialized knowledge and the urge to preserve and collect these shards in museums ("halls of fame").

Following this continuous three-part development, however, there’s an unpredictable cataclysm, the rock and roll equivalent of a gigantic meteor strike, an apocalyptic sequence of events structurally necessary to explain the always puzzling, inexplicable, and violent end of one era and the interstitial moment before the next--“the day the music died”: The King’s exile to Germany (subsequently inviting a host of illegitimate Pretenders), the deaths of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J. P. Richardson, the arrest of Chuck Berry, public backlash against Jerry Lee Lewis, and so on. Following this cataclysm, there’s an immedicable historic rupture, the post-apocalyptic return to the “Dark Ages,” a period of trauma-induced shock, an amnesiac gap, “missing time”—the “Lost Years,” roughly corresponding to the years 1959-1963.

The problem with this model is that it makes it seem as if what came after, especially the music of the Beatles, appear fully formed, ex nihilo. According to David Stowe in Swing Changes: Big-Band Jazz in New Deal America (1994), this sort of moment occurred before in American popular music. It happens because changes in popular music are often “obscured by conditions in the music industry” (206). In his discussion of why the post-war emergence of bop (bebop) was so puzzling to its contemporaries, Stowe explains:

Just as the formative preswing years of the early 1930s had been elided by the post-Crash collapse of the entertainment business, particularly the recording industry, bebop’s lengthy incubation period coincided with the distraction of world war. The 1942-1944 recording ban, moreover, ensured that the prime vehicle for disseminating the new music was unavailable for nearly two years. (206)

Profits in the entertainment industry are largely determined by advertising revenues, especially so for Top 40 radio and network television. (The Top 40 analogue within the television industry at the time was American Bandstand.) The format of Top 40 radio was determined by the industry’s commitment to the 2-3 minute single, which easily allowed for the insertion of advertisements between each song. By 1960, the LP had existed for over a decade, but LPs primarily consisted of collections of singles—hence the invention of the “Greatest Hits” album around this time, a heterogeneous assemblage culled from previous single releases. A rock and roll song was defined by its length (the single) and not yet by the “jam” (enabled by the length of a side on an LP. A “Greatest Hits” album premised on the extended “jam” is inconceivable). Rock and roll songs were, are, singles; everybody knew, knows, this.

So did the Beatles--except the Beatles, given developments in recording technology in the 1960s, also helped popularize the LP, at least to a younger generation. Hence the perceived “vacuum” in the years 1959-1963 is an effect of the institutional commitment to rock and roll singles and not to rock and roll LPs (except as a cobbled together collection of 2 to 3 minute songs). There are no “classic” rock albums from this period because the rock album as such didn't yet exist--there was no such thing as a “conceptual” or “concept” album (although Sinatra had begun taking such steps in the 1950s, creating albums unified by a single “mood”). Only with the rise of FM radio later in the decade did “classic” albums, in the sense of LPs, emerge. Obviously, the “classic” rock album was a consequence of FM radio privileging the album over the single ("AOR"). It's true that Elvis's first LPs are referred to as "classics," but in this case the term is used to distinguish the era, not the specific use of the LP format.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Saturday, January 16, 1960: Cult of Bop

That grand wild sound of bop floated
from beer parlors; it mixed medleys
with every kind of cowboy and
boogie-woogie in the American night.
--Jack Kerouac, On the Road

