Racism Killed Rock

Part II

by Tom Terrell

13 December 2006

The subliminal suggestion is that Sly Stone was this schizo black musician who needed chemical stimulants to transform his simple R&B tunes into bonafide rock anthems. In other words, black people can't rock without getting high.
Shrine for the Black Madonna, NYC, Fall 2002 (photo by
Tom Terrell) 

Racism Killed Rock: Part I

When the Beatles performed on Ed Sullivan in February ‘64, they rocked both of America’s youth massives.  My sisters and thousands of other black girls papered their bedroom walls with the same Beatles posters / photos / magazine and newspaper articles that the lil’ white girls had.  All the WNJRs in America played the Beatles. Especially after they recorded Motown singer Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want)” and bigged up their black American pop influences.  Deep muthafuckas that the matrix had race music-apartheided.  When we saw A Hard Day’s Night at Newark’s Branford Theater, the audience was all black.  Hell, the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” was ‘65’s Black American Summer Party Song.

That one-American-teen-nation-under-a-groove state of grace ended abruptly two years later with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club BandSgt. Pepper’s groundbreaking not-a-speck-of-R&B-in-heah, lysergic acid-dosed, British music-hall influenced guitar rock won white hearts and minds and alienated most of the band’s black fans.  Never mind what Elvis did; this was the defining moment in American pop-music culture’s Great Racial Divide.  From then until right here, right now, it was down by law was on: only white boys with guitars could rock; black cats who rock guitars could only aspire to roll. Let me break it down.

Post-Sgt. Pepper’s, rock became—by default or design—the musical embodiment of the Manifest Destiny / White Man’s Burden Darwinian Genetic Principle. (Soupy Sales sez, “What do we mean by dat?”) Check the scenario: The ‘70s: The Stones, Janis Joplin, Grand Funk, Led Zeppelin, Fleetwood Mac, Steve Miller, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Iron Butterfly, Free, the Band, Allman Brothers, Joe Cocker & Mad Dogs & Englishmen, Eric Clapton, Aerosmith.  All came outta the same ebony-tinged electric guitar spirit-cosmic-galaxy as James Brown, Ike & Tina, Buddy Guy, Parliament-Funkadelic, Isley Brothers, Bob Marley, and Mothers Finest.  Isaac Hayes cops Grammy and Oscar for Shaft (1971), the first original rock movie score.  Curtis Mayfield’s soundtrack for Superfly the following year trumps that in terms of bumrushing the pop charts.

The white acts are given all-access: the cover of Rolling Stone, major venues / festivals, mainstream rock press, network TV, FM radio stations, Album of the Year Grammys.  The black acts often play on the same concert bills, yadda yadda yadda, sell just as many (sometimes more) singles / albums and rock the pop charts every now and then, yet they’re still filed under “R&B”.

“Sure, black artists are getting a chance to record, but it’s just like way back in the ‘50s.  Black artists are just gonna get so far, buddy.  Our shit’s gonna get so far and that’s it.”
—Sam Moore of Sam & Dave, 1981

“What about Hendrix and Sly?” you ask.  “They played Woodstock, right?”  Hell, they turned Woodstock out!  Made the cover of Rolling Stone, smoked Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett, and Mike Douglas, too.  In terms of ‘70s-to-‘90s rock evolution on the six degrees-of-separation tip, these two brothas are two-thirds of the Holy Trinity. Not saying they didn’t get major props back in the day and of course, they still do, but like Roger Maris, their home run records come with a subliminal asterisk attached.

Sly and his multi-racial Family Stone blew up mainstream culture with a genius rock fusion out of R&B, gospel, funk, jazz, pop, and hippie-thought that captured equally huge black and white audiences.  Flossed the same rhinestone rock-star doll baby-mama lifestyle as his white peers.  100 percent trueborn American standing tall on the shoulders of rock giants.  Yet when Rolling Stone gave him the cover feature, it was more about Sly as this tragic black cat whose cocaine addiction had split him into two diametrically opposed, public / private personas—Sly Stone and Sylvester Stewart—battling each other for control of their host than it was about him being a fuckin’ music GENIUS.

Of course, Sly’s vaunted unreliability and druggie rep was well-earned, but this deft piece of pop hagiography made it official.  Tainted his accomplishments ever since. Meanwhile, a Keith Richards or a Clapton can share the same sordid odyssey, yet be given a pass ‘cause “it’s rawk ‘n’ roll maaan!”  The subliminal suggestion is that Sly was this schizo black musician who needed chemical stimulants / hallucinogens to transform his simple R&B tunes into bonafide rock anthems.  In other words, black people can’t rock without getting high.

What was done to Jimi Hendrix cut even deeper.  The Afro-American blues profoundly influenced Jimi.  Performed with Little Richard, Jackie Wilson, and the Isley Brothers. He invented the vocabulary—feedback, shredded notes, phasing, crunchy riffage, screams-wails-cries—all rock guitarists since communicate with.  Pioneered LOUD—Marshall stacks, amps turned to “10”—the wah-wah pedal and studio sonic techniques. His muses were Chuck Berry, Dylan, the Beatles, the Yardbirds, and Miles Davis.  Jimi’s head was hippie-freak zoned, his heart was 100 percent American and his soul was too black, too strong.

Are You Experienced? and Axis: Bold As Love were the first records by a black musician to impact heavily on rock music’s evolution since Chuck and the boys. The media worked overtime to explain why a wild-haired Negro was the new King of Rock.  They called him the Wild Man of Borneo, not-of-this-earth, or an idiot savant. Chalked up his success to the white boys in his camp: bandmates Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell or manager / producer Chas “Geppetto” Chandler or his engineer Eddie Kramer.  They de-emphasized his race until, as Pino says to Mookie about Prince in Do The Right Thing, Jimi’s “not black, he’s…different”.  Black and white folk swallowed that hook, line, and sinker.  Until Electric Ladyland.

