[23 February 2009]
Excerpted from Apocalypse Jukebox: The End of the World in American Popular Music. Chapter 1. The End is Near, There and Everywhere: Apocalypse Rock of Ages (PopMatters / Soft Skull, March 2009)
David and Edward discuss their book with Virginia Prescott on New Hampshire Public Radio’s “Word of Mouth”. Listen to the interview here.
See also Apocalypse Jukebox: Disaster, Revelation and Impossible Salvation
And Apocalypse Jukebox: It’s Got a Beat and You Can Die to It
And Apocalypse Jukebox: Apocalypse in the 7-Eleven Parking Lot
It has long been well established that gospel music was one of the main ingredients in the original rock ‘n’ roll stew. Yet it must be emphasized that the particular gospel style that most influenced the founders and forefathers of rock was as much on the fringes of the musical mainstream as the religious views of groups like the Millerites were from the norms of biblical interpretation. Everyone knows, for instance, that Elvis was in large part formed by gospel and that gospel music is a significant part of the Elvis canon. There is a vast difference, however, between the style of gospel upon which Elvis drew to help create the rock blueprint and the gospel records, based within a more mainstream tradition, he made later in his career.“How Great Thou Art” is not a rock ‘n’ roll urtext; the premillennial musical expressions of sects such as the Holy Rollers is. In his definitive biography of Elvis, Peter Guralnick tells the story of how Elvis and his girlfriend Dixie would sneak out of their all-white “home” church during Sunday service in order to experience the ecstatic service of the black church down the street. There, Elvis would have heard Reverend Brewster, whose sermons were also broadcast on the radio, deliver the apocalyptic “theme that a better day was coming, one in which all men could walk as brothers.” Yet even if Elvis did not pick up on that message, which is doubtful, it is obvious that he was directly influenced by the “exotic” and ecstatic music of such soul stirrers as Queen C.Anderson and the Brewsteraires, the church soloists. His first audiences did not fail to make this connection.
He certainly did seem to be representative of a “new day”, and one common thread of Elvis’ initial contemporary reception is a loss for words. Of course, awe is an understandable and perhaps typical reaction to the new:“When that boy was onstage, it was like nothing that had ever been before.Whether people liked it or not, they didn’t seem to be able to think of anything else, and it prevented them from focusing on just about anything that followed.” Silence is one effect of being so stunned; frenzy is another. Guralnick quotes Tom Perryman, a Texas deejay who helped Elvis’ first combo procure gigs: “When Elvis was performing, everyone had the same basic reaction. It was almost spontaneous. It reminded me of the early days, of where I was raised in East Texas and going to these ‘Holy Roller’ Brush Arbor meetings: seeing these people get religion. I said, ‘Man, that’s something.’” It’s unclear whether “that” refers to Elvis or the Holy Roller meetings, but it appears to apply to both. Their common denominator is ecstasy.
The ecstatic reaction to early rock ‘n’ roll was not lost on Orlando reporter Jean Yothers. Writing about her “first tangle with a hillbilly jamboree,” featuring Elvis,Yothers focused on the reaction of the audience:
What hillbilly music does to the hillbilly music fan is absolutely phenomenal. It transports him into a wild, emotional and audible state of ecstasy [our emphasis]. He never sits back sedately patting his palms politely … He thunders his appreciation for the country-style music and nasal-twanged singing he loves by whistling shrilly through teeth, pounding the palms together with the whirling momentum of a souped-up paddle wheel, stomping the floor and ejecting yip-yip noises like the barks of a hound dog when it finally runs down a particularly elusive coon … The whole shebang seemed like a cross between the enthusiasm displayed at a wrestling match and an old-fashioned camp meeting.
Like ecstasy, enthusiasm is a key and telling word choice. In its original sense, enthusiasm denotes “possession by a god, supernatural inspiration, prophetic or poetic frenzy.” Yet, the term has a complex and checkered past due to the very reason that Yothers employed it; the same frenzied energy it connotes is exemplified in wrestling match audiences and camp meeting congregations. Historically, the combination of the physical and the spiritual inherent in enthusiastic expression made it suspect.The worry, for many, was that the spiritual channels could so easily get crossed. This anxiety was expressed by one critic of Methodist “meetings”: “If a man of temperate feelings were to enter one of their churches during some of their descriptions of GOD, he might reasonably conceive that they were painting the Devil.” The Satanic reading is made possible, according to this author, through an unseemly passion for Christ, which might seem less than reverent:
Every thing is full of love, desire, flames, sweetness, charms, and enjoyments; God is the Husband of our souls, the mystical marriage, the fruition that pains with pleasure: Jesus Christ is the dear Jesus, the sweet Jesus, the sweet and beautiful saviour, the fairest among ten thousand, who makes us sick with desire and longing: the Methodists perpetually talk of lying in his bosom, gazing on his face, and being filled with the fullness of his love. Is this a Christian or Mohamedan
The writer is Leigh Hunt, best known as one of the lesser English Romantic poets, a friend of Byron, Shelley, and Keats. His pamphlet, An Attempt to Shew the Folly and Dangers of Methodism, was published in 1811, 144 years before Yothers wrote about the phenomenon of “hillbilly music”. Yet the striking connection between the two is the similarity in tone and diction, though there are no Satanic suggestions in Yothers’s article. In fact, she ends by enthusiastically exclaiming, “Hillbilly music is here to stay, yo’all!” And, while one would be hard-pressed to find any critic of rock music (as opposed to rock critic) who would even entertain the possibility that rock and God could be linked, the claims of rock as the “devil’s music” are many.
