Advertisements

Chuck Berry, RIP

Chuck Berry died over the weekend at the ripe old age of 90, and the rock ‘n’ roll music he championed isn’t faring so well lately, but the aftershocks will still be felt for a while.
It would be going too far to say that Berry invented rock ‘n’ roll, which seemed to spontaneously rise from the American soil and burst forth from the rural honky-tonks and ghetto dives and on to the Ed Sullivan Show back in the mid-50s, but otherwise it’s hard to overstate how much he had to do with it. He was the first honest-to-God rock ‘n’ roller to wind up with Patti Page and Mitch Miller and all the other big-name pop stars on Hit Parade, and he was the very quintessence of the deep-rooted yet newfangled genre. Three simple chords borrowed from the blues, a certain twang taken from country, a couple of those can’t-get-out-of-your-head hooks redolent of the popular standards, all delivered with a hot-rod drive and certain goofy swagger in the sly clever lyrics. The formula yielded a remarkable string of classic American songs, plenty of tabloid scandals, and a broader cultural revolution that is still with us for better or worse.
Chuck Berry was one of those only-in-America stories, which he always gratefully acknowledged, even when he was in jail. He was a more-or-less-happily married 30-year-old aspiring hairdresser when he became the prototypical rock ‘n’ roll star, and was not only black but quite defiantly so at a time when only such refined negro gentlemen as Nat “King” Cole and The Ink Spots got to share space with Patti Page and Mitch Miller on the Hit Parade, but Berry was simply too cool to be denied his place in the spotlight. The extra years in his conveniently located hometown of St. Louis had allowed him to soak up all the blues licks of such southern greats as Muddy Waters, the rollicking style of country that was being played out west by the likes of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, as well the gritty gospel of Chicago’s Sister Rosetta Tharpe and the emerging rhythm and blues sound of Louis Jordan and the other jump bands that were on the air from the coast to coast, and he still had some sex appeal to the mix.
Berry started playing around with his odd melange of music, and on a trip to Chicago he was recommended to Chess Records, a label run by a couple of Polish Jews who had an uncanny knack for finding and recording the blues. They’d scored plenty of hits on the southern and urban R’n’B charts with such all-timers as Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon, and had one of the best and scariest of the early rock ‘n’ rollers with Bo Diddley, but Berry had something that allowed the label to start selling to white and black and hispanic and any other kind of restless teenager you might find anywhere in the country. His first hit was “Maybellene,” derived from the old country standard “Ida Red,” which opened with a raucous guitar solo and revved through an all-too-familiar tale of a faithless love. The string of hits that followed included “School Days,” a witty lament about being stuck in class, “Thirty Days,” another chase after a wandering woman, “Reelin’ and Rockin’,” which featured a far raunchier take on romance that somehow made it past the era’s censors, and “Rock and Roll Music” and “Roll Over, Beethoven,” both of which celebrated a brand new music that suddenly seemed to be everywhere.
There were also such classics as “Johnny B. Goode” and “Memphis, Tennessee” and “Sweet Little Sixteen,” not to mention such gems as “You Never Can Tell” and “Come On” and “Little Queenie” that should have been bigger hits, and pretty much every single track on every LP in our prized box set of Berry’s complete Chess recordings is grade-A badass rock ‘n’ roll music. The old bluesman Willie Dixon put together a crack band that included the great Johnnie Johnson on piano, the Chess brothers wisely recorded them in the same rough spare style of their blues acts, and the material came through as something altogether new. Aside from the quirky hillbilly influence that Berry had learned to survive his white honky-tonk gigs, there was also an ingeniously corny quality to the lyrics, which had people keeping their ginger ale in “coolerators” and motorists “motorvatin'” and somehow rhymed “tearing up the road” with “V-8 Foad.” The short stories with the steady beat told all the old stories about cheating women and somehow recalled schoolboy angsts and in sum celebrated a tail-finned and jet-engined and racially mixed and rapidly evolving America of limitless opportunity.
