The Time: Autumn, 1958. The place: the playground of the Washington Consolidated School, Washington, Connecticut. A big crowd of kids are in a circle around two fighting boys. Jimmy Tompkins has his arm hooked around Billy Dils' neck from behind. Jimmy's got Billy on the ground, a leg also hooked around Billy, so Billy's trussed up like a pig in a python's embrace. Both boys are coated with dust.
Boys? They look like men to me. And this is no mere scuffle. I look at Jimmy Tompkins' arm locked in complete deadly earnest around Billy's Dils' neck: the arm is long, powerful, sinewy, hairy, blood vessels bulging as he slowly strangles Billy, whose face is blue and contorted in a purple-veined grimace.
Both of them are guys who've stayed back and stayed back and stayed back and are now fully pubescent, fully-grown eighth-graders who smoke, drive cars and shave. Jimmy plainly intends to kill Billy. The kids—everyone from third-graders to high school seniors—watch with great interest.
Our town was small, and so the school went all the way from first grade through twelfth. That meant grade-school kids like me mingled with the junior high and high school kids in the cafeteria (called the "Rainbow Room," because it had different-colored strips of linoleum on the floor; we thought it was in commemoration of the iridescent mystery meat that often glistened on plates there) and on the school grounds. But Jimmy and Billy and plenty of other guys (and gals) were just treading water until they turned 16 and could drop out. We were watching, right there on that Connecticut playground in the middle of the 20th century, a primordial battle between young males at their testosterone-soaked apex, a primitive, timeless, roaring, snarling rite that echoes down through the tens of thousands of years of human existence.
At least, we were until Mr. Bordeaux, the fearsome assistant principal, strode into the melee with his black crewcut and red furious face, picked the two up by the scruffs of their necks, cracked their craniums together and ended it. The older, stronger, fiercer male had established his supremacy and peace was restored. Much to our great disappointment.
I remember Jimmy Tompkins' long greasy hair flying around during the fight, seriously disarranged. Most of the time it was combed in a high, baroque pompadour of elaborate architecture. The top was wavy, in confectionary layers, with a prow of curls like a breaking wave over his forehead. The sides were combed horizontally and met in the back in a classic "duck's ass." The sideburns were almost Edwardian in length and luxuriousness, but cut sharp and square at the ends halfway down his jaw.
Billy Dils' hair, on the other hand, was about a quarter of an inch long and bristly (he would eventually have hair down to his waist). The badass guys around our country town, the "hoods," either had hair like Jimmy's or aggressively short proto-skinhead crewcuts. They tended to be rivals, though there were occasional alliances—like Tony Lentini (long and greasy) and Bruce Canzono (crewcut), a pair you didn't want to see coming toward you if you were a sixth-grader with a new bike. The regular non-hoody guys—the good students, the athletes, the school band members, the churchgoers—wore their hair trimmed, not long, not short. But the bad guys were these two tribes of adversarial primates, sort of a precursor to the Mods and Rockers of the 60s.
Young men, of course, have been making trouble since the beginning of time (harnessing that troublemaking energy to power the machinery of war is the job of old men, and certain old women, too, and that's another story). It goes directly into the "nothing new under the sun" category.
But in the 50s there actually was something new under the sun, a new conduit for that force of nature called young male energy, as new as nuclear fission and every bit as portentous, something that had been similarly waiting for a zillion disparate currents in human history and affairs to flow together, converge and culminate in a force far greater than the sum of its parts, that would be unleashed upon the world and change it forever, is still changing it, which can never be stamped out or stuffed back in no matter how hard Pat Robertson, the Pope, grim-faced Muslim clerics or Miss Grundy put together try.
There's a famous story about a high school principal in Lubbock, Texas, at a prom in 1956 or so, rushing to unplug Buddy Holly's amplifier. If the story's true, then that principal was a gifted prognosticator indeed. He understood exactly what was happening. This...this so-called music, this noise, was seditious, anarchistic, dangerous, would break down race barriers, would corrupt youth, undermine the fabric of American society, excite the carnal passions, lead us into temptation and worse.
