Monday, April 7, 2008

Three Steps To Heaven

In 10 days, on the 17th of April, a milestone will pass which few outside of a narrow swath of subculture enclaves in the American south and mid-south will memorialize here in America. The date marks the 48th anniversary of the passing of Eddie Cochran. Since my teenage years I’ve had a longtime fascination with Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent and the rest of the rockabilly artists. The ill-fated 1960 tour of England, which took Cochran’s life and forever changed the dynamics in the lives of passengers Gene Vincent and Sharon Sheeley, seems to have morphed into nothing more than a footnote in the recent progression of popular music. This has less to do with the importance of the tour or the importance of those 3 people and it has everything to do with the evolving nature of the corporate popular music scene in America.

The winter of 1960 found Cochran, Sheeley and Vincent touring England, to a newfound and appreciative audience for the two rockers. Sheeley has been relegated through time and less appreciative writers, to being forever known as Eddie Cochran’s girlfriend at the time of the accident, but she was much more than that. Sheeley made a name for herself as a songwriter in the 50’s having penned hits for Ricky Nelson and Brenda Lee. She was collaborating with Eddie at the time of his death and had already co-written one of his hit songs in the States. It is one of those ‘what might have been’ questions to think of what a long-term collaboration between the two could have created. Cochran’s music was evolving along a path, which I believe is not far from the direction that Buddy Holly was taking before his early death in a frozen Iowa field. Had Eddie Cochran and Buddy Holly lived the direction of the American pop culture scene would have been radically different.

The impact of Cochran and Vincent on today’s music can be seen indirectly if you trace influences of those who came after them, but it can be seen directly if you know where to look and how to look for it. On the subject of their influence with other musicians you have to look no further than the British Invasion bands. Every member of every one of those bands cite both artists as having an enormous impact on their decision to become musicians, and for many of them seeing them perform on this tour is cited as one of if not the single most important touchstone moments in their musical careers.

There are few instances where a specific tour or concert or performance has had a direct impact in the upheaval of popular music, less than a handful have actually been the primary driver for cultural upheaval in America. The Beatles first appearance on Sullivan is, of course, one of the most notable of these events. Punk had a double dose of this in 1976 and 1977 when the Ramones and Johnny Thunders toured England. If you look back at every one of the early punk acts from England they all cite these two tours as the point where they turned on and the first performance of the Sex Pistols in Birmingham, as famously shown in the film 24 Hour Party People, was a breaking point for the English punk movement. Henry Rollins likes to tell his own story of seeing the Ramones in a DC club and every person who he was with that night in the car leaving the show started important bands. The Cochran and Vincent tour of England in 1960 was one of these moments in music history.

Looking back almost a half a century with eyes tainted by corporate music and corporate radio makes it difficult to gauge the works of the early rock pioneers. What seems quaint now, almost comical at times, is to look back at something that was genuinely dangerous and had the ability to alter the perspectives of the teenage mind. Many of today’s teenagers, especially the white, middle class kids, who listen almost exclusively to rap artists; have absolutely no concept that the idea of so called ‘race music’ was considered dangerous to white America. To them it may seem laughable but this was a deadly serious topic in the 50’s. Remember that in the summer of Emmitt Till’s horrifying death; segregation was the norm and in that year of 1955 Rosa Parks was arrested and Bill Haley and the Comets were immortalized in film with Rock Around The Clock’s release. This was just 5 short years before the death of Eddie Cochran and Elvis was still unknown outside southern music circles.

In April of 1960, the American pop music scene was undergoing a taming and polishing by the corporate masters. Elvis had already been neutered by Columbia Records and the Army. Jerry Lee Lewis was clinging on the fringes of music after the debacle following his marriage to his 13 year-old cousin. Little Richard was no longer dropping not-too-subtle hints at his sexuality to audiences and was instead singing secular music in churches. American teens were not being led astray as they had been in the 50’s, the game was closing and the powers that be had done a good job of stemming the tide. But we are talking about music and the undercurrents of culture…it is impossible for them to seal off every avenue of creative expression. In England, the ripple effects of the American music scene were just beginning to cascade across their shores.

Imagine for a moment that you live in that time, as a teenager. You may have started a skiffle band and were becoming slightly more confident in playing a banjo or some cheap guitar, a guitar that is so poorly made that the strings sit more than a ¼” off the fretboard…but you still keep playing and learning how songs are created, their structure and the hidden language and meaning behind music. Onto your scene drops Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran and a wave of music being imported from America and almost all of it has happened, under your radar, for years before they got there.

Now you are grooving out to Elvis, Buddy Holly, a mysterious style of music called the blues, sung by wild voiced and wild strumming guitarists. There is music about death and infidelity and loneliness and pain and uncertainty and it’s all against a backdrop of wild joy and youthfulness. This speaks to you, literally and figuratively. Somehow there is light coming from the deadly songs about alcohol; somehow there is wicked fashion and unspeakable style in their clothes, their language and their vocals. You see them for the first time at some theater in England and you see something wholly dramatic and American, you see the stage presence and the performing styles that are so unknown to you that your entire life changes in the blink of an eye out of some natural reflex.

