Grandpa in the Sky

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(Pictured: in 2006, Jack Black played King Herod in a one-off performance of Jesus Christ Superstar, which is just the greatest thing ever.)

Imagine if you will, or remember if you can, one of those indestructible portable turntables, with a lid that opened like a suitcase, a thick metal tonearm, a stylus not unlike a drywall nail, and a speaker that was made for volume rather than fidelity. Now imagine it blasting Jesus Christ Superstar, echoing through a church sanctuary or fellowship hall. Imagine further a group of concerned adults listening carefully, perhaps following along from lyrics typed up and mimeographed by the church secretary. As they listen, they ask themselves: is this blasphemous? Or are the kids are saying something worth hearing?

Superstar was supposed to be a stage musical, but Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice couldn’t get the money together, so it was released as a concept album in 1970. An authorized, one-time stage production was mounted after the album became a giant hit, but the copyright owners spent the summer of 1971 shutting down unauthorized productions before it officially opened on Broadway that October.

Superstar brought religion into pop culture in a big new way, but I wonder if that would have happened without the collapse of the hippie dream of the 1960s. When it became clear that bomber jet planes were not going to turn into butterflies, the kids looked for alternatives to revolution as a source of hope or meaning, and many of them got religion. But their religion couldn’t be harsh or legalistic, and require congregants to wear a necktie or a dress; it had to be accessible. (Did your church hire its first “youth pastor” about this time? Mine did.) Your relationship with God wasn’t going to be something you experienced intellectually as much as something you felt. There has always been a strong strain of emotionalism in American religion—the Great Awakenings of the 18th and 19th centuries, the holy rollers of the rural South, and Black churches, to name a few—but the middle-class, whitebread Protestant denominations of the mid-20th century had largely avoided it. But personal, feel-it-in-your-heart religiosity eventually infiltrated those bastions too.

At some point around 1972, several members of our middle-class whitebread Protestant church got into the whole charismatic revival thing. My parents stayed on the fringes of it, although they went to some of the meetings, and for a time, they watched televised services from a charismatic church, with people in the throes of religious ecstasy speaking in tongues. It was in this period that I read The Late Great Planet Earth and learned about the Rapture, with believers taken bodily into Heaven and sinners Left Behind. The latter had such a hold on my imagination that whenever the house would get quiet, I would wonder if the Rapture had happened.

I always just assumed I was getting Left Behind.

Eventually, our church sponsored an entire revival week. (I would like to know precisely how this happened, for it does not seem like something that our dignified whitebread senior pastors would have cottoned to.) There were services for all and breakout sessions for adults and youth, and I went for the whole week, toting a copy of The Living Bible. The speakers were not members of our church; they came from elsewhere. One young woman, celestial light gleaming in her eyes, told a group of 12-year-olds that she thought it would be cool to die, because then she would get to see what Heaven is like. Which seemed, even to 12-year-old me, like missing the entire point of living. No wonder I was getting Left Behind.

(It’s not correct to say that the experience made me an atheist; I remained at least nominally a believer until I was almost 40. But I have never forgotten the moment, or the bent worldview it expressed.)

The pop religiosity of the 1970s was new at the time, but today, it’s pervaded religion at every level. For most believers, God is no longer a celestial thunderer passing out judgment as much as he is a kindly grandpa in the sky. Even followers of Republican Jesus, for all their legalistic interpretations of the Old Testament and their desire to see God wreak punishment on their enemies, base their belief on a personal relationship with him. Smarter people than I could tell you for sure, but I see the origins of it in Superstar and the religious revivals of the 1970s.

Trouble on the Astral Plane

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The dreams that stick are not the lengthy narratives. The dreams that stick are images, a quick flash of this or that. And I think to myself, as if I were watching the dream on a screen, “Oh, that’s so-and-so,” or “I remember being there.”

And so it was that I saw her again.

What makes this kind of thing happen I do not know. Electro-chemical reaction in the brain, I suppose. Certainly that’s a more likely explanation than to say I was sailing the astral plane, although who but a neuroscientist wouldn’t prefer the latter?

