Gene Vincent: A Caricature Portrait of the Artist as Rebel Rocker

“White face, black shirt, white socks, black shoes,

Black hair, white strat, bled white, died black.” “Sweet Gene Vincent”, Ian Dury.

“[Vincent’s] a myth, a dream, an idea, a concept, a fantasy.” Race with the Devil: Gene Vincent’s Life in the Fast Lane , Susan VanHecke.

Caricatures are commonly known to us as the grotesque portraits produced by newspaper and magazine sketch artists; they aim to capture the perceived essences of their subjects — usually the rich, famous, and powerful within our popular culture — through deliberate exaggerations, by making mountains out of their molehills. Though the pictorial image itself calls attention to physical peculiarities, the most perceptive caricatures simultaneously equate visual idiosyncrasies with equally recognizable personality traits.

These comedic representations rely wholly upon generally agreed-upon criteria and our shared cultural understandings of the subject at hand. Caricatures are not ends or conclusions in themselves, but are signals for us to take a ride to an ultimate destination we have all once visited or envisioned.

So what does any of this have to do with the concept of the rebel rocker or with our principle case study, Gene Vincent? The answer is that by 1956, the image of the former had become clearly codified into a series of caricature features, while the latter stepped up — in timely fashion — to the rock ‘n’ roll stage as its most illustrative embodiment. With its predilections for the outlandish, the imitative, and the extreme, rock has long courted its caricatures and vice versa.

Its spectacular subcultures — rockabillys, teddy boys, rockers, mods, hippies, punks, Goths — are all essentially caricatures, distorted sartorial and attitudinal signposts reconfigured into striking cultural mélanges. Within their associated musical genres, too, central caricature characters arise and reside as archetypes of form, as overstated personifications of essence.

One thinks of metal’s dark master, Ozzy, his eyes piercing and teeth glistening with satanic glee; or punk provocateur, Iggy, his middle finger in salute, slashing his naked torso with a broken beer bottle. Whether acting or acted upon, these are the exaggerated, uninhibited icons of primitive rock savagery, the comic grotesques that mark rock rebellion. In their extreme public spectacles they embody the “loaded portraits” (in so many ways) of caricature art.

If a sketch artist was commissioned to draw a caricature of the classic 1950s white rebel rocker, (s)he would likely produce something resembling Gene Vincent. From his sweat-soaked, bad boy stage persona to his exaggerated “hiccup” vocal style to the primal, echo-fueled sound of his gang-band, The Blue Caps, Vincent emerged from the mid-’50s as the quintessential rockabilly rebel, becoming the poster child for subsequent admirers and would-be copyists both on and off the stage.

It was Gene Vincent & The Blue Caps that the Stray Cats and others most emulated during the early ’80s rockabilly revival, and when Ian Dury sang “There’s one in every town” in his 1979 tribute, “Sweet Gene Vincent”, he was alluding to Vincent’s enduring influence as an emblematic subcultural role model for rockabilly singers and fans around the globe. Though a second-tier rock ‘n’ roll figure during his heyday in the US, Sweet Gene’s fundamental caricature features served him well in translation and transference, as Britain and other nations elevated his finely crafted myth into an archetype, such that today our distorted memory of him survives as one of the principal images of the ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll bad-boy rebel.

As image and idol, Vincent was always as much illusion as reality, a Warhol-ian replica of the Elvis mold. Indeed, in 1956, when major record labels realized that Presley was in the process of revolutionizing the popular music industry (or, from their perspective, selling a lot of records), many went shopping for their own Elvis clone. For Capitol Records, Vincent, from Norfolk, Virginia, appeared to have the requisite résumé.

The 20-year-old Navy veteran suffered chronic leg pain by virtue of a motorcycle accident, but this played well to the James Dean dare-devil image; his sharp looks, slick hair, and leather attire cast him as a model juvenile delinquent of the Marlon Brando/Wild One type; yet, he also had all the Southern charm and good manners — as well as the smoldering sexuality in sound and look — that made Elvis so amenable and attractive. Indeed, Vincent’s debut release, “Be-Bop-a-Lula” (1956), was initially heard as so imitative of Elvis’ then-patented vocal and musical style that Presley’s band were reportedly perturbed that their leader had not told them that he had recorded the song without them.

