Sunday, March 13, 2011

Rock: From The Beginning

If Elvis was the first rocker, Nik Cohn was the first rock writer, he predates everyone. In 1965, London was happening, and teenager Nik Cohn was johnny on the spot writing for the Sunday Times. He had the jump on everyone else, it would be another three years before American rock 'zines like Rolling Stone, Crawdaddy or Cream would print their first crude editions.  Cohn explains how he became a writer; "The scene was already crammed to bursting with would-be musicians, photographers, hairdressers and models, but as a writer, I had no competition." Being stuck behind a typewriter is not glamorous. "Scribes in the early sixties did not come in skintight velvet trousers and shades" Cohn explained, nonetheless he rubbed shoulders with all the major rock stars. Compared to the sordid tell-all books, that were yet to come, Rock: From the Beginning is rather tame.  However, Nik Cohn has a keen ear for gossip and detail and doesn't hold back, for its time the book was rather risque. Cohn pulls back the curtain on rock and roll Babylon and allows us to peak in at history in the making.   Although, when taken in context with everything that's been written and all that has transpired since, it's really is nothing more than an introduction. As Greil Marcus notes on the cover; "The first best book on rock 'n roll and still the best first book to read" Most of the passages within quotations are taken from the book, I provide a running commentary that is biased, opinionated and self serving. This was going to be a simple book review, but it quickly grew into a monstrous hybrid: testimonial, confessional, book review and essay. This is part one, followed by part two, of course.
In 1970 I was a 12 year old kid with a voracious appetite for reading. This need to read had me tearing through the school library devouring everything in sight. It wasn't long before I exhausted that limited supply and moved on the big daddy, the public library.  I spent untold hours at the library, I ignored the children section and went straight to the big folks side. I devoured history, non-fiction, newspapers and magazines.  I got my biggest thrills sorting through the new arrivals, it was the same thrill I would later get flipping through bins of vinyl at records shops.  One day I stumbled upon a book that caught my eye, it was "Rock: From the Beginning" written by Nik Cohn. I sat in the reading area, I got halfway through the book before I put it down and thought to myself  "How did this book get past the librarians?" I then asked myself  "How long before they realize their mistake and pull this book off the shelf."  I fell in love with the book, I couldn't check it out without an adult card, so I would read it at the library. One day I walked in and strolled over to the new arrivals and found that it was gone. I went into a panic "Oh No, they finally caught on!" I started looking for it on the shelves and finally I found it.  I was troubled by a nagging thought "It won't be long before this book is gone" It was then that I noticed the back door was propped open to allow for a breeze, compulsively, I took the book and walked out the back door and made my getaway down the alley.   I stole the book! remorse and guilt washed over me, I almost went back, but the deed was done. I hid the book away and kept the secret to myself, but the library experience was now tainted, it would never be the same. My senior year in high school I signed up for a creative writing class, by mid-term my grade was shit and in order to pass, I would have to write a term paper, any subject.  I pulled out my stolen copy of "Rock: From the Beginning", my meager collection of rock magazines and I started writing.  The title of my term paper "The History of Rock" I got a B+, one week later I enlisted in the Air Force. In May after graduation and a few days before I was to depart for boot camp, I took the book, walked down to library (after hours) and dropped it into the return box.  For six years It had served me well, plus I needed to get my karma right before leaving home for good.  I was obsessed with the book, while in the Air Force I would scour the base and local libraries looking for it. I even made a pilgrimage to City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, but was told that it was out of print. I gave up my quest to find another copy and moved on to the next item on my obsessive compulsive checklist, collecting vinyl.  
The book itself has a rather bi-polar personality, when first published in the U.K. in 1970 it was called "Awopbopaloobop-Alopbamboom, Pop: From The Beginning" when it arrived in the states the title became "Rock: From The Beginning."  "Awopbopaloobop-Alopbamboom" which of course is taken from the Little Richard song "Tutti Frutti" is just outdated gibberish that according to Nik Cohn epitomized the spirit of rock and roll.  As Cohn wrote: "As a summing up of what rock and roll was all about, this was nothing but masterly" When I finally purchased a copy of the book in 2011, it had been renamed Awopbopaloobop-Alopbamboom: "The Golden Age of Rock" as Little Richard would've said "Oh my! That's a mouthful." Nik Cohn follows a time-line from the music era just before rock and roll to 1970.  Rock begins when Bill Haley hit the charts with "Rock Around The Clock" the first legit rock and roll hit.  Others had flirted with a rock sound, including Haley with "Shake, Rattle and Roll", but this was Godzilla stomping out of the sea to demolish all conventional forms of music. Nothing would ever be the same, down in Memphis and further south, many young musicians took notice.
