Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Rage against rock -- a personal odyssey

My first financially rewarded piece of music criticism earned me a quarter, long before I ever thought of doing it professionally.

I was about 10 years old and visiting my mother's family down in Virginia, grouped around a huge family reunion.  They were all Southerners except for her, and my impression of my second cousins was how different they were. I was told how Lee could have won the Civil War if not for the Yankee blockade of the Confederacy's ports (Happy Birthday, Abe!). I was laughed at for unwittingly using a basement bathroom at my hosts' home  that was intended for the exclusive use of the "colored" maid.

One of my cousins showed me his record collection, including a single of Elvis Presley singing "Blue Suede Shoes."  But he insisted it was Carl Perkins singing.  I looked at the label: Carl Perkins' name was in parentheses right under the song title, in small print. Below that, in larger type, was "Elvis Presley."

"It's Elvis singing," I said with some assurance. "The name in parentheses — that's the guy that wrote the song."

I asked him to look at the 45's flip side; I've forgotten what the song was, but there was a different name in parentheses. Elvis' name was below that, again in larger type. "I suppose you think that's not Elvis singing this one, huh?" I asked my second cousin.  He didn't have a ready answer, but he insisted it was Carl Perkins singing "Blue Suede Shoes."

We agreed to bet, and we'd let an adult settle it.  The next day, my young relative grudgingly handed me a quarter. "My dad says that since you're our guest, you're right.  Here's your money."

I accepted the coin with some misgivings, as I hadn't really proved anything — beyond the iron law of Southern hospitality. But I'd undoubtedly won: Here was this huge Elvis fan somehow thinking that Carl Perkins was singing "Blue Suede Shoes" exactly like Elvis.

From this encounter, I started forming an impression of the denseness of the music-loving public that has always stood me in good stead. Also, about how musical taste trumps other unshakable values: My prejudiced cousin was just wild about Little Richard.

But the purpose of this post is to address my own prejudices, not his. For instance, partly through attendance at family reunions (including conversations like the one above) and partly through media saturation, I concluded that people who spoke with Southern accents were dumb. I am not proud of this. The assumption persisted until college, when I  heard  a philosophy professor from the Deep South lecture on Kant. How you could ever elucidate the Categorical Imperative in a sorghum-thick drawl astounded me.

I also passed through a period of infatuation with some pop music in my late teens and early 20s, before growing out of it. I then formed the prejudice that anyone my age who continued to like rock and its relatives into adulthood was probably not very smart. Then, amazingly, I got to know intelligent rock fans, and another unfounded prejudice needed to bite the dust.

OK, intelligent people can like rock. I've processed that. But I still look at them across a great cultural gulf — just as I did as a youngster at my Dixie-touting second cousins. At the folks who gushed over the Beatles' 50th-anniversary broadcast, for instance. Or someone like Frank Felice, who's presenting "An Evening of Progressive Rock Music" at Butler University on Feb. 25. Felice, a guitarist and composer on the Butler faculty, knows more about music than I ever will, as does his rock-admiring colleague Michael Schelle. R-E-S-P-E-C-T, to quote another shrieker I can't stand.

You can't account for taste, but I have to extend respect to genres that are alien to me, and to at least some of their admirers.  Still, I may try to see rock as anything other than clownish, vulgar or pretentious, but I can't get there. As a cub culture reporter at the Flint Journal, I was once sent to cover a double bill of Yes (one of the bands Felice's program is featuring) and the J. Geils Band.  Very different kinds of bands —I  could easily recognize that —but in me exciting about equal amounts of revulsion.

I find I can best accept rock as being a loud, larky paean to irresponsibility and volume-driven faux ecstasy. There are two rock LPs in my record collection (and none in any other format): The eponymously titled Presley debut on RCA Victor (which opens with "Blue Suede Shoes," by the way) and Warren Zevon's "Stand in the Fire: Live at the Roxy." Both men died messy, premature deaths from living the rock 'n' roll dream.

One of two rock albums I own.
 I listen to one or the other of these albums every five years or so as musical caricature.  If they appeal to my sense of humor, I can't dismiss them utterly. I agree with the late LeRoi Jones'  jibe at white rock groups as "minstrel-show" acts, applying musical burnt cork and singing "ain't" more often than they would ever say it. OK, maybe that makes it art. I mean, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau didn't have to go wandering off lovelorn into the snow to effectively interpret "Winterreise," did he?

I can't stand much rock in any case, but when it takes itself seriously, it's a crashing bore: In Flint, when for a while The Journal didn't have a rock critic on staff, new LPs would cross my desk (when the copy boy didn't steal them and sell them out of his trunk). I took home Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA"; I kept it around long enough to learn it was one of his big hits. But it was as tedious to listen to as, oh, Dan Tepfer's Goldberg Variations/Variations, to draw an example from another genre out of thin air. I discarded "Born in the USA" some time ago: The Boss, no loss.

So, health, prosperity and good fortune to the musically adept who also happen to like rock. I doubt you'll see me at "An Evening of Progressive Rock Music." At least, I harbor no prejudice any longer.  Well, maybe just a little.

And, cousin, how I wish I could give you back your quarter!