Rock-a-Hula Clarified pt. 2 (06/71)


The second installment of Greil Marcus’s “Rock-a-Hula Clarified” from the June 1971 issue of Creem magazine. Read part one.


POP is energy publically organized around art. POP means that no matter how devoted the fan, listening to rock and roll with the solitary solemnity of a man pouring over the Dead Sea Scrolls will always lack what may be the most important thing of all: the POP sense of being where the action is. POP is a sense that someone else is missing something, but you’re not, and when it really works, it’s a sense that someone else is missing something, but we’re not. That is the spirit that lifted the Fifties rockers into fame, that made the Beatles matter, and like it or not, that makes Grand Funk a bigger draw than any other group in the country. There is virtually nothing POP about Van Morrison, Randy Newman, Rod Stewart, Jesus Christ Superstar, or Jesse Winchester, good as they all might be. POP at its most powerful links up to and takes advantage of the whole series of media accessible to music, drawing that part of the audience that matters to it and driving the rest away, making that crucial division. The music is so fragmented today that Grand Funk can’t even get on the radio and the POP action of 1971 is all but invisible to the old kind of eyesight. But POP is novelty that is one step ahead of the times. The audience cults of the present always seem to be part of last year, no matter how new they are. Their secrets don’t involve a sense of movement, but the stolidity of belief. The Laura Nyro cult knows that their girl is the most beautiful person who ever lived; the Melanie cult knows that their girl is the most beautiful person who ever lived. But who cares? Both of them are boring.

When the power of POP emerges, the risk of assimilation is right out front, since that emergence always challenges the whole mass audience. Eventually assimilation takes place, and something new is needed. We are in that position now, and we are all impatient. The secret that emerged in the POP dynamo of the Fifties was the discovery of a generation by itself, and its demand for its own voice and its own language. When POP had burned itself out, that discovery was forgotten and the language no longer had anything interesting to say. The eruption of the Sixties made the same essential discovery, but intensified it beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. That intensification brought the exhaustion of the present, and inevitably, the discovery is going to be made again. The problem is that it may not happen in time—we are at the age, if we are over twenty, when fragmentation may tend to institutionalize itself. When POP comes charging back, we may not want it. It may not be our generation that is re-discovered; instead of maintaining ourselves as an audience ready for change and for the identity of POP, we may be off amusing ourselves with our privacy when Quinn the Eskimo comes looking for a welcoming party.

Audience cults structure privacy out of what was once ruled by the thrill of POP, and they maintain rock and roll as music. Hopefully, that won’t really be enough to satisfy. The sense of loss of the POP commonality of which any audience cult is an objectification may well intrude as a reminder of the day-to-day enthusiasm we once knew as a musical community, and that sense of loss may be the thing that sustains the need for POP, for the rock on our terms. Today we have a set of highly individualized artists, each with a special vision and a special sense of music and image. There’s just gotta be one for each of us; problem is, there’s not one for all of us. if we wanted to introduce an outsider into our scheme of things, is there anything we could use?In the last year or so probably more good records have been issued than in any such period in recent memory: Van Morrison’s Moondance, His Band and the Street Choir, and his single “Domino”; Randy Newman’s 12 Songs; Get Yer Ya-Yas Out; Don’t Crush That Dwarf by the Firesign Theatre; Rod Stewart’s Gasoline Alley; Keep On Truckin’ by the Frut; John Cale’s Vintage Violence, Nico’s Desertshore, and the Velvet Underground’s Loaded; Hoboken Saturday Night by the Insect Trust; Rubber Dubber’s The Band Live at the Hollywood Bowl; Stage Fright; Hollywood Dream by Thunderclap Newman; McCartney (and in spite of “Another Day,” the B-side, “Oh Woman, Oh Why?,” is just great); 1+1+1=4 by the Sir Douglas Quintet; Gene Vincent’s album with Sir Doug’s band; The Rill Thing by Little Richard; The Hawk, another smoothie from bad old Ronnie Hawkins; Total Destruction to Your Mind by Jerry “Swamp Dogg” Williams; Workingman’s Dead; Nick Gravenites’ music on [Big Brother’s] Be a Brother; Kiln House by Fleetwood Mac, which includes their classic unreleased single, “This Is the Rock“; Captain Beefheart’s Lick My Decals Off, Baby; Layla by Clapton; Johnny Winter And; Little Feat; Jesse Winchester; Pearl; The J. Geils Band; Your Daily Gift by Savage Rose; and a truly great album from Joy of Cooking. Creedence Clearwater spun good music all over the place and firmly maintained their position as the most important American band. The Jackson Five conquered the world in one day with one record; there are still lots of people who will tell you “I Want You Back” is the greatest single ever made. They followed that with the middling “ABC” and the fantastic “The Love You Save,” and joined a host of others who made their mark on Top 40: Neil Diamond with “Cracklin’ Rosie,” B.B. King with “The Thrill Is Gone,” the Who with “Summertime Blues,” Hot Legs’ “Neanderthal Man” (certainly the most interesting work in its genre since “A Whiter Shade of Pale”), Christie with “Yellow River,” The Guess Who with “Share the Land,” The Supreme’s “Stoned Love,” Linda Ronstadt’s “Long Long Time,” The Poppy Family’s “That’s Where I Went Wrong,” Shocking Blue with “Never Marry a Railroad Man,” the Kinks’ “Lola,” Alice Cooper’s current “I’m Eighteen,” and maybe best of all, Creedence Clearwater with “Up Around the Bend,” the most wonderful single since “One Fine Day.” George Harrison dumped three good records on the market, John Lennon gave us an album that showcased what may be the finest rock and roll singing ever recorded (Yoko’s wasn’t bad either), and Bob Dylan came back from Self Portrait with New Morning.None of these records enter the list because of mere technical excellence or because of their status as good music defined in strictly musical terms. They enter the list, obviously, because I liked them, and liked them because of their vitality, their ambition to do something new, their refusal of the dispirited exhaustion that most everyone who was supposed to listen to these records seemed to feel.

