Sunday, September 16, 2012

On the Backbeat

I'm old enough to have been listening to the radio when Little Richard smashed through the pap with his finger-in-the-socket-to-God brand of ecstasy-on-demand (what revolution ever had a more exhilarating overture than ""A-wop-bop-a-loo-mop-a-lop-bam-boom!"?)  and Chuck Berry drove the nail the rest of the way home with "Maybellene," "Roll Over Beethoven," and "School Days."

I experienced an instinctive and extremely uncomfortable genetic cringe when Pat Boone put Fats Domino, Little Richard, and LaVern Baker through his blender to produce something that reminded me even then of my mother's ham sandwich if someone had removed the ham and painstakingly scraped away the mustard, leaving two nice slices of white bread held together with mayo.  But I also had the taste to sigh with relief when I first heard Jerry Lee Lewis, a pillar of holy fire high atop Mount Whitey.

So, we could do it, even if less dependably.  But then other forms of music converged into rock--country, blues, doo-wop, Mexican, even jitterbug--and rock by white artists became a little less imitative of black music.  But by then I'd stopped caring, because rock changed my world.

It was as though rock was a whole new room in my house--whatever house I was in--a room my parents couldn't enter, and which had none of their blue upholstered furniture, gilt mirrors, and grandfather clocks in it.  In fact, whatever furniture it did have in it, rearranged itself every night because the moment we fell asleep it started dancing.  Every morning I opened the door to new damage, new recklessness, new chaos.  It was everything a kid could want.

Those whom rock threatened (and they were many) said it would lead the young people of America off a cliff.  They were right, about me, at least.  I happily followed it off every cliff in sight.  I stopped taking school seriously because of rock and roll.  I left the suburban womb of the San Fernando Valley to live with various remarkable women in smaller and smaller places in then-dicey areas like Echo Park and Silverlake because of rock and roll.  For a couple of years I never went to bed before ten AM and never got up before three in the afternoon.  I inhabited a parallel Los Angeles where the lights were always on and amphetamines and marijuana were the intoxicants of choice, and I chose them every chance I got.

Rock and roll led me astray.

And I had a great time.  The drugs got a bit more varied and Byzantine until I tardily quit them.  I wound up writing songs, I wound up (after a long and somewhat sober hiatus as a businessperson) writing books.  There, I've said it.  If it weren't for rock and roll I would never have written a book.  I'd be a retired English professor living someplace where my feet stayed warm all winter.

As of right now, rock and roll is the most enduring popular music trend of all time.  Big bands, jazz, standard pop--they all flared up, flickered, and faded within a decade or two.  Rock has been on top for more than sixty years.

And I still live it, I still listen for hours each day, I still write to it.  Steve Jobs designed the iPod specifically for me, and mine now contains almost 8,000 songs, 80 gigabytes of music, divided pretty much exclusively into two categories: classical and rock.  (About 80% rock.)  My writing playlists sample almost every one of the rock decades, although I'm not really crazy about the 80s, and every year or so I just reverse-alphabetize the whole thing and listen to the cuts as they come.  (That's a great way to program writing music because I never have any idea what's coming next.)

So, old fart that I am, I still rock.  It still keeps me going. I still pick over new music almost daily and love about as much of it as I ever did, which is to say about fifteen percent of it.  My novels take shape to it, my memories are tied to it, my internal movies use it as a sound track.  If I were Catholic, I would petition the Church to make Little Richard my patron saint.

A-wop-bop-a-loo-mop-a-lop-bam-boom, indeed.  It's been 57 years since that call to bliss first shredded crappy car speakers all over America, and it's still a direct short cut to Dionysus.  Hail, hail, rock and roll.


  1. Rock on Tim! I sometimes write with my iPod going. Had to delete Simon & Garfunkel, way too laid back for crime fiction. But the Kinks, Neil Young...oh yeah.