Berry grabbed the opportunity to become a household name and an eventual face on the Mount Rushmore of American music, but the rest of his complicated story was part of the same only-in-America narrative. Despite Berry’s widespread appeal and appearances in Hollywood movies it was the equally talented and slightly better-lookiing and far whiter Elvis Presley who popularized the miscegenation of country and western and rhythm and blues known as rock ‘n’ roll, and he once again found himself afoul of the law. He’d served some time for armed robbery before his show biz breakthrough, and at the height of the rock ‘n’ roll craze he was sentenced to further time for a violation of the Mann Act, which at the time everyone understood to mean something sleazy and interstate involving one of those teenage girls that Berry was always singing about. That was in 1959, the same year Buddy Holly died and Presley got drafted and Jerry Lee Lewis was kicked off the radio for a sex scandal of his own involving a teenaged girl who also happened to be a second cousin.
Rock ‘n’ roll survived the ensuing few years of clean cut white boys and girl groups with white dresses and bouffant hair, then The Beatles and The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan and The Beach Boys and all kinds of rock ‘n’ roll craziness came along, and somehow Chuck Berry remained just as cool as ever. Because of a pretentious aversion to the notion of “cover songs,” meaning the age old practice of great singers and great musicians playing from the repertoire of great songs, rock ‘n’ roll doesn’t really have standards such as the blues and jazz and pop and country singers can draw from, but there’s never been a time when it wasn’t acceptable to play a Chuck Berry song. Back in the earliest days Jerry Lee was a cutting a salacious “Little Queenie” and Buddy Holly was making rock ‘n’ roll safe for bespectacled nerds with a very cool “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” and even Elvis was offering up a still cool “Too Much Monkey Business.” All the hippie bands covered Berry tunes, and we especially like The Chocolate Watch Band’s “Come On,” and “Johnny B. Goode” was an almost obligatory part of any rock performance no matter how pretentious the performer. When the punks came along The Sex Pistols were reviving “Johnny B. Goode,” the oldie but goody about a country boy who could play a guitar just like a-ringin’ a bell, and all of those bands seemed to striving to reclaim that ineffable primitivism of the Berry records.
Berry did pretty well for himself on the oldies circuit, playing with pickup bands in any town that would book him, and in the early ’70s he was back on the charts with a ridiculous little smutty novelty tune called “My Ding-a-Ling,” which put him on an arena tour that included a gig at Wichita’s Henry Levitt Arena where he absolutely wowed our junior high-aged selves. He played a gig at the White House a few years later, went to prison again for tax evasion a couple of weeks after that, was frequently honored with such gigs as an adulatory documentary of a thank-you concert with The Rolling Stones, and kept rock and rolling and paying the rent with it until his ’80s. We heard some good reviews from those shows, and the advance buzz on his last album is hopeful that he had yet another great record in him, and we note it has been dedicated to the woman he was still somehow more or less happily married to.
There were some other unseemly tabloid scandals, and legends about backstage spats with his equally tempestuous rock ‘n’ rollers from the stone age, but what else would you expect from someone so exquisitely attuned to the very heart and soul of America? Should the country ever grow tired of “The Star-Spangled Banner” we’d recommend “Back in the U.S.A.” as a new national anthem, with its revved-up guitar licks and tinkling piano and heartfelt paean to a land where “hamburgers sizzle on an open grill night and day.” Tail-fins are out of style and jet engines have lost their novelty but America is still a racially diverse and rapidly evolving land of unlimited opportunity, and for better and worse both Chuck Berry and the rock ‘n’ roll music he championed have something to do with that.

