The first installment of Greil Marcus’s “Rock-a-Hula Clarified” from the June 1971 issue of Creem magazine.
Our story begins just after midnight, not so very long ago. The Dick Cavett Show is in full swing.
Seated on Cavett’s left is John Simon, The New York Critic. On Cavett’s right, in order of distance from him, are Little Richard, Rock and Roll Singer and Weirdo; Rita Moreno, Actress; and Erich Segal, Yale Professor of Classics and Author of Love Story. Miss Moreno and Mr. Segal adored Love Story. Mr. Simon did not. Little Richard has not read it.
Cavett is finishing a commercial. Mr. Simon is mentally rehearsing his opening thrust against Mr. Segal, who is very nervous. Miss Moreno seems to be falling asleep. Little Richard is looking for an opening.
Mr. Simon has attacked Mr. Segal. Mr. Segal attempts a reply but he is too nervous to be coherent. Mr. Simon attacks a second time. Little Richard is about to jump out of his seat and jam his face in front of the camera but Mr. Simon beats him out. He attacks Mr. Segal again.
“NEGATIVE! NEGATIVE NEGATIVE NEGATIVE!” screams Mr. Segal. He and Simon are debating a fine point in the history of Greek tragedy, to which Mr. Simon has compared Love Story unfavorably.
“‘Neg-a-tive,'” muses Mr. Simon. “Does that mean ‘no’?”
Mr. Segal attempts, unsuccessfully, to ignore Mr. Simon’s contempt for his odd patois, and claims that the critics were wrong about Aeschylus. He implies that Simon would have turned thumbs down on the Orestia. Backed by the audience, which sounds like a Philadelphia baseball crowd that has somehow mistaken Mr. Simon for Richie Allen, Segal presses his advantage. Little Richard sits back in his chair, momentarily intimidated.
“MILLIONS OF PEOPLE were DEEPLY MOVED by my book,” cries Segal, forgetting to sit up straight and slumping in his chair until his body is near parallel with the floor. “AND IF ALL THOSE PEOPLE LIKED IT (Segal’s voice has now achieved a curious tremolo) “I MUST BE DOING SOMETHING RIGHT!”
The effort has exhausted Segal and as he takes a deep breath Little Richard begins to rise from his seat. Again, Simon is too fast for him. Simon attempts to make Segal understand that he is amazed that anyone, especially Segal, takes this trash to be anything more than, well, trash.
“I have read it and re-read it many times,” counters Segal with great honesty. “I am always moved.”
“Mr. Segal,” says Simon, having confused the bull with his cape and now moving in for the kill, “You had the choice of acting the knave or the fool. You have chosen the latter.”
Segal is stunned. Cavett is stunned. He calls for a commercial. Little Richard considers the situation.
The battle resumes. Segal has now slumped even lower in his chair, if that is possible, and seems to be arguing with the ceiling. “You’re only a critic,” he says as if to Simon, “What have you ever written? What do you know about art? Never in the history of…”
The time has come. Little Richard makes his move. Leaping from his seat, he takes the floor, arms waving, hair coming undone, eyes wild, mouth working. He advances on Segal, Cavett, and Simon, who cringe as one man. The camera cuts to a close-up of Segal, who looks miserable. Then to Simon who is attempting to compose the sort of bemused expression he would have if, say, someone were to defecate on the floor. Little Richard is audible off-camera, and then his face quickly fills the screen.
