Those records were released in the mid ’50s, charted erratically (respectively #10 #68, and #44), and “made history”—whatever that means, and this day it didn’t mean a thing. Time was subsumed by the pure Gnostic promise of it all. Gnostics, Benjamin Walker would tell you,
were… familiar with the reputed occult virtues of sound and the latent potency of sacred names, hermetic formulas and magical invocations… The most important of all sounds, they believed, is the phoneme which is the smallest articulable sound unit… there evolved – ‘me the practice of singing each [vowel sound of the Greek alphabet) in a single breath… combining the vowels with certain consonants, especially those producing a buzzing and humming sound: Zeeza, Zezo, Zoza, Ozzi, Omazu, Nozama, Amenaz, Araraz… As far as possible these archaic syllables were used in unaltered form, even when their meaning, if they had any, was forgotten.
Walker traces the organized survival of the Gnostic tradition to such sects as the Abecedarians, a 16th-century German cult reborn in the U.S.A. in the early 1800s, “who held that all learning, even the ABC, was superfluous.” Driving my car, all this seemed right on the mark for Little Richard, except that the mark does not hold still; around the time I heard “True Fine Mama,” I received a press release announcing an LP by a postpunk band called the Abecedarians.
The piano notes of “Good Golly Miss Molly” may affirm the superfluity of the ABCs, or of language itself. But even when letters are scrambled and words mean nothing, the very nature of human response attaches meanings to them. As far as anyone knows, language is an innate and defining human trait, over a million years old. No matter how absent tools and rules, no human group without language has ever been discovered, though groups whose cultural practice is almost certainly more crude than that of the Cro-Magnons or Australians of 30,000 years ago have been discovered many times. Their languages, as it happens, are far more complicated than our own: simplicity in linguistic structure is a modernism, and as such the seemingly primitive rhyming affirmations of early rock ‘n’ roll (“Tutti frutti/All rootie”) are absolutely modern. Henri Lefebvre argues that modernity forces the transformation of the sign into the signal: a sign communicating the commodification of lust, say, becomes “STOP/GO.”
But if Little Richard carries a Gnostic promise, if he is ur-modern, such notions only set the stage, which he takes down. Unlike many of his early rock n’ roll colleagues, he was literate; unlike almost all, his words were enunciated, specific. It remains plain that he was not talking about what he was talking about. One must go back to the piano notes.
One speaks of a musician “making a guitar talk” to signify what words don’t say. No one has ever spoken of a “talking piano,” but a guitar can almost be made to talk—to speak English. In the South around 1900, American blacks, who risked death it they spoke too clearly, developed the technique of slide guitar playing—of levering the strings with a knife, or pressing them with a finger fitted into a bottle. The curled tones that resulted could be hung in the air, floated free of conventional social discourse to form secret equivalents to commonplace communication. If blues could be scored, a whole grammar and syntax could be written out. The guitar talks not because the human voice as an instrument cannot say what the guitar can say but because the vocalist is unwilling or unable to say what he means. Freud would have made a good guitar critic: his discovery that when people cannot say what they want to say they nevertheless say it through gestures, jokes, puns, and strategic memory loss is matched by the blues guitar voicing of what is known but forbidden, of what is felt but not known—the unconscious, which in a blues lyric is simply called the “second mind.”
The abandonment of this language by rock ‘n’ roll in favor of the Chuck Berry lick or the Bo Diddley drone is part of the move from the sign to the signal—but the piano doesn’t talk at all. A talking guitar makes the listener talk, it calls forth phonemes which instantly summon fantasies that produce narrative. As Little Richard plays the piano you lose the faculty of speech: your mouth drops open. Language creates the possibility of invention, of subjectivity, but it also creates rules: its momentum is toward objectification, limits. With Little Richard we seem to be in a preobjective realm. He may be speaking in ruled words, but his momentum dissolves objectivity. It is impossible to know what he wants. In the mid ’70s, when he staged a comeback, his voice had somehow attached itself to the grammar of a beat and his piano to the requirements of an arrangement—he was simply singing written out songs. He announced that his forthcoming autobiography would be called “He Got What He Wanted But He Lost What He Had” (it has never appeared): one knew that what he had lost was the ability to want more than any language could say
“Good Golly Miss Molly” and “True Fine Mama” sound as anomalous, as Martian, in 1984 as they did in 1958. But “Ready Teddy” (1956), which is a better song, a better text, better written, takes place on another level. It is the whole body—forget the mouth, we’re in the lungs, the legs. It’s not a performance: it’s an event, one of those events that took place even before the birth of language, like death.The hesitations and lunges in Little Richard’s version of this number shame the listener with incomprehension—what does he mean? No, what is he doing? Elvis Presley’s account of the song on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1956 was visually one of his most striking performances: on record, it’s just a reading of the text. Elvis slurs the words where Little Richard doesn’t, but Elvis’ version is still clearer, he is manifesting a genre, “rock ‘n’ roll,” a new music, the rules of which he and the audience have begun to learn, which they will accept or reject. His performance is not personal but generic; the question he asks is merely rhetorical. He says not “I want,” but “This stuff, yes or no.”
In “Ready Teddy” Little Richard sings about having lotsa fun down at the union hall. As the record plays, all that is clear is that something is actually happening—and whatever it is, it isn’t a sock hop. This is not a comment on an observed incident of a fantasized reaction to an incident that might take place. The ’50s teenage context floats away, and so does any other possible context. For its two minutes the event remakes the world. Listening to “Ready Teddy” fifteen times in a row, it’s the pauses between words that generate the tension: the war between desire and doubt is so hard that the possibility Richard won’t make it to the next word, or the next world, is always there. This is actually happening, you understand—but had anything been different (the producer, the lyrics, the singer’s mood as he walked into the studio, the microphone, the weather, the president) it might not have happened. It is a contingent event, a situation in which anything might have happened. Because the language it speaks is contingent, it has no grammar; it is the noisy equivalent of silence; too bad John Cage was all concept and no body. The mystery is that, as one plays “Ready Teddy” 28 years after it was made, one realizes that this actually happened, and that each time one plays it, it is happening for the first time.
Artforum, December 1984