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Wednesday, May 08, 2002

Bill Haley and the Four Martyrs

Thanks muchly to Doc for the link to Eric Olsen of Tres Producers. Olsen is one perceptive dude. He put his finger on a piece of American cultural history that is probably not widely known or appreciated. It was an event at which I was present and it's resounded in the depth of my bones ever since. Olsen, writing about the anniversary of the Kent State student killings in 1970, makes the following brilliant observation:

"I am of the opinion that May 4, 1970 was the day Youth Culture completed its ascendancy to dominance in the United States. The process had begun fifteen years earlier in movie theaters across the country as the electrifying downbeat of Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” opened The Blackboard Jungle, a shocking film for its time, and ignited the rock ‘n’ roll explosion."

Yes, yours truly was there (the movie--not the college). I was one of the crazed ones, screaming in delight, jumping up and down in the aisles, pushing other guys with shoves of joy when that magic moment arrived. And it was happening all across the country. I'm sure that "what the fuck?" was the reaction of theater managers everywhere.

It's a memory that will remain vibrantly clear with me for the rest of my days.

1955… The full bloom of the bullshit veneer of Ozzie and Harriet and Father Knows Best covering over the creeping dysfunction of the new suburbias springing up everywhere. The smug, myopic contentment with the government of the popular war hero, Ike, while crosses burned, fundamental rights were trampled, the FBI spied on the intellectual giants of the day, and Communism was the oh-so convenient bogeyman for all of the ills of the world. The myth of happy kids in souped-up Chevys, ponytails, and sock hops--yet underneath a vague, directionless rage was building, seething against the Big Lie that pervaded everything (yes, I'm talking James Dean here. He was the real 50's--not all that sugar-coated shit that's been so mythologized) Kerouac and Ginsberg doing their first hits of psilocybin; the powerful, megawatt signal of legendary station, WLAC, black music, never heard on conventional radio, drifting north at night from Nashville, infecting eager whiteboy ears.

The boys were ready. For what, they didn't know, but something was there, primed, lying in wait. This was my 1955.

The coming attractions were previewed, the theater lights went dark. Then Pow! Hitting you right in the solar plexus, blasting you straight out of your seat, "One o'clock, two o'clock, three o'clock rock..We're gonna rock, rock, rock till broad daylight!" A guttural roar swept across the theater like an ocean wave. Every time I'm feeling feisty, or fucked over, I will hear that sound--after all these years.

We were so enervated we could hardly watch the movie. We did manage to cheer, though, every time the bad guys fucked with the teachers.

It must seem all very innocent and naïve by today's standards. How could one catchy little rock tune produce such a reaction? But something was stirred, some raw nerve was touched, and I've always believed that's where it really all started--the War Between the Generations--and it was a war, believe me--a Music to call our own--for the first time ever, music BY us FOR us--a first blush of recognition of how much we resented all the clueless fairytale shit being shoved down our throats.

But the revolution took a long time to come to fruition. Olsen is dead-on when he says that Kent State is where it became mainstream. It's where the Youth won the war even as they lost a shameful, deadly battle. As Olsen points out:

"Another factor often forgotten is that by 1970 a teenager rioting in the aisles at a 1955 showing of The Blackboard Jungle was 30 years old and in many cases still determined to never “grow old” or to identify with “them.”

And, by and large, I think we did a pretty good job of staying true to our determination. We blew the lid off at least some of the deception that infected our culture. Our music was honest. Our relationships with our kids are honest. The kind of relationship that I enjoy with my sons, and that my peers seem to have with their twenty-somethings, was a rare thing indeed in the days of Bill Haley and the Comets.

Anyway, thanks again to Doc for the link. His value as a gateway never ceases to amaze. Thanks to Eric Olsen for his perceptive piece. And long live the memory of the Kent State Four!


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