— Bud Norman

Advertisements

“The Times They Are a-Changin,'” But Not Fast Enough

Those middle-brows over at the Nobel Prize for Literature committee have once again failed to pay proper respect to our two brilliant novels and countless inches of compelling newspaper copy and all these insightful daily internet essays, an annual slight which we happened to notice while desperately searching for some news to read about about something other than that awful presidential race, but it was at least somewhat heartening to see that the award had instead gone to Bob Dylan.
The selection took everyone by surprise, including ourselves and probably Dylan himself. Dylan is best known not for his little-read and widely-panned prose, after all, but rather for his impenetrable songwriting and nasal singing and sparse guitar strumming and slightly atonal harmonica-playing, so even those Nobel Prize people felt obliged to offer a rather elaborate explanation for their unexpected and apparently inexplicable decision. They could have spared us the effort, as we were around in the ’60s and ’70s and can readily dig all the jive about Dylan being some sort of poet laureate, and after even his creative slump in those long-ago ’80s we’re still punk enough to rather like the idea of our ol’ pal “Freewheelin'” Dylan getting a Nobel Prize in any old category they might have. It gives us hope that our next novel might win a Grammy, or that this daily internet essay will earn that coveted Motor Trend “Car of the Year” award, or that some sort of poetic justice might yet prevail.
We’re at least literate enough to know that his otherwise perfect song “Lay, Lady, Lay” would be more correctly rendered in proper English as “Lie, Lady, Lie,” and to have noticed that a lot of those imponderable lyrics so many of his pot-addled fans have long pondered are pretty much impenetrable to even the most sober listener, and we can’t heartily endorse his Christmas albums or Sinatra covers or some of those ’80s-slump albums, but we have nonetheless been Dylan fans for pretty much as long as we can remember. He first turned up on the radio as a fresh-faced folk singer right around the same time we started listening to the radio, although we were more likely to hear to his songs played by such more polished singers as Peter, Paul & Mary or Joan Baez, and even at that young age we had a natural affinity for his simple melodies and hopeful lyrics about how the answers as are all “Blowin’ in the Wind.” By the time we were old enough to start getting a rudimentary understanding of the civil rights movement and anti-war protests and sexual revolution and other cataclysmic “The Times They Are a-Changin'” stuff that he was singing about he started playing electrified guitar and doing even more nasally-sung and lyrically impenetrable songs, and at that point we were hooked.
It’s hard to explain it to the young folks, but when the acoustic “folk era” Dylan “went electric” at the oh-so-pure Newport Folk Festival back in ’65 it was a big deal, with all the collegiate folk purists feeling betrayed that their hero had gone the wickedly commercialist way of rock ‘n’ roll. As much as we’d liked the folk stuff, we downright loved how he noted that country-and-western players had been electric since Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys had amped up back in the ’40s, and that those guys had been way more authentically proletarian than all those college-educated folkies he’d been playing to, and even after all these years that “rock era” Dylan still sounds far more quintessentially American to our wind-blown prairie ears. By the time our musical tastes were starting to harden Dylan was scoring top-10 hits with such rough stuff as “Like a Rollin’ Stone” and “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” with its memorable chorus that “everybody must get stoned,” and the older and hipper kids we got to hang around with considered him the “voice of their generation,” and serious if not-quite-Nobel-Prize-level critics were gushing about something they had gleaned from those indecipherable lyrics, and we congratulated our junior-high selves that we also found something meaningful if inexplicable in that very rough-hewn music. As happy-go-lucky high school sophomores we somehow found ourselves oddly attuned to his beautifully bleak middle-aged crazy and post-divorce “Blood on the Tracks” album, even as we were starting to turn the radio dial to the honky-tonk country and and the old folks’ pop and swing standards and the first-generation punk music to quell our adolescent angst.
During our junior year of high school we got to hear Dylan live in his legendarily all-star-studded “Rolling Thunder Review” tour in what was then called Henry Levitt Arena at Wichita State University, named after local haberdasher, which is now Charles Koch Arena, named after the notorious local free-market billionaire, and we attended it with all those brainy College Hill girls from East High we were so enamored of, and to this day it remains one of our favorite musical memories, which is saying something given all the great American music we’ve heard since then. We caught him again a few decades later at downtown’s Century II, where we were a accompanied by the delightful and sexy but somewhat crazy younger woman we were dating in our own middle-aged crazy post-divorce years, and even though we couldn’t make out any of those supposedly profound lyrics he was warbling we were once again delighted by the strangely musical noise he was making. Our third time live with Dylan was a few years back when he was touring with Willie Nelson and made a stop on a warm autumn evening at the old Lawrence-Dumont baseball stadium by the Arkansas River, and even though we weren’t dating anyone at the time it was also a damned good show. Through it all, even those awful Christmas albums and mediocre Sinatra covers, we’ve been unapologetic fans.
We’re not sure if his career is the stuff of a Nobel Prize for Literature, though, and would have preferred that the award had gone to such writers as Muriel Spark or Robertson Davies before their relatively recent deaths, or to Philip Roth or especially Tom Wolfe in their advanced ages, but then again we’re the old-fashioned sorts who would reserve literary prizes to more literary writers. Those middle-brow Nobel committee people tend to hand these things out according to the latest political fads, though, which explains why the black and female and vastly overrated Toni Morrison was the last American to get the Nobel Literature medal, and although we’re glad to see that a defiantly Christian and Jewish college drop-out from Hibbing, Minnesota, won this time around we can’t help thinking that his reputed but deliberately ambiguous liberalism had something to do with the decision. If you’re handing out Nobel Prizes for Literature to rough-hewn American musicians we’d recommend the ex-con honky-tonker Merle Haggard, who died earlier this year with a body of work that for pure down-and-dirty and right-at-the-heart-of-America-and-this-cruel-world greatness surpasses even Dylan’s, but we can’t expect those middle-brows at the Nobel Prize for Literature committee to grasp that.
Even so, the news of Dylan’s newly-awarded Nobel Prize prompted us to replay that profoundly glum “Blood on the Tracks” album, and that gloriously electrified “Highway 61 Revisited” and all its apocalyptic Old Testament allusions, and revisit a time when top-10 hits weren’t so damn slick and over-produced as they are these bleak days, and it happily hearkened us all the way back to the Depression-era days of Jimmie Rodgers and Robert Johnson and the real down-and-dirty American music, and all in all it’s made for a pleasant diversion from that awful presidential race. So for that we give thanks to the Nobel Prize for Literature committee, and especially to the still “Freewheelin'” Bob Dylan, who we hope is still out there somewhere on the open road.

