The roots of rock

by John R. Stiles

I can still hear the old man hollering up the front stairs at our house on Main Street; ''Turn that infernal racket down?'' That ''infernal racket'' was either the clock radio on my dresser drawers or a small hi-fi record player spinning 45s. Now I guess for the benefit of this current generation of music lovers I need to explain. Long before digital music downloads from the Internet, hell long before there was anything remotely resembling computers, personal or otherwise, young people used to listen to the radio and record players. And ''45s'' were records (small, usually black plastic discs with a song on each side) played on a device, in my day a hi-fi, that was little more than a turntable with a wide spindle in the middle only about a generation removed from the hand-wound gramophone. For gramophone you're on your own. I suggest you refer to the Internet.

About the only thing that still translates to today's music, is just that; music. Everything else has changed dramatically. From records and their hi-fi players to compact discs and their respective devices. Oh yeah, and there's one more thing that hasn't changed since my day; a preceding generation that just can't stand the music their children listen to. Thinking back to those days when Pops used to scream his musical critique up the steps at my brother and I, I just can't get over the similarities despite the 40 years-plus of intervening time. I was reminded of all this by the recent flap over a current rap artist that goes by the name of ''Eminem.'' Now this is not one more in what's becoming a parade of pile-ons of this particular rapper or even his fellow artists. It is instead a little bit of a history lesson, which might allow the current debate a touch of perspective.

Firstly, I would be willing to bet that this difference of opinion over musical tastes has been going on since the first of our prehistoric relatives picked up an animal bone and discovered it made a sound when struck against a rock or tree. His father probably yelled similar criticisms along the canyon, not wanting to be disturbed as he scratched disproportioned animal shapes on the family's cave walls.

And when Mozart, another youngish musical artist, came along, as did Beethoven, Bach and the rest, there were probably just as many outraged fathers talking about that newfangled combination of sound that was filling the heads of their youngsters.

Of course, before the advent of Thomas Edison's foil cylinder and electrical outlets, preceding generations of fathers were spared the turned up blast of woofers and tweeters that replayed the painful experience ad infinitum. And yes, I know that Mr. Eminem's ear shattering beat is accompanied by equally offensive and, from what I've been able to deduce, bone jarring lyrics. It's a far cry from the ''Who put the bomp in the bomp sh-bomp, sh-bomp,'' my dad bemoaned. Or is it just one more step in the same march through cultural history that we've been on for, some estimates have it, two and a half million years?

In my day the lower half of Elvis Presley could not be shown as he made his first television appearances in the 1950s. Rock 'n' Roll was banned from radio stations from coast-to-coast because it was, as my dad's generation liked to put it, ''The Devil's Music. Ministers used to rail against this ''jungle beat, that drives an unhealthy animal desire in its listeners,'' in front of congregations that included the likes of Elvis, Charles Hardin ''Buddy'' Holly and a pair of Louisiana cousins by the name of Jerry Lee Lewis and Jimmy Swaggert. The Legion of Decency banned a number of songs during my youth -- and any number of books and movies. But we still managed to get our hands on the contraband not just in spite of, but probably because of all the fuss. Do I believe we're all headed down the road to ruin because some business savvy record, sorry, I mean CD artist wants to discuss admittedly crude and lewd subjects to a solid back beat? Absolutely not. We've been on this ''road to ruin'' for hundreds of thousands of years, and we're still here, and out their in space and everywhere else our creative minds, hands and voices can take us.

And despite what many of us try and portray, our young are not being induced through this music to go out and commit the sins against God and nature being sung about by this and other artists. Those who do, didn't need Eminem to teach them. It is, in a word I still believe translates perfectly into today's vernacular; COOL. And what's cool about it? Just like when I was the same age as the kids listening to Eminem, it ain't the message stupid. It's the very fact that it upsets the rest of us. I was just certain my old man ''Didn't get it!'' And I made myself a promise, I was never going to try and tell my kids or their kids how bad their music sounded no matter how painful it may have been to my ears. Because that's what really drives the beat of this generation's music like it drove mine and those before me.

My oldest daughter once came to me and asked, just as serious as a 12-year-old redhead could be, ''Daddy, did the BeeGees invent Rock 'n' Roll?'' Now every bone in my body ached to scream out that not only did these purveyors of the devil disco not invent Rock 'n' Roll, they don't sing it. But, wisely I held my tongue, bit my lip and simply replied ''No, honey.''

Uploaded to The Zephyr Online September 27, 2000

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