Some of us used to think that rock would die with its beads on, gunned down in the street by agents of the law. This thrill of paranoia was the bequest of rock’s abrasive history. As the Great Domestic Annoyance of the Fifties, in the days of Elvis Presley, rock & roll played with sinister jubilance off in the distance, breaking the jowly slumbers of the burghers and their wives, and sometimes it exploded right upstairs, in one of the kids’ bedrooms. Dad, paunchy and balding, gripping the evening paper in one angry fist, hammers against the bedroom door, and yells hoarsely into the hypnotic din: “WILL YOU TURN THAT DAMNED THING DOWN!” Downstairs in the kitchen, Mom clucks to herself fretfully.
The uproar began when Colonel Tom Parker bought Elvis Presley from Sun Records in 1955. In 1958, the momentum was fatally interrupted when Presley was drafted, which seemed to inspire a massacre: scandal ruined Jerry Lee Lewis’s career, Buddy Holly was killed in a plane crash, and Chuck Berry was arrested for violating the Mann Act. (Little Richard had escaped this visitation by embracing religion in 1957.) Rock was suddenly leaderless, much to the benefit of promoters like Dick Clark, who oversaw the manufacture of an unthreatening new generation of “teen idols.” Singers like Bobby Vinton, Bobby Vee, Bobby Rydell (“There was nothing but Bobbies on the radio,” Jerry Lee Lewis grumbled) wooed the American teenager and won Dad’s heart. There was no need to break down the door and stomp on the phonograph, because rock’s threat had exhausted itself.
Although the music’s spirit died in 1958, the Fifties lasted until late 1963, when the Beatles released “I Want to Hold Your Hand” in America. The Beatles made rock & roll outrageous again, reminding their young listeners that rock was not just music but the vindication of a possible community. The Beatles defined “straight” by presenting themselves as its unsettling alternative. Confronted by Elvis’s lean sneer and snaking hips, Dad swelled with indignation. But when he saw the Beatles wagging their shaggy heads at the microphones, and saw the hordes of girls in heat (“What do they see in those guys?”), he was incredulous.
During the Sixties, the ludicrous image of Dad pounding on his daughter’s bedroom door evolved into a terrifying fantasy: the State would smash the tubes and cut the wires. It did not seem far-fetched for the Blue Meanies in Yellow Submarine, steeped in the hue of law enforcement, to savage every form of musical expression. The rock star’s droogish image had taken on a revolutionary glow; his music rang like a call to insurrection: “Got to revolution!” shouted the Jefferson Airplane; “We want the world and we want it now!” threatened the Doors. We feared that Dad, encouraged by S.I. Hayakawa, would pull the plug, a strategy pursued by Richard Nixon, whose diligent harassment of John Lennon suggests that the President saw Yellow Submarine between viewings of Patton, and decided that the Meanies had a strong game plan.
This fantasy was not unfounded, for the wielders of power distrusted the energy of rock & roll. Politicians and Bible thumpers would proclaim that rock was a communist device, while the Kremlin condemned that ungovernable beat with equal vehemence. Rock, having evolved among the poor, and appealing to the young before they learned to cooperate, seemed the music of those who could not or would not take part in the orderly business of society. It flowed through the air, straight to the nerves, immune to the settling influence of any status quo. It appeared to have great liberating potential: all those people, moving in bliss to the same beat, might accomplish anything.
Woodstock made it clear that rock would spark no revolutions. Because that gathering took place without bloodshed, journalists wrote happily that the kids were okay after all. But Woodstock was peaceful because most of its 300,000 participants were too stoned to stand up, let alone make a fist. Rock fans are hedonists; they want to luxuriate in fine blasts of sound. They may curse and break chairs if the concert doesn’t start on time, but they do not run outside and embrace wild dogmas. Woodstock’s (and rock’s) definitive moment came when Abbie Hoffman clambered onstage to address the woozy multitudes and Pete Townshend of the Who, the act in progress, stepped up behind him and kicked him off.