How right he was.
No wonder he tried to pull the plug on it. But it was too little, too late: rock 'n' roll, the sexy beast slouching toward Bethlehem lo these many eons, had already been born. It was a virulent contagion, traveling along the smooth, well-paved and richly nourished technical and sociological byways of post-war Eisenhower America, via radio, television and vinyl, arousing a hunger we didn't even know we had. Ah...if that high school principal in Lubbock could have really seen into the future, looked ahead about forty years beyond the dinky crepe-papered school gymnasium and Buddy Holly's Fender amplifier, suit and black glasses and seen a bare-chested fifty-three-year-old Mick Jagger in tights, sequins, and mascara, rising slowly up through a trap door in the stage floor of the Oakland Coliseum while a hundred multi-colored strobe lights flash like Martian death-rays, flames shoot skyward in rhythmic geysers, huge video screens with images of melting, mutating psychedelia throb in accompaniment to the opening strains of "Sympathy for the Devil" from stacks of giant amps as high as a five-story building while an audience of 50,000 roars....whoever that Texas principal was, if he could have seen that, he would have moved a lot faster to yank that cord, and maybe tossed the Fender out the window for good measure. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
1957: I'm on that same Connecticut playground. I'm in the third grade. Some other kids and I are out by the slides and swings gyrating and singing at the top of our lungs: "You ain't nothin' but a hound dog..." We don't have the slightest idea why we're all excited or what the words really mean. Mrs. Fitz, our teacher, a tenderhearted, kindly woman with an upswept hairdo of gray curls, a style from another era, watches us with a bemused, puzzled little smile.
Elvis has already been on Ed Sullivan. We're not too young to pick up on the force-field around Elvis and that waist-up-only camera angle. Besides, we saw him in "Jailhouse Rock," saw the pelvic action that they'd censored on TV. We're pouring it on now, for the benefit of Mrs. Fitz. We shake our hips and curl our lips. "You ain't never caught a rabbit and you ain't no friend of mine!"
Poor, sweet Mrs. Fitz. What must she have thought? Not only were we sneering and thrusting our little pelvises this way and that, we were using bad grammar. We knew something was happening, she knew something was happening, and though neither she nor we quite knew what it was, we knew one thing for sure: we felt anointed in some way, in possession of some secret new power, and we kicked up the dirt on that long-ago playground in a tribal display of it for Mrs. Fitz. We loved her, but we were also telling her, without the equipment or words to even articulate it to ourselves, that she was a relic, and we were leaving her behind. Catch us if you can.
The high school kids, who looked to us like impossibly tall, completely mature adults, were taking it in, too, but with the full-on hormone bath already coursing through their bloodstreams. We saw the pictures of teenage girls weeping and screaming behind chain-link fences and police barricades as Elvis passed by. I know that mobs of girls also screamed for Frank Sinatra back in the 40s, would later scream for the Beatles in the 60s, and all for the very same reason. Look at the photographs. Sometimes there are close-ups of the girls' faces. They're twisted, agonized, distorted. They were in an orgasmic frenzy. And what did Sinatra, Elvis and the Beatles have in common? They were "bad" boys. Not "bad" as in Al Capone or Richard Widmark—but "bad" as in oozingly sexy and defiant in a way that seriously alarmed the "grownups."
Let's go back just a little further. In the 20s, the guardians of public morals were alarmed by Rudolph Valentino. He was oily, sloe-eyed. His hair was luxuriantly long. He painted black lines around his eyes, his lips were moist and red, he wore flowing, silky robes and pantaloons, and women went berserk for him. Why? What was it about this foppish, effeminate "degenerate" (that's what a lot of Valentino's critics accused him of being, among other things) that brought out the beast in his legions of female fans? Well, the answer to that is as complicated as the feminine libido, a labyrinth where we could wander forever like Dr. Livingstone, but suffice it to say that a whiff of androgyny combined with a dose of "outlaw" can be a potent aphrodisiac. The alarm registered by the moralists was complicated, too. There were all kinds of things to worry about—unleashed female sexuality and its corollary, the "feminization" of men and society. Women swooned for Valentino, young men imitated him. Danger! Danger! But he was a man perfectly suited to his time. The 20s was a decade of total revolution, the world completely flipped over after the exotically repressed Victorian era.
