Perfect Sound Forever

Rock & Roll and American Fiction

Ken Cox
(July 2005)

Pounding pianos, shaking hips, handwriting on paper, and manual typing – all these elements can be heard in the background as jazz and blues had a baby and they named it rock and roll. In the same sterilized environment, writers like William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, Richard Wilbur, and scores of others were plying their craft and wondering if they would ever make it. Neither group had to worry about its respective success – the world is enriched by the dual presence of rock and roll and American fiction. Because they existed and do exist side-by-side, there are thematic connections between the two.

Such a claim that there is a relationship between the printed page of literature and the sounds of music is not new. Other forms of music have been highly influential and even grafted into literaturistic counterparts. For example, Gregorian chants become a style of music that is engrained into many liturgies in churches worldwide; the venerable Bede wrote/told the creation story of Genesis through music and his work is a mainstay in English literature anthologies; even Don Juan is divided into Cantos. Of course, one could not forget the Book of Psalms in the Old Testament which is the hymnbook of the Jews and even has musical interludes inserted into the text by the ever-present "Selah."

Of course, as modernity stretches its arms, one can see the direct influence of jazz and American literature: Langston Hughes's "The Weary Blues" is a testimony to the therapeutic power of the blues and jazz as a world-weary pianist/singer finds the expression of his inmost feelings leading to rest from his troubles – at least for a while. The obvious springboard effect is seen as rock and rollers like Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, et al have included blues numbers in their repertoire: "Mean Woman Blues" and "Trouble in Mind," for example. Jazz and F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby are almost like Siamese twins – as the high-living style of its main characters and the smooth flow of music from jazz aficionados have intertwined. The transition from earlier forms of music to earlier forms of writing was quite smooth.

However, such a smooth segue way does not prevail when one looks at American fiction/poetry/drama and rock and roll. The case can be made that many literature writers incorporated the music of their day into their manuscripts which became anthologized and still circulate – as seen by jazz and blues in more modern times. Such a case begs the question: if literature is influenced by music and vice-versa, then why is the connection between rock and roll and American fiction (and other genres) not as neat?

Here's a suggestion: the jazz/blues ambience in American fiction is implicit - the rock and roll connection to American literature is explicit.

The characters of literature who have jazz and the blues in their storylines are mostly adults – mature types who are making a statement to society (as the beat generation ala Ginsburg would do in the 1960's – using the jazz and blues of the earlier days as background music for their verbiage); however, when rock and roll burst on the scene, the teenager of the 1950's – who was to be seen and not heard – became both visible and audible.

For the first time in music's history, American kids had their own music – divorced from the slow, monotonic (to them, anyway), and parental blues and jazz of their moms and dads. As adolescence sniffs its nose in the air, it finds the smell a refreshing one. In a Kierkegaardian "leap of faith," music now rocked and rolled just like the adolescent who sexually and emotionally rocked and rolled. A large chasm developed between the jazz/blues/Fitzgerald/Hughes world and a new world still in diapers but soon to be in hot rods and malt shops.

Therefore, when one surveys American literature from the Puritan days of John Bradford and Cotton Mather up to the time of William Faulkner, one notices that the adolescent in literature is virtually non-existent – much as he or she were non-existent in Gregorian liturgical chants and opera and jazz and blues. The stories and poems and plays just did not feature the adolescent in a main role – nor did pre-existing forms of music. With the onset of Faulkner and Wright, the adolescent started to be important. Once the door of entry was kicked open, the floodtide of teenagers emerged.

Adolescents are typically thought of as not being neat or very subtle – therefore, the connection between American literature and rock and roll is not neat, either. Earlier forms of literature and music implicitly were for the older generation; explicitly in literature and music, the forms developed.

It is safe to say that most early rock and rollers were not heavily into reading literature and incorporating allusions into their music. Later on, in the rise of folk music via Simon and Garfunkel, there would be references to "Richard Cory," the poem by Edwin Arlington Robinson – but early rockers were to busy living to read lengthy stuff. Little Richard's plethora of rock its are mostly monosyllabic and almost glossolalic – he didn't check a dictionary or thesaurus for his inspiration – but the fiery passion of adolescence matched subsequent entries in literature books.

The explicit intermingling of the written word and the spoken word can be seen in themes that the two have in common: themes that were implicit in some forms of jazz and blues but became "out there" for quick recognizance as teenagers rocked the night away. For example, Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire was considered scandalous by many when it first entered the movie circuit – but Courtney Love would later state that Stella, Stanley Kowalski's red hot babe, influenced her life tremendously. Nick Tosches' Country has a section about the advent of Jerry Lee Lewis in terms of style – and compares Jerry Lee's tendency to insert his name into virtually every song he recorded as a Faulknerian obsession – when Faulkner learned a new word, he stuck in the word in his writing the way Jerry Lee pounds a piano: the word Tosches refers to is indomitable – very much like the themes that rock and American literature portray in later years.

How American fiction and rock and roll influenced each other can be seen in the various themes that both media portray.