Randomly firing synapses or soul travel, either way, there’s the question: why? Why her, why then?

Because music plays in my life all the time, maybe it was a song I heard the previous day—or one I was going to hear the next. It happens that way sometimes, in dreams. We see someone or go somewhere by night, and the next day we bump up against the memory in the waking world. We see a picture or somebody mentions a name, as if the dream made the reality and not the other way around.

I did not hear her name the next day, but I dreamed about her the night before.

In the dream, she is young, just as she was when I first saw her. In the dream, I am not, just as I am not young now. And it occurs to me, there in the dream, that I am not in the dream with her, really. “Oh, that’s so-and-so,” I think to myself, in precisely the way you do when a photo pops up in a slideshow, or when you turn the page in a photo album. “I remember her.”

What I remember specifically, I finally decide, is her eyes, round and dark, and the way they glowed with things you would never know—things about her, and things about you.

She didn’t know any more than anybody else did, of course, and she really couldn’t predict my future. But that’s not how it seemed when we were young.

Truth to tell, it’s not really how it seems in the dream, either. She is not flashing her intelligence in that haughty way she had. She’s just there.

And I wonder why she is there, as I have wondered before about dreams.

Why? Some night soon, when you’re being chased by a monster in a dream, or trapped in a fire, try telling yourself “it’s just an electro-chemical reaction in my brain” and see how far it gets you. Running into trouble on the astral plane has much more explanatory power. But even that might be too much.

She’s just there. She doesn’t look at me or speak to me. She doesn’t say, “I love you,” or “I’m sorry,” or anything else. And I don’t say anything to her. I don’t do anything, except to think, “Oh, that’s so-and-so. I remember her.”

It’s only when I wake up that I try to find a story, and it twists backward and forward, with scenes of her back then, and me back then, and scenes of me in the present, remembering.

Not sad-remembering, or angry-remembering, only faces-in-the-night remembering, unstuck in time like Billy Pilgrim on Tralfamadore.

And it strikes me finally, as Billy learned, that there is no why. She and her eyes, and the way she looked at the world, have always existed, and will always exist. There’s no explanation, not for the eyes or for the dream, because there is no why, out there on the astral plane.

It’s only our arrogance as rational animals that makes us believe there should be one.

The Wider World

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We come into this world utterly dependent, and (if we are fortunate enough to grow up in a stable home), the attention we get makes us the center of the universe. As toddlers, we are taught the proper ways to interact with the other humans, but to us, they exist mostly as extensions of ourselves; we don’t conceptualize their separate lives much. How old are we when we start understanding that there’s a world full of people with their own lives and their own concerns, same as us? When do we realize that while the vast majority of that world has nothing to do with us personally, we are part of it nevertheless?

A few years ago, I was back in my hometown, in the neighborhood around the church we attended while I was growing up. As I walked outside and all around the hulking brick structure, built in 1916, I felt a connection to something essential, foundational, something that went back to the earliest time, time I cannot actually remember. The church was the first public place I ever went to, as a baby. Other than maybe Grandma’s house, it was the first place other than my own home that I could recognize by sight. I was not able to get inside that day, but it didn’t matter. I remember it, dark wood, creaking floors, narrow stairwells.

My first elementary school is just down the street from the church. I say “is,” even though it was badly damaged in a 1973 fire and razed not long after. I still see it there, and same as the church, I can still walk it. (I once wrote, “[I]n my memory, perspective is distorted—ceilings are a mile high, hallways are yards wide, and I’m a tiny creature looking up from very close to the floor. Which, in fact, I was.”) I attended kindergarten, first grade, and half of second grade there, September 1965 through December 1967. And it was there that the realization of being part of a wider world began to begin.

I remember not really realizing it. One day in kindergarten, I got on the wrong bus after class because a teacher told me to. I knew it was the wrong bus, but I didn’t say anything, because to the extent that I understood my relationship to the wider world on that day, I knew this: it is a teacher’s function to tell you what to do, so you do it, and you don’t question it. There must have been a reason, I thought. That she might just be wrong did not compute.