The festival marked the beginning of an end, as Elvis’s induction had. While the “counter-culture” was trying to keep its eyes open at Woodstock, John Lennon was agonizing over his disenchantment with the Beatles, whose dissolution was made public in April 1970. Five months later, Jimi Hendrix choked to death in his drugged sleep, and two weeks after that, Janis Joplin died of a heroin overdose. The following year, Jim Morrison suffered a fatal heart attack and Duane Allman died in a motorcycle accident. Eric Clapton, a victim of drug addiction, went into seclusion for three years.
The “community” was stricken, but the music didn’t stop. More and more records came out, and concerts went on, much amplified, but rock had lost the keen joy of something fresh and illicit. Its body went on dancing but it had lost its soul.
The difference shows in little things, especially on television, which has incorporated rock & roll and all its faded symbols. When Presley first appeared on Ed Sullivan’s show in 1956, his furious groin was blocked from sight. Now we can watch a performer called Alan impersonate Presley on “Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert.” He gyrates assiduously and makes worshipful speeches about his idol, who is reportedly too depressed to leave the house. Dean Martin used to get big laughs on television deriding rock musicians’ looks. Sonny and Cher, who once sang about how the grown-ups mocked their penniless love, now get big laughs on television deriding each other. Drugs, once the rock world’s forbidden pleasure and the cause of so many infamous deaths, are as popular as police dramas, and therefore just as interesting. Sammy Davis’s jewelry collection includes a solid-gold cocaine blade; a president’s son “admits” that he has “experimented” with marijuana. It might seem time to start looking for new taboos, but the so-called youth culture makes it hard to be outrageous. Unfortunately, the time is right for a history of rock & roll.
The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll is thorough and melancholy. Appropriately, this big red slab of a book, with its solemn title registered in tall white characters, looks like a pop tombstone. Its seventy essays tell of one burnt-out case after another; most of those musicians who have not succumbed to an appalling death have slipped into unseemly decrepitude. Death by overdose or gunshot wounds is horrible, but woe to him who’s left behind, surrounded by tone-deaf promoters. “When he died,” said Eric Clapton of Jimi Hendrix, “I went out in the garden and cried all day…not because he’d gone, but because he hadn’t taken me with him.”
Equally wistful are the twenty-six contributors to the History, but this mood is probably not new to them. Feeling left out is an occupational hazard of rock criticism, which struggles to interpret something that requires no interpretation: “Rock ‘n’ roll music gets right through to you without having to go through your brain,” says John Lennon, invalidating volumes of rock criticism. Although rock musicians may consider themselves artists, theirs is the least cerebral of the arts, and the sleaziest. The rock critic tries to appraise and explicate a music whose artists and listeners are anti-intellectual and usually stoned, and whose producers want more than anything to own several cars.
And now the rock critic is an oldtimer as well as an outsider. A pop journalist whose reviews could be forgotten along with the music, he has become a historian in spite of himself. Like rock, his work was meant for consumption, not preservation, and yet he must now look back on the development of his evanescent subject and establish its official record.
The musicologists of tomorrow will find rock’s history somewhat bewildering, for the currents of rock’s development are unclear, and less relevant than its momentary impact. Rock’s growth has been disorderly: it never adopted a home, but gathered speed in brothels, back yards, garages, and gyms. Furthermore, it is fast and sensual, ill-suited for a chronicle. It does not want to last; it wants to explode.
A history of explosions might give us the survivors’ points of view, but it would tell us little about the way the blasts felt. This is the case with the History, which does not convey the exuberance of rock so much as it expresses the gloom of rock’s critical establishment. The book tries to be groovy and monumental at the same time. The editor, Jim Miller, betrays this ambivalence in his introduction. He concedes that “a history of rock cannot help but violate the music’s essence,” but then hopes “that rock really does represent a lasting cultural statement, a popular expression that will survive its moment, either as artifact or artwork.”
