In the 1950’s any real American boy knew that whatever he wanted to be when he grew up, it was not an underemployed television father like Ward Cleaver or Ozzie Nelson. Our fictional heroes were from another time. They were the cowboys, frontiersmen, and pioneers who had taken risks that seemed inconceivable to a generation sheltered by the capacious umbrella of the New Deal. Television in the 50’s sometimes could seem like a struggle between the bumbling suburban fathers, who never knew best, and the Matt Dillons, Paladins, and wagonmasters willing to back up their word with a gun. Somewhere out in the world, we felt, there had to be a real life, a life filled with passion and risk.
It is no accident that the culture of the 1950’s is divided between genteel novelists like John P. Marquand or James Gould Cozzens and the wild and rebellious beats like Jack Kerouac. Paul Goodman was the first to pose the essential question, in his still-relevant book, Growing Up Absurd: how could boys learn to be men in an increasingly bureaucratized, sanitized, and safe society of whitebread sandwiches with bologna and Miracle Whip? It is a question that George Roche has been asking more recently in such books as World Without Heroes.
People look back to the 50’s as the golden age of television and as the Indian summer of American popular culture. But what I remember is the tasteless vulgarity of Uncle Miltie, film stars like Rock Hudson and Tony Curtis, and the lifeless mannerism of barber-turned-singer Perry Como. Then came the summer of 1954, and for the next several years, nice little children all over the country were introduced to life in the raw by a wild group of Southerners, black and white: Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Cari Perkins, Johnny Cash—all recording for Sam Phillips’ Sun Records—not to mention Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Sam Cooke, and Jackie Wilson.
These boys did not come out of Tin Pan Alley, where professional songsmiths were still rhyming croon and June. They were still more remote from the suggestiveness of the bisexual Cole Porter, whose “Let’s Do It” might have been written as a theme song for sophisticated hypocrisy. In the world of pop music, fornication and adultery were fine, as long as you were nicely dressed, drank cOcktails with clever names, and called it love instead of sex.
What were, after all, the popular songs of the BR (before rock) era? I can remember them from the butchered renditions given by Gisele MacKenzie and Snooky Lanson on Your Hit Parade. The big hits of 1954 were songs like Eddie Fisher’s “Oh, My Papa” and Dean Martin’s “When the Moon Hits Your Eye Like a Big Pizza Pie, That’s Amore.” The naive hedonism of “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Rock Around the Clock” had a dangerously liberating effect on an entire generation.
Perhaps the real anthem of doomed youth hit the charts in June of 1957. A young scapegrace from Mississippi, who could not make up his mind if he wanted to go to heaven or hell, started fooling around with a song he could only half remember. The result was “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” a song so suggestive that DJ’s refused to play it, until the singer appeared on the Steve Allen show. Jerry Lee Lewis became the first of three cousins to make it big in the entertainment business (the other two are, of course, Mickey Gilley and Jimmy Swaggart). Many an American boy resolved that if he couldn’t grow up to be a classics-quoting gunfighter like Paladin, he wanted to be at least as wild and as menacing as Jerry Lee.
The great rockabilly and rhythm and blues artists set the tone for all that would be best in rock and roll music. Unlike the slick and saccharine mass-produced songs of the 40’s and 50’s, this music had roots. In the songs of Hank Williams, Elvis Presley, and Jerry Lee Lewis, we are skipping over a hundred years of commercialization and returning to the Anglo-Celtic roots of American music, to the violence and authenticity of the old Border ballads, to a confrontation of real life—take it or leave it—as it is lived by passionate men and women who are sorry for their sins but will not lie to you about them.
It is no coincidence that the most depraved of the early rock and rollers, Jerry Lee (“the Killer”), with his countless wives, including one who died under mysterious circumstances, and the transvestite/bisexual Little Richard Penniman, have both gone on periodic religious binges.
