Coincident with the first news related to the launch of Dylan new album, whose title, “Fallen Angels”, is already more than suggestive, young writer Brent L. Smith published on April 13th a revealing article I deemed worthy of being brought here today to be analyzed and discussed. An excellent friend of mine, who lives in California, led me to that article, so I feel extremely grateful to her for that reason. The essay is referring to the only interview Bob Dylan gave last year, which appeared on the bimonthly magazine of the AARP (American Association of Retired Persons) following the publication of his previous work, the unusual “Shadows in The Night”, which brought together 10 old ballads taken from Frank Sinatra’s songbook. The septuagenarian songwriter clarified in the interview the reasons that led him to record those songs and his genuine intention to release an album like that at the present time. But that was not the issue motivating Smith to refer to the interview as a starting point for his thesis. It was actually the statements that the wily old troubadour made about the reasons that, according to him, caused Rock’n’Roll’s Death, that inspired him. Amazing statements that no one seemed to take seriously and yet the writer in question interpreted it as a “heartbreaking revelation of a silent assassination.” Though that was a too severe conclusion.
Dylan talks about the commercial segregation rock suffered when the civil rights movement was gaining momentum around 1960. From its fused inception, he says, Rock’n’Roll was a racially integrated American invention, blasted in teenage bedrooms as early as 1955. At the very moment the pro civil rights fight looked like it was threatening the establishment, Rock’n’Roll turned out to be conveniently divided, on the sly, by the system powers, between White (British Invasion) and Black (Soul) music. Dylan’s statements reveal the reasons that made possible such segregation. Racial prejudice led to consider Rock miscegenation something extremely threatening and they decided to dismantle it, starting with the “Payola” scandals. Label and distributing companies were bribing DJ’s to systematically spread certain records, so they could achive their purpose leaving Black Music out of the waves, especially the one out of their control and against their interests.
February 1, 1960 Photo Credit: Ed Clark
Evidently, Dylan’s allegations are irrefutable. Quoting Smith, “that was an unnerving moment in music historicity” and, reading his article, we may be aware of “the devastating effects big money can have when attempting to hijack music’s forever unfolding;” But come to believe that anything actually killed Rock’n’Roll is too much defeatist. There has been a lot of talk about Rock’n’Roll’s death since the advent of punk and many artists, beside the Sex Pistols, have addressed the subject in their lyrics, but still being like that, at present, it sounds risky to declare with certainty that Rock is dead.
For several reasons that Smith’s article succesfully analyzes in depth, Rock is considered depraved, scandalous, vulgar and pernicious within the bourgeoisie, being rejected by the good manners and persecuted by the establishment. Smith’s paper delves on the subject wielding arguments taken from different sources going from Norman Mailer writings about the White Negro, the hispters and jazz’s inherent sexuality, to Frank Sinatra and Martin Luther King Jr.’s detrimental statements about Rock’n’Roll. It also highlights John Adams considerations expressed in a letter written in 1779. In the mentioned letter Adams described the depravation of the ambience and the sound of music heard in the taverns and public houses (aka pubs) frequented by black people in the following terms: “The delirium that rages is enough to induce every man of sense and virtue to abandon such an execrable race to their own perdition.”
But, as Smith himself pointed out: “Where some see depravity and vulgarity, others see liberation. Where some hear raging delirium, others hear music.”
Don Mc Lean’s song, “American Pie”, talks about the evolution of Rock’n’Roll through the decades until 1971, starting with the 50’s and the line mentioning the Day the music died, in clear allusion to the fateful plane crash that took the lives of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “Big Bopper” Richardson in one merciless blow. That was in February 1959. Last year of the decade turned out to be grievously harmful to Rock. Besides the fatal incident that killed those three mythical figures, Chuck Berry was arrested in December and convicted “for transporting a minor across state lines for immoral purposes in violation of the Mann Act.” Althought his earlier conviction was thrown out of appeal (as he claimed to have been object of racial prejudices) the prosecution decided to retry Berry. After retrial he was finally condemned to a three years sentence. All of this, added to the “Payola” scandals, the unbridled sexuality inherent to Rock’n’Roll and the depravation seen within it caused the stampede that left Rock in the hands of whites and weakened it to turn it into a language easily assimilated by the system.
Of course, such depravation was only seen by “those who shared Adams’ brand of liberty, with its elitist sense of puritanical morality” – as Smith accurately defines – the same ones who “laid the foundations of American ‘Independence’ and its consequently detrimental value systems still being inherited up to this day.”
It must be noted that, as Dylan suggested when he talks about the civil rights movement, even mentioning the Payola scandals, the problem was not only about racial or moral issues, but also implying political and economical interests, actually the real concerns of the main record labels and distributing companies. Smith conveys the same, in a political context, when he refers to those who “laid the foundations of American ‘Independence’ and its consequently detrimental value systems.”
It is for that reason that, Smith declares, “still there are those that actively reject such bequeathed value systems. And it’s this kind of rejection, deviation, transgression that not only lies at the root of what uninhibited Americana is all about, but it’s become a left-handed American tradition unto itself.”
Anyway, the Rock’n’Roll segregation process was successfuly achieved, as Smith reflects: “Doo-wop was invented in the 1940’s by black youth on street corners, but it shot to the top charts in the late 50’s when Italian Americans adopted it as their own, just as most African American performers moved toward soul music.”
