Rob Patterson

Never Mind the 'Hall of Fame' ...

Finally -- someone told the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to stick it where the sun don't shine! Of course, par for the course, it was The Sex Pistols.

The Mall of Lame's executive director responded to the rejection by noting that the Pistols were "being the outrageous punksters they are." Punksters? How cute! And condescending as hell. Kind of makes them sound like lovable yet naughty Smurfs.

Hell, the damn place can't even spell the name right. It's rock'n'roll if you go, as I do, by the Alan Freed coinage, which if one wants to be historically accurate is the music's real and true-to-form slangy name.

I've disliked the whole notion of the Hall since it was first proposed, and not just because institutionalizing what began as music for rebels, outcasts and delinquents is utterly antithetical to its nature. We're talking about a style that was born from a tryst between African-American sex music and a white-trash hillbilly hard-on -- not the kinda stuff you salute in black tie at a pricey gala at the Waldorf Astoria.

So, in the spirit of this fine publication, we are talking about a music that was as populist as you can get. As for progressive, well ... Yeah, it was at its best as politically incorrect as a cultural movement could be. Women were chicks and babes and definitely objects of carnal desire. But on the other hand, just give a spin to Etta James belting out "Tell Mama" and marvel at how it's a girl-power manifesto that was probably far more potent at expressing the notion of female liberation than any polemic written by Betty Friedan or Gloria Steinem.

These days, we politely call such attitudes "sex positive." A part of me -- the kid who skipped school and smoked ciggies in my early teens -- prefers the gutter lingua franca of "let's rock."

Because for all its rude, lewd, loud and lusty incorrectness, rock'n'roll was the sound of liberation, an invocation to shake off the chains of conformity and up the establishment. Or as the glorious MC5 later put it, "Kick out the jams, motherf***ers!"

It was the big musical ripple from the first atomic blasts of the 1940s that helped power all the best social movements that followed. Not to in any way demean the Montgomery bus boycott, but can you think of a better way to bring black America into mainstream than white teenagers shaking their butts to the sound of Motown and Stax/Volt? It was the soundtrack to the call to revolution of the '60s. And yeah, even if the music incited the urge in boys becoming men to cop a titty feel or play a li'l grab ass, it also inspired those girls becoming women to strip off their girdles and let it all hang out.

Being born in 1954 -- the year Elvis Presley sauntered into Sun Studio and fired a metaphorical shot heard 'round the world -- I refer to myself as being as old as rock'n'roll. (Do note that, being at least as historically accurate as the Hall of Lame, I recognize that rock'n'roll likely started with earlier waxings like Ike Turner's "Rocket 88" or Big Joe Turner's "Shake, Rattle & Roll," if not even before.) So for me, rock'n'roll is all about the primal testosterone surges of adolescence when we both came of age in the mid '60s.

It's about how I felt at my first teen dance in the packed ballroom of the old Arlington Hotel in Binghamton, N.Y., on a hot summer night, sweat rolling down my face as everyone's bodies rubbed up against one another in my first genuine experience of collective passion. And it's about my first make-out session behind the high school gym after another dance (where, if memory serves me correct, one of the bands that played was fittingly named The Id).

Sure, that's not what it's all about. But in these days when Simon Cowell and Clive Davis tout synthetic sex and emotion as pop music, it's time somebody brought it all back home to the music's root -- passion, rebellion, liberation, lust and loudness that wakes some neighbors up to the wild joy and pisses others off.

But just like Shakespeare's plays and opera in their day, when they were popular entertainment for a restive rabble unafraid to express their approval or displeasure in no uncertain terms -- hollering and throwing stuff -- rock'n'roll is being institutionalized and ossified by the Mall of Lame. Even the punk rock blast led by the Sex Pistols has become just another style and subculture with its set of rules and strictures and stylistic conformities in sound and fashion.

Rock'n'roll was about breaking the rules and freeing the essence of what it means to be human, to feel, emote and act. Some three decades or so back, Roger Daltrey howled, "Rock is dead they say? Well long live rock!" And as the music comes within hailing distance of the standard retirement age, one has to wonder if it just might be dead and ready to be mummified in a tomb on the shores of Lake Erie. The Mall of Lame may be more a symptom than the cause, but it's one more sign that something powerful and glorious is napping on its deathbed, ready to shake off this mortal coil.

However, as long as this (aging) boy born in the first year of the rock'n'roll revolution still breathes and pumps blood and spunk, it won't yet be dead. And when my dying day comes, I hope before I expire to hear just one more nasty blasting chord to let me know that this music I love as much as life itself is more than an electric guitar in some climate-controlled display case in Cleveland.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas.

From The Progressive Populist, April 1, 2006

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