It may be, but “a lasting cultural statement” does not need books like the History, which is most successful when least authoritative. Because rock’s “significance” is entirely a matter of one generation’s response at a certain time, the book’s best essays are frankly reminiscent: the critic dispenses with the fiction of detachment and tries to recall the music’s lost effect. However, the critic is older and smarter than he was when first smitten by the sound, which he knows has always been carefully exploited by a vulgar industry, so he will avoid romanticizing his memories, and will write with a sense of humor. And he should not shrink from telling a few good stories, because rock is a candid personal music, inextricably involved with such sensational concerns as brief encounters, professional difficulties, and illegal habits. The History’s best critics (Greil Marcus, Lester Bangs, Barry Hansen, among others) have a sense of their subject’s limits, and so their clever essays play against the book’s archival pretensions.
The History aspires to comprehensiveness: only a few small-to-medium acts (such as the Fugs, Spirit, Sha Na Na) are never mentioned, and these are forgivable omissions. Errors of fact are few and small: for instance, a picture of Chad and Jeremy is captioned “Peter and Gordon.” It is only when the book’s contributors look for rock equivalents to the discovery of the wheel that the material becomes questionable. Buddy Holly, writes Jonathan Cott, “was the first to use strings on a rock and roll record,” but then Ken Emerson reports that Roy Orbison “helped pioneer the use of strings.” Maybe the two musicians worked together: Holly set up the music stands while Orbison got the violins out of the truck. Charles Perry credits the rock musicians of San Francisco with “the deliberate introduction of feedback,” whereas Dave Marsh asserts that feedback was Pete Townshend’s “primary technique” as early as 1966 (just before “the San Francisco sound” caught on), and then John Morthland tells us that Jimi Hendrix “was already beginning to experiment with feedback” in “late 1965 or early 1966.”
Rock has evolved too chaotically to yield the chronicler a series of noteworthy turning-points. And rock does not stand still for intimations of its supposed immortality. The moment of rock, like the moment of love-making from which it took its name, is sweet because fleeting, valuable because short-lived. Like sex, it literally plays itself out. Pete Townshend expressed rock’s self-destructiveness when he used to batter his guitar to splinters, and Jimi Hendrix did the same when he set his moaning instrument on fire. The critic thinking of marble and gilded monuments is in the wrong business. Dave Marsh intones that “My Generation” “earned the Who an eternal place in rock history,” a contradiction in terms. Langdon Winner insists that Little Richard’s name belongs on “any list of rock immortals.”
Eager to justify rock’s place among the more respectable arts, some critics try to convey an impression of great learning, as if there were Departments of Rock Studies competing with the other disciplines at every big university. Discussing Buddy Holly, whose style is most memorable for its simplicity, Jonathan Cott drops the names of Picasso and Petrarch, alludes to Peter Pan and Lolita, quotes Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116, and claims that Chuck Berry “took on and extended Walt Whitman’s visionary embrace of American geography.” “It is tempting to view all of Holly’s recordings as a synchronic rather than a diachronic structure,” he muses, although nothing could be less tempting, or less appropriate to rock & roll.
The History’s hundreds of photographs, selected and arranged by Robert Kingsbury, convey rock’s out-landishness and will relieve the reader when he tires of Cott’s posturing and the other contributors’ woe.
What makes these critics sad makes Tony Palmer furious. All You Need Is Love is an ironic title for this “story of popular music,” for Palmer’s thesis is bitterly fatalistic: every genre of this century’s popular music has been commercialized into extinction by greedy white men. Furthermore, Palmer considers the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love” “a compelling example of the worst in ‘popular’ music,” which makes his book’s title seem strange at first, until it becomes clear that Palmer likes popular music only because he enjoys hating it so much. Aside from sneering at the eponymous song, Palmer knocks the Mills Brothers, the Supremes, and the Drifters, slights Bob Dylan as the purveyor of “a middle-class music,” snarls that Nashville “strangled” country music, describes Johnny Ray’s act as “clumsy and tuneless,” refers to Glenn Miller’s sound as “the antithesis of jazz or swing,” and calls Bill Haley “a clod.”
