Showing posts with label rock and roll music. Show all posts
Showing posts with label rock and roll music. Show all posts

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.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Rock History And How It's Made

Several blog entries ago I discussed Art Laboe's first Oldies But Goodies (1959) compilation, a collection of mid-50s doo wop and R&B consisting largely of L.A.-based groups such as The Penguins (“Earth Angel”) and The Medallions (“The Letter”). By issuing the Oldies But Goodies album in 1959, so I argued, Laboe was the first to historicize rock ‘n’ roll, to lend it the dignity and distinction of a “classic” or “golden” era, represented by the album title itself emblazoned in gold. While I think I was correct in that observation, in retrospect I don’t think at the time I wrote the entry I had fully considered all of the implications of my remarks. What I should have said in that earlier post is that the initial Oldies But Goodies collection serves to mark or distinguish the first from the second generation of rock ‘n’ rollers.

Although he’s writing about the idea of “nationhood” and the formation of modern nations, Benedict Anderson makes the trenchant observation in Imagined Communities that since it was impossible for the generation that came of age after the historic ruptures of 1776 (America) and 1789 (France) to recapture the spirit and inspiration that gave rise to these revolutionary moments, the following, or second, generation began “the process of reading nationalism genealogically—as the expression of an historic tradition of serial continuity” (1991 paperback ed., p. 195). The process of reading nationalism genealogically, as a process unfolding serially in time, gave rise to the study of history, history itself as a profession—the historian. Those who, for example, take upon themselves the duty of constructing The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll perform the same sort of activities as other historians, selecting representative figures, moments, and events from the past and then ascribing to them value and distinction in a larger pattern of meaning.

Take, for example, the claim widely attributed to Brian Eno, that although just a few thousand people bought the first album by the Velvet Underground, virtually every one who did so was inspired to start a band. While one might legitimately ask how he (or whomever actually uttered the remark) managed to acquire such information and to possess such grand, omnisicent knowledge, that’s really not the point. My point is that he’s taking on the role of the historian—like all historians, his role a self-appointed one—constructing a cause-and-effect narrative history of rock, giving it a genealogy and hence a tradition. In this case, he’s ascribing to the Velvet Underground a key or foundational moment in a larger, sequential narrative called the history of rock, asserting that those who came within earshot of that VU album were the inheritors—the torchbearers—of the spirit and innovation of the band (the proper names of the group normally would follow). By analogy, think of the genealogical style of Biblical chronicles: x begat y, y begat z, and so on.

He has every right to make remarks like that, of course, as Benedict Anderson points out, since those who come after, the second, third, and subsequent generations, have the right to speak for the dead--even when those on whose behalf they speak could have never understood themselves as such (198). (As Anderson points out, Michelet, the self-appointed historian of the French Revolution, claimed to speak for those who sacrificed themselves for the nation of France, insisting that he could speak on behalf of the dead, saying what they "really" meant and what they "really" wanted.) In the creation of a narrative in which the Velvet Underground serves as the grand ur-precursor to every subsequent avant-garde, experimental, glam rock, punk, post-punk, new wave, goth, and indie rock band to follow, the historian is actually speaking his own history, in actuality his own desire, articulating a faith, for he is really designating as a precursor a band whose members authored a future that they could have neither predicted nor fully comprehended.

Here’s the same general point, stated more poetically, by Gertrude Stein:

No one is ahead of his time, it is only that the particular variety of creating his time is the one that his contemporaries who are also creating their own time refuse to accept. And they refuse to accept it for a very simple reason and that is that they do not have to accept it for any reason. . . . Those who are creating the modern composition authentically are naturally only of importance when they are dead because by that time the modern composition having become past is classified and the description of it is classical. That is the reason why the creator of the new composition in the arts is an outlaw until he is a classic, there is hardly a moment in between and it is really too bad very much too bad naturally for the creator but also very much too bad for the enjoyer. . . . For a very long time everybody refuses and then almost without a pause almost everybody accepts. (“Composition as Explanation,” in Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein, ed. Carl Van Vechten (The Modern Library, 1962), 514-15.