But there was still plenty missing. As far as I could tell—and I looked—the only time the release of any of these records constituted a more than fragmentary event, something around which a community that once had a fragile sense of itself could organize its excitement or through which it could interpret its predicament, was that week when “I Want You Back,” came out, if it even happened then. Our music, good as it is, hardly served as the necessary substance of conversation, movement, jive—a common affection—for a vital community that was once exposed to itself by “School Days,” Meet the Beatles, or Rubber Soul, or that organized itself, like a town lining up behind a winning team, around Blonde on Blonde or even the Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun.”

It’s certainly possible that the only place in rock and roll that still flaunts the rock, that still moves with the excitement and that still has the power to maintain the values of exclusive possession that have made this music matter for fifteen years is the place now occupied by Grand Funk Railroad, who sold ten million (10,000,000) records last year and are now arguably the biggest group in the world, even though 1) their music is not played on FM radio; 2) their music is not played on AM radio; 3) their records are panned or ignored by the rock press; 4) many people who care about rock and roll don’t listen to them; 5) some people who care about rock and roll have never heard of them. This band, and their audience, now have possession of a music that cannot for the moment be shared with the rock and roll audience as such. [6] Because it can’t be shared it is secret, and powerful. Grand Funk is not merely fragmenting the audience, like most everyone else; they may be dividing it. Not only are they big enough to do that, but they seem to be speaking directly to a new pop audience that is fast breathing down the neck of the old one and that may make the old one irrelevant. “[This group] has got something its competitors don’t have,” said Terry Knight recently. “You have to go to people like Presley, the Beatles, the Stones and Sinatra to find it. Grand Funk says something to its audience that no other rock group says today. It is saying to its audience that ‘We are part of you. We are your voice.'”grandfunkThe crucial point, it seems to me, is not that Grand Funk is the only rock group that says it is a part of its audience, but that they are the only big group who can say that and get people to believe them. The people who believe it are not the same old people, either. Mutter “shuck” at your peril.

It isn’t that rock and roll critics and their peers don’t like this music, though they don’t; they can’t listen to it. When they put it down, they are acting out the roles once played by archetypal rock and roll parents when, fifteen years ago, they threw Little Richard 45s in the trash can. But Grand Funk is rock and roll, proof that rock and roll is bigger than we are; the sound of the city as THE SOUND OF THE CITY. Their music has what matters to sound as sound: noise, anger, comradeship, and rebellion. It is inarticulate rebellion, because the Grand Funk audience is inarticulate; they aren’t looking for answers, they’re looking for confirmation.

The music and the presence of Grand Funk confirms that rebellion and makes it concrete. You can own a piece of it; you can go see it. Most importantly, it can’t be co-opted or seized by the rest of the audience, just as, for a time, rock and roll couldn’t be co-opted or seized by the rest of the country. This music is the possession of teenagers who want something of their own; the fact that what they’ve got is scorned by the critics and the people they speak for can do nothing but heighten the sense of delight in being separate and self-contained, bound together by a sense of common and exclusive experience.