Palmer treats every popular musical idiom of this century as if it were entirely discrete, and even invents a few categories for the sake of heated attacks on “the music industry,” which Palmer sees at work in every cranny, turning black funk into white pap. He considers greed a Caucasian trait which certain blacks have adopted to the detriment of their music: “Berry Gordy was once a production line worker in Detroit. Now he is boss of a multi-million-dollar black show business organization, which proves that to escape the ghetto it is necessary to beat the white man at his own game.” Palmer also thinks that all commercial music is bad. Gordy’s Motown became successful “at considerable risk to the black man and his music,” seethes Palmer, losing control of himself completely as he lights into Diana Ross and the Supremes: “…out of her spindly, predatory body crackled hit after hit. In their neat little trouser suits, the Supremes oohed and aahed with immaculate togetherness. They pouted and hitched up their breasts. With lacquered wigs and blasted smiles….”
The Supremes made good records, and their enormous audience included whites and blacks, rich and poor. Does Palmer wish that Diana Ross had been fat and sloppy, dressed in a moth-eaten shift and wearing a rag on her head? Would he have had the Supremes shouting spirituals around the washtub in some shanty, far beyond the walls of Gordy’s Hitsville, USA? Like most purists, Palmer seems to think that black musicians were funky by choice, that they played makeshift instruments and lacked teeth because they preferred it that way.
Palmer takes rock’s defiant gestures literally, waiting for the music to effect a revolution. Elvis Presley “had cut loose a whole generation. He had united white and black. He had brought sex into the open and demonstrated the possible.” Palmer is the ultimate fan, reminding us of that word’s derivation from “fanatic.” He craves the vicarious thrill of someone else’s rebelliousness, and jeers when the idol turns out to be human. Although he has no ear, he is an exacting judge of ideological purity.
To support his notion of universal decay, he has arranged disparate details into a useful scheme: “Timothy Leary provided the ideology for drugs. Ken Russell provided an art derived from the ideology.” We also learn that the Who’s Tommy led directly to the popularity of Alice Cooper, and that Roxy Music grew out of the same movement that spawned the Osmond Brothers. Palmer’s version of pop cultural history suggests that someone locked him in the attic with several hundred back issues of Time magazine, which he read in the wrong order.
While posing as a serious critic, he works like a saboteur. He edits some of John Lennon’s remarks to construct an insider’s confession of how the Beatles used every available kind of drug (whereas the statement he quotes about heroin, for instance, refers only to John and Yoko), and merges the misquoted lines of two different Stones songs to present what is supposed to be a representative verse of decadent lyrics.
But All You Need Is Love is dishonest in a subtler way. Janis Joplin “swaggered around like the nigger-loving whore that Port Arthur thought she was, her parchment arms flailing like a berserk windmill…. She paraded the stage like a debauched Carnival Queen, or King Kong in drag.” This is meant to “expose” rock’s decadence, but none of Palmer’s targets is as tasteless as his own prose, which exploits Joplin’s misery to give the glossy book a little more spice. Palmer’s disgust with commercialism is also disingenuous: All You Need Is Love contains twelve exquisite full-color reproductions of early sheet-music covers, supposedly intended to “demonstrate the nature of the sell—sentiment, racism, star appeal, patriotism—as well as the importance of illustrative skills.” That sounds scholarly, but not very convincing: lavish reproductions are just the thing for a slick gift book. For fifteen dollars, All You Need Is Love will harangue you on the evils of commercialism.