“Nothing gold can stay” and nothing authentic can survive commercialization. Commercial pop songs continued to do well throughout the 50’s and 60’s. In 1956, Elvis had shared the spotlight with Gogi Grant (“The Wayward Wind”), Kay Starr (“Rock and Roll Waltz”!), and Perry Como (“Hot Diggity”). In 1957 Elvis, Sonny James, Buddy Knox, Buddy Holly, and Sam Cooke all reached number one, but so did Andy Williams and Tab Hunter, and in the top ten there were still such veteran pop stars as Jimmy Dorsey, Patti Paige, the Hilltoppers, the Ames Brothers, Teresa Brewer, Tony Bennett, and Frankie Laine. By 1958—the year of “At the Hop,” “It’s Only Make Believe,” “Great Balls of Fire,” and “Sweet Little Sixteen”—they still had to compete with Perez Prado, Perry Como, Andy Williams, and Billy Vaughan, among the many pop artists who made it into the top five. And even in 1966, the top hits of the year were the Monkees’ soft-rock, “I’m a Believer,” the imitation Mariachi “Spanish Flea,” and the pseudo-vaudeville “Winchester Cathedral.”
Under the circumstances, it was hardly difficult for Tin Pan Alley to make a comeback in the guise of rock and roll. Many songwriters, notably the team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, were just as happy working with Peggy Lee as with Elvis. The Brill Building on Broadway became home to a song factory in the early 60’s that included such assembly line writers as Carole King, Barry Mann, Cynthia Weill, and Neil Sedaka. Sedaka became a singing star in his own right in the early 60’s, although his career was cut short by the British Invasion.
In a way, the commercialization of rock was inevitable. The music industry, as much as the car business, depends upon quantity, minimum standards, and brand identity. How could you get that from irresponsible rednecks and ghetto blacks? Some rock and rollers were wise enough to join the enemy: Elvis put himself in the hands of Col. Tom Parker and became rich making sentimental movies and singing saccharine ballads with strings. Even Buddy Holly was turning pop in the year before his death—he dumped the Crickets and started recording with an orchestra.
The best of the white musicians went back to country music, a process that is still going on today, but was initiated by Conway Twitty, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Brenda Lee. The choice, then and now, was between Nashville and New York. In a recent interview, Phil Everly summed up the conflict: “New York was a joke to us. . . . It was a joke to all of rock. Buddy Holly, Buddy Knox, Jimmy Bowen, Eddie Cochran, you name them; they were all country, born and bred. Tin Pan Alley was jive and we knew it.”
In retrospect, 1958 was the beginning of the end. In December of that year, a doleful piece of sentimentality tided “To Know Him Is to Love Him” hit number one. The song was written by Phil Spector, who took the title from his suicide father’s tombstone and formed a group called the Teddybears to record it. In the years to come, Spector would make and unmake groups, release records under the wrong artists’ names, and swamp studios with rhythm players while he overdubbed, cut, and pasted the vocal tracks until he had created the massive “wall of sound” he was looking for. While he claimed to be the pop music Wagner, Phil Spector is to rock and roll what Ray Kroc was to restaurants.
The original rock era was a brief flicker of rebellion against security, coinciding with the rise of the TV Western. What the real Jerry Lee and Elvis shared with the TV cowboys was not only restlessness and a willingness to take risks, both represented an old-fashioned form of American patriotism that goes back to the Whiskey Rebellion: men who were loyal to their country, even while they were suspicious of authority. So-called scholars who look back on the Western, however, see only the evils of bigotry. The author of Who Shot the Sheriff! characterizes the TV Western as a compound of “sexism, racism, violence, imperialism, and historical distortion”—the qualities attributed to America by liberal historians.
Even as rock lapsed back into pop, the networks turned the Western into soap operas like Bonanza and The Big Valley. By 1960, the fires had gone out of rock and roll. Even before going into the Army, Elvis had sold out to Hollywood; Jerry Lee Lewis was in disgrace, when it came out that he had probably committed both bigamy and incest by marrying his cousin; Buddy Holly and Richie Valens were dead in the Clear Lake plane crash that is one of the few enduring legends of postwar history.