Why is the construction of such genealogical histories so important to us? Because to claim that there is no rationally directed development is to open one to the realization, as Karl Popper observed in the 1940s, that history has no discernible meaning or pattern, that the future is radically contingent. His argument has never been answered because it is unanswerable (except by an appeal to faith, a belief in teleology). Popper claimed that the human future will be as it has always been, dominated by technological changes. The history of rock has been dominated by technological change; a book ought to be written exploring the role of technology rather than, as most all are, as genealogical influence. What would rock music be if not for the electric guitar? The programmable synthesizer? And way back when: how else would have Elvis burst onto the national spotlight if not for television?

Genealogical history has the virtue of connecting the present to a past that consequently becomes meaningful, and hence providing the semblance of continuity from one generation to the next. But as for the creation of rock histories, influence (however defined) is a faith, and hence undemonstrable.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Cookeville: Follow-up

Yesterday, the day after I posted my blog entry on Sam Cooke, I received a lengthy comment from Cooke’s nephew, Erik Greene, correcting a factual error I’d made and also adding some additional information about Cooke’s career. (Comments are posted as a link to the blog entry, but I also receive a copy of the responder’s post via email. For those who haven’t read his response, click on the “Comments” link at the end of the “January 22, 1960: Cookeville” entry below.) After receiving his response, I wrote to Mr. Greene thanking him for taking the time to post a detailed comment, and also asked him if he minded me posting an update to clarify a couple statements I’d made in the blog. He wrote back a cordial response saying yes, by all means, that he would appreciate having a dialog in an open forum. I should point out that Erik Greene is the author of Our Uncle Sam: The Sam Cooke Story From His Family’s Perspective (for further information, visit his website, As I told Mr. Greene, I’d every intention of referring to his biography just as I had to Peter Guralnick’s, but I just simply forgot to do so. I’ll claim as an excuse fatigue and the lateness of the hour for the oversight. (I should point out that the time stamp at the end of each entry is the time the blog entry was first saved in the system, not the actual time—normally much later—I formally post it.)

Mr. Greene pointed out that the date of January 22 as the date of Sam Cooke’s signing with RCA is incorrect; the date of the signing was actually January 6. I took the January 22 date from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame website, which I’d assumed—wrongly, it turns out—would be factually correct. January 22 was actually Sam Cooke’s birthday (he would have turned 29 years old in January 1960). Mr. Greene also indicated to me that there are several other factual errors on the RRHOF Sam Cooke page, and hence he admitted to me that his frustration was really directed at this vast conglomerate (a corporate venture to be sure) that disseminates such shoddy information. Nonetheless, I should have followed my usual practice of corroborating factual information with the various print sources I have, which I failed to do in this case, an oversight for which I apologize, and something I will not fail to do again.

The actual date, of course, is a matter of trivial significance; more significant is the historical importance of his signing with RCA in the first place. I don’t believe Mr. Greene disagreed with my overall observation about how poorly Sam Cooke is represented on CD. In my original post I’d focused exclusively on Cooke’s first album for RCA, Cooke’s Tour, in order to make two general points: 1) although RCA is hardly a “minor” label, the album remains unavailable on CD, and 2) close scrutiny of the album reveals that RCA had in mind transforming Sam Cooke into either Johnny Mathis or Harry Belafonte, both successful at the time as “cross-over” artists. And if I’m wrong about this assertion regarding specifics (Mathis or Belafonte), the general point is the same. Although it is true I raised some hesitations about certain of his songs later in the blog, my point in bringing up Cooke’s Tour was not to criticize either the artist or the album but to illustrate the complexities of the music industry at the time, not only how RCA was trying to “market” Cooke to a white audience through a “concept” album (a similar concept, incidentally, that was used by Ray Charles later in the year with The Genius Hits the Road) but his own strained relationship with a black audience which felt he had betrayed his calling as a gifted gospel singer. I suspect that Mr. Greene took offense at my characterization of certain of Cooke’s arrangements as being “saccharine” (which, in yet another embarrassment, I misspelled in the original blog entry) an admittedly pejorative term that suggests that Cooke’s arrangements are somehow atypical of, rather than consistent with, the arranging practices of the time. What I should have said, and what is more accurately said about some of his music, is something Simon Frith observed about twenty years ago in his essay, “Towards an Aesthetic of Popular Music” (included in R. Leppert and S. McClary, Eds., Music and Society: The Politics of Composition, Performance and Reception, Cambridge University Press, 1987, pp. 133-149), that the most successful popular music has always been sentimental. While Frith was not referring to Sam Cooke in the context of this remark, his observation applies as much to the music of Sam Cooke (e.g., “Wonderful World”) as it does to the Beatles (e.g., “Yesterday”) and many hundreds of other popular music artists. To characterize certain of his songs this way is, I hope, not in any way dismissive of it, which is to say I’m now trying to make an argument of definition rather than one of quality.

