Here in the western world, we like anniversaries that end in zero. I was reminded of this when I saw a photo caption in the Boston Globe’s website that noted Elvis (as in Presley, the King) would have been 70 years old this coming Saturday (January 8, 2005) if he hadn’t met his maker on that toilet seat twenty-seven years ago this past August. No matter what you think of the man, his music, or his public persona, one must admit he changed the world he was born into. Some say he stole black folks’ music and culture, while others claim he popularized it among those of us who shared his skin tone. The argument around this is not irrelevant; especially in today’s popular music culture of hip hop music-sounds created mostly by African-American women and men that are bought by mostly white-skinned young people. Perhaps the major impact one can take from today’s hip-hop marketing is that its consumers are getting the original product instead of a version at least once removed from its source via some white-faced singer considered safe by society’s morality police. That’s how the music was dispensed in the 1950s: white skinned singers for white skinned listeners and dark-skinned singers for dark-skinned listeners.
I’m of the opinion that Elvis was more than just a cultural thief. I wasn’t cognizant when he released his most radical stuff-the early singles that were produced by Sun Records-but am familiar as a student of history and lover of rock and roll. These songs and his delivery blew people away. It was Isaiah crying in the wilderness to a rock and roll beat. Electric guitar accompaniment provided by Scotty Moore and rhythm by Bill Black and his bass. The songs weren’t political but they were revolutionary. They made young people (and the young at heart) shake their booties, putting holes in the walls of their carbon copy Levittown bedrooms. In 1955, shaking one’s booty could get that booty in a lot of trouble. Elvis, Chuck Berry (who is the real KING of rock and roll), L’il Richard, and a few others defied the churches, the police and the world of middle class America by making it nearly impossible for any young person who heard their music to be a completely good kid. Rebels without causes, their discontent with the world that Joe McCarthy, Dwight Eisenhower, and Richard Nixon (who would one day have his picture taken with a drugged-out Elvis) was keeping safe for them was headed to the dustbin, like so many constructed worlds before.
In a recent interview with Bob Dylan on CBS (an interview already discussed in Counterpunch by Richard Oxman), Dylan said that Elvis might have been a prophet. Dylan continued by insisting, as he usually does, that he certainly wasn’t and isn’t. This brings me to another important rock-music-anniversary-that-ends-in-zero coming up in 2005. That would be the release of Dylan’s groundbreaking and mind-bending album, Highway 61 Revisited. This album, which was the second in what many contend to be Dylan’s most important and creative period; a period that began with 1964’s Bringing It All Back Home and completed itself with the two album set Blonde On Blonde, begins with a rim shot off the drummer’s snare. Bob rips into “Like a Rolling Stone”, asking not only the protagonist of the song “How does it feel?” but challenging every single one of us to drop the bullshit and jump into the deep end of a very uncertain future-a future without the security of home and hearth. Furthermore, it’s not even that we don’t know how to get home; it’s that there is “no direction home.” In other words, everything you know is wrong and it’s time to start anew.
As one hits the highway (Highway 61, of course), who knows where they’ll end up? Whether you travel by thumb or by train, motorcycle or car, the road is the thing, not the destination. From watching Daddy in the alley looking for food to Juarez when its Easter time too, one either gets with the program or one doesn’t. Just like Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters, Bob Dylan was/is telling his audience that one is either on the bus or one isn’t. Do you know what he means Mr. Jones? Either way, the only thing that lies at the end of number 61 is an avenue now known as Desolation Row. But, like Dylan said back at the beginning, the road is the thing, not the destination. One might think this outlook is rather despairing, but only if one chooses that perception. In my mind, it’s one of the twentieth century’s most liberating visions. Screw convention. Let’s bid the desk clerk dressed in black adieu, leave lonely street and head out on Highway 61.
Across the Atlantic, Dylan’s equally influential counterparts were coming out of their Elvis/L’il Richard inspired good boy rock, thanks to a pot smoking visit by Mr. Dylan himself that year (a tour made famous in the documentaries Don’t Look Back and Eat the Document) and their dentist, a certain Dr. Roberts. Seems this dentist fellow had some legal LSD (LSD was legal until October 1966 in the US) and wanted to share it with the boys. This experience (along with others one expects) and the increasingly fantastic songs of Bob Dylan encouraged John Lennon and the rest of his band to step off the stage and get back onto Highway 61-a road they had lived on for years in Hamburg, Germany and Liverpool, England. Next thing you know, there’s this new Beatles’ album called Rubber Soul. It wasn’t Tom Thumb’s Blues, but Paul no longer held our hand. Indeed, Lennon and McCartney hinted at their liberatory encounter with Dr. Roberts’ medicine in the song, “The Word.”
Say the word and you’ll be free,
Say the word and be like me,
Say the word I’m thinking of,
Have you heard the word is love.
It’s so fine, it’s sunshine,
It’s the word love.
Now, I don’t know about you, but these aren’t your typical teenage love song lyrics. In fact, they sound a lot more like Timothy Leary’s exhortations to the millions of disaffected youth living out their frustrations in cities and suburbs throughout the West. From shaking one’s booty with Elvis to freeing one’s mind with John, Paul, George, and Ringo while making one’s way down Highway 61, the counterculture was at the top of the charts and the western world would never be the same.
Gee, Elvis, see what you started?
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s new collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. He can be reached at: email@example.com
RON JACOBS will read from his exciting recently republished book:
The Way the Wind Blew
A History of the Weather Underground
Saturday, January 22nd
at the Brian MacKenzie Infoshop
1426 9th St. N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20001
The Infoshop is located at 9th and P Sts. in the basement of the Arthur
Mt. Vernon Square/Convention Center and Shaw/Howard University are the
closest Metro stops.