In our never-ending quest for stirring mythologies and shining examples of heroism, when it comes to the events of sixty years ago today, we long ago handed the wheel over to Don McLean. And to be clear, that’s not cynicism, but rather an acknowledgment: the song that birthed the sobriquet in this post’s title is one of the best-loved and best-known songs in the canon of American popular music. But I digress.
The pedant in me feels compelled to tritely observe that, strictly speaking, the music did not die that day. Little Richard had already accepted a message from God and forsaken rock and roll. Jerry Lee Lewis’s marriage to his 13-year-old cousin had ended his career
in 1958. Elvis’s tenure in the military from 1958 to 1960 had been seized by his manager as an opportunity to turn his client into another Dean Martin instead of the hillbilly cat he’d been up to that point (though nobody knew that yet). But it was dying, and the plane crash that morning in a snowy field outside Clear Lake, Iowa drove a powerful stake through its withering, weakening frame. Add in Chuck Berry’s jail term later that year and Eddie Cochran’s death in a car accident the next, and the coup de grace had been administered. Rock and roll in America was dead.
And not a moment too soon, thought conservative America of the day. After spending the better part of the decade railing against “jungle music” (read: black music) turning America’s daughters into wanton little harlots, there was at last a return to supposedly wholesome values and virtuous behaviour. And so into the void left by its demise rushed a slew of mostly neutered pretty boy pop rubbish about teddy bears and falling in love with your girlfriend.
“Neutered”, yes, though not completely so. If there’s one thing mainstream America has always excelled at, it’s stuffing sexuality down into a contained receptacle of some kind. No, wait — fuck “some kind”. The receptacle is very obviously a grotesquely corpulent sausage casing of sin and lust, threatening to explode at any moment. And inevitably, what manages to ooze out here and there short of said explosion tends to be forbidden or creepy or scary because of who gets caught up in it (think televangelists playing bondage games with exotic prostitutes in shitty hotels while publicly preaching faith and family). Thus producer Kim Fowley spoke a lot of truth a few years ago when he highlighted as an example Frankie Avalon in 1959 singing “Venus if you will, please send a little girl for me to thrill.” Ewww.
And meanwhile across the pond, since the British had been relatively okay for ages with public and private titillation, it fell to them to save rock and roll from its nation of origin. After letting themselves embrace the blues of African American musicians like Robert Johnson, Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters where white America still shunned it, all that was left was to add percussion and distortion to create something more obviously sexual for consumption by white audiences. They knew, as America didn’t, that rock and roll couldn’t recoil from sexuality any longer. The Beatles were leading rock and roll’s charge by 1964, but they weren’t exactly the standard bearers for its new subject matter and sock hops and screaming hysterical fans just weren’t going to cut it anymore. The forward thrust would fall to others. Dave Davies of the Kinks on 1964’s “You Really Got Me”: “it’s not about wining and dining and middle class behaviour. It’s about ‘I like you, I want to fuck you.'” And in exporting it back stateside, the Brits still had to make a few compromises with American taste makers for a bit (e.g. Ed Sullivan telling Mick Jagger to sing “Let’s Spend Some Time Together”, and the latter eye-rollingly obliging).
But not for long: for rock music, at least, the sausage casing would explode. And Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson proved to be three of the most prominent early sacrifices to that damned spectacular ultimate end result.
Salutant gloriosa nos mortuus est.