(I think I’ve told the story before, but if not, it had a happy ending: after a long journey far into the unfamiliar wilds of Green County, I was the last kid left on the bus. As I recall it, the driver knew Mother and Dad and where I lived, and he was able to deliver me home.)

Not long ago, I playlisted the Hot 100 from the first week of February, 1967, and I went around with those songs in my head for a few days. At the same time, I looked through some old newspapers from the spring of that year. And I think it was probably then—the winter and early spring of 1967—that I started realizing the size and complexity of the world beyond our house, the farm, Grandma’s house, Immanuel EUB Church, and Lincoln School. The Monroe Evening Times itself, which arrived in the mail at our house every day but Sunday, would have told me so. (I became a reader because Mother and Dad were readers, so I would have seen them with the newspaper and wanted to read it myself.)

I was also beginning to absorb songs of the moment, involuntarily but surely enough for them to bring back that time today: “Georgy Girl” and “Nashville Cats” and “Music to Watch Girls By” and “Winchester Cathedral” and “My Cup Runneth Over,” from Mother and Dad’s radios, on the kitchen counter and in the barn. It’s been too long to say how, or whether, I assimilated the songs into the wider world I was building myself into at that moment. Listening to them today, they feel more like evidence of a process than part of that process, but I don’t know. If, in the winter and early spring of 1967, the radio was helping make me into who I would become, it wouldn’t be the last time.

Three Hundred Feet of Chuck Berry

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This started as my comment on yesterday’s post about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, referring to comments made by the readership, but it kinda grew.

—Before I took it out, yesterday’s post included a discussion of something I read many years ago about the Baseball Hall of Fame. No matter how scrupulously you vet your inductees, there is going to be a hierarchy. Give plaques to David Ortiz or Barry Larkin if you want, but if you’re going to do that, you’d better put up statues for Babe Ruth and Ted Williams and Henry Aaron and such. Same thing at the RRHOF. Galleries devoted to the biggest stars are appropriate, but there should be a Statue-of-Liberty-sized Chuck Berry in front of the building.

—Similarly, as Len pointed out, the simple passage of time means that a hall of fame is going to be seen to “dilute” itself by the “you damn kids stay off my lawn” demographic. To a dude such as I, the Beatles and Henry Aaron are living presences by which all who came behind them are measured. But to our fathers’ and grandfathers’ generations, they didn’t measure up to the likes of, say, Les Brown and His Band of Renown, or Mordecai “Three-Finger” Brown. That our children and grandchildren say the same about our heroes doesn’t make them wrong; it only means they’re living in a different time.

(I have a post in the can that discusses this idea further, which will go up next week.)

—I am sympathetic to Connor’s comment that the RRHOF’s name is part of its problem. “Rock and roll” conjures up a particular constellation of images, and it’s hard to square them with some of the inductees, especially those who came up in the 90s, when “rock and roll” as a concept was dying. But what other name could it have been given, back there in the 1980s? As soon as you call it the “Modern Music Hall of Fame” people will want to induct John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen. And if you call it the “Pop Hall of Fame,” you couldn’t put Metallica in—but the Carpenters could finally make it.

—Connor also pointed out that country star Keith Urban claims to be influenced by John Mellencamp. That’s a surprise to me. There’s nothing in Urban’s music that resembles Mellencamp much at all, although he did do a pandering checklist song called “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16” a couple of years ago. There’s also something to Connor’s suggestion that Mellencamp has some influence on modern country. Whether it’s enough to make him a Hall of Famer I doubt.

—Yesterday I reread Bill Wyman’s epic ranking of all of the acts in the Hall, which includes those inducted through 2018. It also functions as an excellent history of how the Hall came to be, and how inductees are selected. Favorite story: Jann Wenner supposedly deducted some votes that had come in for the Dave Clark Five and gave them to Grandmaster Flash instead so the Hall could induct a rap act. As Brian commented, inductees are chosen based on popular success, critical acclaim, and “coolness.” Wyman confirms this: certain acts had to wait because they were not considered cool enough for the room; others were inducted, seemingly, because they would sell tickets to the ceremony or bring eyeballs to the HBO special.