Without this tour and the ending of Cochran’s life, we still would have had the Beatles and the Stones and The Who and The Kinks, but they would have been different, less effected by the artists they saw in that winter, 48 years ago. Jimmy Page would have still joined the Yardbirds, most likely, and Led Zeppelin would have still ground out their retelling of the American blues masters’ songs, but something would have been missing. Everyone who ever tried to play a Keith Richards riff would have still tried it, The Replacements would have still tried to be the Faces and the Stones, The Minutemen would have still adored The Who and Creedence. The Pixies would have still written weird songs and Kurt Cobain would have still offed himself at the worst possible time. Every miserable, smirking male vocalist in a band today would still be trying to sound like Eddie Vedder and that awful singer from Creed. But something would have filtered through this matrix in a different manner without Cochran and Vincent inspiring the beginning. The formula would have been altered.

Would The Who’s ‘Live At Leeds’ had such a signature song as Summertime Blues had it not been for Eddie Cochran? Maybe they would have been satisfied with playing Fortune Teller as their big cover song of the show? But then, would the blistering cover of Young Man Blues been so vicious without the input of Summertime Blues?

Would Elvis have made himself into a sex symbol for a second time had he not worn that black leather outfit in the ’68 special? Would Jim Morrison had worn those leather pants or would the Ramones worn leather jackets if it were not for Gene Vincent making that outfit his signature look? Maybe, maybe not. I seriously doubt that Michael Jackson would have thought up the single glove look on his own and that was also a direct steal from Vincent. But of course, Gene took liberties with his singing style by listening to Elvis.

Would low grind songs cook over onstage if Gene Vincent and his Blue Caps had not shown everyone how to properly do it onstage when they did Be Bop A Lula? Maybe they would have, after all, James Brown did it with his stage show and a cape. The trick of taking one of your hit songs, slowing it down more and more during the verse and playing with the audience until you kick them in the balls with the chorus and some massive power of sound can be heard in live performances all across the Rock genre. Even Tom Petty made the live version of Breakdown much better than the studio version by employing this trick. Gene Vincent was the master of it, even if he didn’t invent it. Jerry Lee was wowing audiences with this when he broke out and in fact his shockingly great European TV appearances in the 60’s show him doing this like it’s second nature and it smokes.

We stand where we are today because someone or a group of people, in the past, led us to this point. Knowingly or unknowingly they spun us down a new path and spiraled off into their own universes. Eddie died. Gene tried to carry on but his health failed him. Sharon continued to write hit songs but the spark and connection she had with the early rock pioneers was lost as the music industry changed.

So where do we stand now? How did we get to the point we are now, where music is just thought of as a free file to load onto an iPod? Why does the herd still lead the trends of youth and why do kids with such incredible savvy and insight and with access to information that should empower them, still not ‘get’ the past and how it actually relates to their life today? How and why does radio still play the same shitty 2 dozen songs when we have hundreds of thousands of songs from the past 50 years to listen to? Want to know why? Really know why?

Music is inherently dangerous as a medium of expression. It doesn’t take money to make music, it doesn’t take money to promote music and it doesn’t take money to disseminate music. Music is, at it’s most basic level, a form of communication. The rhythms, the lyrics, the stories, the emotions and the actual act of performing songs are communication at its purest level. Dangerous messages aren’t always explicitly told in song, they are usually cloaked as something else and peek into your mind on a different level, once there they work on your subconscious and that is incredibly dangerous to those who hold power. This Land Is Your Land is one of the greatest American songs, ever. Woody Guthrie’s greatest gift to humanity comes in the form of that song. Look at the lyrics not with the eye of the average American but through the filtered lenses of the people who truly hold the reigns of power and you will say, “Uh oh.” And all of this subversion is offered up in an easy to know Baptist hymn, ‘When The World’s On Fire’ so you’ll know how it’s supposed to be sung.

Music has a way of seeping through the cracks and controls put in place by our corporate masters. When Napster first hit the scene I thought it would herald a new direction since all the recorded music to date could be easily accessed by anyone. With the flow of thoughts and ideas and inspiration I honestly believed the new revolution, to steal from Pete Townshend, was about to take place and music would lead us there. It didn’t happen and it won’t happen with file sharing and it won’t be happening until there is another, more fundamental sea change in American life.

