Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Rocky Mountain Way

We’re heading off this morning the Rocky Mountain way, planning to spend a couple of days or so with Becky’s niece and her family, who live in an A-frame home 10,000 feet up in the Rocky Mountains. I couldn’t help but think of two of the more famous songs about the Rockies, Joe Walsh’s “Rocky Mountain Way” and (of course) John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High.” But there’s also Gene Autry’s “Blue Canadian Rockies” (written by Cindy Walker), later covered by The Byrds on Sweetheart of the Rodeo (1968), and Lightnin’ Hopkins “Rocky Mountain.” For movies, there’s Errol Flynn’s Rocky Mountain (1950) and the Three Mesquiteers’ Rocky Mountain Rangers (1940), which has absolutely nothing to do with the Rocky Mountains. Likewise, the Randolph Scott western, Rocky Mountain Mystery (1935), has nothing to do with the Rockies as it was filmed in Big Bear Valley, California. At any rate, we’re off for a real Rocky Mountain high, not a stand-in: a little hiking (I’m not up for more than a little), cold, crisp air (and, I hope, cold, crisp beer), a lot of beautiful scenery, and a little sight-seeing. I’m told, since their home is so isolated, to prepare for a brilliant night sky, as the stars at night are something to see. Apparently there will be some requisite Milky Way gazing as well, which is fine with me. Sing it, Joe.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Private Parts

Near the end of the half-time show of Super Bowl XXXVIII, Justin Timberlake reached across Janet Jackson’s chest in order to remove a cup from her black leather bustier. In doing so, he happened to reveal her right breast to millions of viewers. Predictably, in the aftermath of the event, many Washington lawmakers invoked the rhetoric of moral outrage. A few months after this particular Super Bowl, Congress approved a measure allowing the FCC to increase the maximum fine from $27,500 to $275,000 for violations of decency on television and radio. In fact, the measure was later inserted into the 2005 defense authorization bill, revealing the control of televised images is on par with national security.

In a world in which decorum is the only morality left, the exposure of Janet Jackson’s breast on national television was a fundamental breach of etiquette. American culture obviously believes the censorship of body parts is a deep, fundamental value worth preserving at any cost. If a black woman’s breast (don’t they always come in pairs?) can be revealed to millions on national television, what could be next? It would seem the proper covering of body parts is as equally important as national security. However, just so the point can’t be conveniently neglected, Jackson’s breast was not totally exposed—she was wearing a nipple shield big enough to cover completely the areola. This curious fact led many conspiracy-minded critics to conclude that the event was not accidental but a tasteless stunt, engineered to revitalize the aging pop star’s fading career.

The Timberlake-Jackson event is yet another instance of the problematic nature of pop music in American society: inevitably, it would seem, pop music generates controversy. In any case, censorship and proscription lead to counter-strategies and evasive tactics, among them being the use of slang and euphemism, as the lyrics to many pop songs, so linked to vernacular expression, attest. As might be expected, sex organs are highly fetishized body parts in pop lyrics, but so too are breasts, legs, and gluteal muscles. But where’s William Burroughs when you need him? I know of no pop song featuring a Talking Asshole.

Infernal Organs And Body Parts:
Chuck Berry – My Ding-A-Ling
The Black Eyed Peas – My Humps
Jackson Browne – Red Neck Friend
The Commodores – Brick House
Sheena Easton – Sugar Walls
Peter Gabriel – Sledgehammer
Iggy Pop – Cock In My Pocket
K.C. and the Sunshine Band – (Shake, Shake, Shake) Shake Your Booty
Led Zeppelin – The Lemon Song
LL Cool J – Big Ole Butt
Mojo Nixon – Stuffin’ Martha’s Muffin
Primus – Winona’s Big Brown Beaver
Reverend Horton Heat – Wiggle Stick
Salt-N-Pepa – Shoop
Bob Seger – Night Moves
Rod Stewart – Hot Legs
Wreckx-N-Effect – Rump Shaker
Frank Zappa – G-Spot Tornado
ZZ Top – Tube Steak Boogie

Monday, June 1, 2009

“More Popular That Jesus”

The way the story goes, John Lennon’s infamous remark about the Beatles being “more popular than Jesus” was printed in an interview that appeared in the London Evening Standard in early March 1966. Lennon is quoted as saying, “Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue with that; I’m right and I will be proved right. We’re more popular than Jesus now; I don’t know which will go first—rock ‘n ‘ roll or Christianity.” Apparently, so the story goes, his remark created nary a stir in Britain upon the publication of the interview.