For nearly five years, the music business would be dominated by the new Tin Pan Alley in the Brill Building, and by Phil Spector, whom friends describe as very liberal even in high school, and by arguably the worst influence on American popular taste since Irving Berlin, Dick Clark. It was Clark who gave the American Wagner his first big break.
When the Beatles and the Stones arrived in 1964, they represented a return to a more authentic Anglo-Celtic music—traditional songs as well as the new songs written by the musicians themselves. It is simply no accident that the only real rock and roll produced outside of North America comes from our cousins in Britain and Australia. It’s true that the British Invasion brought in purely pop groups like Peter and Gordon and Herman’s Hermits, but it also gave us the Hollies and Graham Nash, Van Morrison and Them, Eric Burdon and the Animals. We were back to the ballads, and if it torpedoed the career of Neil Sedaka, it’s small wonder. As Neil complained in his 1982 memoir. Laughter in the Rain: “Groups like the Rolling Stones—antiestablishment, sexy, rebellious, crude—ascended to the top . . . exactly the opposite of what my music represented.”
You know the rest of the story of the 60’s: drugs, rebellion, campus Marxism, communes, Woodstock—the whole revolution thing that John Lennon made such fun of before falling for it. Since I’m “talking about my g-g-ggeneration,” let me share a little thesis I formed over the years. Very few of the kids listening to rock music in, say, 1967, were political. If they thought about the war at all, it was first: “Please Mr. Custer, I don’t wanna go”; second; a certain admiration for the men fighting it: “Silver wings upon their chests, these are men, America’s best,” as Sgt. Barry Sadler sang in his top ten tribute to the Green Berets; third, a rooted contempt for the bureaucratic leadership that viewed their body counts and kill ratios as so many profit and loss statements.
There were hard-core, leftist troublemakers, but much of the campus unrest amounted to little more than the student hijinks that have terrorized colleges since the Middle Ages. In an interview for the recent book Off the Record, John Mellencamp—one of the best rock musicians of the 1980’s—tells a tale that will seem familiar to most students of that era: “I went to Washington . . . to protest against the war. Afterwards I went back to my mom and dad’s house and back to college. How committed was I, really? Did I go to Washington for the party? For the drugs?”
Other than good times and the usual high spirits of youth, what did fuel the so-called revolution? At the time, it struck me as something like the spirit of the Southern Agrarians in the 1920’s. What you heard most often were complaints against machines and bureaucracy, the lack of religious spirit in America, the routinized, unchallenging jobs in the marketplace, the lack of tradition and the decay in the sense of community. With McNamara going from Ford to the Pentagon, the country was obviously being run by faceless corporation men, even more colorless than Ward Cleaver and Ozzie Nelson. President Johnson’s entire Cabinet seemed to be made up of passionless men who knew nothing of real life. Bob Dylan summed it up, this rift between the generations, in a memorable line: “Something is happening and you don’t know what it is, do you Mr. Jones?”
But if rock and roll had started out as a reaction against the liberal status quo, it turned into a vehicle for left-wing protest against everything. And so it continues to be today, even when the country has moved temporarily beyond such puerility. Why? There are two reasons, I think. The first is that the culture of Europe and the US is essentially leftist. Since few rock musicians are at all educated, they are forced to take their cues from the pundits and professors whom they otherwise despise. Liberalism is the air we breathe, whether we call ourselves radicals or conservatives. As Alasdair MacIntyre pointed out recently, there are neither radicals nor conservatives in the modern world, only conservative liberals, liberal liberals, and radical liberals. What chance does a lower class ignoramus like John Lennon or Bruce Springsteen have?
The second reason follows from the first. If the mainstream culture is liberalism, then any commercialization must embody that culture. “Buy the World a Coke” is both a great commercial message and a great liberal message. The original rockers were, by and large, Christian country boys with a conviction of sin and an irrational patriotism that puts them far to the right of virtually every conservative journalist or politician I can think of, and it is typical of the lifelong Democrat Jerry Lee Lewis that he supported Ronald Reagan in 1984 not because he believed in supplyside economics, but because he loathed Geraldine Ferraro.
