Friday, October 29, 2004

Reviving Literature

THE ULA PLAN is so obvious to me I forget that, because of the early moment of literary history we're in, it's not to others.

Take your minds into the recent past, to a similar moment of history, 1955, when self-taught musicians Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry were recording their early singles; when Bill Haley and his Comets came out with "Rock Around the Clock."

At the same time, Leonard Bernstein's "West Side Story" was being created in New York City. The theme was street gangs. The play and its music were conceived to be state-of-the-art, trendy and "hip" in every way, utilizing the best trained, most talented young composer in the business. If one would've ranked Haley's recording-- done by an enthusiastic ex-hillbilly singer with a spit-curl and a checkered coat-- with Bernstein's masterwork as a momentous event in American cultural history, the person would've been ridiculed. The renowned sophisticated Leonard Bernstein, god of the culture! applauded throughout Manhattan salons; way up here-- and down far below, the cornball country troubador with the spit-curl over his forehead, backed by a corny but energetic band in saloons and roadhouses. (Haley's standing among musical critics and college professors of the era was zero.)

Yet Haley's recording, against all logic, represented the future of music, while "West Side Story," for all its celebrated success, was obsolete when it opened, already behind the musical zeitgeist racing away from it.

"Rock Around the Clock" helped spark an American musical revolution whose reverberations circled the planet. "West Side Story" was a coda to the approved American music which predated it. It led to nothing. Why was this?

It happened because Haley and his rock contemporaries were of the people. They played music natural and meaningful to themselves, borrowing ideas not from the artsy likes of Leonard Bernstein, but from one another. They followed no rules. Haley the hillbilly singer ditched his cowboy hat and began playing rhythmn and blues, while Chuck Berry adapted country songs and made them his own. One could say, "Anyone can sing and play like that!" And nearly everyone would, so that countless high school kids had hit records. (Phil Spector and the Teddy Bears for instance.) Music was taken out of the hands of the aristocrats and handed to the mob. The revolutionary moment was one of great release. Listen to the endless hit records from 1955 to the mid-Sixties and one senses great joy in them, the liberating energy of discovery, of awakening. America found its authentic voice. From ghetto girls in the projects of Motown to surfers in California to rockabillies in Appalachia to New Jersey doo-wopers, there was an explosion of song; as Chuck Berry put it, "across the USA." Music became not just an occasional distraction, but a necessary part of everyday life.

By contrast, "West Side Story" with all its many talented collaborators was culture brought down from on high. To watch the movie version of it today is an awkward experience. The music is pretentious and overblown. The production reeks of artificiality-- of "Art" with a capital A; not the genuine article. The movie was dated and fake when it was released, though middle-class audiences went to it in droves. Once it won its Academy Awards (undeserved, because it's a sluggish, poorly acted film) its moment-- its impact and influence-- was over. No one imitated it or built on it. No one wanted to. It was a pretty construction, a nice-looking dress to hang in a closet and forget about (then put rock 45s on the turntable and start dancing).

The solution to the problem of literature lies in a similar direction. David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen can construct all the massive artful novels they want, but the books will never excite the American public, because they don't connect with the unseen current of Americana. Their books are art created to win awards and plaudits; objects to worship from a distance: impressive and dead.


Adam Hardin said...

Speaking of reviving literature, George Plimpton still holds the Editorship.

I understand the Honorary Nature of this, but it is funny nonetheless in a time when American Literature is dead, the Paris Review has a dead man for their Editor.

Anonymous said...

what is obvioius is that the mediocre thrives because there are more of them. not only do they thrive but they must be protected. for our sake.

Anonymous said...

what is obvioius is that the mediocre thrives because there are more of them. not only do they thrive but they must be protected. for our sake.

Anonymous said...

i said it twice so that it is clear.

Anonymous said...

i even spelled obvious wrong so you could feel better about yourself.

chilly charlie said...


He is a bad human being.