Still, I can’t rid myself of the impression that the poorly documented career of Sam Cooke on CD makes his case remarkable, in the sense that it should be remarked upon. To be completely honest about the matter, I’m not at all a fan of either compilation albums or “greatest hits” albums. I’m fully aware that many people disagree with me, and that from an industry standpoint “greatest hits” albums generate significant revenues. (Case in point: in terms of sheer numbers, The Eagles’ Greatest Hits is the biggest selling rock album of all-time.) In the case of Sam Cooke, compilations (whether those be titled greatest hits, best ofs, or any number of other innumerable retitlings) by far dominate his current catalog available on CD. I’ll illustrate the situation as follows, indicating whether the original RCA album is currently available (or ever available) on CD:

Cooke’s Tour (RCA, 1960) No
Hits of the 50s (RCA, 1960) No
Swing Low (RCA, 1961) No
My Kind of Blues (RCA, 1961) No
Twistin’ the Night Away (RCA, 1962) No
Mr. Soul (RCA, 1963) No
Shake (RCA, 1965) No

Again, for an artist of his stature, this is astonishing. I did a quick search on eBay for these records, and if in fact the album is available for sale at all, one will pay, as the saying goes, “a pretty penny” for it. As I wrote to Erik Greene: “. . . there are a great many poor or even terrible albums that have been released on CD in gloriously remastered form in order to fully document the career of a major recording artist. Some bad films by some famous film directors are available on DVD in order to properly document the director's career; even failures are revealing, even as much as grand successes. I think the same rule ought to apply to popular recording artists. Even some early 70s budget compilations of rather insignificant material by Elvis exist on CD. . . Cooke's Tour . . . ought to be available, if for no other reason than to document the way RCA was trying to "market"--or "mis-market" perhaps--Sam Cooke.

Mr. Greene responded (referring to Cooke’s Tour in particular):

While it's true Sam was out of his element on most of the album, I have to honor that it was an experiment--and a miscalculation by both Sam and RCA--of what the listening public wanted to hear. . . . With Sam’s limited number of releases, you are correct in assuming "Cooke's Tour" deserves to be digitally transferred to CD, for its historical reference if not its artistic value.

I heartily agree with him: these albums are of great historic value and should be released. It is worth noting that albums of the most arcane sort have been issued on CD through labels such as Collector’s Choice Music, but RCA hasn’t yet been compelled to release on CD seven of the original albums Cooke recorded for the label (and an early inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame) thus making them available to a new generation of listeners.

I can’t help but think--cynically, perhaps, I don’t know--that the manner of Sam Cooke’s death has harmed his subsequent historical reception, an unhappy situation that Erik Greene, in Our Uncle Sam, attempts to redress, by looking closely at the details of his uncle's shooting. I hadn’t considered the implications of this when I wrote my initial post, but it surely has to be taken into consideration as one of the factors that have affected his popular, if not critical, reputation. For Sam Cooke did not die romantically, the Romantic myth being essential to the proper image of the rock and roller as artist. He did not die by suicide, like Kurt Cobain, or a martyr, like John Lennon, or by a drug overdose (and hence an emblem of the self-destructive artist) like Jimi Hendrix or Jim Morrison; instead, he died rather like Elvis Presley, that is, in a wholly unflattering light. The difference in their subsequent historical reception is that RCA has released virtually everything save the most obscure outtakes and alternate takes by Elvis; in contrast, Sam Cooke’s recordings, if released at all, have been issued in a slipshod, ad hoc basis. Perhaps the recent biographies by Greene and Guralnick will help redress this oversight.