Saturday, August 17, 2019

Tripping with Ellen

In the latest issue if Ugly Things, Glynis Ward speaks with Ellen Sander, a Vermont-based reporter-turned-poet who in 1973 published Trips: Rock Life in the Sixties. I certainly knew Sander's name well, as music writers I admire often cite her, but I'd never read her book until recently. (A couple of months ago Dover reissued an augmented edition of Trips; I read my university's library's copy of the original book, lamentably absent of a chapter on Plaster Caster added to the reissue.) Writing for high-circulation magazines such as Life, VogueSaturday Review and smaller publications as well, Sander was an informed, turned-on, clear-eyed reporter of the late-1960s music scene, her writing both objective and deeply personal, a blend that's catnip to me. I heartily recommend the book if you're interested in on-the-ground descriptions of rock and roll as it was in the process of becoming Rock, its mythology exploding as folk musicians and second-wave pop artists (Beatles, Dylan, Stones, Byrds, et al) were in the throes of both rolling back the limits of pop music and questioning their songs' cultural value.

In the preface, Sander admits to some disbelief that the book ever came into being. "I was merely the collector of anecdotes, the detective of revealing details, the nibbler concocting a fest of my favorite adventures, and everyone's pet road story," she acknowledges. Goaded by her pal David Crosby into collecting the pieces into a book, she soon recognized that her journalistic work told a wider story. "The result is not meant to be a reference work, comprehensive in its scope, or a rigidly detailed history," she writes. "It is a story of a time, parenthesized by ambivalence and apathy, yet bursting with energy, humor, adventure, a search for the ultimate high, a generation with an irrepressible vision, its art and artists and its audience, the substance of its statement. Most importantly, it was written in the period it describes, though published shortly after. What I have given to it—and received from it—is a sampling of the esprit of the rock and roll Sixties, a smattering of the personalities, and impressions of the impact as events were happening."

A bit later she writes:
To all the makers of myths and music and the wonderful madcap scenes surrounding them, the dazzling highs and the inevitable come-downs and the things learned in between, what follows is a love letter to you and the times we lived together. There. was a significant change in awareness during these times, and we are all of us more sensitive to one another today.  
Ellen Sander
Sander wasn't afraid to write about her own fandom and drug use, nor about the loutish behavior of some bands. At the shuddering close of "Can I Borrow Your Razor in Minneapolis," her account written for Life magazine of traveling with Led Zeppelin a U.S. tour, she's assaulted by "two members of the group" who rip her dress off of her, one of the most graphically disturbing things I've read about Rock entitlement and misogyny, and the story deserved to be printed at the time. Sander had grown close to the band in the mutually respectful, professional way that a traveling reporter can, the assault all the more confounding and heartbreaking, if grimly unsurprising, because of that. The closing sentence is striking: "If you walk inside the cages of the zoo you get to see the animals close up, stroke the captive pelts, and mingle with the energy behind the mystique You also get to smell the shit firsthand." In under forty words Sander captures the allure and darkness of rock stardom, especially as experienced by females. I doubt I'll ever forget the passage.

In "Teenism in the Fifties," another terrific read, the observations she makes about being a teenager in the 1950s, though era-specific, are eternal in their mix of frustrations, awe, and righteousness. "One day, in 'hygiene' class, the girls were shown a film on menstruation," she writes. "The same day, in 'shop,' the boys saw a film on V.D. The next day we all saw a film of Hiroshima together. I learned to menstruate and live in terror of the Bomb the same week."
The mushroom cloud flared, it rose and crested in magnificent bursts of fire and power. It was one of the most movingly beautiful sights any one of us had ever seen. Our minds broke in terror and awe. We walked out of the auditorium changed children. Our pants were hot and we were full of paranoia. The cycle of anger, fear, and rebellion had started. We’d had our illusions busted and it was only the beginning.
Later in the essay:
It struck some of us that it was their world and we didn’t care much about admittance to it. There had to be a better way and we had to find it. We looked in other directions. The only thing specifically and exclusively for us was that rock and roll. 
We trembled on the brink of self-awareness while TV, movies, rock and roll, and other media were introducing us to the shudderings of the world. The music grew louder, raunchier; dancing grew crazier and our bodies and minds convulsed in a rapturous motion that was both an escape from, and a direct response to, the precarious spasms of events. We were a generation cut off from the past by total absorption with the present. And our parents thought surely that it was a phase, that we would outgrow it.
~~

My favorite passage in the book comes in "Trips! Lights! Fantastic!", Sander's report on the late-60s L.A. scene. I'm always on the lookout for great definitions of rock and roll, which is a notoriously hard thing to categorize. Ostensibly writing about the Byrds, but by extension all rockin' bands, Sander lands on a brilliant analogy, one I'll probably always visualize when I'm turning up and grooving to some reckless R&R song that sounds as if it might fall apart in the next measure:
There was once a kiddie cartoon in which a bulldog was furiously chasing down two magpies who tormented him. They flew out a twenty-story window and he tore after them in rabid pursuit. He leaped over the windowsill and continued chasing them, hundreds of feet up in the air. All of a sudden he screeched to a stop, looked down, and growled, “This is impossible!”—at which point he went plummeting down to disaster. It’s about the same with a rock and roll group.
Sander today

2 comments:

Unknown said...

Stuart Coupe recommended your piece. Enjoying your writing. Another cool teenage view of the 1950s is in Nowhere To Run: The Story of Soul Music by Gerri Hirshey. You probably know it but what you said about personal and objective reminded me of the book.

Joe Bonomo said...

Thanks for the kind words! And, yes, Hirshey's book is terrific. In fact I pulled it out for a re-read recently.

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