Rock of Ages


The history of rock and roll inscribed itself in the nervous system of who-ever passed through it. Years later it persists as a network of potential responses and unbidden flashbacks. Sometimes the resurgent impressions are connected with public events: watching a crowd of teenage girls storming New York’s Paramount Theater for a glimpse of Eric Burdon and the Animals, or bursting into startled laughter as Bob Dylan launched into the as yet unrecorded “Leopard-Skin Pillbox Hat,” or sprawling on the floor of the Avalon Ballroom amid a sea of strangers, like a vast kindergarten class, as Janis Joplin tore “Down on Me” to pieces. More often the crucial moments were less planned and less collective, tiny accidental collisions like a saxophone solo on the radio (Junior Walker’s on “Come See About Me”) blowing away the intricacies of a personal crisis, or a refrain from the open window of a bus—the Orlons chanting “South Street, South Street”—beckoning hauntingly toward the unknown.

The mere fact of living in a large city was transmuted by the Rolling Stones’ “Get Off My Cloud” into stylish futuristic bleakness (“I sit at home looking out the window/Imagining the world has stopped”), while the torpor of summer was given structure and a sense of mission by Archie Bell and the Drells’ “Tighten Up.” It wasn’t a question so much of what you looked for as of what found you. Sounds went after you: intrusions, alarm bells, outbursts, the hoots and shrieks of party-goers, seductive hisses, warped laments, a nagging fragment of lyric or the thud of a bass line sturdy enough to order the world. It was a music of impatience, of insistence, and for a time—the peak of the era described in James Miller’s efficient, compact, ultimately disenchanted Flowers in the Dustbin: The Rise of Rock and Roll, 1947-1977—it seemed to be a one-size-fits-all universal soundtrack.

In the retrospect of anyone’s life, the elements of the music track accumulate as promiscuously as the heap of records on the rug after a party. What those who attended this particular party couldn’t have guessed was that the playlist would repeat for the next thirty years, tempering nostalgia with an echo of the old line “How can I miss you if you won’t go away?” From oldies stations to television commercials to movie soundtracks, the Fifties and Sixties and Seventies never stop playing. Video histories of rock have proliferated, and at almost any hour the career of some band or the destiny of some stylistic trend is unspooling on one cable channel or another. Disco rises; glitter falls; stars are born, stars are murdered or in various ways murder themselves, stars return from the dead with a new manager and a new album: nothing will ever be as it was but the music goes on forever. The giddiness of show business, with its steep ascents and equally precipitous falls, its full-blown ecstasies and harrowing abysses, provides material for a thousand chronicles as entrancing as the ancient rollercoaster rides…

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