— Bud Norman

“This Town Is Nowhere,” On Sale Now

There’s probably bigger news out there somewhere, but around here the big story of the day is that “This Town Is Nowhere” is at long last on sale.
“This Town Is Nowhere” is a novel of our own creation, and we rather like it, so we feel entitled to a certain pride of authorship and another day off from our usual snide analysis of the news. It’s only an e-publication, available through Amazon and Kindle, and we remain steadfast Luddites who have never resorted to such newfangled gimmickry for literature, but there’s still a certain satisfaction in having put such an old-fashioned yarn somewhere out there on the new frontiers of technology.
It’s an odd piece of work, we will concede. After a compelling Old West prologue that has little to do with the subsequent plot, the novel opens on on the first day of the 1972-’73 school year at a second rate junior high in the middle of the country, where a fellow who had briefly been a popular rock ‘n’ roll guitar player in the ’50s is now grouchily teaching math, one of his typically stupid students is daydreaming significantly, and the guitar-playing math teacher’s brother, who had briefly been the singing star of the band, is still rockin’ and rollin’ out on the lost highway of American music. The typically stupid student awkwardly becomes a protege to the former brother, falls under the even more dubious influence of the latter, and between the two he gets wised up a bit as the brothers plod along toward their own disparate fates. Such a scant plot fills a couple hundred typewritten pages, and who knows how many electronic tablet pages, by meandering off on topics ranging from the jargon of public educators and the corresponding breakdown of the public education system to the frustrations of adolescence and the frustrations of middle to the unique combination of the Devil’s music and God’s music that has made American music such a troublesome and essential part of our national character, with some thoughts about our national character in general thrown in.
The structure is peculiar, too. An otherwise straightforward chronology and omniscient narration is occasionally interrupted by long monologues recalling preceding events, and some events are re-told from the perspectives of different characters. There are segments that seem short stories apart from the rest of the plot, others that are historical essays full of allusions to largely forgotten blues or country musicians and geo-political events, and others that sound like those chords tossed into a medley to get from one song to the next.
Our first novel, “The Things That Are Caesar’s,” which is still available on good paper, as God intended, also through Amazon, that all-important entity, was about similarly sleazy characters but focused on religion and politics and the occasional collisions of the two. It didn’t sell a lot but was well reviewed and earned us some invitations from local book clubs that had thought it was quite thoughtful and amusing, and we rather liked that one as well. Several enthusiastic readers described it as very “cinematic,” and it does sometimes remind of us those great cynical Preston Sturges movies from the ’30s and ’40s.. This one is more about the broader culture, with occasional digressions on how the decline of the culture has preceded a decline in politics, although of course God figures in it again. It’s a bit more literary, to the extent that any movie adaptation would be harder to come up with, but at our age and with the movies they’re making these days we don’t think that’s such a bad thing..
Lest “This Town Is Nowhere” sound a bit too highly literary, be assured there’s also plenty of violence and foul language and sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. The title and a basic premise for the story came to us many decades ago, when we were immersed in rockabilly records and chain-reading the works of Jim Thompson, the great Okie dime novelist and literary darling of all the fancy French critics, and we like to think that some of the bawdier scenes might recall his brilliance. There’s a certain P.G. Wodehouse affectation in some of the narration, and we owe much to the onomatopoeia and other descriptive language of the great Tom Wolfe for the musical interludes, and the basic idea of the old man and the boy is probably due to too much Robertson Davies, and there’s no way any real American can avoid the Mark Twain thing, but the story is set in the ’70s and the middle of the country so there’s no escaping a certain roughness in the story. Most of it comes from stories we’ve been told by white kids and black kids, including one ghetto-smooth fellow we met in D.C. one summer who smoked his first marijuana cigarette at the invitation of Cab Calloway, one of the all-time greats and the original “Reefer Man,” and a long-haired psychedelic guitar-player of our acquaintance who started playing bluegrass gospel to get off drugs and was quite accomplished in both styles of music, and wizened old folks in the country and our idiot peers in the suburbs, or what we’ve read of the epic battles between Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey and Phil and Don Eberly and all the feuding siblings of musical history, or the incredibly cool Louis Prima’s even cooler brother staying home in New Orleans and never getting famous, or the great rockabilly bass-thumper Ray Campi teaching at a southern California junior high, or remarkable fellow who we once witnessed cleaning up a teenaged companion’s vomit off the floor of a bar just to avoid a fight, or  our own embarrassing encounters with real life along the lost highway. All in all, we think it’s a story about American music that could be true.
Though often bleak, we think a certain humor and hopefulness comes through the tale. In inflation-adjusted terms the story is for sale at about the same affordable price that Jim Thompson used to ask, and we’re not embarrassed to ask the same. There’s bigger news out there somewhere, but we’ll spend today on “This Town Is Nowhere.”