According to Barry Miles' The Beat Hotel: Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Corso in Paris, 1957-1963 (Grove Press, 2001), on January 16, 1960 William Burroughs (pictured) had been a boarder at the “Beat Hotel” in Paris, a decaying Left Bank rooming house (closed 1963) at 9 rue Git-le-Coeur, for precisely two years, having moved there on January 16, 1958. Although it had circulated in various drafts prior to his arrival in Paris (from Tangier) two years before, his major work, Naked Lunch, was essentially finished. By January 1960, the novel had been in print just a few months, having been published in Paris by Olympia Press the late summer of 1959, by which time all the important texts written by the Beats were completed: Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957), Allen Ginsberg’s Howl (1956), and Gregory Corso’s Bomb (1958) were all in print prior to Naked Lunch, the last of the "Big Four" to see print. Yet unlike the other texts, Naked Lunch is an assemblage of “routines” (Burroughs’ term), meaning it reads more like a codex than a scroll (in contrast to, say, the poems by Ginsburg or Corso, or Kerouac’s On the Road, literally written on a scroll), which is to say Burroughs was open to the creative possibilities made possible through electronic media such as film (the “cut-up” method).

Hence the major works of the Beats were completed or drafted before the popularization of rock and roll (Elvis, 1956) in American culture. The Beats modeled themselves on the post-World World II beboppers or boppers—self-conscious modernists (for a discussion of beboppers as self-conscious modernists, see Chapter 5 of David W. Stowe’s Swing Changes: Big-Band Jazz in New Deal America, 1994). Like the expatriate Americans of the 1920s—“the Moderns”—the Beats settled, at least temporarily, in Paris. Since the Beats perceived themselves as representing everything that was modern (“hip”), Kerouac invoked “That grand wild sound of bop” in On the Road (written 1951). (As many scholars have observed, musical discourse has often provided the language for debating issues of American identity; as the above quotation from On the Road reveals, Kerouac uses a musical metaphor to capture the uniqueness of America.) In a sense, Kerouac had to endorse bop, to associate himself with it, in part to allow for the cultural acceptance of his work. As David Stowe explains:

A romance with the symbols of high culture and learning pervaded the bop subculture. . . . Whatever its utilitarian considerations, the bop dress code seemed lifted from the Parisian avant-garde. . . . [Some] learned Arabic in order to study the Koran. In addition to paying homage to avant-garde European composers, the jazz modernists gave their compositions quasi-academic titles like “Epistrophy” and “Ornithology.” Much was made of bop artists’ ability to converse about intellectual matters; one described [Dizzy] Gillespie as “deep,” and [Charlie] Parker as someone who “could converse on any level about anything.” Gillespie recalled lengthy discussions with Parker about philosophy, politics, “the social order,” “life-style,” Marcantonio, and Baudelaire.” (211-12)

Not surprisingly, given the reputation for drug use by highly visible jazz figures such as Charlie Parker and Louis Armstrong (although Armstrong’s use of marijuana was hardly a true narcotic such as heroin, to which Parker admitted an addiction), early on bop was linked by the media with vice. Stowe cites a Time magazine article from March 1946 that designated as “’the bigwig of be-bop’ singer Harry ‘The Hipster’ Gibson, who with guitarist Slim Gaillard had recorded such reputed bop anthems as ‘Who Put the Benzedrine in Mrs. Murphy’s Ovaltine?’ (which owed far more to Fats Waller than to bebop)” (207).

Slim Gaillard’s appeal to Beats such as Kerouac was in part due to his skills at verbal improvisation and word play (hence his appeal was much like Neal Cassady’s). His routines often employed nonsensical syllables during stream-of-consciousness rap sessions. Hence it is no wonder that there is an homage to one of Gaillard’s performances in On the Road.

Likewise, the neologisms and the distinctive argot of Naked Lunch owes as much to bop—that is, the post-war jazz subculture—as it does to the drug subculture (the more obvious candidate) that would have been familiar to Burroughs, although the language of the two subcultures overlapped to such an extent that it’s difficult to determine from which domain the words first emerged. Words such as “liquefactionist” and “factualist” as well as proper names such as “Mugwump” all ring of hipster culture. And while Burroughs referred to the various sections making up Naked Lunch as “routines,” he might just as well called them riffs, a musical term etymologically related to riffle, one of the meanings of which means to shuffle or rearrange a deck of cards. Care to cut (up) the deck?