Thursday, June 5, 2008

Memory and Forgetting

Forty years ago today was one of those days that I remember all too well. In the early morning of Wednesday, 5 June 1968, Robert F. Kennedy was shot by an assassin shortly after finishing the victory speech he gave upon winning the California Democratic Presidential primary. He survived the day, but would die the next, on June 6. I say I remember the day (bits and pieces), although I don't remember the moment itself. The funny thing is, I remember watching the news report about his primary victory and privately celebrating it, but in those days television stations signed off at midnight, and hence I'd gone to bed a couple hours before the shooting happened (Central Time). At the time, my parents owned a business, a bowling alley, and normally they weren't able to close much before 1 or 2 a.m.--very late. I remember my father waking me up when he and my mother arrived home after closing the place, and told me the terrible news (apparently hearing about it on the radio). Although it was highly unlikely that my father would have voted for Robert Kennedy--he was a "staunch" Republican--I think he and my mother (who probably would have voted for RFK) were both very upset by the event. The memory of John F. Kennedy's assassination was not all that far distant in the past, and two months earlier, of course, Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated; although King's and Kennedy's assassinations were two months apart, my memory has collapsed the time between them into contiguous events, one right after the other.

I was just a teenager at the time, but I remember the summer of 1968 being a terrible one--the Democratic Convention in Chicago, likewise a disaster, was just two months away. For reasons I no longer remember, Robert Kennedy was a very powerful figure for me (the figure of the martyred JFK perhaps a reason, but certainly not the only one), and hence I cannot explain the reason for it, but I do remember how badly I took the news of RFK's death. I remember the day after he died, I was sitting by myself at the front counter of the bowling alley--it was open for business, but there wasn't a soul in the place except for me--and sobbing over the news of his death. Again, I can't tell you precisely why. I no longer remember. Youth, naïvete, the historical moment, the power of the media.

The location of his assassination, the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, is now gone, and with it, of course, the pantry off the Embassy Room, where the actual shooting took place. The Ambassador Hotel opened in 1921, designed by renowned architect Myron Hunt, who also designed the Rose Bowl Stadium, among other famous buildings in L.A. Located at 3400 Wilshire Boulevard, it was about four miles south and east of Sunset and Vine in Hollywood. Six Academy Award ceremonies were held there--including the ceremony the year Gone with the Wind swept the Awards. The Hotel’s Cocoanut Grove became famous for live entertainment on the West Coast for decades. Amid controversy, the Ambassador Hotel was pulled down in 2006.

One can't imagine the Texas School Book Depository in Dallas being pulled down, but then Robert F. Kennedy, despite his popularity at the time, hasn't captured the public memory like John F. Kennedy. The location of one assassination is memorialized--become part of the official cultural memory, while the location of the other has been erased. These disparities reveal the writing of history itself, which is always both an act of remembering, and forgetting.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Gunslingers and Guitarschlongers

Last time I wrote about the significance of the album cover to Bo Diddley's Bo Diddley is a Gunslinger (Checker, 1960; pictured in the blog entry below). I observed that Bo Diddley wasn’t the first black musician to appropriate the iconography of the American West for an album cover; as Michael Jarrett has pointed out, jazz great Sonny Rollins did that, with Way Out West (Contemporary, 1957). Subsequently, the association of the popular musician with the myths of the American West--in particular, the musician as outlaw hero--became a significant one in the 1960s. I suggested that by appropriating the image of the outlaw hero for a generation of rock ‘n’ roll musicians, Bo Diddley became an iconic figure of rock 'n' roll, not simply a musical inspiration. Bo Diddley's album was released at the beginning of the 1960s. During the decade of the 60s, through a process that Robert Christgau calls a "barstool-macho equation of gunslinger and guitarschlonger," the musician as outlaw was formed, and his image, formerly associated with the values of the bohemian subculture, became, according to Michael Jarrett, "an icon recognized by all and embraced by many" (200). According to Robert Ray, the musician as outlaw stood for "freedom from restraint, a preference for intuition as the source of conduct, a distrust of the law, bureaucracies, and urban life" (255).