— Bud Norman

Tommy, Clif, and Tommy, RIP

All of the original Ramones are now dead, two of the best rockers in our prairie city have recently passed away, and what’s left of rock ‘n’ roll music suddenly isn’t at all satisfying.
You probably had to be a troubled youth in the late ’70s and early ’80s to fully appreciate The Ramones, but we were there and you can trust us when we say they were one of America’s greatest musical creations. At a time when rock ‘n’ roll stars were absurdly overpaid prima donnas striking ridiculous poses in even more ridiculous clothes, pretending that a musical style derived from greasy-haired poor white trash in the hills and prairies and bayous in an unholy alliance with the no-account negroes on the street corners of the roughest slums was now some sort of effete art form, The Ramones came out of the garages in some nondescript New York suburb wearing leather jackets and torn jeans and cheap sneakers with shaggy hair in their eyes to pound out a fast and furious and funny reminder of what the real deal sounded liked. No synthesizers or drum machines or fancy production techniques or any pretense of redeeming social value, just an insistent man-made beat and a thudding bass line and three chords screeching from an electric guitar while a gloriously ugly lead singer wailed “I”m a Teenage Lobotomy,”  “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue,” “I Wanna Be Sedated,” “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend,” “Gabba Gabba Hey,” or similarly understandable and socially irrelevant rock ‘n’ roll sentiments. The Ramones’ formula distilled rock ‘n’ roll to its intoxicatingly stupid quintessence, and even now when we slap the old sides on the turntable we still tremble at its all-American brilliance.
That basic idea of The Ramones became known as punk rock, and was eagerly embraced by a smattering of oddball kids here in Wichita. With the band’s music blaring on record players at parties and in the afternoons at the apartments of unemployed friends we’d share the half-baked ideas that had been inspired by the demonstration that rock ‘n’ roll or any other cultural expression was something to be created at ground level by ordinary Americans such as ourselves rather than a commodity to be purchased from the established manufacturers. The more musically inclined among us formed bands such as The Agaarns and The Dream Dates and The Inevitable and that classic international cult band The Embarrassment, others painted pictures, some took photographs, and a few of us were compelled to write breathless accounts about with a few pieces that were somehow sneaked into the pages of the local newspaper. It was great fun, the sort of giddy entertainment that can only be enjoyed at a young age and with plenty of rock ‘n’ roll, and seems to have had some lasting value.
Some of those troubled and creative kids we knew on the scene have died early deaths from various causes, one is locked away in a federal prison on some very embarrassing charges, others have drifted away to unknown fates, but many are still coming up with something worthwhile to contribute to the local culture, or at least offering some much needed friendship. The art shows that still draw a crowd on the “Final Fridays” of every month by collusion of the painterly part of town aren’t so interesting these days, but they’re still there and so long as they are it provides hope that another John Noble or William Dickerson or one of the other truly great Wichita painter will some day arrive. The band scene is in one of its periodic slow points around here, so far as well gather from our admittedly infrequent forays into the bars where live music is still heard, but there’s still enough of the real deal rock ‘n’ roll to germinate another generation.