“WHY, IN THE WHOLE HISTORY OF AAAAART! THAT’S RIGHT! SHUT UP! SHUT UP! WHAT DO YOU KNOW, MR. CRITIC? WHY WHEN THE CREEDENCE CLEARWATER PUT OUT WITH THEIR “TRAVELEN’ BAND” EVERBODY SAY WHEEEOOO BUT I KNOW IT CUZ THEY ONLY DOIN’ ‘LONG TALL SALLY’ JUST LIKE THE BEATLESANDTHESTONESANDTOMJONESANDELVIS—I AM ALL OF IT, LITTLE RICHARD HIMSELF, VERY TRULY THE GREATEST, THE HANDSOMEST, AND NOW TO YOU (to Segal, who appears to be on the floor) AND YOU (to Simon, who looks to Cavett as if to say, really old man, this has been fun, but this, ah, fellow is becoming a bit much, perhaps a commercial is in order?), I HAVE WRITTEN A BOOK, MYSELF, I AM A WRITER, I HAVE WRITTEN A BOOK AND IT’S CALLED—
“HE GOT WHAT HE WANTED BUT HE LOST WHAT HE HAD! THAT’S IT! SHUT UP! SHUT UP! SHUT UP! HE GOT WHAT HE WANTED BUT HE LOST WHAT HE HAD! THE STORY OF MY LIFE. CAN YOU DIG IT? THAT’S MY BOY LITTLE RICHARD, SURE IS. OO MAH SOUL!”
Little Richard flies back to his chair and slams down into it. “WHEEEEEE-OO! OOO MAH SOUL. OO mah soul…”
Little Richard, Prince of Fools, sits with the unclothed emperors of taste, oblivious to their bitter stares, savoring his moment. He is Little Richard. Who are they? Who will remember Erich Segal, Dick Cavett, John Simon? Who will care? Ah, but Little Richard, Little Richard Himself! Now there is a man who matters. He knows how to rock.
Not much is left of the show. They keep on with it (even Mr. Richard, as Cavett calls him, like a fifties rock and roller trying for a follow-up smash): John Simon, Nasty Critic; Dick Cavett, Ringmaster; Erich Segal, Bestseller; and Little Richard, Weirdo. And yet… In the whole history of aaart… He ought to know. He’s the only artist on the set. The only one who broke rules, created a form, the only one who gave shape to the vitality that wailed silently in each of us until he found a voice for it. It’s Little Richard.He is the rock, the jive bomber, the noise-maker. “Keep A-Knockin'” broke off the radio over a decade ago and shuffled the polite manners of white youth just as the Weirdo on the Cavett Show busted up the bitter dialogues of the Nature of Art. Fine, fine, superfine.
But is it so neat as that? Is he anything more than a hired-out freak in a fright wig? Busting it up to earn his pay? Maybe not, but he still puts on a great show. He is a fantasy of the crudest rebellion, and on this night, anyway, he won.
Listening to his records now, it’s a marvel how he ever did it. Ba-dump-a-dump-a-dump-a-dump-a-dump-a Dump-ba-Bump-Bump/ Ba-dump-a-dump-a-dump-a-dump-a-dump-a Dump-ba-Bump-Bump dump-dump-dump BAAAAAAAAAA! KEEP A-KNOCKIN’ ‘CUZ YOU CAIN’T COME IN! KEEP A-KNOCKING’ ‘CUZ YOU… He had his demon, his crazy muse. We got a piece of it. Peter Guralnick understands it as well as anyone: “We took Little Richard’s outlandish screams for a welcome relief, and the nonsense lyrics of Chuck Berry and Carl Perkins seemed to express an implicit view of the world each of us secretly shared.” That’s it. But what about the rest of the story? “Now the secret is out,” wrote Guralnick, “and everyone is covering up.”
The secret was the rock, a frantic parade of novelty and sound, put together by strange men and boys who dumped little musical events on us for over a decade, until the disorganized series of events formed itself into something Dave Marsh calls our aesthetic myth. As finally revealed by the Beatles, the Stones, and a lot of other people—basically a set of foreigners whose very strangeness of dress, hair, manner and speech provided the essential novelty necessary to a new pop explosion—this myth of ours came to be understood as fundamentally more valuable and more powerful than anyone this side of Chuck Berry had ever suspected it might be. We began to understand it as a kind of culturally secret parallel history for a community that recognized itself as such only through the rock. We began to see that the sound of the bye-gone Fifties had been a means to a sense of freedom and a testing ground for values that Top 40 had given us an idea of the choices that we made and that were being made for us.