But if it’s rebellion they want, why don’t they listen to the Stones? Or Crosby Stills Nash & Young, and “Ohio,” or “Woodstock,” or “Almost Cut My. Hair”? Grand Funk’s audience won’t bother to tell you, and they might not be able to. Telling them to listen to “Salt of the Earth” would be like telling a grape striker to read Marx in the original German. Not only would it have no meaning for him, it’s not what matters.

shea

“Grand Funk Railroad will roll in Shea Stadium,” Free-Lance Star, May 22, 1971

With the strike, and a leader with whom he can identify, who can suggest possibilities inherent in him that he has never really considered, the striker has something of his own, but which at the same time links him to other men, in the community of the strike. It’s not simply a matter of better pay or job security; the bonds that are forged between him and the other men in the strike as they try something new give him a sense of identity and inarticulate purpose that he never had before, that he does not completely understand, but that he wants to preserve. When the strike is won and he goes back to work with better pay and job security, he feels a sense of loss. He feels cut off from the men who once seemed so naturally to be his comrades. He could not have acted without them, and they could not have acted without him. Now he can act without them, and he possesses that thing he has dreamed about: the economic security necessary to his private life. The goals of the strike have been met, but the strike, which was to have been only a means to those goals, now has lost goals of its own. The striker is no longer part of something larger than himself, that made him a man different from those who merely watched the battles he fought; he is a man with a job.

A Grand Funk concert sets up, defines, invites and entertains a community which forms itself around that event. The “goal” is to get off—and in the mystery of the rock, you get off on what’s yours. A Grand Funk concert is exclusive. Only certain people want to get in. They know who they are, too. Fuck that critic shit, man, siddown. This is the best thing going, and not only that, this is the biggest group in the world, and I—and here’s the POP—am in the same room.

That exclusiveness, like that of the rock itself, is vulnerable. When the critics begin to move into the hall, or if the band bends to the critics and makes “music,” Grand Funk will be through. They may sell more records, but they won’t matter. The kid who fought his way in and stood in line for Live Album will no longer be part of an audience; he’ll be a consumer. There will be that sense of loss. The audience that once defined itself by the concerts Grand Funk gave will fragment, just as the audience that once defined itself by the Beatles has fragmented. Grand Funk will be accessible to everyone, but no one will care.

Well, ok, now you know how to get rid of Grand Funk. [7] But how do we get out of the trouble we’re in, those of us who love the rock but find ourselves stuck on the margins of POP? What’s left over for those of us who want something else, but can’t be satisfied with music that lacks the force to move out of an audience cult to challenge the whole audience to a test of nerve?

There may be some possibilities. Recently Bob Christgau wrote a column in which he detailed the current pop malaise, and suggested with a fine sense of pop reversal, that the Beatles might yet be the ones to get us out of the mess we’re in. The Beatles, as I’ve said, lost their kick when they became what the interviewers at the Hard Day’s Night press conference wanted them to be. When they could no longer be obnoxious, outrageous adolescents they opened their arms to the whole world and declared their love for all creation. By making it possible for everyone to love them they made it possible for us to ignore them.Paulie is now Nasty Paul, and the creepiness of his recent activities makes it impossible to take his nice-Nellie music seriously (when Ringo takes the stand against him, you know it must be true). I can’t imagine feeling strongly one way or the other about Father George; he’s far too serious to take seriously and far too good a music-maker to really dislike. Ringo remains Ringo. And then there’s John.