—I have said here before that inclusion in the Library of Congress National Recording Registry should be a much greater honor than it is perceived to be, bigger than either the RRHOF or the Grammys. The Registry’s goal is to highlight “the richness of the nation’s audio legacy” and “the importance of assuring the long-term preservation of that legacy.” It does not restrict itself to genres, having room for everything from rap music to news broadcasts. It does what the RRHOF, Country Music Hall of Fame, Songwriters Hall of Fame, National Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame, and other related halls purport to do. It is as small-d democratic as this nation used to aspire to be.

—There are people who will tell you that we shouldn’t have halls of fame at all, precisely because they are undemocratic, and contrary to the purpose of art besides. But that’s not the way we’re wired. “Who’s the best?” is a question that has obsessed us since two cavemen raced across the steppes in pursuit of the same stag while others watched, and disagreed over who would get it first. For that reason, halls of fame, and arguments about them, will always exist.

A Broad Net

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(Pictured: Eurythmics.)

It is the official position of this website that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a wonderful museum, and that everybody should see it. And also: as a credible barometer of who is most important to the history of rock and roll, it has long since jumped the shark.

The criterion for induction to any hall of fame—rock and roll, baseball, recreational vehicles—should be fairly simple: if you are unable to accurately tell the story of this art form, this sport, this cultural innovation, without discussing this person, they belong in your hall. What did they do that no one had ever done before? How did they affect the trajectory of history? How do they continue to have an impact, either on those individuals who have followed them, or on their art form or sport itself? If there are not solid, precise answers to those questions, they don’t belong.

Allow me to bang on again about John Mellencamp. What did he do, creatively, that had never been done before? How, during his 80s and 90s heyday, did he affect the trajectory of history? Who did he influence? Does he continue to have an impact today? The answers are “nothing,” “not at all,” “nobody,” and “no.” He sold a lot of records. That’s it. But it’s not the Rock and Roll Hall of Sold a Lot of Records, even though for lots of inductees, that’s their main qualification. And the same is true for many of the 2022 nominees. For example, it’s a foregone conclusion that Lionel Richie will get in, if not this year, then soon. But you can ask those questions about him, and the answers are the same.

The RRHOF has always cast a very broad net, but that’s also its biggest problem. What started with an admirable desire to honor those who influenced rock without being rockers themselves has turned into a debacle. It’s hard to fathom, for example, what Nat King Cole is doing in there, and Nat himself would wonder. Also, over the years, the Hall has blurred genre categories to the point at which it can accommodate both ABBA and Jay-Z. And now, in 2022, Dolly Parton is one of the nominees. Everybody loves Dolly and recognizes her as a titan of American culture. But you can quite easily tell the story of rock and roll without mentioning Dolly Parton once. (Radio consultant Fred Jacobs suggests the nominations of Parton and Richie are emblematic of how “this institution is a living, breathing branding error.”)

Beyond that, so many people with dubious qualifications are in already that it becomes impossible to justify keeping anybody out. Over at Ultimate Classic Rock, one of the writers suggested it is time that Sammy Hagar, who is already in as a member of Van Halen, should get a nomination for his solo work. If that ever happens, Hell will be empty and all the devils here, so you might as well nominate me. There’s also the equivalence game, “if A, then B.” For example, if Carole King is in, doesn’t Carly Simon have to be in, too?

For a hall of fame to mean what it says on the front door, you should be eligible one time. If you are inarguably qualified, you’ll get in. (Eminem is a first-time nominee this year, and a good test for this thesis.) Create a Veterans Commitee if you want to give people a second chance after some more time has passed, but for the love of Elvis stop letting people in whose lesser accomplishments swamp those of the true giants and innovators. The Beatles and Bon Jovi do not belong in the same state, let alone the same building.

