On ‘Rock and RollnNever Forgets’nNever did I think the day would arrivenwhen I would feel compelled to comento the defense of the music of IrvingnBerlin and Cole Porter. I felt pricked bynthe darts flung at their genius by ThomasnFleming (Perspective, August 1989).nI suppose that first I should castnBerlin and Porter in their rightful rolesnas two of the greatest composers ofnpopular music in the first half of then20th century. They are also among thenvery few of their genre who, like thenrock and roll entertainers, wrote bothnwords and music. Cole Porter’s “Let’snDo It,” which Mr. Fleming finds to ben”a theme song for sophisticated hypocrisy,”nis a perfect example of his outstandingntalent for creating originalnrhymes and turns of phrase. The latternhalf of this century, as Mr. Flemingnpoints out, has been dominated by thenproduct of the rock and rollers.nI have no argument with Mr. Fleming’sndetermination that rock and rollnstarted out as a reaction against thenliberal status quo, turned into a vehiclenfor left-wing protest and so continuesntoday. Mr. Fleming deplores the factnthat business and commercializationnhave corrupted the spontaneous rocknand roll of the 1950’s. I would be remissnif I left unmentioned the effect of rocknand roll on the music business. Comparednto 40 years ago, sheet music salesnhave become insignificant, and manynpiano and organ manufacturers havenclosed down. Where are the old musicnstores of which every town of 15,000nhad at least one? Gone the way of thenBarton chocolate shops.nI recently watched a video of RodnStewart singing a rock and roll numberncalled “She Drives Me Crazy.” Thenmelody consists of one bar of threennotes played over and’over again. No,nMr. Fleming, if it is singable music younare claiming for rock and roll, we arenreduced to discussing the emperor’snnew clothes.nNow for the lyrics. Several of ournlegislators’ ladies in Washington havenhad some success recently in forcing thenrecording studios to affix warning labelsnon those numbers with the raunchiestnwords and descriptive phrases. Mr.nFleming, who considers Cole Porternand his colleagues hypocritical for writingnof love instead of the sex act, statesnthat these new lyrics hark back to thenAnglo-Celtic roots of American music,nto the violence and authenticity of thenold Anglo-Celtic Border ballads, to anconfrontation of real life as it is led bynpassionate men and women. This maynor may not be true, but I have readncleverer rhymes and descriptions on thenwalls of men’s toilets both here and innthe British Isles.nAs a gratuitous aside, Mr. Flemingndescribes a well-known disc jockey asn”arguably the worst influence on Americannpopular taste since Irving Berlin.”nFor my own part, I am unimpressed bynthe huge and continuing popularity ofnrock and roll. Unlike Mr. Fleming,nthough, I find my explanation in H.L.nMencken, whose life extended into thenrock and roll era and who also wrote,n”No one ever went broke underestimatingnthe taste of the American people.”n— Charles A. StrangenMilford, CTnMr. FlemingnReplies:nMr. Strange is only being naive in hisnrefusal to understand what Cole Porternmeant by “do it.” Noel Coward, whonused to perform the song in a particularlynsalacious manner, knew better. Thenpoint of comparison was not technicalnbut moral, and the bisexual and dissolutenMr. Porter does not stand comparisonnwith a family man (however wild henwas when younger) like John Mellencamp.nPorter was, and I do not deny it, anclever songwriter, and the big band erandid produce more than a few memorablenarrangers and performers whosentechnical standards were well aboventhose of rock and roll. But comparingn”Crazy About Her” (the Rod Stewartnsong Mr. Strange has confused with thenFine Young Cannibals’ “She DrivesnMe Crazy”) with Kern and Porter is asnridiculous as calling Irving Bedin angenius.nNonetheless, the lyric writing of thenbest popular composers of the past 20nyears is unarguably better than most ofnthe lyrics of the previous 20 years. (Inwill grant you that the farther back onengoes, the tougher the competition. Thenteam of Jerry Kern and P.G. “Plum”nWodehouse could occasionally rivalnGilbert and Sullivan.) The texts of LounnnReed’s “Sweet Jane,” Bob Dylan’sn”Tangled Up in Blue,” and Hank Williams,nJr.’s “I Got Rights” are decidedlynliterary in quality and explore areas ofnexperience that were untouched byneven the best tunesmiths of the 40’s.nFinally, there is the question of technicalnproficiency in music and verse.nWhat would Mr. Strange make ofnLeonard Bernstein’s argument that rocknmusic employs a broader variety ofnmodes than has been available for somentime, citing “Norwegian Wood” andn”Paint It Black” among many examples.nThere is also the metrical versatilityndisplayed even by so poor a composer asnElton John in “I Guess That’s WhynThey Call It the Blues,” which a classicalnmetrician would describe as annionic/choriambic lyric in the vein ofnAeschylus and Sophocles.nFor the most part, rock music isndisgusting and incompetent filth. Butnthe same generalization is true of thentelevision, film, novels, and verse of then1980’s. On the other hand, there arenalso, working here and there, a fewngood poets, novelists, filmmakers, televisionnproducers, and even rock musicians.nWhat I find diflicult to understand,nas an aging member of the BabynBoom Generation, is the holier-thanthounposture sometimes assumed bynthe generation that elected FranklinnRoosevelt, gave a large part of thenworld away to the Communists, andnpresided over the worst politicalmilitary-ethicalndisaster inour nation’snhistory, the Vietnam War. Mine is notna generation I should choose to bragnabout, but why does the potter cursenthe clay?nTwo corrections in Jack Miles’s Septembernpiece “The Economics and Politicsnof Book Reviewing” that did notnreach us until after press time: thenseparate circulation of The New YorknTimes Book Review is 75,000, notn100,000 as reported, and contrary tonMr. Miles’s argument The New YorknTimes did in fact review Pete Dexter’snnovel Paris Trout before—not after —nit received the National Book Award irtn1988.nNOVEMBER 1989/5n