Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Artifact: Frank Zappa on the birth of rock ’n’ roll

I’m a collector of old magazines, old college textbooks, weird old record albums, stuff like that. Cultural artifacts… windows into the American past. I intend to share some of the tastier artifacts here on the blog.

For instance, on June 28, 1968, Life magazine did a cover story on “The New Rock,” wherein America’s most popular news magazine acknowledged the existence of Janis Joplin, Cream, the Who, the Doors, the Jefferson Airplane, even Frank Zappa.

Zappa, in fact, contributed an essay on the socioanthropology of early rock ’n’ roll. It is, as you’d imagine, intelligent and funny and full of insight. (He is on my list of folks I wish I had interviewed.)

I came across Zappa’s essay not in an old Life magazine (though plenty of those are available online, like here); I found it reprinted in a college textbook called “America and Its Discontents.”

A Zappa fan has re-typed and posted the complete article here. But in accord with the legal principle of “fair use,” I’ll give you only a few paragraphs:
FRANK ZAPPA: In my days of flaming youth I was extremely suspect of any rock music played by white people. The sincerity and emotional intensity of their performances, when they sang about boyfriends and girl friends and breaking up, etc., was nowhere when I compared it to my high school Negro R&B heroes like Johnny Otis, Howlin’ Wolf and Willie Mae Thornton.

But then I remember going to see “Blackboard Jungle.” When the titles flashed up there on the screen Bill Haley and his Comets started blurching “One Two Three O’Clock, Four O’Clock Rock…” It was the loudest rock sound kids had ever heard at that time. I remember being inspired with awe.

In cruddy little teen-age rooms across America, kids had been huddling around old radios and cheap record players listening to the “dirty music” of their life style. (“Go in your room if you wanna listen to that crap… and turn the volume all the way down.”)

But in the theater, watching “Blackboard Jungle,” they couldn’t tell you to turn it down. I didn’t care if Bill Haley was white or sincere… he was playing the Teen-Age National Anthem and it was so LOUD I was jumping up and down. “Blackboard Jungle,” not even considering the story line (which had the old people winning in the end) represented a strange sort of “endorsement” of the teen-age cause: “They have made a movie about us, therefore, we exist… .”

Responding like dogs, some of the kids began to go for the throat. Open rebellion. The early public dances and shows which featured rock were frowned upon by the respectable parents of the community. They did everything they could do to make it impossible for these events to take place. They did everything they could to shield their impressionable young ones from the ravages of this vulgar new craze. …

From the very beginning, the real reason Mr. & Mrs. Clean White America objected to this music was the fact that it was performed by black people. There was always the danger that one night – maybe in the middle of the summer, in a little pink party dress – Janey or Suzy might be overwhelmed by the lewd, pulsating jungle rhythms and do something to make their parents ashamed. …


ItAintEazy said...

Well, as always Frank Zappa proves once again his commentary is always worth listening to. But still, why wouldn't those white parents be afraid of rock & roll, seeing as "rock & roll" used to be black vernacular for sex.

I especially like his little prediction at the end that the media companies will eventually stop being guardians and give in to the vulgar music. Well, today's hip hop proved him right, except for the fact that the media companies are still barriers to actual creativity.

ItAintEazy said...

BTW, nice blackfist

Undercover Black Man said...

Fight the power.

John Doheny said...

Interesting that Zappa didn't know that Johnny Otis was a white guy.

On the other hand, I played a few gigs with him (Otis) in the early 80s, and I didn't realize he was a white guy either.

Undercover Black Man said...

John: Mr. Otis definitely belongs in the White Negro Hall of Fame... right up there with Mezz Mezzrow and M.C. Serch!

It's one thing to play black music... but to marry a black woman and found a black church? Johnny Otis is cool with me. And his "Territory Bands" CD of a few years ago rocks my ass.

Anonymous said...

hmmm...you might want to explore Mr. Otis propensity for getting teenage girl singers hooked on smack. You know, just for laffs.

Anonymous said...

I doubt that Zappa was unaware that Johnny Otis was white. Here's a quote from Wikipedia: "Frank Zappa has cited Otis as the inspiration for his distinctive trademark facial hair, stating in an interview conducted by Simpsons creator Matt Groening and Guitar Player magazine editor Don Menn that "it looked good on Johnny Otis, so I grew it.""
I'd guess that Zappa was grouping Otis with the others for simplicity's sake.