Our friend Tom Nawrocki has a RRHOF ballot, and I look forward to his annual series about who he is and isn’t voting for, and why. If I had a vote, I’d probably say yes to Eurythmics and Duran Duran, for pioneering not just the sound but the look of the MTV era, and Dionne Warwick, for bringing Black pop (as distinct from R&B or Motown) to the mainstream—even as I question their continuing influence. But that’s it. Apart from my longstanding disdain for Pat Benatar, I don’t have enough of an opinion about everybody else, not even Eminem. I expect him to get in on the first ballot, though. Duran Duran is overdue, probably. Kate Bush is getting in at some point, and Pat Benatar too, eventually.

If you would like to debate any of this, go nuts. I crave your comments.

The Tastemakers

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Here’s a paragraph about John F. Lyons’ book Joy and Fear: The Beatles, Chicago, and the Sixties, which didn’t make it into the post I wrote last month:

Another not-frequently-discussed aspect of Beatlemania explored by Lyons involves the different ways in which girls and boys responded to the Beatles. The short version is that the girls liked the look while the boys liked the sound, but there’s more to it than that. For girls, Beatles fandom was communal. Fan clubs and teen magazines devoted to the Beatles allowed girls to inhabit a space occupied by like-minded people. Lyons claims it helped ease the isolation some girls felt living in newly built suburbs. Boys, meanwhile, were divided by the Beatles’ look, especially in Chicago. In 1964 Chicago, the era of greasers in leather jackets wasn’t over yet. Beatle fashion—long hair, skinny-leg pants, and Cuban heels—was considered outrageous. Much of the criticism of it was homophobic.

I’m not the person to examine the gendered response to the Beatles in great depth, but I’d read it.

I have seen it argued that for much of the history of 20th century popular music, female listeners were the tastemakers. It was they who made stars of Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley, and who responded on a visceral level to Bing Crosby’s romantic crooning. The throngs who greeted the Beatles when they arrived in America, and the fans who screamed their lungs out for the Beatles and other stars of the 1960s, were overwhelmingly female. The argument continues that Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, by making the Beatles into “serious” artists, made male critics into the more important tastemakers. What girls and women liked still mattered—ask any radio programmer over the last 50 years about the importance of attracting the female demographic—but for the next 30 years at least, the most influential American critics and rock writers were almost exclusively men. (Apart from Ellen Willis, I can’t think of another female music writer deemed worthy of space in prestigious national outlets at the time.) And far from the communal nature of female fandom, the male critics were communal only in the sense that they were published in those same prestigious outlets. They were almost universally upper-middle-class white guys hammering away on typewriters, solitary in their city apartments.

This has changed today, when some of the best music writers working are female and/or people of color. But even today, most radio programmers are men; most record executives are men. And nobody can imagine screaming throngs of young women going nuts over “Strawberry Fields Forever.”

Plausibly Related, on the Subject of Women and Men: I found myself kind of disconnected from the recent death of Ronnie Spector, with other things to do and other things to think about during that week. I did find time to listen to a few things people posted on the Internets, including a 1977 version of “Say Goodbye to Hollywood,” recorded with the E Street Band. Of all the influences Bruce Springsteen and his mates could point to, the Phil Spector Wall of Sound and the urban pop of the girl groups might be the strongest. Even after all this time, “Born to Run” is still the greatest Phil Spector record not made by Phil Spector. It’s clear that the Wall of Sound frequently works for them.

But sometimes it does not.

Somewhere in my archives I have the album Introducing Darlene Love, her first proper solo album, released in 2015 and produced by Steven Van Zandt. Van Zandt’s overstuffed production is oppressive; four songs in I found myself wishing he’d back off and just let the lady sing. And I felt the same way about “Say Goodbye to Hollywood”: you guys have taken these vastly talented singers and done the same thing to them that Spector did, burying them in showy productions that conform to your personal vision. Did you even ask Ronnie or Darlene what they wanted to do?  What about their point of view, their perception of their talent, their artistic aspirations? Did you even consider that there might be another way to showcase the talents they possess? Or did you just assume that what you wanted is what they wanted?

Perhaps it was what they wanted to do, and if so, that’s fine. But the primacy of what men want is strong, in rock and roll as elsewhere. And it’s been true at least since Sgt. Pepper.