Electric Ladyland is the perfectly realized conflation- transmutation- transmogrification- distillation of all of the above. Finally earned Jimi his Ghetto Pass.  As important as Sgt. Pepper’s in its time, Ladyland‘s shadow has loomed ever larger over the decades.  From “Stairway to Heaven” to “Paranoid Android”, from David Gilmour to Eddie Hazel to Wes Borland.  Jimi may be universally acknowledged as the Man, as the Godfather, but the basic truth that only a black American could have created the music he did is more often than not treated as a relatively minor factor by the scribes of rock. Jimi Hendrix is the mythological Other.  Once these two genius black rockers were “put in their place”, rock was once again all about white boys playing electric guitars.

For every Neil Young, every Kirk Hammett and Kurt Cobain and Joe Satriani, there’s been an Eddie Hazel, Vernon Reid, James Blood Ulmer, or a Dr. Know doppelganger moving mountains in a separate and unequal universe.  Thus deprived of its yin catalyst, white rock could no longer truly evolve or transcend; it could only replicate and / or reinvent itself over and over and over. Is Metallica all that different from Black Sabbath, the Black Crowes from Black Oak Arkansas, or Nirvana from the Who?  Talk about your diminishing returns…

Purple Rain is a muthafuckin’ rock album.  Period!”—Jimmy “Black Fire” Gray

The mindset was so entrenched by the ‘80s that Prince could drop four of the best rock records of the era and still be called an R&B act.  Elektra Records signed a badass rock brother named Terry Stewart, and then shipped his promo LPs with two different covers: black radio got the one with his photo, while rock stations got a blank (black) cover!  Run-DMC and Public Enemy made balls-to-the-wall guitar rock with just two turntables and a microphone.  Bad Brains and Fishbone…enuff said.  Living Colour made a multi-platinum hard rock album, won a Grammy, blew up MTV, and opened for the Stones, yet its label was often clueless on how to market and promote Black Guys Who Rock.  Five more opportunities for restoring the spirit-cosmic balance slept on.  By the mid-‘90s—rock critics’ championing of countless “next big thing” alterna major / indie bands to the contrary—rock was on life support.  Neil Young tops the Voice‘s Pazz & Jop Poll, while Marilyn Manson, Limp Bizkit, Korn, Kid Rock, Radiohead, and their ilk are the new future of rock.  Honky please!

“Boy, don’t lighten up—tighten up.”—Mudbone

Hip-hop is now just as visceral, electric, loud, and seminal to white American youth as rock once was.  In an era where O.G.s like Bruce Springsteen, Bon Jovi, the Chili Peppers, Aerosmith, and U2 still matter, Phish can sell out the Garden and Foo Fighters can ship platinum, it’s not surprising that Lenny Kravitz’s retro rock ‘n’ soul pop steez has made him the current, MTV-sanctioned King of Rock.  Whether they admit it or not, the Strokes and the rest of the new jacks owe more to him than to the Stones-Lou Reed paradigms y’all still subscribe to.

It’s a new day, yo.  Shit has come full circle. Blacks, Latinos, Asians gonna be stone-cold rockin’ with no apology from now on.  Get used to it; stop sweatin’ the people who are darker than hue.  Roll over Beethoven, tell Tchaikovsky the news, and learn how to dance for Chrissakes.

“A black act can get caught messing around with drugs and he is ruined.  It’s all over and you don’t hear about him anymore.  A white act can be caught messing with drugs or shooting drugs or snorting drugs and his reputation gets bigger.  Now why is that?  There’s a big question mark there…why?  Maybe we’ll wake up one day.  Maybe.”—Sam Moore (1981)

Three years ago, Outkast was the new Beatles; two years ago, Prince had the largest-grossing arena tour; this year Three-Six Mafia won the Academy Award for Best Song.  Jay-Z shills HP laptops, luxury watches, and cars, runs Def Jam / Island Records, a multi-million dollar clothing line, a burgeoning night-club empire.  He’s a major investor in the soon-to-be New York Nets, instigated a successful hip-hop nation boycott of Cristal champagne, and his new “comeback” album, Kingdom Come, and world tour is already being anticipated by media and punters alike as the new millennium’s equivalent of the Second Coming.

What else?  The final episode of this season of Flava Flav’s Flava Of Love rocked the highest ratings in VH-1’s history, Diddy is an award-winning clothes designer, all the cool and uncool white chicks wanna be Beyonce, Rev. Run and Ice-T’s got reality shows on MTV, white folks are still the major consumers of hip-hop culture, and Gnarls Barkley made the best “rock” song / album of the year.

What’s American rock got going on? Let’s see: Springsteen’s recording and touring Pete Seeger folk songs.  Way too many lame-assed, cookie-cutter emo, indie, and jam bands.  Hella undersold arena and shed tours.  A nation of millions still waiting for Axl to bring it.  Lollapalooza, OzzFest, SXSW, CMJ Music Marathon?  Hell, for 15 minutes this year, the #1 rock album was Bob Dylan’s Modern Times!

Rock is pretty much #2 in Ameri-pop’s cultural zeitgeist these days, but at the end of the day, who is more likely to be a major label’s poster child, on the cover of Rolling Stone, Spin, Blender, Entertainment Weekly, or Vanity Fair; on Leno, Letterman, Conan, a Big-Three morning show concert, or bigged-up in major newspapers and local weeklies—the rocker or the rapper?  Aluta Continua (The Struggle Continues)...

“The strong men…coming on / The strong men gittin’ stronger / Strong men… / Stronger…”—Sterling A. Brown, “Strong Men”

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