“When ‘Twist And Shout’ comes to America from across the pond in 1964, Rock’n’Roll had already taken one hell of bludgeoning. Who – Smith wonders – was able to hear anything over the inescapable screams of the Beatlemania?”
At that point Rock’n’Roll has become just a White musicians thing. No one Black singer, or lead guitarist, is seen in front of a Rock’n’Roll band, since Berry was put out of business. But Jimi Hendrix appears on the rock scene to change things back to what it should have ever been, according to Smith’s theory. As Dylan did before, “Bringing It All Back Home” from the British Isles, Jimi would carry on his Experience to bring Rock’n’Roll back to a racially integrated land.
That’s what Brent L. Smith calls the Hendrix Enigma. In his own words, “R&B-sideman-turned-mesmerizing-rocker Jimi Hendrix not only revolutioned the way the electric guitar was played, but psychedelicized its form in a single performance.” The author of the referred article continues giving a quite emotional narration of the facts at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, when Jimi Hendrix astonished the audience, and the world, setting his guitar ablaze in “one of the most powerful moments in American music history.”
Not long after the flaming act, young photographer Ed Caraeff “with literally the last shot of his roll of film, snapped one of Rock’s most iconic images. He even had to use his camera to shield his face from the flames Hendrix summoned higher with his fingers.” Smith still adds, “It was one of those moments when cheering is almost vulgar.” To make us feel as if we were there he tells what first hand witness Michelle Philips of The Mamas & The Papas recalls: “I was in the audience and I was appalled. It was not the sexuality of his show that appalled me. It was what he did to his instrument. Here he was throwing lighter fluid on his guitar and setting it on fire. I had never seen anything like that in life.” Then the young writer concludes: “Was it something at once so sacred and so electric, it points to the spiritual – or more accurately, the essential? – After all, it was the first declarative marriage between the Blues and Psychedelia: Rock’n’Roll was given a mystical rebirth.” And becoming definitely religious, Smith sacralizes the event asking himself, “By burning his guitar on effigy, did Hendrix ensure the salvation of unadulterated Rock for anybody willing to embrace it? If the 50’s were the old testament days of Rock, was Hendrix its anointed one here to die for all of our sins?” Reading him one must recognize the relevance of Jimi Hendrix performance, even agree the black guitarist influence has been immeasurable. We must admit the devastating force and significance of his revolutionary act, but I tend to believe there was also a lot of exhibitionism in all that Jimi Hendrix Experience paraphernalia. Anyway, it was certainly the big moment, the Rock manifesto of a return to the roots. As Smith wrote himself, “Whatever Hendrix was, he was the only performer capable of reconciling the broken racially-charged and dichotomized state of Rock’n’Roll.”
Mysteriously, but easily understandably, Smith returns to Dylan and writes, “Without forgetting that Hendrix’s biggest single was the immortal cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘All Along The Watchtower’ I’d like to get back to the still living legend in his own right.” Then he cleverly states, “When Dylan turned out electric in 1965 it was seen as a betrayal to the folk genre, something a lot of fans hated and scorned him for, even to this day.” Actually, “the move from lone troubadour to electric front man was, in fact, his total acknowledgement and loyalty to pure music Americana. Rock’n’Roll was a new art form that emerged with the deepened expansion of the American spirit.” Of course it is true, and Dylan knew that, so, “he was just honoring his roots.”
There’s an excellent song Neil Young once wrote, called “Hey Hey, My My (Out of The Blue)”, which was used as part of the original soundtrack in Dennis Hopper movie “Out of The Blue.” The film was about a teenager Punk girl, Elvis’ fan, who thinking “it’s better to burn out than to fade away” commits suicide, after murdering her parents, in an attempt to kill Rock’n’Roll forever. But as Neil lyrics, in thrilling contrast with the images in that movie, assert: “Rock’n’Roll is here to stay, hey hey, my my, Rock’n’Roll will never die.” And that’s the only truth.
Smith still writes a quite interesting addendum in which he describes what’s happening in garage and makeshift studios across the country in America – and I might add, all over the world. As he says, “it tells us that despite the turbulent effects of the digiscape on all sectors of our culture in the 21st century, Rock’n’Roll is not only still kicking but it’s thriving and it’s doing so in the illuminated dark, out of the mainstream limelight.” And yes, even “though it may be snatched or bought off the streets and shamelessly adulterated in corporate studios now and again” what we really know is that the current garage rock revival underway “proves its spirit is what persists and what returns to haunt the status quo. It still compells the young at heart to flock to live shows and it’s pulling teenagers out of the sanitized drudgery of strip mall suburbia.”
This all happens, and always will, because, as Dylan wrote, “you can’t kill an idea.” As long as there is someone out there ready to take a guitar, wanting to sing out its heart to express its discontentment about what’s wrong in the world, Rock’n’Roll will still be there, out of the blue… and into the black.
The Hypnotist Collector
L. Smith, Brent (April 13, 2016) Like It Is: Bob Dylan Explains What Really Killed Rock’n’Roll. Retrieved May 14, 2016 from https://medium.com/cuepoint/like-it-is-bob-dylan-explains-what-really-killed-rock-n-roll-f6a4b6587a1a#.
Morgan, James BBC News – Washington, DC (April 7, 2015) What Do American Pie’s Lyrics mean? Retrieved May 17, 2016 from http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-32196117
history.com Staff – This Day In History (October 28, 2009) Chuck Berry Goes On Trial For The Second Time. Retrieved May 17, 2016 from http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/chuck-berry-goes-on-trial-for-the-second-time