Electric Purgatory: The Fate of the Black Rocker

Richard Penniman, aka Little Richard — that wild-eyed Southern screamer from Macon, Georgia – has oft times described himself as “the architect of rock ‘n’ roll”, and, while I occasionally smirk at Richard’s fits of hyperbole, he’s not far off the mark. It’s impossible to pinpoint precisely who devised the sound (or when), but there’s little argument that this man helped lay the foundation for this sonic revolution, and that his influence kick-started the careers of many of the genre’s most celebrated.

Jimi Hendrix and Billy Preston played in his band. His raucous, piano-laden thrashing inspired both the Rolling Stones and the Beatles. In fact, he was offered 50 percent of the Fab Four’s earnings in their scruffier days, but who knew that these unassuming Liverpudlians would become the cream atop the chocolate? An apt metaphor, perhaps, for the appropriation of rock music by white America from its African-American progenitors during that turbulent decade, and McCartney and Lennon’s outfit, unwittingly, were a seminal component in this transference, which was aided and abetted by America’s racial caste system of the time.

In Raymond Gayle’s 2005 documentary Electric Purgatory: The Fate of the Black Rocker, the separation of black people from the most dynamic musical style in history is explored, as well as the current consequences of this divorce. It’s no secret that most listeners of Western popular music today perceive rock as a largely white phenomenon, and relegate blacks, consciously or otherwise, to other styles, hip-hop, funk, reggae, et al. Among other things, Gayle attempts to show that people on both sides of the racial divide have vested interests, financial and psychological, for maintaining this status quo.

The film opens with a typically bacchanalian performance from L.A.’s Fishbone, displaying the brash punk rowdiness which has endeared them to audiences since the early ’80s. Always a hot cult commodity among young SoCal whites, they’ve struggled to attract black fans, and the battle has been largely fruitless. They’re hardly alone.

Little Richard once proclaimed that “rhythm-and-blues had a baby”, and their offspring was rock ‘n’ roll. To that end, one could argue that the seeds of rock were planted in the Mississippi Delta, where blues originated, itself derived from slave spirituals. The three-chord blues structure is the primary backbone of rock, at least “good rock”, as one commentator in the film makes clear. In the segregated, Cold War-obsessed ’50s, rock, at least before the stratospheric rise of a sultry white boy from Tupelo, Mississippi – yes, that state again – was often perceived as the product of black degeneracy, and even labeled “race music”, in order to separate it from suburban Cleaverland.

Gayle’s documentary, aside from its examination of Little Richard’s importance, doesn’t dwell too much on the early black rockers, such as Fats Domino or the towering Chuck Berry, the latter a great hero to John Lennon. He spends more time discussing the successes and failures of artists working since the late ’60s, notably, Hendrix, Prince, Rick James, among others.

Hendrix remains a fascinating figure; a guitar virtuoso who awed even followers of George Wallace, he was quickly embraced by white rock aficionados, yet, as with many groundbreaking cultural figures, was not truly lionized until after his sudden death. One musician speaks rapturously about Hendrix wowing a crowd of crowd of fans at a 1969 concert in racially-split Virginia Beach, but he also muses that Hendrix’ demigod, his devastating musical chops elevating him to “super-negro” status.

When one thinks of Rick James, what comes to mind? A flamboyant, debauched rooster, prowling for his slinky “Superfreak”, while waving blond dreads from his eyes? Unbeknownst to many, James was also a member of several Canadian rock outfits, after he fled north to escape the draft during the Vietnam years. In fact, when “Superfreak” was riding high in Billboard, James toured the US with the genre-shattering, soon-to-be-megastar Prince, whose fame would far eclipse his touring companion, not to mention many rock stars.

Yes, Prince Rogers Nelson is ultimately the 800-lb gorilla in the room of any discussion about blacks in the rock genre. The diminutive Minneapolis native sold records by the boatload, danced happily back-and-forth between every style one cares to name, and for much of the ’80s, was one of the top recording acts in the world. Yet his massive success did little to counter the perception that black people were merely carpetbaggers in rock ‘n’ roll.

Gayle’s numerous interview subjects expound at length as to why this situation persists. Most concur that the recording industry – even in its death throes, or perhaps because of them – takes a heavy-handed approach with black rock artists, preferring to steer them towards ‘traditional’ black sounds, which is why an alternative corporate system may be necessary to get these groups over. Doug Pinnick, of the neo-Christian band King’s X, argues that “the black community hates guitars”, a provocative statement I partly agree with. The majority of my African-American buddies of the past two decades seldom had much enthusiasm for what most recognize as rock guitar chords, especially the grungier ones.

I also recall a Los Angeles Times piece of the late 80s, “Why Won’t Black Radio Play These Acts?”, which remains sadly relevant today, even if some of the artists mentioned have fallen by the wayside. Perhaps Oscar Jordan nailed it best. “White guys look back, and black guys look ahead”. Socially speaking, it makes sense. African-Americans abandoned rock when they decided it was no longer theirs. They see no reason to pine for a time when they were hobbled by de jure discrimination. It seems that some white Americans, by contrast, tend to revere history, often holding tight to musical performers well past their prime, perhaps as a bulwark against a shifting social landscape in which privilege will be shared with others.

Among the extras are an interview with HR, former lead vocalist of the Bad Brains. In his elegantly cadenced voice, he discusses the group’s history, and Cars frontman Ric Ocasek’s keen interest in working with them. Some deleted sequences also appear; Fishbone’s Angelo Moore exhorting black rock performers to “Just do it!”, Suzanne Thomas expounding on the double standards existing for female performers, and Jimi Hazel’s proclamation that chasing success in this field is “a hard, twisted, fucked-up road”.

We also learn of the Black Rock Coalition, a New York-based organization which has sought, since 1985, to increase the visibility of black rock artists. In the late ’80s-early ’90s, their poster band was the dazzling Living Colour, featuring the guitar pyrotechnics of Vernon Reid, who apparently fought record label resistance to artistic growth, after their debut disc Vivid, with production assist from Mick Jagger, went multi-platinum, and they joined the Stones on their 1989 “Steel Wheels” jaunt. LC, whose recent Paris concert I reviewed for PopMatters (“Living Color”, 25 November 2008), are no longer a big-selling group, but the Coalition continues its work, despite a mostly inactive Los Angeles chapter.

Clearly shot on a shoestring budget, I was a bit perturbed that Electric Purgatory’s running time was so skimpy, barely 70-minutes. There’s no reason the deleted scenes couldn’t have been incorporated into the finished product, and Gayle’s choice not to do this is puzzling. Also, there’s no mention of Mos Def’s stillborn supergroup The Black Jack Johnson Project, who cribbed two players from Living Colour’s rhythm section, yet mysteriously never released an album. Or James Spooner’s documentary Afropunk, which touches some of the same bases, and was produced two years earlier. Where’s Miss Tina Turner, once labeled the “Queen of Rock”?

Finally, there are two essential texts covering this issue: Rip it Up: The Black Experience in Rock ‘n Roll, by Kandia Crazy Horse, and a denser, more scholarly tome, Right to Rock, by Maureen Mahon, and we hear nothing of these, or their authors. However, as they were published in 2004, Gayle may have wrapped his film before he learned of the books.

Electric Purgatory: The Fate of the Black Rocker is by no means perfect, and this subject deserves a wider, more creative canvas – imagine Michael Moore tackling this issue, lol! – but its simplicity and brevity may be a reflection of society’s interest in this subject matter. I hope, nevertheless, that Gayle remains engaged in this material, as he has more constituents than he may realize.

RATING 6 / 10