But Jerry Lee is a redneck, born in a state of rebellion against everything official. Nice college boys like Rick Nelson—Chicken McElvis—felt the pressures of the liberal mainstrearh and went with the flow. I’ll never forget seeing him in the late 60’s on The Tonight Show. When Carson quipped to Nelson that his music seemed to be more political than in the old days. Rick answered: “That’s right, Johnny, it’s in to be committed.”
And so they are committed to every conceivable cause that comes around. When they’re not cutting records or freezing their brains with coke, rock musicians seem to spend their time doing monster benefits for the oppressed people of the world: Sun City, LIVEAID, BANDAID, AIDS AID. Even the cynical Lou Reed has got into the act. A man previously famous for celebrating heroin, speed, and sadomasochism has now discovered a social conscience, and his new album is full of compassion for the victims of the Republican Party. After telling us, a decade ago, to “Take a Walk on the Wild Side,” Lou now wants us to have pity for the AIDS patients who apparently took his advice.
Conservatives tend to take a dim view of contemporary rock music, even conservatives who profess to like the “classics.” In a general way, they are right. MTV, Madonna, Michael Jackson, Prince, and the ritualized violence of heavy metal are not the signs of a healthy culture. Like Dr. Johnny Fever (of the television show, WKRP in Cincinnati), real fans of rock and roll spend much of their time listening to Oldies stations, because in the 1970’s and 80’s, real rock and roll was almost smothered by disco, synthesizer music, and by such ominous pop stars as Liza Minnelli and the saccharine Barry Manilow, who went from writing TV commercial jingles to writing songs that sounded just like airline commercials.
I can sum up the trend line of 70’s music by citing one little bit of history: in 1975, Neil Sedaka once again had a #1 hit single, “Laughter in the Rain,” and in 1976 he received five BMI awards as well as song of the year. His songs were recorded by Captain and Tenille—remember “Love Will Keep Us Together?”—Bette Midler, and Liza Minnelli.
There is a false and hysterical note in most passionate denunciations of rock. First it was the philosopher-king Allan Bloom, and now, more recently, it is Stuart Goldman in a recent National Review article, who tells us that the problem is aging rock and rollers who are supposedly a corruptive influence. I’m afraid I don’t get the point. Is Mick Jagger really a primary influence on contemporary rock? It is easy to draw very unpleasant conclusions if we compare Bon Jovi with Buddy Holly, but what if we compare Tom Petty, Ian Anderson, and Dire Straits with the Teddybears, Frankie Avalon, and the Shangrilas? A somewhat different picture emerges. One remembers Robert Frost’s famous remark that he didn’t want to be a liberal in his youth for fear of becoming a conservative in old age.
To a great extent rock music, like all commercial popular music, is offensive junk. But in the 1950’s rock and roll, like the blues and country music that gave it birth, had a certain spontaneity and authenticity. Now, both rock and country music are safely encased in a commercial shell of major labels, broadcast conglomerates, and MTV, and if things stay the same, it is a very bad sign for a nation that has always prized individualism and entrepreneurship. Let me put the issue as bluntly as I can: conservatives worry over whether businessmen are selling the rope by getting involved in pop culture. The truth of the matter is that it is the other way around: rock music is not corrupting business, but business and commercialization have always corrupted rock and roll. It is all too easy to point the finger at disgusting rock videos. MTV is as perverse as everyone says it is, but MTV is an essentially commercial enterprise run for profit, and the most disgusting things they show may be the same commercials for Levi’s and Twix that appear on the Saturday morning network programming for children.
Most of the diatribes against rock music stem from nothing more serious than nostalgia for the world of one’s childhood. In fact, this is true of most criticism of life in the 1980’s. But the problems in American life run deeper than the recent past of the 1960’s, and the attempt to fix the blame on a single generation is as foolish as it is immoral. To locate the sources of corruption in our public culture, we shall have to go not just to the first generation that suffered under the welfare state or even to the generation that created it. The sources lie in what for most Americans must seem to be the misty past of ancient history, the period between the Civil War and World War I. For it was then that the modes of the music changed and the city’s walls were shaken.