The young punks will have to do it without Clif Major and Tommy Crabb, though, and that’s going to be tough. Major was a local guitar star going back to the mid’-’60s, when his screeching solos for the oh-so-southside band The Outcasts transformed the local scene. Most of the well-scrubbed Wichita youth back then preferred the bouncy rock ‘n’ roll of such uniformed midwestern horn bands as The Fabulous Flippers, while the more sophisticated college hippies went for the slightly jazzy psychedelics of the great Mike Finnegan and his Serfs or the San Francisco-connected Jerry Hahn Brotherhood, but The Outcasts introduced the bluesy working class that was being exploited by British bands such as The Yardbirds and The Rolling Stones and wound up winning all the battles of the bands. The feat almost killed Major a couple of times, and we got to know him well enough that he laughingly recalled for us how a subsequent stint in a bluegrass gospel band saved his life by keeping him off the prodigious diet of drugs that had fueled those screeching guitar solos, but he lasted long enough to enliven the ’80s rock scene with some gritty sax-driven ’50s rock ‘n’ roll and offer guitar-playing advice to the 21st Century’s local rockers at his ultra-cool instrument shop and to raise a son who slaps a pretty mean rockabilly upright bass in the local bands. Major was a good musician and a good guy, right up to the point that he lost his long battle with cancer, and Wichita and the world can ill-afford to lose either of those.
Crabb was a longtime musical collaborator of Major’s, and his death in his early ’60s about a week after Major’s passing was an unexpected blow. Every local music lover we ran into had the same stunned reaction, that they’d just run into him a few days before and thought he looked great. He’d been drumming for local bands as long as anyone could remember, and it was widely expected to last forever. We remember with particular fondness a night that he and Major had a gig backing up the great Bo Diddley at a sleazy little strip mall on the near west side, and how their natural affinity for the good time music with the Bo Diddle beat had propelled the jaded old pioneers to new frontiers of the real deal rock ‘n’ roll. His last gig was The Tom Page Band, a rootsy outfit that jumps from old-time country to down-home blues to long-haired rock with an effortless knack and is about as good as it gets around here, and its sad to be dreading their next performance. Crabb was a good drummer and another good guy, and a friend of ours who used his bills-paying services laying tile in a renovated kitchen assures us he was quite good at that job, and we’ll miss a drummer a who could answer a cell phone call in the middle of a show without missing a beat.
Tommy Ramone and his fellow Ramones and Clif Major and Tommy Crabb all died younger than people are supposed to in this day of medical miracles, none of them reaching that three score and ten that the Bible described as the age of man, and we lament the work they each left undone. There was never going to be a Ramones reunion, as there’s no sense in sixty-something gray hairs banging out three chords about sniffing glue, and when replacement Marky Ramone tried to revive the old punk spirit at the Wichita River Festival last spring one of our original punk scene friends complained that some idiot was trying to start a “wave,” but we understand that Tommy Ramone was still performing some interesting acoustic folk music, going back to an even more democratic era of American music, and we would loved to have heard it. One of the guys from The Embarrassment is back in town to take care of his aging father, who was once a prominent player on the local big band swing scene, and the most famous local act is Split Lip Rayfield with their punk-meets-bluegrass blend, which can be quite exhilarating when the boys are on their game, and we hold out hope that Wichita will once again realize the glorious possibilities of that unholy alliance of greasy poor white trash and the no-account negroes on the street corners and the very heart and soul of working class America..
Maybe it’s already out there, and we’re just too inclined to stay home to have heard it. We’re always asking the young folks we run into about it, though, and they always glumly assure us that we’re not missing anything special. Nobody we run into eagerly debates who’s the best guitar players out there, the way that Major’s fans did back in the ’60s, and they certainly don’t argue about who’s the best clarinet player, the way our old fogey friends did even into our early youth, and these days the best drum players are all computer programs. America’s popular culture is now just another commodity bought from the established manufacturers, not something that ordinary Americans create spontaneously and joyously and rebelliously and dangerously, and we mourn that passing most of all.