  2. I am fascinated by your thinking. While you were falling into Rock and Roll, I was trying so hard to belong to a group that looked down on this so called new music. While you were living a life, filled with, well, life, I was a young wife on a hill trying to fit that life into the new worlds that were beckoning. Hopelessly straight in my life style, yearning for some of that wildness. But it was a life, to somewhat quote John Irving, and music was my healer, fed my imagination, and still speaks to me more of other worlds and lives. It has been a gift to me.

  3. Tim, I was once stuck, sitting in a car, on the Bridge of San Roque Gonzalez de Santa Cruz, between Encarnacion, Paraguay and Posadas, Argentina. I was waiting for permission to cross to Argentina in a rental car. (Don't Ask!) I switched on the radio to see what might be playing in that remote and exotic place. What I heard was: A-wop-bop-a-loo-mop-a-lop-bam-boom!!!! Forget Elvis. Little Richard is the REAL King of Rock 'n Roll. Everyone that you mention is a favorite of mine, too. Hail, Hail!!!

  4. My favorite possession was the beige plastic radio my parents gave me when I was 11. Then began the staying up late, reading under the covers with a flashlight, listening to the top 10, 50 or 100 hits on the radio.

    I loved Little Richard (still do, and a friend gave me a cd of his top hits), Chuck Berry and Fats Domino. I still remember Blueberry Hill and the songs you mention above by Chuck Berry. Who could ever forget Little Richard's real rock-and-roll, singing Tutti Frutti and everything else. I agree with him when he said he was the original and he was robbed of fame, recognition, money, stardom.
    I wasn't interested in the imitators, just the real deal.
    That radio got me through high school, although the homework commitment wasn't as strong as the magnetic draw of that music.
    Then the Shirelles sang and we soared.
    Then came the Supremes who sang out "Baby Love," to us college kids, while the Rolling Stones got "No Satisfaction."
    Great days.
    Now I could listen to R&B 24/7, to every quartet and quintet with a great lead singer and bass singer.
    But my love of it did begin with Little Richard and the R&B singers of the 1950s and 1960s; nothing like them to me.

  5. Rock and roll makes it, totally. JAMES, I don't listen to S&G much any more, either, but Paul Simon is somewhere on almost every playlist. He's gotten better and better. LIL, all paths lead to life of one kind or another, and fortunately the path to a good, rich life is a broad one that admits many variations in approach. I fell in love with classical music even before rock and roll, and I've never seen the two as mutually exclusive. ANNAMARIA, and epiphany. Little Richard was the true, the only, king of rock and roll -- but Chuck Berry was the poet laureate. KATHY, the Shirelles!!! How I loved the Shirelles. And the Ronettes, for that matter, and the Shangri-Las, and Martha and the Vandellas and the Exciters and (a little less for me) The Supremes. And, of course, the Stones.

    This has me thinking that maybe I could go on Facebook and try to put together a "life mix" -- begin with, say, 1950, and ask people of all ages to nominate their favorite songs from each year since. (If they don't know the year, all they have to do is google song title and year of release, and they'll have it.) Maybe we could put together a life mix for people of all ages.


  6. When we're in Cleveland, "Home of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame," I intend to latch on to you as my interpreter for all things not Pat Boone.

  7. Classical music was playing throughout our family house all of the time. My mother had been a child piano prodigy and she loved it, always had WQXR on or those old vinyl records.

    However, up in my room I heard my favorites: r&B and rock-and-roll. And I sneaked in some jazz.

    I'm reeling thinking about Mama Said There'd Be Days like This, and Please, Mr. Postman -- aah, high school days.

    And Martha and the Vandellas: To this day I ask a dj friend to play their fabulous, legendary Dancing in the Streets at every party.

    Also, I must hear "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," by that great duo, Marvin Gaye and Tammy Tyrell every chance I get.

    And Sam and Dave? YouTube has good videos.

    Not to disparage any current music, but I often feel like there was no music like that.