Real Life Rock (01/83)

Given the defeat of former record producer Mike Curb in last June’s Republican gubernatorial primary (come now, you must remember Mike Curb), this year’s principal contributions by Californians to what used to be called rock culture–perhaps I should say California rock’s contributions to culture and leave it at that–were Moon Unit Zappa’s “Valley Girl” record and Stephen Wozniak’s US Festival, the mass concert and computer fair held near San Bernar­dino September 3, 4, and 5. Valleygirlism, as an authentic craze, was soon played out commercially; it likely reached its apotheo­sis with Jack Ziegler’s recent New Yorker car­toon, “Valley Executives,” which pictured a sober, middle-aged management type pointing to a descending profit chart and announcing: “Gentlemen, I’m afraid that our current financial picture is grody to the max.” USfestivalism, being not a craze but a plan, is just getting started.

The outfit behind the US Festival is Wozniak’s Unuson company, and the men behind Unuson are management-consulting team Gerald A. Cory, 50, former lieu­tenant colonel in the air force, and Peter Ellis, 35, former self-described “Maoist.” As the San Francisco Chronicle put it this fall, “In the seventies they both took est and subsequently learned to overlook their political differences.” No doubt.

The Cory-Ellis vision is for a society based in corporatism, in ideology as well as in economic reality. “We draw on our tra­dition of rugged individualism in this country,” Cory says, “but the balance to that is to ask what’s best for the company as a whole.” Actually, we draw on the tradi­tion of balancing “rugged individualism” with what’s best for the “country” as a whole, but what the hell.

There is not much one can say about such sentiments, except to note that while Unuson’s approach will almost certainly produce more well-mannered festivals–US number two is set for Memorial Day–it is not likely to produce many good songs. The best that the year of the US Festival did produce can be found in the 1982 Real Life Rock Top Ten.

1. “Temptation,” by New Order (Fac­tory import twelve inch, rereleased on New Order 1981-1982, Factus)
A nine-minute piece of rhythm (the shorter seven-inch version is merely a map), led by bass notes that seem to hang in the air until the rifle cracks of a drum machine bring them down, and overlaid with a broken, desperate vocal, itself answered by ghostly shouts of delight: a chilling, finally redemp­tive testament to the impossibility and nec­essity of isolation and romantic love. It goes where earlier avatars of the music said such songs have to go: over the mountain, across the sea; river deep, mountain high.

2. Nebraska, by Bruce Springsteen (CBS)
The poetics of the Economic Recovery Act, willfully misunder­stood by the press as some sort of ode to structural unemployment, all but excluded from the radio, and indelible if only for mass killer Charley Starkweather’s last wish before taking his seat in the electric chair: “You make sure my/pretty baby/is sitting right there/on my lap.”

3. Hellfire: The Jerry Lee Lewis Story, by Nick Tosches (Dell paper­back), and Powerhouse for God: Sacred Speech, Chant, and Song in an Appalachian Baptist Church, by Jeff Todd Titon (University of North Carolina Press Records)
If America is a city on a hill, which is to say a symbol of heaven, then a home in heaven is the birthright of every American, and for an American to surrender to the temptations of hell is to betray not only his or her own soul but the American community itself. The tension of this puritan paradox has produced our deepest art, which speaks to the American’s incomprehension in the face of the facts of life (The Sound and the Fury), the American’s suspicion that the facts of life are not facts but a mystery (“The Whiteness of the Whale” in Moby Dick), and the American’s occasional refusal to give a damn and to thus negate the entire dilemma with an insistence on a kind of freedom that is beyond good and evil (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Elvis Presley’s “Mystery Train”). To put it another way: Hellfire, at once the finest rock ‘n’ roll biography ever written and the best nonfiction book of 1982 (don’t look for it on the awards lists, where its place may be taken by Ian Hamilton’s Robert Lowell, a lesser book on a lesser figure), explains why and how Jerry Lee Lewis came to sing “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and why he had to stick with it; Powerhouse for God (a two-LP documentary recorded in 1977 and 1978)–which includes gospel, sermons, a sizzlingly syncopated “Altar Prayer,” and the mesmerizing spiritual autobiography of John Sherfy, leader of the Fellowship Independent Baptist Church of Stanley, Virginia–explains what Jerry Lee gave up by doing so. What he gave up was what the avatars of sanctified music said he would be giving up: a satis­fied mind. As for what Jerry Lee gave us, just turn on your radio.

