I started out talking about “On Highway 61” as “what white people learned from black music from minstrelsy to Bob Dylan,” and that certainly holds true. But as I’ve gone along – and as I’ve gotten tired of saying the same phrase over and over – I’ve come to realize that it’s also accurate to say that the book is really about the deepest roots of rock ‘n’ roll.
After all, rock was born of a black-white fusion; R & B on the one hand and rockabilly/country on the other. And it is certainly true that rock was at the core of the ‘60s upheaval – which was the original purpose in writing the book in the first place; why did America come unglued in the ‘60s?
In a future post I’ll explore all that at greater length. For now, I’d like to talk about it personally, and over the next couple-three entries tell you about my own formative rock ‘n’ roll roots and experiences.
Keeping in mind that I was born in 1949, my first exposure to rock was hearing Elvis, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard on the radio. Since I was between five and seven when this was going on as a fresh new thing, I don’t have any specific memories. My first real rock and roll memory turns out to be seeing Jailhouse Rock.
In 1957 my family returned to Germany, and I spent that school year 9/57 to 5/58 in Kassel. Some time in the spring of 1958, every kid in Kassel knew that Elvis was coming to Germany – he’d been drafted in ’57 and finally entered the service in March ’58. The fact that he was joining “us” accelerated his popularity into another stratosphere.
So when the theater at the Air Force base outside town – I lived in downtown Kassel – announced Jailhouse Rock was coming, the place went berserk. Every American kid in Kassel was ready to go the movies. My father let me go – he wasn’t that big a grinch – but wasn’t going to get there early, so I arrived at the theater in time to see a very long line. And when I finally got into the theater, there wasn’t a seat to be had.
Fortunately, from my point of view, they weren’t going to worry about a little thing like fire lanes…and so I saw Jailhouse Rock seated on the floor in front of the seats, staring up at the screen and watching Elvis’s hips flip. It’s a great memory.
It’s particularly cool, from my point of view, since very little he did after that movie ever moved me; I got what was, in my judgment, pretty much the peak. Throw in “That’s Allright, Mama,” and “Heartbreak Hotel,” and I’m done.
Of course, a significant part of the reason that Elvis gives me the willies is that he’s one of the absolute classic samples of exploited musician of all time, right up there with Bessie Smith’s no-royalties deal with Columbia, Count Basie’s contract with Decca, and Bob Dylan’s with Albert Grossman (at least Dylan was smart enough, once he learned of it, to get a really good lawyer and sue Albert’s socks off). I’ve worked in arts management, and the Colonel gives us all a very bad name. He was a smart promoter, but a truly greedy and ugly soul.
Next blog: after this and that…my first major rock concert. Believe it or not: Herman’s Hermits.