Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Sunday, February 20, 2005


An email from my friend Kerry Reid:

“Hi John,

“Not sure if this really relates to what you’ve posted vis a vis the determinedly downwardly mobile posturing of the rocker generation, but something from Dawn Powell’s letters popped into my head as I read that (in conjunction with your musings about how people of Lerner's generation carried themselves differently).

“I would maintain that a studiedly grim demeanor also entered the posture of the rocker generation around the time of Dylan’s ascendancy. Certainly many rockers (the Beatles prime among them) had wonderfully puckish senses of humor, but the ease with which someone like Lerner, or Yip Harburg, or any of the great Tin Pan Alley songwriters moved between pathos and humor and social commentary and romantic balladeering somehow seems lost (to me anyway) to a lot of the so-earnest-it-hurts rocker generation. And I suspect that they conflate a sort of grim workmanlike earnestness with the lower classes, and hence with ‘authenticity.’

“Here’s how Powell defined it in a letter to her great friend ‘Bunny’ Wilson (and I think you can get a whole ‘nother post out of the fact that no man would ever willingly go by the nickname ‘Bunny’ these days):

“‘The great Nordic social worker mind is always horrified that poor people (in literature, that is) laugh or mix their cancers, maggots, hunger and futility with jokes. They SHOULD beat their breasts and say “I am Underprivileged and I don't Forget it, Thank God. Wipe that smile off my face...” Isn't there enough unhappiness in literature without going to real life?’”


Your thought on the narrowing of emotional range in the move from pop and early rock and roll to Serious Rock dovetails with an earlier post of mine -- that the Alley cats are analogous to the 16th century metaphysicals & Cavaliers & the 15th century Elizabethans, and the Rockers are analogous to the Romantics.  I love Keats & Coleridge, and I deeply admire Wordsworth, and worship Blake (who isn't really a Romantic) and Dickinson (ditto) and Whitman, but this rang true for me -- a comment by George F. Whicher, in his 1949 collection of translations of late Medieval Latin poetry by the wine-women-&-song lovin' Goliards:  "The savor of life is lost when, as in much romantic poetry, all the emotions are stewed in the same pot, nor is the world any the better when the sharp contrasts of ecstasy and wretcheness are dulled to a prevailing drabness."  I have the feeling that Whicher describes sometimes when the local college rock station is giving full rein to what the Cher character in "Clueless" called "Complaint Rock."

Maybe it’s not a narrowing of emotional range that happened in rock as much as a shift in emotional range, with high-spirited humor becoming rare, but whole new ranges of darkness becoming visible. There are rock songwriters who range “between pathos and humor and social commentary and romantic balladeering” -- John Lennon comes to mind right away, though up until “Rubber Soul” he was as likely to write a truly bad lyric as a good one. Chuck Berry’s stuff delineated a whole world, with pathos & humor & social commentary & sex & romance. Other examples too, but maybe the point is that nobody expects the range any more.

In any case, thanks for the thoughts. 
You wrote:

"Maybe it’s not a narrowing of emotional range that happened in rock as much as a shift in emotional range, with high-spirited humor becoming rare, but whole new ranges of darkness becoming visible."

This pretty much hits it on the head. I think the dominant "Topworld" ideology up to this time privileged the sort of breezy, high-spirited humor, you're talking about. The period after the war saw explorations of darkness increasingly coming to the for, not just in pop music, but in many areas of expression (indeed, rock is probably actually a little behind the times on that).

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