4. “The Message,” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five (Sugarhill twelve inch)
For the first time in memory, a year without a great Top 10 single (save for Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing,” racing toward number one as I write)–which means principally that the Top 10 no longer defines hits, because “The Message” was a national smash, moving from the street boxes of black teenagers to discos and new wave dance clubs to black radio to college FM to hip asides on Saturday Night Live and Square Pegs to the media shock of an actual spin on a few brave Top 40 stations, albeit around 2 A.M. In this horrifically detailed account of social col­lapse and moral decay, the rhythm is a rush that turns into something like an orchestra­tion of fate, the details brutal, the presence of the rappers personal and physical, and if the “message” is not all that new–you can trace it back to Frankie Lymon’s “I’m Not a Juvenile Delinquent“–the follow-through could not be more modern: “And what did it get me?”

5. Diner, directed by Barry Levinson (MGM)
Not much of a movie, save for the moment when a few pals wander into a crummy Baltimore sleaze joint for a desultory bachelor party. They drink, make disjointed conversation, and wish they were somewhere else, until the morose med student of the group approaches the half-dead house band, fingers an effete glissando on the piano (the band members exchange glances: who is this fruit?), and then rises onto his toes and hits the keys like the Ferriday Flash himself. Within seconds he’s brought everyone to life–doped drummer, bored saxophonist, bitter stripper, drunken clientele, his own miserable self–and for the next minute or so the film captures a moment of rock ‘n’ roll as complete as any in the history of the movies.

6. Album and “Sex Bomb”/”Brain­wash,” by Flipper (Subterranean)
A bohemian rhapsody in thud-thud time. The LP is sparked by the catchy screeches and brilliant lyrics of “Life Is Cheap” (“It’s sold a decade at a time”–go argue with that); the single, a celebration of “my baby” (you remember her), is driven by the sounds of, yes, bombs, but also car accidents, planes taking off, trains pulling into the station, D Day, the 1906 earthquake, old Blue Cheer records played backward…

7. “I Love a Man in a Uniform,” by Gang of Four (Warner Bros.)
If at the time of the Falklands war (which it predated, barely) this came off as a rather cheap satire of the false consciousness of the enlistee and the corrupt Values of his girl­friend, by the end of the summer it came off as an utterly terrifying–and exciting–dramatization of the social organization of sex and violence: every female shout of “Shoot, shoot!” made the tune more bloody, more complex. Politics aside, you could give it a 98 solely on the basis of the beat–but the band derived the beat from its politics in the first place.

8. “The Edge of Seventeen (Live),” by Stevie Nicks (Modern)
Her usual pressed-posy lyrics (the parenthetical title is “Just Like a White Winged Dove”), but rendered with such force and passion that whatever metaphors our lady of the veils might be offering are dissolved in a performance of the purest lust.

9. Sense and Sensuality, by Au Pairs (Kamera import)
Nervous, not neurotic, even if singer Leslie Woods did shave her head after the album came out. Jane Austen probably would have understood.

10. KALX, 90.7 FM (University of California at Berkeley)
Jumping from 10 watts to a mighty 500 in 1982, this end-of-the-dial marvel is the most adventurous and personable radio station I’ve ever listened to. The university has lately grown querulous, not to say cen­sorious, over a supposed emphasis on “that noise,” otherwise known as punk, within the context of the station (blues, sports, an­cient and unknown R&B, interviews, news) best understood as “avant-garde,” but the university shouldn’t worry: KALX is both a sophisticated 24-hour art statement and community relations at its most inspired. I say this not just because they have played everything on this list in the course of the year but because on December 1 the Amazing Mystery Deejay, this year’s Real Life Rock Most Valuable Player Award winner, played 200 different versions of “Louie, Louie” back to back, and lived.

California, January 1983

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