Then, in the early 40s, right in the middle of the war, along came Frankie, and the girls went wild again. Not that Sinatra was anything like Valentino. He didn't wear lipstick and eyeliner, and I'm sure there was never any question about Sinatra's red-blooded hetero credentials—but in his way, with his divine voice, proto-pompadour, slight build, delicate features and Italian-ness, he was a "pretty boy." I'll bet plenty of parents and jealous boyfriends spluttered incredulously over whatever it was that their daughters and girlfriends saw in that skinny little Eye-talian.
It would take another dozen years and the ripening and convergence of countless societal and cultural trends to fertilize the ground for rock 'n' roll. The huge major difference between rock and any popular American music that preceded it was, of course, that its source, its lifeblood, its essence, was—get ready, world—black. Segregation in the U.S.A. was so thorough in the old days that it was even practiced on record labels. There was music, and there was "race" music, deemed dangerous for white youth, sold in a separate part of the store. All of the would-be controllers of any society—from the Ayatollah to hard-line segregationists—understand perfectly the power of music. It's as anarchistic and potent as pollen in a high wind.
So much of old-time segregation had directly to do with sexual anxiety. Without constant vigilance, so the popular propaganda went, black people, the men especially, will bust down doors and jump fences to have sex with white people—white women especially. And their music, with its lusty, pounding rhythms and sly lyrics...well, need we say more? I need a hotdog for my roll, indeed!! Try as they might, though, the moral guardians simply could not stop white kids and young musicians from gravitating toward "race" music, because it was so exciting, so far beyond anything else, so authentically American, so rich with the truth, but mostly because it was just so damned good. And so sexy. Years later, Eldridge Cleaver would articulate for us exactly what it was that the societal watchdogs feared and which was already happening long before Elvis became the "bridge" and which would change the trajectory of human culture forever: "The black man taught the white man to shake his ass." There you have it. Thank you, Mr. Cleaver. You have, as they say, nailed it.
And what, you might ask, could be so important about mere ass-shaking? Well, it was only about as significant as that moment in Kubrick's "2001" when the ape picks up the bone, or God extending his finger to Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Sometimes I get a glimpse into a parallel reality where white people had the misfortune to be left to themselves in a closed, quarantined cultural biosphere. It's pathetic, really—a world of yodeling and dirndls and stiff, silly dancing. Tragically uncool.
When Elvis shook his ass, it wasn't that he did it so fabulously well or originally. If you go back and watch his old movies, you'll see that his dance moves are nothing special, that he was, as one astute modern reviewer put it, a "twitchy white boy." Never mind. What was important was that he was doing it, brazenly, in-your-face, and with feeling—right smack in the middle of the white-bread post-McCarthy Eisenhower era, when Jim Crow was alive, well and festering. Elvis wasn't black, but he'd paid his dues, had a right to sing the blues. He was a sharecropper's son, born dirt-poor in a shack in Tupelo, Mississippi. He had the hunger. The kissin' (and overlappin') cousin to race anxiety—class anxiety—was kicked into high gear with the advent of Elvis. Not only did he howl, croon, growl (and he did have a truly great voice) and shake his ass, but he came directly from the uncouth underclass. Land's sake! What was the world coming to?