If you think back on his last few years as a rock and roller, as opposed to his last few years as a failed social phenomenon, you find a remarkable toughness to his best work, something stronger than almost anything else in rock. Think of “I’m So Tired,” which may be his greatest song of anger and desperation, a work far more effective than the “ok-boys-I’m-gonna-do-my-primal-scream” codas of the new album; “Yer Blues,” which I love for the line, “Feel so suicidal/Even hate my rock and roll” the same way I love Sebastian’s line in “Do You Believe In Magic,” and which I love even more for its music, which tries to escape from that fear by rocking out; “Revolution Number 9,” which, as John said at the time, makes hash out of “Revolution”; “Come Together” (at the Toronto Pop Festival?); “I Want You/She’s So Heavy,” which, fronting the musicale of Abbey Road, served as an anchor for that album; “Cold Turkey,” “Instant Karma,” the glorious “Don’t Let Me Down,” which is almost Lennon’s “Like a Rolling Stone”; and finally, the new album, pure rock in structure, pure fad in lyrics most of the time, with singing that can shrivel the heart (no one’s voice breaks like John’s does on “God,” and no one in rock and roll has ever sung better than he does on that song’s last lines), and occasionally, as with “Well Well Well,” a song that proves that John Lennon always sees through his own messages even when he’s in the process of dishing them out. The fad vanishes; John Lennon rocks.Underneath whatever he chooses as this year’s Answer there remains a fundamentally angry man, and beneath that man is an artist who wants to make a tougher record than “Whole Lotta Shakin’,” who, as John himself once put it, “has these fucking songs to write.” His anger ultimately leaves him uncomfortable with the solutions he chooses, and the artist in him ultimately refuses to pretend that any of those solutions can change him. I think it would be silly to take the Arthur Janov “Primal Scream” routine any more seriously than the Maharishi, and I’d be surprised if in the long run Lennon fails to see them both as part of a process that will continue long after both of them are forgotten. Lennon is stuck: he is Lennon. The man who emerges on the new album is irritating, angry, and obnoxious, even to the point, unthinkable for a Beatle, of engaging the pure bad taste of “My Mummy’s Dead.” But the pure bad taste of “My Mummy’s Dead” is no doubt truer than the earlier version of the same song, “Julia”—bad taste is liberating, sometimes. John is now in a position where he is putting people off, alienating them, coming on too strong—and he remains the one great rocker we have. He is, at his best, the best. With his stunning interview in Rolling Stone, he emerges as a pop star who is willing to challenge his own audience for their legitimacy, and he simultaneously slips out of the grasp of the great mass audience that learned to “love” the Beatles.

Elvis was an obnoxious threat to “parents,” as were the Stones, and the Beatles in their early days. But “parents” are no longer the issue by a long shot. Lennon is now making music and statements that may well be obnoxious to us, and he is raising a question as to what part of the audience will want to stay with him. Furthermore, outside of Grand Funk (who may be leading their new rock and roll audience to places where they as a band will no longer be able to deliver what their audience wants), John Lennon is the only rock star who is big enough, both in terms of the market he automatically commands and in terms of the affection we feel for him, to divide the rock audience instead of merely fragmenting it. By dividing the audience he might preserve it as something more than a market; he might set the stage for a relentlessly tough new music that is emotionally difficult and cruelly self-critical, a music that gives the lie to the self-conscious celebrations of current rock and roll and that simultaneously taunts and insults that part of the audience that clings to them.lennonqtI am not speaking here of Lennon’s recent psychological lyrics. The last thing we need is for a whole set of musicians to go into therapy in order to publically and profitably regurgitate their childhoods (though we will probably get some of that). I am talking about the hard edge that has always lurked somewhere in Lennon’s music, the edge that now seems to have come to the surface as a foundation for his action as an artist and as a public figure. Some musicians may understand the real impulse of his new music and find themselves challenged by it; they may be drawn into a new music, a new rock and roll, that is not so much simply there as it is on the attack: against sentiment, against, in the end, that part of the audience that resists it.

Eric Burdon saw the Sixties transition in these terms; in his number, “The Story of Bo Diddley,” he saw his band and others like it consciously destroying the music of Bobby Vee. The job of the new rock would not be so much to destroy today’s music as to make most of it irrelevant. Lennon’s album is not really good enough to do that, and one man, no matter how good, can’t do it alone. Lennon first has to make the other Beatles irrelevant, and I think he is on the way to doing that. The superiority he assumes when he speaks of Paul or Ringo or George is not only obnoxious, irritating, and hard to take, it’s real, and he is proving it with his music. In time, he and a few others may be ready for the rest—the audience along with the musicians.

Such a fantasy of a new rock and roll is, to say the least, nothing to count on. And while it may be the most intriguing possibility, there are other matters that may give us an idea of what, in a vastly different way, the rock has to learn to say.


Tomorrow in the third and final installment of “Rock-a-Hula Clarified”: The Weathermen, the Band, and the “paradox of pop” as viewed through the lens of a Guess Who single.


Creem, June 1971


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One thought on “Rock-a-Hula Clarified pt. 2 (06/71)

  1. G.M.’s definition of POP, as a community that takes itself to be “where it’s at” and is formed by their connection to a certain aesthetic whose practitioners organize previously subterranean impulses in such a way that community members feel that the artists are speaking to and for them individually ,is the sharpest insight into the POP phenomenon that I’ve ever come across…& it goes far beyond POP,I believe.

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