Rock itself is paralyzed by the same contradiction. Even as it sang of new worlds, rock was always on its way to selling out. One rock chronicler happily points out that the music has been commercial from the beginning. Discussing “the early success of phenomenons like Elvis Presley” in Rock, Roll & Remember, Dick Clark sums up the mood of rock’s first phase: “It was a pioneering era. Young, swinging capitalists went into the record business to satisfy the demand for rock ‘n’ roll.” This chirp of avarice ought to send the whole Rolling Stone staff right through the window. Nevertheless, off-putting though his attitude may be, Clark might be expected to have some thoughts about co-optation, for he supervised the softening process that took nothings like Frankie Avalon, Fabian, and Bobby Rydell and turned them, virtually overnight, into rich nothings.
But if Clark has any interesting thoughts at all, he has apparently decided to keep them to himself. Clark recounts trivial conversations verbatim (“I’ll order you a ham and Swiss cheese on a hard roll and a Coke,” somebody told him in 1957), and describes non-events in great detail. He has not noticed any decline in the music, and had no ear for possible hits (he thought that “She Loves You” sounded “kind of hollow”), perhaps because he owned no records: he stocked his house with empty album jackets for his appearance on “Person to Person,” whereupon “my record collection became famous.” His two divorces make him sad because his domestic life did not look as good as his record collection: “I’d find a woman, marry her, raise kids, own a house and car, and we’d grow old gracefully together. It’s a source of deep-seated disappointment to me that that didn’t happen.”
Clark cares for nothing but appearances and the money they require. He was perfect as architect of the cover-up that followed the grease and violence of the Presley years. After all the hollering, it was time for the reaffirmation of familiar virtues: sexual restraint, hard work, good grooming. Clark looked the part, and learned to be convincing. After his traumatic involvement in the payola investigations, he resolved on nothing more than increased self-protectiveness: “I learned not just to make money, but to protect my ass at all times.”
This wholesomeness became old-fashioned in the mid-Sixties, when Mick Jagger was more satisfying to the rock fan, who always wanted his pastimes to make Dad sick. Roy Carr’s The Rolling Stones: An Illustrated Record is a pictorial history of the Stones’ ever-thickening image, and the ultimate expression of the rock fan’s self-abasing anti-hero worship. Carr brags about the Stones’ toughness like a short kid who hangs out with the school bully: the Stones “have consistently refused to be sat on,” Carr slavers, agreeing with Palmer’s claim that the Stones were “outlaws from the start.” Jagger should be pleased by this response to his pose of gritty independence, which has made him as rich as Dick Clark became protecting his ass at all times. Despite their wicked reputation, the Stones are young, swinging capitalists who have always dogged the Beatles’ steps, and who were in such a hurry to cash in on the success of Woodstock that their concert at Altamont was scandalously botched. Jagger’s fans are mostly high school students, because nobody else (except Carr and Palmer) could continue to believe that the Stones are menacing.
Most of us now know that rock is a cry of revolt underwritten by major corporations, and that it can no longer defy the business establishment that pays for it. The music is too successful: “The logic of profit,” writes Robert Christgau, “has created a market too big for the genre.” And rock is too successful in another way. The appeal of its rhetoric has been answered; the dream of Woodstock Nation has come true. “Everybody clap your hands!” rock’s most common exhortation, has been literally obeyed, much to the critics’ chagrin. The man onstage didn’t really mean everybody; he meant everybody in that young audience, everybody who believed in the vague freedoms which (we thought) Dad longed to crush. We clapped joyfully because it was our music, and we would play the damned thing as loud as we wanted. But Dad did something worse than break down the doors and cut our speakers off. He ran in and danced beside us.
The romance of persecution has ended. Rock sounds feeble without the proud illusion of defiance. It may have been “co-opted” all along, handled by shrewd promoters from the beginning, but it was exciting as long as nobody knew this depressing fact. The music sang out for feelings of community, however loosely defined, and Dad’s business partners made sure that the music would get what it wanted. This inevitable taming process was improved by technology. Like cinema, rock has become dependent on fine gadgetry. Producers, who often have more to do with an album’s sound than the musicians, are called in to contrive a certain style, like interior decorators or the Avon Lady. Records cost more to produce, but the effects are too nice to reject: “It pains me to make albums that are so expensive,” says producer Peter Asher, “but when the technology exists to improve something, it seems wrong not to do it.”