In the first years of the Sixties, these aesthetics were all but invisible, and for the most part the choices offered were almost (but not quite) too thin to bother with. By 1965, the choices available seemed the very definition of our condition. Now, as the pattern of those aesthetics dissolves, as events close in, as only the myth, mostly as a memory, remains, the sense of the choices offered by the rock may seem thinner than ever, if it is there at all.The sound never had power over the events that invade our lives, no matter what was claimed for it; at best, it gave us a common sense of how to deal with them. Which is to say: the rock is the sound of our times, but can the sound keep up with the times? In Guralnick’s brilliant formulation, the music of the Fifties meant “an implicit view of the world each of us secretly shared.” Now, if we’re not careful, we may end up with an implicit view of the world each of us secretly knows is fake. That is the contradiction between the hard invasion of events and the need of the rock to parallel events without imitating them, in a way that gives us an idea of the novelty in a situation while still linking it to a special tradition, the tradition of our own dim aesthetic myth of the sound of the rock, speaking to the presence of events without speaking their language. That aesthetic task takes place at the margins of our social condition, and since those margins are themselves hard to place, pulling it off is difficult and faking it is easy. The job is to articulate what many know but which virtually no one knows how to talk about: The Lovin’ Spoonful did this with “Do You Believe In Magic”—they celebrated the value of rock and roll and perfectly defined that value in the fact that the rock was secret and couldn’t be shared. “It’s like trying to tell a stranger ’bout rock and roll.” Everyone suddenly realized that was exactly what our link to the music meant—a birthright. And of course, none of Sebastian’s insight would have meant a damn if the music that brought us those words wasn’t as good as rock and roll can ever be—if the song didn’t prove the truth of its words with its music. But it did, and Sebastian’s song became a definition that helped make sense out of our cultural isolation and thereby strengthened it. A bit later a few artists began to parody the love of the rock by recording “We Need a Whole Lot More of Jesus and a Lot Less Rock and Roll.” I don’t want to make any specious causative arguments, but oddly enough, that’s exactly what we got. Take the stage, James Taylor.
Like I said, the invasion of events and the need of the rock to parallel them without imitating them can be easily faked. The present trend to identify the solution to our social and cultural confusion with country comforts and homey religion is faking at the margins of our situation—a translation of common isolation into private withdrawal. “You got your god, I got mine,” goes next year’s hit, “And we’ll get it all together in the summer time.” Backed up by drums and two acoustic guitars, no doubt. The rock has to stay at the edge of reality, not go the other way. One job of the critic today is to find out what in the rock is hitching up to that edgy margin, the way Dylan did, and then try to pull the audience along for the ride. He has to try to undermine what’s fake.
The music, if it is to matter, has to stake out its own ground without leaving the world, and begin to tell secrets about the world, those half-heard phrases of sound that turn your head in the middle of the day. The assimilation of rock and roll into the general mass culture makes that difficult, because if rock and roll is in the public domain, which it mostly is now—the taste of the audience for James Taylor coincides with Time magazine’s taste—then “secrets” are worthless because there is nothing secret about the medium itself and its automatic value is merely commonplace. The rock, when it matters, is a means toward isolation and identity, a delightful buffer against integration into the cultural and social mainstream of the society. But now, rock and roll is mainstream music, and that mainstream assimilation has brought not power but dissipation. Our connection with the music is dissolving because to a good degree the rock was a buffer against what it has become and it cannot very well act as a buffer against itself.
The audience knows this, whether or not they have the words for it (we need a song for that). That is one of the reasons why the audience has fragmented into a whole set of cults that no longer relate to each other except as consumers; it’s an attempt to preserve some of the excitement of the music as a cultural secret. But that, of course, leaves out something that was crucial to Guralnick’s idea: the “each of us.” “An implicit view of the world that each of us secretly shared.” If there is no secret, if the rock itself is not a secret, and if we as a group that once dated ourselves by its calendar cannot keep hold of it, then there is no sense of a view of the world accessible to each of us. 
