Letters at 3AM
By Michael Ventura
JUNE 14, 1999: Say you're a kid in Brooklyn in the spring of '55. Saturdays you go to the Star Theater -- 25¢ admission, a nickel for Coke, a dime for popcorn, and the program goes all day: 10 cartoons, a Western, and a sci-fi picture in which there's always an atom bomb and it always causes things like ants and lizards to grow very large and eat everything in sight. Most of the monsters attack New York, where you happen to live, which is not good for your sleep. But the Star Theater is a kind of civics lesson, too, because at school they have "bomb drills": If an atom bomb is about to hit we'll get under our desks and hunch over and cover our heads with our hands and then what???!!! Anybody who's been to the Star is hip to what happens next: obliteration or mutation. We know there's no way to be safe. So it's even scarier that the grown-ups keep pretending safety is a possibility, because that means they're either crazy or lying. Either way, these teachers can't be trusted.
Kids don't buy many records in 1955. Radio music is mostly for grown-ups, and it's calm and sweet. Perry Como, Eddie Fisher, the McGuire Sisters. TV is black-and-white and innocuous, with only a 15-minute news broadcast in the early evening. We know about the Commies and the Cold War because it's in the movies and in the air, but we don't know that the McCarthy blacklists are still in force, and we don't know how scared and quelled the intelligentsia of America has been for nearly 10 years now. We're told that in the North everybody's equal and in the South there's segregation, but then how come black and white New Yorkers are always separate unless they're shoved together in subway cars? And how would a kid know that 25% of America lives in harsh poverty? All we knew was we were poor. But a Brooklyn kid thinks Brooklyn is special, so: ya want ya pove'ty, we got ya pove'ty right here.
The pap on the radio certainly isn't about sex. Hard to say what it's about. It's soothing, most of it. And if there's so much radio and TV stuff designed to soothe, then there must be a lot of unrest out there to be soothed. But nobody's talking about that -- and even a 10-year old can get spooked with that unavoidable feeling that nobody's supposed to talk about it. In the work-place, in the media, in the schools, people are afraid to talk anything but pap about sex, religion, politics -- a gray tense atmosphere. "Happy Days" my ass. You didn't know why people were afraid to speak openly, but you knew they were afraid. And the bomb hovers over all of it.
Something's happening on the black radio stations, something evocative and crazy and forbidding -- but it's black. It's exciting, it's beckoning, but it's separate. And if you're a white kid, you have no idea where to buy those black records. They're not sold in your neighborhood.
Then, well into 1955, things start cooking.
There's a movie called Blackboard Jungle and it has a song by Bill Haley and the Comets called "Rock Around the Clock." And about the same time you start to hear of something called the Montgomery Bus Boycott and a man named Martin Luther King, Jr. Quite a coincidence, if you believe in coincidences: rock & roll and the civil rights movement, two of the most transformative forces in modern American culture, came into mainstream awareness within weeks of each other. It was the end of the grayness.
A 10-year-old Brooklyn kid doesn't know much but he sure knows when the grown-ups are upset. The music and this bus thing are upsetting a lot of them -- and that can't be bad.
Bill Haley rocks around the top spots of the charts for almost all the rest of the year, and the song makes you yearn to dance and learn to dance, and by the spring of 1956 white radio ain't white no more: there's Frankie Lymon, Fats Domino, and the mighty Little Richard, with Elvis leading the charge. Something that was separate isn't separate anymore. And as Little Richard said of Miss Molly: "When you're rockin' and a-rollin', can't hear your Mama call."
Which was, and still is, the whole point.
And the invitation is open: "Come on, everybody!" (Eddie Cochran) And tradition doesn't matter: "Roll over, Beethoven." (Chuck Berry)
I like James Austin's reply to somebody who asked what the message of Fifties rock is: "When the tone-arm reaches the end of the record, the message is: Turn the record over! We can party all night! We're not like our parents!"
All the suppressed tension under the gray air of the Fifties -- suddenly there was Little Willie John describing it to a tee: "Feel like I been run through the mill/I can't move around and I can't stand still/I'm so jittery -- and I'm shakin'." The words were about shaking, the music made you shake. You turned that shake into a dance. And you turned that dance into a place where you could go but the powers that be couldn't follow. And if that isn't a profound transformation, I'd like to know what is.
The radio jockeys pretended not to know that the phrase "rock & roll" was Southern black slang for fucking. Little Richard's line, "Good golly, Miss Molly, you sure like to ball," is as overt as it gets. But the very simplicity, and often the silliness, of the music helped protect it from what we would now call the Religious Right. It's hard to make a sensible case for banning lyrics like "Tutti frutti ah rutti" (Little Richard). The music didn't need to make its message any clearer than that. It had so much force, it didn't need much message.
It was relentless, noisy, raucous, happy. Not sappy-happy, but with the happiness that comes of realizing what all those wild songs say in one way or another: We don't have to play by the rules! And they can't stop us!
It was reckless: "Goin' round the corner gonna
get a fifth/Everybody in my car's gonna take a little nip" (Jackie Brenston).
It was giddy. Giggly. Arrogant. "Don't mess with my blue suede shoes" (Carl
Perkins). And it damn well didn't care about the bomb: "I've been to Nagasaki/
What's so striking 40 years later is the playfulness of the wildest Fifties rock. Not that it doesn't take itself seriously; you can't say that so intense a music is casual, after all. It was rebellious to the core, yet playfully so, overjoyed to the point of hysteria, drunken with the liberties it takes. But hints of future darkness peek out now and again: "I got the boogie-woogie like a knife in the back" (Frankie Ford). "Somebody screamed ... you shoulda heard just what I seen" (Bo Diddley).
Leave it to Screamin' Jay Hawkins to predict the future. Check out his "Little Demons," where in one verse Screamin' Jay outlines the fate this generation would not only face but would pass on to their children: "He had steam in his soul for the one he loves/So he had death in his mind 'cause the demon let him go/Gonna run through the world 'til he understands his pain/Somebody help him get the demon home again."
So you're a kid in 1955, 1956, and the heady years that followed. The music's made you comb your hair differently. You've learned to dance, and it's a dancing that changes your walk, your stance. You've got something that's yours now, a style, a sound, something that admits that the world is as crazed as you feel it is -- and yet it's not depressing, it's exciting. You've got a music full of possibilities that aren't offered in school or on the tube. It makes your parents nervous. And they're right to be. You want things they never dreamed possible. You take a certain sense of liberty, of license, as your due now.
You're a kid and the music is leading you in a new direction. Maybe it'll work out and maybe it won't. But there's no going back. You're gonna run through the world until you understand your pain. Maybe you'll become your parents after all, and maybe that's not even so bad -- but you don't have to. Not anymore. And you won't really become your parents, not all the way, because you can't -- because nobody can help you get the demon home again. The world's changed too much for anything as convenient as that, and the music is part of what's changed it. You'll become some kind of transitional creature, and your kids -- well, there are ways you'll hardly recognize them, and don't complain, it's your own damn fault, your music jump-started their transformation as well as yours. They'll play sounds that will shock you just as much as yours shocked your parents. And nobody knows anymore whether this is freedom or one hell of a wrong turn. It's that kind of world now. It rocks around the clock.
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