The Life and Death of Rock According to von Meier
As published in THE STATE HORNET - 1983
ART STARKOVICH Contributing Writer
"Snatch it on the left, snatch it on the right, snatch it in the middle and hold it tight — ya gotta snatch and grab it 'fore it gets away." Now what do you think they're singing about?" grinned Dr. Kurt von Meier over his turntable and cardboard box full of vintage 45 rpm records. You may have guessed already, but the answer is rock and roll. And in the following hour, through a blend of CIM's high-tech equipment and von Meier's parenthetical quips, a handful of students were wowed into thinking of rock and roll as an art form.
"Rock and roll was a reaction to the atomic and hydrogen bombs," theorized von Meier. "In 1954 nobody knew what it was all about. We knew that the atomic bomb had ended the war, and there was talk that such power could be harnessed for peaceful means, but such talk only cooled our ambivalence toward this deadly force. Rock and roll was the psychic response — the affirmation of life for popular culture." Whether you buy this thesis or not, there is no question that von Meier has studied his rock.
"Rock and roll has its roots in the country-western tradition. It was 1954. Carl Perkins had just written and recorded 'Blue Suede Shoes' and we were right on the edge of rock and roll." But this was still you-grab-the-beer-and-I'll-run-the-cows-home music. Here entered a new musical tradition, the "cover" tune.
"So along came Elvis Presley. He and his boys from Memphis took 'Shoes' and tamed it down de-twanged it. Art historians make professions out of studying what painter 'covered' which old master's style. But in rock and roll, copying tunes became common practice. Just as in art, you have the same theme but a different drawing." And it follows that you will have a different audience. But what ever happened to Carl Perkins, you ask?
"After he recorded 'Blue Suede Shoes,' Perkins was paralyzed in an auto accident. Elvis swept the market and Perkins was all but forgotten. The stage had been set for this new art form, but country music's scope was too narrow to spawn a whole new form. Traditional black music, especially street jazz, played a big role in the evolution of rock and roll."
Spinning a disc by James Cleveland and the Angelic Choir, von Meier continued: "In country-western music you could understand the lyrics. Not so with the gospel tradition. You get a whole congregation rocking in the pews singing alleluia to the roll of a piano. That's feeling, expression, emotion. But white middle class America still didn't understand what they were saying."
And oftentimes, it might have been better that they didn't. Putting on The Kingsmen's "Louie, Louie," von Meier urged us to listen for the "dirty" element of rock and roll. "There are supposed to be a few dirty words here, but I don't know if you'll find them." In the Victorian America of the '50s, you didn't need words to be dirty — the feeling was there. "This was the beginning of our acceptance of sexuality," quipped von Meier.
But the force that would make rock popular to the masses (if not an art form), was still missing. Country-western and rhythm and blues needed to be synthesized into a marketable product. The question remained, what element could do this?
Dropping the tone arm onto a Barrett Strong disc, von Meier gave us the answer: "Money. That's what I want." True to American tradition, capital was once again a legitimizing factor. "Money won rock and roll respect n the eyes of the public. Whatever sold records sold everything else. Rhythm and blues and country western had diverse and mutually exclusive audiences. Music needed the white appeal, and so the production companies sterilized gospel and country music, packaged it and sold it to the middle class public. A million dollar industry based on 70-cent units. Blending previous forms of music with modern technology and marketing, rock and roll became "the first integrated art form in history." And spinning Mitch Rider and the Detroit Wheels' "Devil With Blue Dress On," von Meier grinned and danced about the room. His case had been made.
But is rock and roll dead? von Meier says, "Yes. Rock and roll became official with Chubby Checker's recording of 'The Twist' in 1960. It was the first time rock was heard by society at large. When the Beatles came out of the '60s with the neuroses of the Cuban missile crisis, the rock of the 45 rpm, the only real rock and roll, didn't have such grand psychological hang-ups. It was a positive acceptance of our sexuality and life on this planet. Rock died with the 45. The LP is of the classical mode. The physical experience of investing in and caring for that expensive, 12-inch piece of vinyl Is a whole different experience. Arid when you put it on the turntable, you commit yourself for at least 25 minutes. But piling the 45s on that red phallic tube is just a series of two-minute commitments. The LP became a product and Billboard became the Bible. By the late '50s rock was dead."
But if von Meier is right, and rock was an affirmation of life in the nuclear age, couldn't the MX missile spawn a whole new life energy? Or have we resigned ourselves to accept the punk stance of "no future" or the superficial trendiness and fashion of new wave? But when the bombs start falling I want to be there with Atomic Ferguson and the Crewcuts singing: "My life's dream, to take you to paradise above — SHA-BOOM, SHA-BOOM."