If we lose that, if the secret is out and we cover it up, then our parallel history dissolves into the events that were to be paralleled. Rock and roll becomes culturally synonymous with its own aesthetic opposition. The rock goes underground. The job of the critic today is to demonstrate the value of the rock that still matters; to ferret out the parallel history of the rock when most of rock and roll is unable to live up to its ambitions.
Police siren, flashing light
I wonder who went down tonight?
Two lines quicken and finally set the pace. They gather up all the tension of the first years of the Seventies and shoot it back like a bullet.
ARE YOU ON THE BEAM? Up to the minute news, every hour on the hour. This is the rock, brief and to the point. Without it you’d miss the point. ARE YOU ON THE BEAM?
I’m on the Randy Newman beam, myself.
Me, I’ll take the Zep’s version anytime.
I mean, Captain Beefheart. Can you dig it?
Whither the death of rock?
I like the Band, they’re real.
Buncha old men, gimme Grand Funk.
We are all rock. But is there any more all-rock and roll music, directly and implicitly for each of us, the way Chuck Berry, the Beatles, and “Satisfaction” were all-rock and roll music? Now, “Satisfaction” broke in the summer of ’65 and within a year was voted the greatest song of all time  in local polls all over the country. Those polls constituted something of an election, both in terms of the kind of statement communities of youth wanted to make and in terms of the choices they made about the form of their music. Somehow, those choices weren’t simply made on the basis of “my favorite song.” Rather, thousands of us, with our postcards and pencils, realized that something was at stake. We had to make a decision. What was “the greatest song”? What song was good enough, strong enough, to carry that weight? “Satisfaction” was it and it carried the weight admirably. But the important thing is that odd fact of unanimity. Such a community choice—a choice that did not simply prove the prior existence of a community but also began to establish that community by demonstrating it, by revealing things held in common—would not be possible today, because the kind of all-rock around which the community gathered, that it seized, is not accessible to us today, since as a musical community we have fragmented into little groups of age, taste, politics, geography, and self-conscious sophistication. Those things that divide us are clearer and more immediate than whatever it might be that could link us together. There may be a song as good as “Satisfaction,” that rocks with the same power and that delivers the same edgy honest novelty of the present moment, but we can’t find it if there is; as a dissolving community, we no longer want to listen to each other’s records.
The recent Search for a Superstar, which was about as successful as the Laos Invasion, demonstrates our inarticulate uneasiness about and distaste for the fragmentation of the community the “Satisfaction” choice revealed, because we remember that in the Sixties it was the presence of superstars—who emerged long before we needed a word for them—that showed us there were common things around which we could organize our search for values, excitement, cultural identity, and for the rock as a thing in itself—things which, when you add them all up, made it possible for us to maintain that cultural isolation from the mainstream of American life. Such an impulse was easy to focus: to initiate an outsider into our scheme of things was to initiate him into the Beatles; not the Beatles as legitimate music, but the Beatles as the Beatles—as noise, humor, fun, sound, bite, tradition, hair, and cynicism. Dylan, on the other hand, was in hot pursuit of the frontier; the challenge was to keep up with him. He was exploring depths and contradictions inherent in the choices we were beginning to make.  Those contradictions were mostly hidden from us and for a time he took it upon himself to bring them out in the open. The glamour and the glory of his music and his singing brought a sense of exhilaration and risk to his definition of what was at stake in life in the middle Sixties. And since he was always ahead of us by a year or so, that simple time-lapse of experience sustained the direct impact of his music months and years after we first encountered it. His records maintained the power to re-interpret situations into which we stumbled or choices that we purposefully made. The Stones, for their part, fought for a place on the rough edge and preserved the sense that there was something in this music that could never be anything but ours—no one else would want it.In time of course, the Beatles won acceptance in every nook and cranny of taste, and thus became less valuable to us. Dylan’s refusal of his own status undermined our urge to reflect off his vision, or that of someone else. The role of the Stones was undercut by the falling off of the Beatles and Dylan; they seem to have understood this, and fought back with one last grab for the brass ring, which is to say, with one last affirmation that there was a brass ring to grab for.
