Thursday, April 15, 2010

Punk Muse

I came across an interesting comment by Nick Tosches in Gene Gregorits’ fine book, Midnight Mavericks: Reports From the Underground (FAB Press, 2007), which I began reading today. During an interview, Gregorits asked Tosches if he were “the first to coin the term ‘punk rock’?” Tosches replied:

Maybe I did coin that term, or at least the “punk” part of it, without knowing it. I don’t know. I wrote a long piece called “The Punk Muse” for a rag called Fusion in 1970. The title referred to the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll in general, not to what later become known as punk rock. (318)

So what does Tosches mean, exactly, by the “punk” spirit of rock ‘n’ roll? Perhaps the answer can be found in Tosches’ own Country: The Twisted Roots of Rock ‘n’ Roll. He writes:

There was an affinity between rockabilly and black music of the 1940s and ‘50s, as there had been an affinity between Western swing and black music of the 1920s and ‘30s. But it was not, really, more than an affinity. Of the sixteen known titles Elvis recorded as a Sun artist, five were derived from R&B records…. What made rockabilly such a drastically new music was its spirit [my emphasis], a thing that bordered on mania. Elvis’s ‘Good Rockin’ Tonight’ was not merely a party song, but an invitation to a holocaust…. Rockabilly was the face of Dionysus, full of febrile sexuality and senselessness; it flushed the skin of new housewives and made pink teenage boys reinvent themselves as flaming creatures. (58-59).

So what is the “spirit” of rock ‘n’ roll? Primitivism, at least according to Tosches. Remarkably, his claims were echoed by the late punk rock manager Malcolm McLaren in an interview published some years ago, in the magazine Rock, in August 1983. McLaren said, “Rock ‘n’ roll is pagan and primitive, and very jungle, and that’s how it should be! The moment it stops being those things, it’s dead: the true meaning of rock is sex, subversion and style” (60). McLaren’s claim that rock is “very jungle” seems like a virtually paraphrase of Tosches’ observation about rockabilly and black music having “an affinity.” In other words, the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll resides in its affinity to “jungle” music, that is, its “primitive” roots.

Thus the academic discourse on rock often resembles the early academic discourse on jazz. Belgian critic Robert Goffin, in his early work on American jazz, titled Jazz: From the Congo to the Metropolitan (1944), said of Louis Armstrong, for instance, “[he] is a full-blooded Negro. He brought the directness and spontaneity of his race to jazz music” (167). Goffin was the first to formulate the stereotype which lingers with jazz even now, the stereotype, according to Ted Gioia, “which views jazz as a music charged with emotion but largely devoid of intellectual content, and which sees the jazz musician as the inarticulate and unsophisticated practitioner of an art which he himself scarcely understands” (The Imperfect Art, 30-31). Gioia calls this “the primitivist myth,” a stereotype that rests upon a belief in the primitive’s unreflective and instinctive relationship with his art. Lest one think the primitivist myth is exclusively European, I should point out that the association of jazz and primitivism was uncritically accepted by American jazz critics once the works of the first European critics reached American shores. Few insightful works were written by Americans in the early years of jazz, primarily because it was generally perceived—as was rock ‘n’ roll during the early stage of its popularization by Elvis—as both passing fad and as the musical form of a “decadent” race.

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