This “technology” is a pervasive neutralizing medium. “The Ballad of John and Yoko,” censored on AM radio in 1969, wafts transformed through high-rise elevators, dentists’ lobbies, and airport terminals. “It seems wrong not to do it”: once the first guitar was amplified, there was no turning back. All rock aspires to the condition of Muzak. We can blame abstractions like “technology,” “Dad,” or “the logic of profit” for the solidification of rock, but it would be self-serving. Rock’s audience has helped to make the music banal.
The phrase “rock star” connotes immobility and heaviness, and the status it describes is, literally, a drag. No artist is more encumbered. And in the midst of all the sound equipment, costumes, cars, and hangers-on, the rock star himself is a product in demand, grabbed in every way by everyone. “One has to completely humiliate oneself to be what the Beatles were, and that’s what I resent,” John Lennon has said. But, according to the musicians interviewed in What’s That Sound?, an anthology of excellent pieces from the last seven years of Rolling Stone, the greatest pressure comes from the audience.
Having once broken his guitar “by complete accident,” Pete Townshend finds himself unable to stop: “The actual performance has always been bigger than my own patterns of thought.” Performing on his own, George Harrison priggishly refuses to play his Beatle songs as they had first sounded: “The image of my choice is not Beatle George.” Paul Simon claims that the dissolution of Simon and Garfunkel is a relief, because “it becomes harder to break out of what people expect you to do.”
“Just keep moving around and changing clothes is the best,” says John Lennon. “That’s all that goes on: change.” The formulation of this blunt credo is the subject of Anthony Fawcett’s John Lennon: One Day at a Time, which describes the sufferings of an artist who was trapped in the part of counter-cultural hero. As Lennon broke with the Beatles and moved through a series of other frustrating commitments, Fawcett was a sympathetic observer, and has successfully conveyed a sense of Lennon’s genuine creativity and resilience. Lennon was miserable for years because he tended to go where he was pointed even if his instincts rebelled, and they often did.
Fawcett concludes that “vulnerability to outside influences lies at the core of John’s personality,” but that after every disheartening involvement Lennon “would come back to the philosophy that it’s in your own head, the answers are within yourself.” The thesis illuminates our memories of Lennon’s Beatle years. Rock stardom must have been a long spell of bewildering pressure for someone as sensitive as Lennon, who changed his looks repeatedly with different beards and haircuts, as if to protect himself from those who would freeze him into the image of Beatle John. He was ambivalent about the fuss he had helped to create: “And now my life has changed in oh so many ways, / My independence seems to vanish in the haze,” he sang at the height of it all. Behind the wordplay and gruesome comedy of his two books, there seems to be a shy man hiding, teasing the world with nonsense. While Paul would always pull a cute face at the camera, Lennon seemed to distrust the universal scrutiny. His mugging seemed defensive, and he would only stare straight back at the lens with Yoko at his side, as if to taunt his old audience with a non-Beatle association.
Even after he broke with the group and sang “I don’t believe in Beatles,” Lennon moved from cause to cause as zealously as one of his own most volatile fans. The story has a happy ending. Fawcett’s book and Pete Hamill’s interview in What’s That Sound? present a contented artist who has neither died nor sold out. Rock’s moment has passed, and John Lennon can continue to do his best in whatever way he wants.
Greil Marcus is confident that Lennon will help keep rock alive. Marcus’s fine essay on the Beatles in the History ends optimistically: the ex-Beatles, “who saved the game close to fifteen years ago, have no alternative but to work to keep it going.” Marcus’s other essays in the History are unsettling amid the other critics’ lamentations, like cheer-leaders in a funeral procession. His spirits are bright because he assumes that rock will always bounce back.