Music is not a file on your computer. Music is not a tradable commodity like the pictures you took at your birthday party or of your friends when you were doing Jell-O shots on Spring Break. Music isn’t an overly compressed and void of dynamics world of sound, it has depth and variables. Your music doesn’t define you; it’s the other way around. Music is not a snapshot of who you are that is broken down into bits, music is a complete canvas of massive dimensions, telling many stories and you aren’t in all of those stories. It doesn’t fit on an iPod and no matter how large your collection it doesn’t fit on the shelves at home. Other than the philosophical teachings of Christ it may be the greatest support tool a person can have in their home.

Music is like math; it is a universal means of communication. Music has an advantage though as you don’t need to be able to count to ‘get’ it and even the most abstract musical ideas can be comprehended by a person with no formal training. Even if you have no formal training or even care about music as being more than background noise, you can still hear something, by someone, that will make you happy or tap your toes.

Music is our gift from God. Music, in my opinion, is proof that God exists.

The powers that be did not cause the crash that killed Eddie Cochran. They didn’t hide Gene Vincent from the public. The powers that be didn’t unleash the Beatles, to usher in decade and cause unrest among the teens. The powers that be made money off them, loads of money. They did, however, alter the music scene to lessen the impact of wild spirits like Elvis and Jerry Lee and Gene and even Wanda Jackson. They did this to make the ‘product’ more compartmentalized, predictable, sellable and less unstable. Artists like Beatles and Nirvana slipped through the cracks, their true nature unknown to the powers.

Now I know someone is saying this doesn’t make a bit of sense. Why would a company try to limit their market share and limit the variety of musical acts they sell? It doesn’t seem smart in the game of making money. Well, the short answer to that is artists like I have described cannot be controlled by the corporations and sooner or later they infect the minds of their fans and the next thing you know there is chaos on the market.

Think of it this way. Artists like Elvis and Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins started on small independent labels, in this case, Sun Records. They were absorbed into the larger corporate labels but their influence and the influence of Sam Phillips spawned generations of new labels and new artists, each bringing with them new perspective on what has come before and what they want to bring the world. This evolves over time. From the time that Eddie Cochran died until Greg Ginn founded SST Records, only 18 years had passed. From SST Records an entire generation of influential artists became realized and some of them lived, not just talked about, doing everything without the support of corporations or their support mechanisms.

“Paint your own picture. Write your own book. Start your own band.” That was the battle cry of The Minutemen. I’m sure many of the suits laughed at this idea, the smart ones would have looked over the rim of their glasses and understood they have a problem if that sort of idea gets around too fast. This is the thought process that has navigated behind the scenes in corporate America for decades and decades. We stand at the point where it has been perfected. The corporations not only control what you see and read and hear, they control all entry to these areas of communication. This was the threat imposed by the Internet. If enough artists took advantage of the medium and the technology, the corporations would be left out of the loop. The Internet is dying because of corporate governance and greed, the seed of creativity and DIY ethic is lost even with tools lying around that artists can really use.

There was a time when a 4-track recorder could make demos but they weren’t capable of dynamic and highly professional recordings, and they were expensive. Today, a kid with a PC and some software can make music that is dynamic, polished and they have no filtering of a producer or engineer who may steer them in a more commercial path. A guitar, a USB connected device, software and a microphone and you could become the next Jeff Buckley or George Harrison or James Brown. You could shake the tree of music and watch the nuts fall from the branches. This is what the labels and multi-national conglomerates did not want to happen.

They dumbed all of us down. It started in the 50’s when they took away Elvis’ mascara and marginalized Jerry Lee for marrying a 13 year-old cousin. They dumbed us down some more by dumping sub-standard pop to compete with highly polished pop in the aftermath of the British invasion. They took us down a notch further when they signed any band with a synthesizer and funky clothes in the 80’s or any band with a lot of hairspray and a guy playing scales on a Super Strat. They kept clearing the breech by making the dirge and pain of Grunge into a fashion statement to be bought at your mall. They eroded the direct finger pointing and calling out of Ice T and NWA by telling every suburban kid that it’s all about the Benjamins and sex and dope and nothing more and that all is well as long as you don't call the powers that be for their bullshit. That is shit the kids today should have known better to pursue simply because they are more worldly than we ever were.

The corporate masters want us dumb, they want us compliant and they want us to stay in our place and do what they expect us to do. This is why the exchange of music over the Internet, coupled with inexpensive and powerful recording software and dirt-cheap musical instruments didn’t deliver a musical revolution. Quite frankly, we don’t have it in us to rebel or stand up. Too much snarkiness to cut through and the ‘serious’ musicians don’t get the dope and babes that the dumbasses get.

Gene Vincent died for nothing, and in pain. Eddie Cochran died for nothing in an English hospital. Their deaths were and still are tragic. Their lives…perfect. They lived for something and left an inspiration that created much more than they were able to create in their short life spans. Somewhere there are two beautiful souls singing, one strumming a gorgeous Gretsch guitar with hot pickups and an amp full of warm tone. The other is wearing a black leather suit and looks ready to steal your girlfriend if you aren’t careful. Godspeed to the souls of Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent.