Friday, January 25, 2019

Sex, and danger, and secret magic

I love reading on-the-ground reports of early rock and roll. These paragraphs from Nik Cohn's introduction to his Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom: The Golden Age of Rock, first published in 1970, capture the heady thrill of one kid's immersion in sound and spectacle. Cohn grew up in Ireland, and as he puts it, rock was the main reason he left. "My own raising had been in the Protestant section of Derry, where Bill Haley and Elvis were not mentioned. Then one evening  I’d gone astray; found myself on the fringes of Bogside, the Catholic slum. Across the street I had heard Little Richard singing Tutti Frutti on a coffee-bar jukebox. Watched the local teen hoods—Teddy Boys, they were called—with their duckass haircuts and drainpipe jeans, jiving in plain day. Had my first glimpse of sex, and danger, and secret magic. And I had never been healthy since."

More than a decade on, Cohn wonders what was so "overwhelming" about the Teds. "Glamour, yes, and wildness. But something else besides, which stirred me even deeper—the force of self-invention."
By all the logics of birth—religion, politics, economics—these boys were nothing. Papist scum, delinquent flotsam and jetsam, with no future or hope. Yet that wasn’t the way they strutted. Through the power of rock, they seemed transformed into heroes. In every flash of fluorescent sock or velvet cuff, every leer and flaunt of their pompadours, they beggared the fates. Made reality irrelevant. 
It was a seductive picture.
It was, in fact, irresistible. Cohn was ten-years-old at the time—remember ten-years-old—a self-described "weakling, class clown, mamma’s boy, and all-around loser," and these Teds—more precisely their daring and preposterous self-assurance scored by the liberating, dangerous mania of Little Richard—amounted to Cohn to "nothing less than a second coming."

Here comes the kicker: "From then on," Cohn continues, "I had no space or patience for my real self. What consumed me was a movie: Nik Cohn, Man or Myth?" I'm moved by Cohn's description of his new birthright, and the sudden lurches in his identity. You can hear the gears moving. He didn't know the words "politics" or "low ceiling" at ten, but he felt them. Cohn's book is full of errors, and in his introduction he acknowledges as much, claiming that what he was after when writing the book in the late 1960s was not accuracy but "guts, and flash, and energy, and speed." And we can dryly remind ourselves that his adolescent epiphany was vouchsafed in part by his privilege, both of gender and race. But that doesn't detract from the force in the palpable details of his very political awakening.

Here's the new dilemma: If Cohn's self isn't real, or if his real self is subjugated, erased, by this new spectacle of a future and the joyful sounds elevating and narrating it, then what's left? If you've found a new, surprising way to resist all the logics of birth, then what lies ahead? That delicious problem is what rock and roll creates. "Easy enough to snigger now," Cohn sighs, "from this safe and sober distance."
At the time, however, my belief was absolute, unquestioning. I lost myself in Elvis, whom I took as my personal saviour. Hoarded pulp fanzines, publicity glossies, scratched and warped old 78s. Snuck into banned films and stole dirty books.
Cohn, 2011

Photo of Portsmouth Teddy Boys, 1955 via The Edwardian Teddy Boy; photo of Nik Cohn via The New York Times

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