They got rid of Brian Jones, and replaced him; he died, and they dealt publically with his death. They set themselves up as the greatest rock and roll band in the world, and even if that claim seemed valid mostly by default, we mostly went along with the idea. They set out on a great tour of America, where, for reasons that will have to wait on a later piece, they blew their chance and presided over the dissolution of the community that had become known to itself partly through its common choice of the Stones as spokesmen for it. They hadn’t yet written the music that could give that community the chance to re-group, but at Altamont, they helped make possible the announcement that whether or not they or anyone else wrote the music there would probably be no community to receive it.
Altamont was an announcement, not the cause of a whole new chain of events; it made it possible for us to see things that were already taking place on our own streets and gave us a frame of reference which we could use to begin to understand what was going on. Among other things, Altamont was a formal and definitive announcement of the fact that we no longer credit our music or each other with the value that once seemed so obvious and necessary. That the value is no longer obvious is clear enough, but the necessity is still hidden in the catastrophe. The Search for a Superstar was in one sense an attempt to put Altamont back together again. Not surprisingly, it didn’t work. Joe Cocker and Elton John remained private tastes like everyone else.
The idea that anything in the music had a claim on each of us seemed quite unworkable, and it was; because if we accorded the music less value, and thereby debilitated our own flimsy sense of community and affection, of things shared and held in common, it was, clearly enough, because the music was less valuable. While we still have rock and roll music, we are missing the rock—rock and roll as a secret and common experience—and what we have is music accessible to everyone and not particularly valuable to anyone. When that happens we stop being an audience and become consumers, and we begin to judge the value of the rock in terms of its musicianship and the sound quality of the recordings.
With the loss of value, which was based on a sense of things held in common linked with a sense of exclusion, comes fragmentation; with fragmentation comes a sense of loss. Since we understand that the essence of our sense of things held in common has its source in the rock, when that sense begins to fade we turn to the music and conclude that as music it’s no longer any good. Thereby the Death of Rock.
But this, of course, is nonsense. The music is in great shape. In fact, there is a resurgence of vitality and diversity at the moment that may, in its fragmented way, rival that of the middle Sixties.  This may be, as Bob Christgau argues, because the fragmentation of the audience, and its institutionalization into groups of consumers with specialized tastes which an industry can exploit and on which it can depend, releases the artist from the pressure of appealing to a vast community and allows him to orient himself commercially toward a smaller group that he knows will sustain him.  Since the audience for rock and roll has expanded so enormously, even such a fragmentary group may deliver a million dollars’ worth of album sales. But sales have little to do with the efficacy of the spirit of a community; Dylan’s albums had a far greater impact in the middle Sixties than they do now even though he wasn’t selling nearly as many.
So the audience is bigger, the music is good, and still seems to matter far less. It’s not that there is anything wrong with the “music”; rather, there’s something wrong with its value. It is no longer ours; it is simply there.
Secrets eventually clear themselves up and get told. Norman 0. Brown put it this way: “Societies originate in the disclosure of some mystery, some secret; and expand with the progressive publication of their secret; and end in exhaustion when there is no longer any secret, when the mystery has been divulged.”
Secrets are protective of vulnerable things, and the secret of any medium that is basically part of mass culture is vulnerable to assimilation by the mass. Rock and roll on the cover of Life with an article by Frank Zappa inside expands the market, debilitates the spirit of the audience, and fragments the audience, which then re-groups into smaller audiences each with their own trivial secret. Their secrets are trivial because the rock is also POP.
POP is energy publically organized around art. POP means that…
“POP means that…?” To find out, tune in tomorrow for the second installment of “Rock-a-Hula Clarified.”