Mystery Train is an impressive book, well-informed and frequently hilarious. Marcus begins by establishing two “ancestors,” Harmonica Frank and Robert Johnson, “as metaphors more than musical influences.” In the early Fifties, Frank expressed rock’s irreverent joy; in the Thirties, Johnson foreshadowed rock’s violence and fear. Against the “backdrop” of these early chapters, Marcus discusses more recent performers, discerning in their careers conflicts which he sees at the heart of American culture. However, the book’s basic opposition is not between happy Frank and Gothic Johnson, but between Dick Clark and Mick Jagger, the good citizen and the disruptive rebel: rock suddenly takes everything by storm, then settles into respectability; when things get dull, rock bursts forth anew, just when Dad begins to feel comfortable.
Marcus mentions Tocqueville, D.H. Lawrence, and Leslie Fiedler, but he is too intelligent to impose critical order on rock’s mixed bag. He knows that his subject resists magisterial treatment, although he probably knows more about rock’s crazy, trivial history than anyone else. He attacks the crabby purism of critics like Palmer (see the discussion of “Hound Dog” and “Louie Louie”), and with his lively, anecdotal style he puts certain pretentious critics to shame. In fact, there is more of rock’s spirit in this book than there is in rock music.
Marcus’s light touch befits an inspired piece of pop journalism, but his assumptions are murky. He describes a bland American “mainstream” which “provides such a perfect antithesis to the realities of American life that inevitable discrepancies come out of the woodwork, come with enormous force…and with them come the resentment and the humor that keep the soul of the place hanging onto life.” Rock expresses these “discrepancies” and will always reassert itself against sameness and complacency. But what if rock has no surprises left? What if its most shocking gestures become detached from its rebellious spirit and become part of the “mainstream” it opposes? Rock seems to need an enemy who will disapprove; it needs to dream of Big Brother, of Dad at the door with an axe. But this implicit argument has become confused since Woodstock, which evoked Huxley’s dystopia, not Orwell’s. If permissiveness itself becomes complacent, how could rock ever be startling? Because Marcus assumes that complacency must be inhibiting, he overlooks a disquieting possibility: a nation mellowed half to death under the banner of self-discovery.
Ironically, John Lennon still defines the pop culture mentality: “the philosophy that it’s in your own head” appeals to millions. This disavowal of public movements has itself become a public movement. The old maxims of the Sixties, “Do you own thing” and “Let it all hang out,” guide Dad as he raises his consciousness, studies est, smokes dope, and haunts singles bars (Dad has been divorced for years). Rock may never recover from this widespread liberation.
Rock took us by surprise, then became familiar and imitable. Marcus rightly sees this process as inevitable, but, unlike such musicians as Lennon, pays little attention to its personal destructiveness. “Elvis: Presliad,” his final chapter, is a brilliant reading of Presley’s image, but it treats Presley himself as if he were his image. There is no mention of Presley’s recent reclusiveness and eccentricity, behavior that hints of some deep misery within the walls of Graceland. “These days, Elvis is always singing,” Marcus concludes, projecting an image of Presley that resembles Marcus’s image of indefatigable rock. Although Marcus’s treatment of “myth” in rock music is often rewarding (the chapter on Sly Stone is especially good), “myth” is never distinguished from other exalted terms like “persona,” or from terms more appropriate to the rock industry, “gimmick” or “pose.”
If Marcus were to examine such words, he might not be so sure of rock’s good health. In the first flush of rock’s excitement, we were amazed and delighted, eager to soar into rock & roll heaven, from whose heights we would look down at Dad, and laugh. There was something happening there, something unworldly and indefinable, as our superlatives suggested: out of sight, far out, too much. Now there is nothing left but after-images, which the critic tries to sort and measure. Having drifted back to earth, rock has been entombed in texts. Mystery Train, like these other retrospectives, attempts to tell the continuing story of a finished thing.
February 3, 1977