Disturbed as well by the ensuing flurry of confusion, Vincent even apologized to The King himself, explaining that he had neither intended to be a copycat nor a caricature when recording the song. Later, while inducting Vincent posthumou(r)sly into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, inductor John Fogerty offered a final nail in the coffin on this association when he stated that “Be-Bop-a-Lula was Elvis’s greatest record.”

Elvis comparisons would plague and irritate Vincent for much of his career, but without them he would likely not have survived the boom and bust of the mid-‘50s rebel feeding frenzy. Always seen as more dangerous than The King and just as manic as The Killer, Vincent was able to exploit durable fascinations with the rebel rocker while establishing himself as the form’s most extreme and threatening representative.

Gene Vincent & The Blue Caps

Thus, when the rough edges of the first rock ‘n’ roll uprising were smoothed by late ‘50s corporate controllers — the primal rockers replaced with well-manicured pop innocents — Vincent stood (almost) alone as the last troubadour, the enduring rebel proclaiming “no surrender” as all around the tidal waves of sterility subsumed all. Although Vincent ultimately had to relocate to England to find a rowdy port in this sanitized calm, his career and legacy as the Elvis that Elvis once was served him well entering the ’60s and has since established him as the pre-eminent caricature emblem of bad boy rebellion.

Initial recordings certainly revealed Vincent to have been well cast as an Elvis duplicate, though he separated himself from his peer’s model by pushing vocal parody to new caricature levels. Whereas Elvis’s dynamic vocal swoops and dramatic pauses were always cut with gentle fun, Vincent pushed the humor of these techniques into uncharted territory in songs like “Be-Bop-a-Lula”. The slow rockabilly bounce of this song sets up perfectly the angst-riddled tension and melodramatic excesses of Vincent’s measured delivery. In essence, a quaintly simple song of desire to the “queen of all the teens”, Vincent belabors the alliteration and nursery rhyme quality of the words, regressing into child-like innocence, pleading in his Southern drawl for his “baby doll”.

The desperation and slow urgency of the delivery do not so much express desire as parody it. Drummer Dickie Harrell adds periodic screams to the soundscape, creating an overall atmosphere that comically signifies the uncontainable hormones of the frustrated sexualized male. This parody of the primitive, inarticulate, and guttural was the same means by which Elvis, Jerry Lee, and Little Richard were expressing youthful sexual awakening; as with them, the protective mask of the inherent humor enabled the censors to be kept at bay and other observers to be fully en”gross”ed.

Loading parody (and perhaps patronage) upon parody, Steve Allen lampooned “Be-Bop-a-Lula” by giving it a dramatic recitation on his TV talk show, while Paul Simon was both wry and perceptive when he once answered a journalist’s question, “What’s the smartest thing ever said in a rock song?” with the curt response, “Be-bop-a-Lula / She’s my baby.”

The onomatopoeic noises, alliterative nonsense, and slang terms of the new youth rock ‘n’ rollers all provided what Peter Guralnick has called “a secret language for the young seeking to break away.” This youth-specific coded style was exaggerated into a manifesto of separation and defiance via the lyrics and delivery of Vincent.

“Blue Jean Bop” (1956) and “Bop Street” (1956) drew subcultural caricatures of the “cat” culture, providing principles of dance rituals and hang-out conduct. In “Cat Man” (1957) Vincent literally spells out the requisite rebel traits for the self-discerning rockabilly: “C is for the crazy hairdo that he wears around…/ M is for the mean things that this mean man does.”