Outlaw iconography became a metaphor for individuality, integrity, and self-reliance. In addition to albums such as The Byrds' Sweetheart of the Rodeo (1968) and the Eagles' Desperado (1972) that I mentioned last time, we can also add the following albums and songs. Perhaps a key album in the development of the popular musician as outlaw hero was Bob Dylan's John Wesley Harding (1967), in which he merged his own biographical details with the figure of the notorious Texas outlaw. Hence Jimi Hendrix's decision to cover "All Along the Watchtower" is much more deliberate than it at first may seem. The following list of albums with frontier imagery is not intended to be an exhaustive list, merely an indication of how widespread was the appropriation of the imagery of the American West.

Duane Eddy - Have 'Twangy' Guitar, Will Travel (1958)
Bo Diddley - Have Guitar, Will Travel (1959)
Duane Eddy - Songs of Our Heritage (1960)
Bob Dylan - John Wesley Hardin (1967)
Quicksilver Messenger Service - Happy Trails (1968)
The Flying Burrito Brothers - The Gilded Palace of Sin (1969)
The Jimi Hendrix Experience - Smash Hits (1969) (back cover; pictured)
Mason Proffit - Wanted! Mason Proffit (1969)
The James Gang - Rides Again (1970) (and numerous other album titles)
Mason Proffit - Movin' Toward Happiness (1971)
War - The World is a Ghetto (with "The Cisco Kid") (1972)
Bob Dylan - Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973)
Willie Nelson - Red-Headed Stranger (1975)
Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Tompall Glaser, and Jessi Colter - Wanted! The Outlaws (1976)

Reggae musicians adopted the image of the outlaw hero as well: the late Jimmy Cliff with The Harder They Come (1972) and The Wailers with "I Shot the Sheriff" (1973). The so-called "Outlaw" movement in country music picked adherents as well, such as David Allan Coe, with his album Rides Again (1977). And, eventually, even a rock band from the American South named itself the Outlaws. The eponymous first album of the Outlaws was released in 1975, by which time the musician as outlaw was well over a decade old.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Bo Diddley: Outlaw Hero, 1928-2008

And so Bo Diddley, author of the so-called “Bo Diddley Beat,” one of the foundational figures in rock ‘n’ roll, is dead at age 79. There is a comprehensive obituary here, a fine appreciation by Iggy Pop (written some years ago for Rolling Stone Magazine) here, and a post-mortem tribute to Bo by Dave Alvin, once of The Blasters, here. I cannot add anything substantial to what others have astutely observed about his contributions to American popular music, but I do think that his influence on rock ‘n’ roll is more than simply musical. Although, ironically, he later became a law enforcement official, I think a great part of his allure was his image as an outlaw hero.

Pictured above is the album cover to Bo Diddley is a Gunslinger (Checker, 1960), in which Bo anticipated the black cowboy, and hired sheriff of Rock Ridge, Cleavon Little, in Blazing Saddles (1974) by some fourteen years. (The Count Basie Orchestra, incidentally, was featured in Mel Brooks' film playing jazz in the wide-open desert.) Bo Diddley wasn’t the first black musician to appropriate the iconography of the American West for an album cover—jazz great Sonny Rollins did that, with Way Out West (Contemporary, 1957)—and Herb Jeffries, who once sang with Duke Ellington’s band, had played a black cowboy in the 1930s, in Harlem on the Prairie (1937), Bronze Buckaroo (1938) and Harlem Rides the Range (1939). I choose to think that Bo Diddley saw these films as a kid, later inspiring him to conceive of this album cover.