Things went differently in the United States. Roughly five months after the aforementioned interview was published in England, some of Lennon’s remarks from the earlier interview were excerpted and reprinted in the 29 July 1966 issue of Datebook, a teen magazine, apparently to coincide with the release of Revolver on August 8. Within days of the magazine’s appearance on the newsstands, the American backlash against the Beatles began. It took a few days for the remark to circulate in the media, of course, but by 11 August, or right around that date, rock music, at the very least an annoyance, became a full-blown “social problem.” The vast popularity of the Beatles led many adults to conclude that the band’s influence on teenagers was immense, on the assumption, I suppose, that young people would accept their messages uncritically, the personal beliefs of the Beatles being like scripture. The first edition of Bob Larson’s Rock & Roll: The Devil’s Diversion, the subject of which he called “the moral and religious significance of rock and roll music,” was published in January or February of 1967, that is, about five months after Lennon’s remark was reprinted in Datebook. A second edition of Larson’s book followed in 1968, and a third in 1970. However, in a footnote in the third edition (1970) of his book, Larson claims that Lennon’s remark, “Christianity will go. We’re more popular than Jesus now,” appeared in the 21 March 1966 issue of Newsweek. I haven’t confirmed that reference, but I’ll take his word for it. If so, one wonders why the remark didn’t prompt such controversy in the American media until it was reprinted in Datebook in July later in the year.

Peter Watkins’ film Privilege (1967), about the trials and travails of an influential British pop star, was probably being filmed when Lennon’s remark was first published in Britain. But Lennon’s remark, “We’re more popular than Jesus,” was re-deployed and spoken by a character in AIP’s Wild in the Streets (1968), a satirical allegorical fantasy about the political dangers posed by a charismatic rock star. Written by Robert Thom (Death Race 2000, 1975), the film draws on a wide variety of themes, including, perhaps most importantly, the Oedipal romance. It features a weak father (Bert Freed) and a terrible (castrating) mother (Shelley Winters). The mother’s character was probably inspired by the Angela Lansbury figure of 1962’s The Manchurian Candidate, and like the Angela Lansbury character, the Shelley Winters character is shown to be politically ambitious once she learns that her runaway son has become rich and famous. The film’s anti-hero is Max Frost (born Max Flatow, Jr.), played by Christopher Jones, whose lack of proper maternal love is the implied motivation for his desperate need for adulation and affection. Precociously intelligent but also highly self-centered, Max escapes his unhappy home life to become a multi-millionaire by age twenty-two, by forming a hugely successful rock band and by hiring a fifteen-year-old financial genius as a band member. In order to suggest his fundamental immorality, we learn that Max has fathered several illegitimate children with whom he has no contact, literally and emotionally neglecting them in the same way his mother did him. Oddly, he likes to sleep with children, and encourages his band members to use LSD. He does nothing to discourage being seen as a Christ-like figure; in one scene, his hook-handed and slightly stoned band member, played by Larry Bishop, asks Max if he has the power to restore his missing hand.

After learning that 52% of the U. S. population is under twenty-five, Max uses his celebrity status to hijack the proceedings at the youth-oriented political rally of Senatorial candidate Johnny Fergus (Hal Holbrook, sharing a family resemblance to John F. Kennedy, in the same way that Millie Perkins, who plays Fergus’s wife, is meant to suggest Jackie Kennedy). Revealing that he is fundamentally a demagogue rather than an entertainer, Max presents a platform to reduce the voting age in the United States to fourteen (“Fourteen or Fight”) and initiates a covert plan to gain control of the Senate, first by engineering the successful Senatorial bid of drug-addled band member Sally LeRoy (Diane Varsi). Eventually, by lowering the voting age, he is elected President of the United States. In his Oedipal struggle for control over his figurative father, Johnny Fergus, Max lures away Fergus’s son Jimmy (Michael Margotta), “brainwashing” him to his way of thinking and turning him against his parents. Throughout, during his speeches Max has called his youthful minions “troops” and “babies,” and once he is President, he enacts laws imprisoning those over thirty, requiring them to ingest large quantities of LSD. Not only does the film want to suggest the demagoguery of rock stars, but American youth are shown to be terribly misguided, mindlessly throwing support behind an individual who is fundamentally a self-serving tyrant, able to use the power of the media to shape his image for his own ends. The film also invokes the hippie hysteria of the late Sixties, an hysteria that was in part spurred by the counterculture’s embrace of non-Christian (largely Oriental) religion. I suspect that one of the sources of inspiration for Robert Thom’s script was the “CBS Reports” documentary hosted by Harry Reasoner, titled The Hippie Temptation, that aired on 22 August 1967. Indeed, in general the film seems heavily influenced by the media depiction of the counterculture in the late 1960s. The film is one instance of the widespread reaction to Lennon’s remark, and perhaps one of the earliest films to do so.