First, there is the theme of sexual promiscuity. Rock and roll was born in the late 40s and early-to-mid 50s – granted, sex has been around a lot longer than the first phonograph needle; however, sex rears her golden, brunette, and red-haired locks in the lyrical expressions of classic rock and roll. It is true that sexual double entendres existed in raunchy blues tunes, but the songs of the jazz/blues era did not get the radio airplay that the hits of rock and roll did. There was a "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin On" according to Jerry Lee Lewis – and he wasn't referring merely to the dance floor. There was shaking going on as Richard Wilbur's character Dave Saunders in "Almos' a Man" clings to a gun with phallic wonder as he contemplates becoming a man and leaving adolescence behind. Lewis's "Great Balls of Fire" matched the testicular power of the gunshot fired from Saunders' weapon and left the same devastating effect – Saunders kills Jenny, the mule (no relation to Little Richard's "Jenny, Jenny, Jenny") only to find himself entangled in servitude to Mr. Hawkins. Jerry Lee Lewis fires off his songs only to find himself kicked out of England because his marriage to his first cousin of thirteen, Myra Gale Lewis, created the death of the career he started. Yet, like Saunders, Lewis would not be denied – so, as Saunders jumps on a train – much like the "Mystery Train" that Elvis Presley would hauntingly sing about – Lewis brushes his sexual mishap off and sings and pounds keyboards until all is forgotten and the scent of sin is no longer present. Classic rock and roll reveled in expressing open sexual desires in the same manner that Kate Chopin's Calixta would achieve her "birthright" by having a brief but powerful affair with Alcee in "The Storm": Jerry Lee could sing about "Lovin' Up a Storm" – both did the job.

Secondly, classic rock and roll and American fiction meet at the crossroads of adolescent authoritarianism. William Faulkner's Sarty has to choose between blood and morality in "Barn Burning" – as he leaves his adolescence to choose right over the pyromaniac blood of his dad, Abner Snopes. The Runaways did the female version of posturing and positioning themselves away from authority figures in their big hit, "Cherry Bomb" – as the girls say hello to Dad and Mom but go on to live lives of explosive self-grandeur. Connie in Joyce Carol Oates' nod to Bob Dylan – "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" – refuses to go along with her parents and sibling to a barbeque and stays home only to be abducted by Arnold Friend, a character who seems to be lifted right out of the TV sitcom Happy Days in which Bill Haley's "Rock around the Clock" could be heard at the show's beginning.

Thirdly, the existence of loneliness and depression can be found in both classic rock and American fiction. The Sherwood Anderson creation of Winesburg, Ohio as the locale of lives of sheer isolation mirrors the feeling of classic rock's expression of human emptiness. Also, Joyce Carol Oates' "Life after High School" creates that same atmosphere of desperation that is mirrored in the life of homosexual Zachary Graff (whose sexuality could be equaled to an early Little Richard who admitted to being gay at the pinnacle of his success) who can find no love or comfort and commits suicide. Elvis could sing "Heartbreak Hotel" – and much of the same feeling of "I could die" comes through.

Fourthly, on a lighter note, there is the more fun side to both genres – as nonsense lyrics filled the skies. Lewis Carroll could write about "Jabberwocky"; A.A. Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh could cry out that he saw a "heffalump"; Dr. Seuss could have Horton hearing a Who, Cindy Lou Who at Christmas time, and top it all off with a Lorax – fun stuff but not always sensible. Rock and roll's classic era was no different. From the mouth of Little Richard came "A wop bop a lu bop a wop bam boom" as the prelude to "Tutti Frutti"; Gene Vincent could sing about a dancing girl with the odd name of "Be Bop a Lula"; Warren Smith could warble about a crazy dance among natives called "Ubangi Stomp."

Fifthly, freedom – to rock, to roll, to do the stroll – must include responsibility. Evil might prevail in this world – but it can only do so for a little while. Flannery O' Connor's Tom T. Shiftlet claims to have a moral consciousness in ‘The Life You Save May Be Your Own" but he proves otherwise in using Lucynell Crater, a mom, and Lucynell Crater (a crater is a hole – Esquerita, Little Richard's cohort, sang "Hole in My Heart (and All My Love Leaked Out"), a subhuman child to get a car to leave town. As Shiftlet leaves with the car, he will soon be swept up in a turnip-shaped tornado. Jerry Lee Lewis could sing about a dark way that waits at the "End of the Road" even though he doesn't care if "he ever gets home." Robert Frost's "The Death of the Hired Man" calls for home as well – a place where people have to take the one who shows up there. One is responsible as he lives in a free land.

Classic rock and roll and American fiction are strange fellows to share a bed – but share it they do – in tears of loneliness, sexual promiscuity, adolescent announcements, nonsensical phrasings, and free but responsible life. The dream of America is the dream of rock and roll and fiction at their best.

La rock and roll nunca no morirαn - ni unos ni otros literatura del americano de la voluntad. ("Rock and roll will never die - nor will American literature")

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