Sixteen years after Yothers’s description of “hillbilly music”, Frank Garlock, a professor at Bob Jones University, published The Big Beat: A Rock Blast. He begins by drawing a firm boundary between “authentic” religious enthusiasm and its counterfeit: “Consider … the natural result of being filled with the spirit of God … God says that when His people are filled with His Spirit and with His Word, they will want to sing the words of Scripture,hymns of praise to a loving Father, and songs of testimony of what God has done for them.” Of course, Garlock uses scripture in order to damn rock ‘n’ roll music, but he also relies on “scientific” research in order to commit several post hoc fallacies, including, for instance, that rock music kills plants and that folk rock, specifically, causes neurosis. His thesis, though, is that rock music is “the devil’s masterpiece for trapping teenagers, making them his slaves, and causing them to be the enemies of God.”
The ‘Devil’s slaves’ gone stark raving mad for The Beatles
Four years earlier, the year of the Summer of Love, Bob Larson published Rock & Roll: The Devil’s Diversion. Larson, a self-proclaimed former-rocker-turned-minister, was even more emphatic about the apocalyptic consequences of “using” rock ‘n’ roll: “Satan is aware that this generation is most likely the one that will see the return of Christ, and he has therefore created a master plan to dominate and control today’s youth. Rock ‘n’ roll is part of this plan to achieve a world-wide moral decay.” Like Garlock, Larson claims that Satan is able to “enslave” listeners by using their ecstatic responses against them. Also like Garlock, Larson includes an array of “expert” evidence in order to further establish the demonic connection: “Dr. Bernard Saible, child guidance expert of the Washington State division of community service ... [witnessed] ‘normally recognizable girls (at a rock ‘n’ roll concert) as if possessed by some demonic urge, defying in emotional ecstasy [our emphasis] the restraint which authorities try to place on them.’” There are several levels of suppression and repression going on here, not least of which is the suggestion that girls can “defy” restraint by having orgasms. Of course, from Larson’s point of view, those restraints are perhaps the only thing standing in the way of Satan’s attempt to recruit fresh minions for the final battle. Larson ends where he began, with apocalypse:“Rock ‘n’ roll music is part of man’s attempt to drive from his mind the consequences of his evil living. The devil is seeking to divert man’s attention from the nearness of the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.”
It is tempting to lambast these men for their efforts to demonize a musical form that, like jazz and blues before it, has become something of an American cultural institution. The anxieties they express seem almost as far removed as Leigh Hunt’s worries about the “dangers and folly” of early 19th century Methodist congregations. Yet there is one overarching aspect to both arguments that is tenable: Rock ‘n’ roll can evoke an almost religious ecstasy and enthusiasm. Like Leigh Hunt before them, Garlock and Larson earnestly want to draw a clear line in the sand. Such an effort seems doomed to failure, though it is not hard to see what motivates the attempt. Rock and roll audiences often appear inspired by an ecstatic sense of devotion and worship. Whether they really are or not, there’s the rub, but it is understandable how some might consider such response profane, blasphemous even. Plus, it is a fact that such enthusiasm can go terribly wrong. Garlock is right to point out that Charles Manson “used” rock, not only to establish his own perverted sort of religion, but also to enact his own apocalyptic interpretations.
It is not necessary here to retread Manson’s “philosophy” in detail, since that groundwork has already been well established by Vincent Bugliosi, John Gilmore, and Ed Sanders, among others. Suffice it to summarize that Manson’s two central Family texts were the Revelation of St. John and the White Album. There are moments in the Manson narrative, though, that make one wonder if Sharon Tate might still be alive had Charlie been offered that record deal he had scammed and schemed so tenaciously to procure. Some of the anecdotes of Manson’s musical development are almost romantic and fit the rock ‘n’ roll myth quite nicely. The world’s forgotten boy learned to play guitar in prison from Alvin “Creepy” Karpis, the last “Public Enemy #1” on Hoover’s list to be captured alive. Karpis was apparently quite the hot axeman as well, and he was impressed with his protégé’s natural abilities. In his exposé of the Manson Family, John Gilmore and Ron Kenner quote one “Wallie” Sallers, a contemporary hanger-on at Dennis Wilson’s place:
“Charlie cut an album,” she remembers, “using the girls in the background, and it was really sort of an interesting album. Everybody thought he was a good musician, more or less, and he used to write a lot of songs ... Charlie had a very nice voice. He sounds something like the voice in, what was that record about Martin Luther, JFK and Bobby Kennedy all getting killed—Martin, John and Bobby—sounds just like the voice of Dion.”
As grotesque as the Dion analogy might seem, it is not unreasonable to conclude that a man who could convince a young group of mostly young women that he was Christ, Satan, and the fifth Beatle would have a “nice voice.” Certainly, Manson understood the power of rock as a persuasive medium, and on this point he is in close agreement with rock critics like Garlock and Larson. Manson’s following claims could have been argued just as plausibly by the latter two:
The Beatles confuse you with what they say. They trick you with distraction, with the beat. You get programmed from the front or programmed from the back. Music doesn’t know time. Music is soul. And you can bring it in from the back. I can sing a song right now and when it’s over you forget the words, the music, but it stays in your infinite unconscious. And then a few months later you hear another song ... talking about a beer, Coors is great, Coors is great. Pretty soon you think of beer and you know that Coors is great. And this is what the Beatles do, they confuse you with cadence, and program you in the back, behind the beat, and this is what stays with you.
Manson understood and implemented the “programmable” potential of rock music, and he combined that force with the style, tone, and content of apocalypse.
Branch Davidian compound, Waco, Texas, 19 April 1993
Want to continue reading what Janssen and Whitelock say about Charles Manson, David Koresh and more on the obscene and dangerous musical form known as rock ‘n’ roll? See Apocalypse Jukebox: The End of the World in American Popular Music.