Sunday, November 15, 2015

Louis Menand on the Sound of Unrehearsed Exuberance

In a must-read New Yorker essay, nominally about Peter Guralnick's new bio on Sam Phillips, Louis Menand navigates and narrates the early years of rock and roll, Billboard and local-radio racial politics, and good old-fashioned luck in a brief but solid history. I especially love Menand's opening graphs, in which in 227 words he distills the appeal and promises of rock and roll:
In 1968, when Patti Smith was twenty-one and working in a Manhattan bookstore, she went to a Doors concert at the old Fillmore East. She loved the Doors. As she described the concert in her memoir Just Kids, everyone was transfixed by Jim Morrison, except for her. She found herself making a cold appraisal of his performance. “I felt,” she concluded, “that I could do that.” For many people, that response is the essence of rock and roll.

To this way of thinking, rock and roll—the music associated with performers like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, and the early Beatles—is music that anyone can play (or can imagine playing) and everyone can dance to. The learning curve for performing the stuff is short; the learning curve for appreciating it is nonexistent. The instrumentation and the arrangements are usually simple: three or four instruments and, frequently, about the same number of chords. You can add horns and strings and backup singers, and you can add a lot more chords, but the important thing is the feeling. Rock and roll feels uninhibited, spontaneous, and fun. There’s no show-biz fakery coming between you and the music. As with any musical genre, it boils down to a certain sound. Coming up with that sound, the sound of unrehearsed exuberance, took a lot of work, a lot of rehearsing.
Sun Records studio

Photo via The Soundtrack of America: Made in Tennessee

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