Subsequent songs like “B-I-Bickey-Bi Bo-Bo-Go” (1957) and “La Den Da Den Da Da” (1964) further played to the “Be-Bop-a-Lula” youth-slang-as-non(-)sense formula (as well as underscoring the old adage that “a caricature is worth a thousand words”), while a glance across Vincent’s back catalogue finds such youth-speak markers as “cat”, “bop”, “street”, “wild”, “baby”, and “blue” arising with repetitive ubiquity in the titles. Gene and the band would perpetuate these blueprint lyrical images with a series of single and album cover shots that presented the gang as ready for any action.

These faux-rebel poses were precisely choreographed, and the style finely detailed from the quaffed hair to the upturned collars to the blue suede shoes. Some, hilariously, even cast a scowling Gene wielding a bashed-up acoustic guitar (no doubt giving ideas to the pre-teen Pete Townsend and Jimi Hendrix).

As much as the dumbed-down, slang-infested lyrics and stuttering, melodramatic vocals played to caricature stereotypes of the primitive street tough, it was Vincent’s performance and visual charms that made him the cardboard cut-out rebel rocker of our imaginations. And despite his general aversion to involving himself in the movies, it is in this arena where some of Vincent’s most enduring imagery has been cast in celluloid (and on posters) for the ages.

Riding the wave of juvenile delinquency films that had horrified parents and magnetized restless youths throughout the first half of the ‘50s [The Wild One (1954), Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Blackboard Jungle (1955)], Vincent arrived in ’56 as a naturally typecast rebel when this filmic trend continued unabated into the decade’s later years. Surrounded by a gang of gum-chewing Blue Caps, Vincent cut through the screen with a trembling, clench-fisted performance in The Girl Can’t Help It (1956), and despite the band’s segment lasting only a minute in length, this filmic breakthrough explosively captured the wild, untamed side of the rockabilly phenomenon for all to see.

In the later Hot Rod Gang (1958), Vincent added further brush strokes to his caricature portrait of the rebel incarnate when he garbled his way through the following stylized slang dialogue: “You know, we’ve got the shaggy mane and the shivering spine and the rubbery legs. Why not dress him up in a cool set of shrubbery and some real class threads, you know, like one of those Greenwich Village cats who’s on cloud nine?” Young wanna-be’s flocked to these movies, embracing Vincent as they once had Presley, and his poster-ized image emerged with caricatured permanence, serving as a vicarious fantasy portal into romantic adventures, respite from boredom, and rebellion visually sanctioned.

Particularly enamored with style, look, and image in their most extreme manifestations, British fans placed Vincent high on their rock hierarchy pecking order. Hence, when Vincent’s career fell into a slump in the late ‘50s, Britain rolled out the welcome mat. Arriving in England in 1959, his new handlers spruced-up his bad boy biker image to even more elevated levels of caricature, in the process jump-starting his career into the early ‘60s.

Though he would never re-ignite the hysteria of his mid-‘50s glory years, Vincent sparked an enduring love affair with a new generation of British fans and bands. The Beatles were so infatuated with the Vincent caricature that they copied wholesale his leather-clad, greasy-haired biker look throughout their early Hamburg years, at the same time that they were learning their own songwriting craft by covering a number of their hero’s numbers.

Subsequent British rockers have, likewise, expressed and lived out their dream-adulation of Vincent, Jeff Beck recording the tribute album Crazy Legs in 1993, Adam Ant creating the stage-play Be-Bop-a-Lula (1992) about Gene’s friendship with Eddie Cochran, and, most recently, Carl Barât, the ex-Libertine, playing him in the up-coming Nick Moran film, Telstar. At fan-level, too, the Vincent caricature lingers on in all its excesses. A visit to any 1950s rock revival club in the UK today will reveal that nostalgic craving for the iconic Gene gene still burns bright, as look-alikes (young and old) exaggeratedly hiccup their way through “Be-Bop-a-Lula” as though 1956 to ‘58 — the core years of the white boy rock rebel — had been forever frozen in time.

The above essay is an outtake from a forthcoming book about subversive rock humorists to be published by PopMatters and Soft Skull Press (Counterpoint).