Rock and Roll
The man that hath no music in himself
Let no such man be trusted
Even though I did not excel at either baseball, piano or clarinet, when I was a teenager, recorded music became a significant part of my life. I was particularly drawn to the acapella Do-Wop and the Be-Bop of the street corner singers as well as the early electric guitar rock of 1950s and 1960s.
The pining sentimentality of the ballads side by side with the energetic drive of the rock songs played like a sympathetic sine curve over the hormonal surges of America’s youth. It also became the first major hypnotic distraction for the baby-boomer-atomic-bomb generation and began to replace religion as the opiate of the sub-adult masses.
American Bandstand, with its host Dick Clark, were in the vanguard of televising the music while people such as the disc jockeys Allan Freed, Scott Muny, Murray Kauffman, and Wolf Man Jack had become the gospel spreading prophets of the radio airwaves.
My friends and I would buy our favorite 45 speed recordings; spend hours listening to or swapping the discs, and then dream about seeing our favorite groups or stars either in person or in the ersatz zone of black and white televised airwaves. Although our parents thought differently by presupposing that we were rotting our brains, we certainly could have been doing a lot worse in our spare time, such as shoplifting, smoking cigarettes in the protected watershed woods or enticing our little girlfriends to pose for a private collection of naked lady pictures.
I had a transistor radio with a wired earplug that I would take to bed listening under the covers to the Allan Freed Show until late at night, always with the hope that my father would not come into the room to see if I was asleep. If I got caught, I knew I would be punished, most likely by having the primitive I-Pod confiscated. But because I had become hopelessly addicted to the music I was willing to make any potential sacrifice.
Besides, I knew I could get the radio back the next day if I whimpered enough to my mother.
- But, Mom; Dad just doesn’t understand.
- You’re right. He doesn’t understand anything. But get your homework done first before you screw that silly thing back into your head.
Most of our parents, who had been influenced by the Big Band era, had little or no understanding or any patience for this new style of music, much of which was felt by the general public, the media and the bureaucracy to be corrupted by the influence of black musicians.
There was a great sentiment in America that the music was dirty, degenerate, and rife with too many sexual overtones or innuendos all of which thus had the potential to undermine the entire fabric of the society. Just the sight of Elvis Presley’s suggestively gyrating hips and wiggling pelvis on the Ed Sullivan Show was enough to cause major apoplexy in the entire Southern Bible Belt. Trust me on this one. It wasn’t exactly so much penis envy as much as it was the fear of setting loose and liberating the penis itself.
In truth, the music was one of the first elements that actually had a positive influence on integrating the entire society because it had a commonality that spoke across many races or cultures, thus transcending bias and bigotry. But in those days there were also significantly powerful well established elements both in government and society that feared and loathed the very idea of racial integration, in turn viewing the music in such a negative light that they then felt obligated to extinguish it.
The teenagers of America, however, knew what they liked and their affinity for the new sounds was never to be derailed despite parental, societal, religious or even Federal Governmental pressures all conspiring independently or as a group to suppress it. Rock and Roll had been infused into the blood of America’s youth as it had uncontrollably spread like the new strain of a wildly contagious virus.
Today it is reasonably known that J. Edgar Hoover had a passionate hatred for Rock and Roll. He became personally convinced that it was a morally corrupting form of entertainment, rooted in black culture, which left to itself would destroy America’s white youth, then subsequently and inevitably, the entire culture.
This was an interesting phobia coming from a man who would eventually be determined to have lived his entire job for life ‘au gourmand’, with a male companion, trans-sexually outfitted in pink dresses when he came home from a hard day of forcing his own brand of morality down America’s throat. Suppression of Rock and Roll was probably one of the more benign things that Hoover did to America.
Hard pressure from top government agencies like Hoover’s FBI caused both subtle as well as not so subtle attempts to eradicate the evil noise. Congress held hearings on payola as the government even went after the likes of the lily-white Dick Clark who lost a contract on WINS Radio in New York because of scandalous accusations of graft. He caved in by deciding that the best part of valor was not to protest too much.
Higher visibility Disc jockeys like Allen Freed, who brought the black groups out from relative obscurity, got into serious trouble, when for example on one of his live ABC-TV shows in 1957, Frankie Lyman committed the grievously unthinkable sin of actually dancing on stage with a white girl. The Southern TV affiliates screamed bloody murder as they rushed to cancel contracts with the parent company.
Unfortunately for Freed, he was already in trouble for giving himself the sexually suggestive endurance moniker: “The Sixty Minute Man,” because this was also an era, when at least on the surface, women were expected to equally endure but not to enjoy sex. It was on the surface a neo-Victorian era when the White housewife of America was cast in the image of a duty bound, sexually indifferent vehicle designed and programmed only for the purposes of breeding, keeping house and making dinner.
Meanwhile, many of the lyrics by Black musicians implied a sub-Rosa agenda that sex was normal or that it could actually be fun, too. This Black musical heritage was rooted more simply at the reality level in the life of everyday relationships, along with the unspeakable concept that somehow drugs, alcohol and sex might make it ever so much easier for people to cope with those realities.
Freed was also accused of inciting a “Rock and Roll Riot” at the Boston Arena in 1958 with his boisterous, exuberant MC on-stage machinations that were deemed at best to be “grossly obscene.” Then when he was forced to confront the accusation at a congressional hearing investigating possibly taking money under the table as a bribe to play songs on the radio, the simple but directly truthful statement summed up Freed’s defense on the payola charge:
- Senator, I never played a song that I didn’t like.
A career in ruin, Freed drank himself to death at the age of forty-three; the only real sin having been his love of Rock and Roll music and a great desire to provide the venues for people to hear it.
Shortly after the payola scandals ruined the careers of people like Allan Freed, or with the harassment and occasional arrests of some of the black musicians, like Chuck Berry, usually on flimsy charges of smoking marijuana or activities stemming from being drunk and disorderly, then especially after Buddy Holly’s death in 1959, there truly was a time in America when beside Holly, finally the music too had literally died.
Most of the stations I listened to in New York stopped playing Rock and Roll as they drifted back to more conservative musical venues. It was hard to get any contemporary play as the airwaves were rapidly becoming void of rocking tunes and love ballads.
For awhile it seemed that the Congressional Anti-Happiness Committee was on the verge of a securing a victory that would relegate Rock and Roll to the historical footnote of being a brief cultural insanity; possibly just being no better than how we all had come to remember the Hoola-Hoop craze: just a passing fancy.
Although I was too young to understand the political implications of what was happening, I was not too young to know that the whole scenario was literally making me very sad and very blue.
Just let me hear some of that Rock and Roll music
Any old way you choose it.
It’s got a backbeat, you can’t lose it.
Any old way you use it.
It’s gotta be Rock and Roll music
If you want to dance with me
If you want to dance with me.