Speaking of uncouth, I'd be willing to bet my left kidney that Elvis saw the 1953 movie "The Wild One," starring Marlon Brando as Johnny, the leader of an outlaw motorcycle gang, at least nine or ten times. It's no mystery where Elvis drew on a big part of the inspiration for the persona that would cause feminine teenage hearts to flutter, their boyfriends to buy combs and pomade, and the jowls of their elders to quiver. Look at the old posters for that flick. If you squint, you might think you were looking at Elvis: Plentiful hair, the same curled, sensuous lip, the same sultry, loutish-but-sensitive-misunderstood-sulkily-handsome-bad-boy countenance. And if not for Brando, there would surely have been no James Dean as we remember him. The immortal "rebel without a cause" had, like Elvis, a huge dose of Brando in him. Talk about a cultural icon: James Dean, dead for sixty years, charisma undiminished.
When Sinatra hit the scene, he was described as having "swagger and attitude." He did, but it took Brando (fresh from playing Stanley Kowalski) to perfect it and carry it forward into the post-war years and serve as inspiration to the young, still-forming Elvis Presley. There's even a photo of Elvis, from the 50s, when he was newly rich and famous, sitting on a motorcycle, looking exquisitely sullen and ever so Brando-ish. "The Wild One" and the controversy it stirred up perfectly symbolized what was happening in the 50s. It's the story of a peaceful, sleepy little town that's "invaded" by a Hell's Angel's-like gang. The voiceover and dialogue is sprinkled with lots of quasi-existential beat poetry-inspired language. The opening shot is of an empty, open road. Before we see Brando as Johnny, we hear him speak (supply your own soft, slightly high-pitched Brando voice here):
"It begins here for me on this road. How the whole mess happened, I don't know. But I know it couldn't happen again in a million years. Maybe I could have stopped it early. But once the trouble was on its way, I was just goin' with it. Mostly, I remember the girl, I, I can't explain it—sad chick like that. But somethin' changed in me. She got to me. But that's later, anyway. This is where it begins for me, right on this road."
Johnny has a trophy that he stole from a legitimate cycle meet (which he and his guys mocked, sneered at and disrupted, naturally) strapped to his handlebars when they roar into "Wrightsville." A wholesome, pretty girl catches his eye. And she—oh, horrors!—finds herself drawn to the brooding, restless, nomadic anti-hero, who has a skull emblazoned on the back of his jacket. Rowdiness escalates, worlds collide, the very fabric of the town's society threatens to unravel. The townspeople themselves revert to a sort of brutishness in their reaction to the outsiders.
The movie caused a huge uproar, was banned in England until the 1960s. It was called "shocking" and "communist" and was accused of "glamorizing" an "anti-social subculture in revolt." It would incite riots, delinquency and worse! Hyperbole (and hilarious, especially the "communist" part), but basically accurate. Thank God. I believe we have, to a great extent, that movie and Marlon Brando to thank for focusing Elvis' "bad boy" up-from-the-lower-classes image.
The swagger and attitude of rock 'n' roll is what we little eight-year-olds were strutting for Mrs. Fitz, God rest her sweet soul, that day on the playground in the 1950s. It got into us at the prime formative age. I think the fact that we were prepubescent actually meant that we absorbed it more thoroughly, deeply and organically than the high school kids did. We were more pliable, workable raw material. We were creating new and permanent neurological pathways with every thrust of our hips.
We were, however, too young to grow sideburns or comb our hair into disrespectful coiffures. That was for the older kids, like Jimmy Tompkins. Elvis was the obvious role model for that, but he was hardly alone. And there were interesting variations on the "bad boy" theme—like the Everly Brothers.
Don and Phil were not exactly outlaws. They didn't shake their asses or roll their pelvises. But they were a pair of rare, exotic, gangster-looking creatures. Dracula-like, and slightly effeminate, with their pale angularity and gleaming pompadours, they looked as if they never saw the light of day. Their songs about the angst of young love—"All I Have To Do Is Dream," "Wake Up, Little Susie," "Bird Dog" and such—were charged with a quivering urgency and yearning that I know was going in and setting us up for our own wild teen years lying just ahead. Their talent was truly awesome—rocking acoustic guitar, tight harmonies, real soul.