 When the movie "Rock Around The Clock" hit the U.K. in 1956 it caused riots. Girls didn't go crazy for Bill Haley, but others did "He sang the title song and the beat stoked up and Teds everywhere went berserk" Imagine that! the song that in America will forever be associated with the TV program "Happy Days" caused audiences to tear up movie theaters in England.  According to Cohn rock and roll was  "Negro rhythm and blues and white romantic crooning ... coloured beat and white sentiment"  what it was lacking was aggressive sexual energy, Haley did not have that, but Elvis Presley did. Cohn introduces The King  "Elvis is where rock begins and ends, he's the great original" Something made him different "His voice sounded edgy, nervous, It was anguished, immature, raw. But, above all, it was the sexiest thing that anyone had ever heard."  Elvis was always a mama's boy and he could be manipulated and controlled by authority figures (his mama, the Army, Col. Parker) His lack of self discipline would be his undoing. Cohn's chapter on Elvis ends with his big Vegas comeback, The King, dressed in black leather, ready to reclaim his crown from the usurpers. Isn't that the way we would like the story of Elvis to end?   Instead of Fat Elvis, stuffed into rhinestone jump suits, hooked on pills, self indulgent and sadder than a hound dog on lonely street. Elvis the King of instant gratification would soon leave the building and this world.
 Next, Cohn touches on the musicians of the 1950's that were the building blocks of rock and roll. Little Richard  "As a person he was brash, fast and bombastic, He had a freak voice, tireless, hysterical totally indestructible" Fats Domino "He had been around since 1948, he was a bit like an updated Fats Waller" other musicians he writes about like Larry Williams and Screaming Jay Hawkins had much more of an impact in the U.K. then they ever did in the states. Cohn continues down the list of Hall of Fame inductees, Lieber and Stoller who provided "A running commentary on the manifold miseries of being teenage" Chuck Berry "Possibly the most influential of all the early rockers" If anyone other then Presley could claim the title of "King" it's Chuck Berry "The poet laureate to the whole rock movement" Berry had a keen sense of what white teenagers liked and he cashed in on it.  He was a shrewd business man, Cohn observes that while touring the U.K.  "He studied the evening paper and if there was any fluctuation in the rates of exchange between dollars and pounds, in his favour, he demanded payment in cash before he went on." Jerry Lee Lewis, who pleaded  "Hell! I'm only country." after the shit hit the fan, when he married his thirteen year old cousin.  My favorite Jerry Lee story does not come from the pages of this book, but rather from the opening lines of Nick Tosche's "Hellfire"  Elvis is lying in his bed at Graceland, he's having a bad dream, he tosses and turns. He wakes up in a cold sweat, meanwhile outside Jerry Lee crashes his Cadillac into the gates of Graceland. He climbs out waving a .357 Magnum demanding to see The King.  The guard's call to the house, what should they do? "Call the Cops" says Elvis and he goes back to bed.  It's a true story, Jerry Lee would actually make two stops at Graceland that night. The Killer was hellbent on self destruction, ironically, he's still alive and Elvis has been dead for thirty plus years.
Gene Vincent suffered from a mangled left leg "He'd dress himself entirely in black leather, there'd be a single spotlight on him and he'd look agonized." It's not that he was self destructive, but the pain was so constant that it affected his mental health. He was the original tortured, moody rock star. He died in 1971, the pills, the booze and the pain was what killed the man. Nik Cohn glosses over Buddy Holly, "He had a voice, he wrote natural hit songs" Then he drools over Eddie Cochran, "His songs were perfect reflections of everything that rock ever meant" Cochran was, simply put  the first modern rocker. According to Cohn he was "The essential rocker, a bit surly and a bit talented, a composite of a generation"  Buddy Holly probably left the largest void of any musician that died young. How much of a factor would Buddy have been if he had lived? For one thing it was the age of pre-fab teen idols and one hit wonders, other than Roy Orbison there was nobody with true talent out there.  Elvis Presley was too busy making movies to show much interest in music. Guys like Del Shannon, Gene Pitney and Tommy Roe ruled the day because they filled the vacuum left by Holly's death. For Buddy, the world was his, had he lived. Eddie Cochran's death also left a void, that's why instrumental rock bands suddenly flourished. In 1960 he was the only true rock vocalist with talent and hit potential. However, music was changing, The Beatles who fashioned themselves after Holly and Cochran were destined to eclipse both, dead or alive.  Let's not forget Ritchie Valens, it's doubtful he would've been a major star but between 1960-63 (the pre-Beatles era) America had a love affair with Latin music. Trini Lopez was big and Ritchie recognized a good thing when it came along. Mostly this was an age of fads, The Twist, Latin, Smooth Pop and Instrumentals. 1960-63 was the dead spot in the center of the court, the music hadn't really died, it just wasn't very good.