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Rock ‘n’ Roll and Other Museum Pieces

The Sedgwick County Historical Museum was rockin’ and rollin’ on Tuesday night, which somehow seemed sadly appropriate.
Headlining a fundraiser for the elegant but cash-strapped museum was Los Straitjackets, a crack surf rock quartet clad in matching black suits and skinny black ties with Mexican wrestling masks, and Deke Dickerson, a famously ferocious rockabilly guitarist wearing a brand new cowboy hat acquired just down the street at Hatman Jack’s Wichita Hat Works, and it made for quite a commotion. The music was rough and rowdy and inventive and goofy, and altogether fitting for the gorgeous old limestone venue that the city’s great Proudfoot and Bird architectural firm built as Wichita’s original City Hall back in the days when public architecture inspired awe and respect rather than rolling eyes and a run through the metal detectors. Such real deal rock ‘n’ roll is now a relic of a long lost past, just like the nearby display of antique toys that a friend of ours acquired from his Depression-era pop and has loaned to the museum, or the once-upon-a-time locally-built Jones 6 automobile that is exhibited two stories up, or any of the other intriguing artifacts that clutter the place, and it now makes for a worthy museum piece.
It was heartening to think to that such delightfully low music had found a place in the local pantheon, a shrewd choice we attribute to another old friend of ours who was once a key figure in the original local punk rock scene and is now the museum’s outstanding director, but sad to realize how small a role it plays in the contemporary popular culture. The gradual demise of surf rock and rockabilly and all the other beer-fueled styles of all-American music wouldn’t be so bad if something worthy had come along to replace them, just as those genres had knocked off jump blues and big band swing and hillbilly boogie and Tin Pan Alley pop quartet Gospel and all the other rough and rowdy and inventive and goofy ideas that had preceded them, but when we scan through the local radio stations or search for the latest offerings from the hippest web sites we never find anything comparably cool to take its place in the progression. Every so often we’ll ask the young hipsters who hang out at the local bistro where we mull over the day’s events with a gray-ponytailed friend if we’re missing anything great, but even the most immaculately tattooed yo among them tell us that it’s all as just bad as we’d suspected. There’s no doubt something very cool going on out there if you dig deep enough for it, as there always is, but it’s not like the old days when you just had to turn on the radio and let it come pouring out.
The same lack of new ideas seems apparent in our visits to the local art galleries, and our perusals of the new releases at the local independent bookstore, and our occasional samplings of the latest cinema on Netflix, as well as all our other occasional forays into contemporary popular culture. There’s no shaking a nagging suspicion that it’s somehow related to the same paucity of innovation in our politics, where liberalism offers the same old policies that have had Europe in decline for the past century and conservatism is still hoping for another Ronald Reagan to talk the public out of such foolishness, or in a an economy where the big money is flowing towards new social media that allow people to more efficiently disseminate pictures of their cats or share their gripes about the service at a local restaurant. Perhaps the artists are lacking the big ideas that come from social change, or social change is stalled by lack of artistic impetus, but in any case the result is inescapably desultory.
We’re in search of a big idea as well, and our best guess is that we’ll find it in the museums. Given a choice between the old ideas that have had Europe in decline for the past century or another Ronald Reagan to thwart such nonsense we’ll opt for the latter every time, and given a choice between surf rock and whatever it is they’re playing on the FM stations we’ll spin the former. There’s something to be made of such rough and rowdy and inventive and goofy stuff, we’re sure, just as the surf rockers drew on rockabilly and Reagan drew on ideas at least as old as Edmund Burke, and maybe someday it can added to the museum to inspire yet another generation.

— Bud Norman

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