But what about that voice I heard on the radio? The town I grew up in was so completely Caucasian and rural that nobody even knew the existence of the "n"-word. When one lone little black girl attended our school for a brief while in 1956, the few kids on the playground who had a vague urge to insult her didn't quite have the vocabulary to do it. I remember when one kid, groping around for something to call her, could only come up with the comparatively feeble "Brownie!" I, the offspring of a couple of super-smart Adlai Stevenson Democrats, bristled protectively, I'm proud to say, and told him to shut up.
Thanks to my mother, who took my brother and me on regular trips into New York City, I was a little more savvy than most of my Swamp Yankee schoolmates. I understood that there were people of other hues, ways and cultures out there, that there was more, so much more, than what was under my nose. So when I heard that voice on the radio, cutting through the ether, screaming: "TUTTI FRUITTEE! ALLROOTY!" I understood on an instinctive, radical, fundamental level that I was getting a direct transfusion from another world. And a mighty thrill it was. And being so young meant that I was unencumbered by any nitpicky need to analyze this tutti-fruitee-allrooty business. I just got it.
No doubt Little Richard was on TV in the 50s, but I never happened to see him. If I had, I would have seen what Elvis, exciting and important though he may have been, was really only a pale shadow of. Here was the undiluted source. Here was what really terrified that Lubbock principal, the real threat, even if he couldn't fully articulate it. When Little Richard revved up those stainless steel vocal chords and let loose with LONG TALL SALLY or GOOD GOLLY MISS MOLLY, SURE LIKE TO BALL! he had authority. They called him a "wild man," and that's exactly what he was, punishing the keyboard of his piano, standing up while he played, dancing, his feet a blur.
And when you look at the publicity pictures of him from that era, you don't see any of that Brando/Dean/Presley white-boy sulkiness. Quite the contrary. You see a stunningly gorgeous young black man with skin like chocolate, glossy hair piled higher than Elvis' could ever dream of going, the blackest eyes, the biggest, whitest, most beautiful smile. Oh, you can plainly see that he was a "bad boy," but a whole different kind of "bad." He positively radiates power and confidence. The fact that he was black AND openly, screamingly gay (in the mid-50s!) detracted not a bit from his potent appeal, and in fact, knowing what I know now, I'd say it had everything to do with it. He was royalty, kingly and queenly all at once. He shattered every taboo in the book with the sheer force of his personality and talent. Nowadays, we expect rock 'n' rollers to write their own songs, but he was doing it way back then (as did the Everlys). And it was Little Richard who explained it all to us with definitive poetic efficiency when he said: "Rhythm and Blues had a baby, and they called it Rock 'n' Roll." Amen, Brother Richard. Amen. AWOP-BOP-A-LOOMOP-A-WOP-BAM-BOOM!
Little Richard had a rival piano-punisher who also wrote his own songs and was maybe the baddest bad boy of them all—Jerry Lee Lewis, aka "The Killer." You get the feeling with him—as with so many of the legendary jazz and blues musicians who'd gone before—that if not for music, he would surely have been in jail, pounding heads instead of keyboards. All that energy got funneled into his music, luckily for us and for rock 'n' roll. He appeared on the Steve Allen show in 1957, was given three minutes, and tore into "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" with such ferocity that he pretty much fried the audience in their seats. There's a famous picture of him from that show, up on top of his piano, where he has just leapt. Like Little Richard, he was dangerously handsome, with wavy golden hair and a noble profile, as if he came from some rogue Louisiana branch of the Barrymore family (he was the one who famously married his 13-year-old cousin). Pretty soon we were singing another song on the playground, the implications of which were not totally lost on us, though our grasp was rudimentary: Goodness gracious, GREAT BALLS OF FIRE!! I have no doubt that Mrs. Fitz, bless her heart, knew exactly what it meant.