But if the album cover of Sonny Rollins’ Way Out West, as Michael Jarrett observes, associated the jazz musician with the myths of the American West—“the musician as outlaw hero; the music as a movement or push outward” (p. 197)—Bo Diddley appropriated the image of the outlaw hero for a generation of rock ‘n’ roll musicians, and in doing so became an iconic figure of rock 'n' roll, not simply a musical inspiration. Bo Diddley's album was released at the beginning of the 1960s, and during the 1960s, notes Robert Ray, the Radical Left became obsessed with the iconography of the American frontier:

Clothes (jeans, boots, buckskins) and hairstyles (long and unkempt, moustaches) derived from daguerrotypes of nineteenth-century gunfighters; and pop music returned repeatedly to frontier images: The Buffalo Springfield's "Broken Arrow," The Grateful Dead's "Casey Jones," The Band's "Across the Great Divide," James Taylor's "Sweet Baby James," Neil Young's "Cowgirl in the Sand," Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Proud Mary," The Byrds' Sweetheart of the Rodeo, and the Eagles' Desperado. (pp. 255-56)

His musical influence on subsequent figures such as Jimi Hendrix is widely acknowledged, but no one has acknowledged his power as an iconic western figure, as one can see by the pictures found on the back cover of the Jimi Hendrix Experience' Smash Hits, released in 1969. While most certainly a foundational figure in rock music terms of his music, perhaps we ought to think of Bo Diddley's influence in inspiring any number of outlaw rockers as well.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Digital Divide

A few weeks ago, I wrote about my weekly (more or less) visit to the local Goodwill Store, where one can, occasionally, find something interesting. I stopped by the store yesterday, and as usual perused the record albums (why are there always so many damned gospel records?), 8-Tracks, and cassettes. The numbers of CDs are increasing (replaced by digital downloads?) but usually the CDs themselves are not in the greatest shape. I also noticed a new trend: the growing number of VHS tapes. I saw many dozens of VHS tapes, so many in fact that the managers had to construct a new bin just to handle them. I didn't find anything interesting yesterday, but that's not why I'm writing.

I also noticed four older model televisions, ranging from 13”-26”, one an old black & white, sitting next to each on a shelf, but each of the sets had a bold yellow disclaimer pasted to it stating that after February 18, 2009, the antenna would not work unless it was attached to a converter box: in other words, buy at your own risk, because come next February 18, analog signals will be turned off forever.

Seeing those old TV sets served as a reminder that in fewer than nine months, old-fashioned (analogue) broadcast television will go the way of the vinyl LP, 78s, 45s, 8-Tracks, music cassettes, VHS tapes, and so on. I suspect that many Goodwill stores around the country will find themselves inundated with old television sets within the year. It occurred to me the Goodwill store is a repository of déclassé technology—typewriters, record turntables, 8-Track players, for instance—even old DOS computers. Essentially, the function of the Goodwill Store is in part to serve as a waiting room for discarded technology, until these inert objects, perhaps, someday end up in a dusty museum or in the hands of collectors with enough disposable income to restore the things to their original glory.

Of course, the store's bins also serve to hold other discarded things as well: T-shirts emblazoned with bowl games won or lost, old toys included with Happy Meals, bestselling paperbacks with yellowing pages, gauche lamps, clunky radios, scads of coffee cups emblazoned with arcane organizations, old bed frames which once supported lovers embracing in desire. Was it Walter Pater who said he hated museums because they always inevitably gave him the impression that no one was ever young?

I read an article the other day stating that roughly 20% of U.S. households still rely on antennas to receive TV signals, which for some reason I found astonishing. And if these households don’t have sets with digital tuners, they won’t be able to pick up a digital signal--in other words, come February 18, or about nine months from now, no more television. Moreover, households with new digital TVs or special converter boxes for older sets also may need to upgrade their antennas because of a unique aspect of digital television: the signals that produce digital images can be more difficult to pick up than the old analog waves. In other words, it is quite clear that the digital transition will be more costly to people than at first anticipated. I read that the National Association of Broadcasters and the Consumer Electronics Association have a website,, that shows which stations’ signals you can get where you live and also offers help choosing an antenna. Goodwill Stores around the country better start now constructing additions, because I suspect there will be lots of TV sets showing up a few months from now. How many, instead, will show up in landfills?

Just as the Western Union Company—a company that became synonymous with the telegram—sent its last telegram in January 2006 because it could not compete with emails and cell phones, so too do the old analogue airwaves give way to digital transmission. One technology replaceth another.