Speaking of the euphemistic and insidious influence of rock and roll… Our fragile moral fibers were pretty frayed by the time Elvis Presley got through with them. Elvis gave a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘shake a leg’. When Elvis threatened you with a shake, a rattle and a roll (and whenever Elvis sang anything, really) the euphemism was exposed for just how threadbare it really was. Popular music had always maintained a veneer of decency by employing double entendres of varying transparency, and using the guise of romance as a cover for carnality. The advent of rock’n’roll made short work of all decency. There was just no pretending that the music and the activities it inspired were anything but torrid – it was right there in the name. Rocking and rolling only means one thing. All we needed was Elvis the Pelvis to really pantomime it out for us.
Chuck Berry, besides all of his other notable achievements, wrote the unifying mission statement of rock’n’roll. Or as close to one as anyone’s ever gotten. He announced the arrival of a new culture, a new generational movement. I hate it when writers resort to those awful words, but, really, he “Changed The World Forever.” (Duh-duh-duh-DUHM!) Popular music and culture have mutated into unrecognizable shapes since Chuck Berry’s day, but the purpose of youth culture is still to shake off the old status quo. The spirit of making the old guard roll over in their graves doesn’t change with the generations. Chuck Berry himself is in his grave now, and he may well be tossing and turning over what the A$AP crew’s up to. But I’d like to think he’s at least getting a little chuckle, looking back at his legacy and the culture he helped create.
Watching old recordings of formative rock and roll songs by innovators such as Little Richards feels a lot like gazing at ossified sea creatures at the natural history museum. Wow, did all of life really spring from this? You’d be hard pressed to find Little Richard’s DNA in the musical stylings of, say, Fuck Buttons, but yet you know that it’s in there, just like you know that you carry the genetic material of some hominid in the Nile River Valley who got eaten by saber-toothed tree sloths or something. And that makes you mist up a little at the grandeur and awesomeness of human progress and the forces of nature that have buffeted it. Unlike the progress of hominids, though, the evolution of rock music as a cultural genus has taken place all in a single lifetime, which is to say, the lifetime of Little Richard, who is still alive at 85. A lot has changed in 85 years, but one thing hasn’t; you can still make yourself a star by mastering the two-and-a-half-minute rock song format that Little Richard helped to establish.
So many of the best early rock’n’roll songs were pure gibberish. The spirit of the music didn’t need words that made sense to make sense. The first rockers wrote silly words because they weren’t permitted to write the words the music brought to mind. Sex, obviously, sex and rebellion. But those things were implied, clearly enough that old people clutched their pearls and recoiled, while youths understood and responded accordingly. By tearing apart the fabric of decent society with their libidinous filth, of course. Here we are now, generations later, all decency long swept away by sexual freedom and miscegenation, our society in ashes. You can thank Little Richard.
Going back in time a while for some classic Elvis Presley. This song appeared in the movie Love Me Tender, which is where I assume the clip is from. I must confess that I’ve never seen an Elvis movie, though I suppose that I need to, at least for purely anthropological purposes. I understand that most of them were terrible but earned the star a lot of money. You can’t really fault Elvis for wanting to make a lot of money by way of terrible movies; in his day, rock’n’roll was considered a fad and the idea that a rocker like himself had a legacy that would be parsed by historians many years after his passing never crossed anyone’s mind. As it happens, Elvis Presley’s legacy is one of the great cautionary tales of the modern age. Elvis was truly one of the first beneficiaries-slash-victims of mass media pop culture, and one of its most enduring icons. So much so that his lurid rise and decline are more familiar to us now than his music. I imagine that if he hadn’t eaten all those Twinkies and maintained some semblance of dignity in his private life, the music would stand on its own well enough.
The eternally fashionable Buddy Holly. The man just continues to be an icon, decades after his short career ended in tragedy. You’ll want to remember this song for future reference. It’s one of those deceptively simple tunes that you can trace so much back down to. You almost can’t even call it evolution, because people are still copying the same basic structure without having to add too much. Some pretty famous people have used the formula with near-plagiarism faithfulness. But why mess with a perfect thing? There’s a reason why sharks and crocodiles haven’t changed in hundreds of millions of years; they’re already perfect, and so it is with the two-minute pop song as envisioned by Buddy Holly.
Classic Billie Holiday to soothe your troubled soul. Billie Holiday was a troubled soul herself, with a lifetime of sorrows on her shoulders. She just straight-up had a bad life. She was one of those people who was born into eternal night, and no amount of fame or money could set her free. So how is it, with all the heartbreak and pain she had to pour into it, that her music should be so soothing? I can’t say it’s uplifting; that pain is in there, after all. But there’s something in her voice that’s like a salve, easing the spirit. Did she sing to soothe herself too? Possibly – a lot of people do. Despite all her personal demons, she had the gift of making other people feel better.