The other guy who was so notably writing his own songs was Buddy Holly. And he took a hugely original stylistic leap forward. Remember his hiccuping falsetto in "Peggy Sue?" The first time I heard it, I thought it was weird and goofy—but exciting. He was the polite, well-spoken, neatly groomed "good" bad boy whose talent simply could not be contained. What a hyper-hip visionary he was—the original "alternative" rocker. What would Buddy Holly have achieved if he'd lived? The mind boggles. I remember the hysterical sobbing of the high school girls in the cafeteria when his plane (and Richie Valens' and the Big Bopper's) crashed.
Buddy Holly was from Texas. Elvis and Little Richard were from Mississippi, as was Bo Diddley. Jerry Lee Lewis was from Louisiana. The Everly Brothers were from Kentucky. Chuck Berry was from St. Louis, which is not, technically speaking, southern, but the city on the banks of the Mississippi had been receiving travelers from the deep south for ages, as had the great blues city, Chicago.
It's not mere happenstance that the music America gave the world didn't have its origins in, say, the Pacific Northwest. Or New England. Chilly and homogeneous just doesn't cut it. You need a rich stew of ingredients, the sweet along with the bitter, and you need them to simmer slowly over constant heat with a tight-fitting lid. No. It had to be the South.
Imagine a slave ship captain from the 1600s, with his cargo of hijacked and kidnapped Africans, on his way to the New World. Somehow, like that Lubbock principal, he too travels forward in time, first about two hundred years (maybe Superman comes and whisks him off the ship), to the U.S.A. He sees slavery abolished. He jumps ahead another ninety years and sees Little Richard. When he's sufficiently recovered from that shock (never mind airplanes, TV, cars, movies, satellites) he keeps going gradually forward and sees the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Ike and Tina, Aretha, Neil Young, the Moody Blues, the Who, then forward another couple of decades and he sees Van Halen, Metallica, the Wu Tang Clan, Eminem, P. Diddy, Dr. Dre, R.E.M., Marilyn Manson, and...a bare-chested fifty-three-year-old Mick Jagger in tights, sequins, and mascara, rising slowly up through a trap door....
Then Superman wraps his cape around the slave ship captain and takes him on a quick tour of the globe so he can hear rock 'n' roll emanating from Iceland, Japan, Morocco, Uruguay, Saudi Arabia, Australia, Mongolia, Finland, Tierra del Fuego, India, Mozambique, Russia, China. China!!! And he'd think: What the hell hath God wrought?
Nothing much, Captain. Nothing much. Mere rock 'n' roll.
The human brain bristles with receptors. When we're very young, those receptors are hungry. If you get at those receptors early enough, and lay down the programming, it's pretty much ingrained forever. I know people who speak, for instance, of how it is to be a "cradle" Catholic. Even if they decide to formally leave the church, vestiges still lurk, ineradicable, in the deepest recesses.
As six- and seven-year-olds, millions of children in the 1950s got their little receptors thoroughly dosed with rock 'n' roll, when it was new and we were, too. Now here we are over a half century later, and we haven't outgrown it and we never will. For some of us, it's a substitute for religious ecstasy. It can make us, at the flip of a switch, feel young and bursting with optimism even if we are neither. It has everything to do with why baby-boomers behave as if eternal youth were their birthright.
When we're old and decrepit and causing a critical overload in nursing homes, shuffling around with our walkers and drooling, the staff people will be playing "Purple Haze" and "Gimme Shelter" while they feed us our mashed carrots and give us our medications. Old ladies will feel like bad boys, and somewhere in our dim brains we'll be full of the swagger and attitude of Elvis and Jerry Lee and Little Richard, which indelibly stamped the newly mutating form of music called rock 'n' roll and which defines it to this very day and makes it the most potent revolutionary force on earth, traveling with the speed of thought, leaping borders, dissolving boundaries, breaking every rule, cutting through ideology, laws and class barriers, a universal language of iconoclasm, hipness, defiance, sass, freedom. Once people get a taste, there's no going back. That's what the Lubbock principal knew.
I rest my case, Your Honor.