- Rock ‘N’ Theory: Autobiography, Cultural Studies, and the “Death of Rock”
The following essay is structured like a record—a 45, to be exact. While the A side provides an anecdotal and autobiographical take on the origins or “birth” of rock (on the assumption that, as Robert Palmer writes, “the best histories are... personal histories, informed by the author’s own experiences and passions” [Rock & Roll 11]), the B side examines the work of Lawrence Grossberg, in particular his speculations about the “death of rock,” as an example or symptom of the limits of critical theory when it comes into contact with that je ne sais quoi that virtually defines popular music (“It’s only rock ‘n’ roll, but I like it, I like it”). By way of a conclusion, the reprise offers some remarks on the generational implications of the discourse of the body in rock historiography as well as, not so incidentally, some critical, self-reflexive remarks on the limits of the sort of auto-historical “story” that makes up the A side.
A Side: The Birth of Rock, or Memory Train
“Don’t know much about history”—Sam Cooke
In 1954, one year before Bill Haley and the Comets’ “Rock around the Clock,” what Robert Palmer calls the “original white rock ‘n’ roll” song, became number one on the pop charts, marking a “turning point in the history of popular music” (Rolling Stone 12, emphasis mine); and one year before Elvis covered Little Junior Parker’s “Mystery Train” (then signed, under the expert tutelage of Colonel Parker, with RCA); in 1954—the same year the Supreme Court ruled racial segregation unconstitutional—the nineteen-year-old and still very much alive Elvis Presley walked into the Memphis Recording Service and cut Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s “That’s All Right.”
Elvis recollecting Phillips’s recollection of a phone conversation with him: “You want to make some blues?”
Legend has it that Elvis immediately hung up the phone, ran 15 blocks to Sun Records while Phillips was still on the line... and, well, the rest is history: by 1957, one year before Elvis was inducted into the Army, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, and Little Richard had crossed over to the pop charts, and the “rock ‘n’ roll era had begun” (Palmer, Rolling Stone 12).
The irony of the above originary moment—at least for me—is that I somehow missed the Mystery Train. Over the years I’ve come to appreciate Elvis’s music, especially the early Sun recordings (and, truth be told, later kitsch, cocktail-lounge stuff like “Viva Las Vegas”); however, to invoke the storied lore of “family romance,” Elvis is a formative part of my sister Cathy’s life in a way that he’ll never be for me. Though she’s only a year older than me, Elvis for her is it, the Alpha and Omega of rock. For me, Elvis has always been more icon than influence, and a rather tarnished one at that.
The seminal musical moments in my life are both later, post-1960, and less inaugural. For instance, I can still remember sitting with a couple of other kids in the next-door neighbor’s backyard, listening to a tinny transistor radio (one of the new technologies that transformed the music industry in the 1950s), and hearing—for the very first, pristine time—“Johnny Angel” ). I’m not sure what it was about this song that caught my attention—the obscure, angelic object of desire does not, for instance, have my name, as in “Bobby’s Girl” (and “girl group rock,” as Greil Marcus calls it, was mostly about “The Boy” [Rolling Stone 160]),1 but I’m pretty sure sex, however sublimated and pre-pubescent, had something to do with it.
I can also distinctly remember watching Shelley Fabares sing “Johnny Angel” on an episode of The Donna Reed Show, a program—like The Patty Duke Show—that was de rigueur, i.e. “Must See TV,” at the time. Though Ricky Nelson performed regularly on The Ozzie and Harriet Show (and even Paul Petersen had his fifteen minutes of fame with the lugubrious “My Dad” (1962)), Fabares...