— Bud Norman

A Second Front in the Culture War

There has been much discussion lately in conservative circles about the American culture and what should be done about it. The consensus of opinion seems to be that the American culture is a complete mess, and the country urgently requires a conservative counter-culture.
Academy Award-nominated screenwriter, author, and liberal apostate Roger L. Simon, in a column titled “Reclaiming the Culture,” urges conservatives to “quit bitching and start doing” by making movies, novels, music, and other cultural products of their own. Law professor Glenn Reynolds, the almighty “Instapundit” of the right side of internet, takes to the pages of the New York Post to call for conservative alternatives to women’s magazines such as Redbook, Cosmopolitan, and the Ladies Home Journal. The smart fellows at the influential Powerline web site second the notion, and pine for some sympathetic billionaire to buy The New York Times. Numerous other conservatives have expressed similar longings, mostly in conservative publications with exclusively conservative readerships that are cumulatively dwarfed by a typical audience for television’s lowest-rated offerings.
We wish them well, of course. Even the most obviously ruinous assumptions of liberalism permeate the popular culture, while even the most commonsensical concepts of conservatism are routinely ridiculed, and so long as this situation prevails political victories will hard to achieve. All that mindless conformity makes for monotonous and dissatisfying cultural fare, too, and we have no doubt that artists with a conservative sensibility could provide far better work if they were only given the opportunity.
Still, remaking a culture seems a daunting task. The liberals’ nearly total control of America’s cultural institutions, from the tawdriest cable channel to the toniest museum, was gained over several decades of steady encroachment and will take as long to be undone. Having so laboriously attained power the left will be reluctant to yield it, and the leftists well remember from their insurgent days what happens when the establishment allows dissent. Infiltrating the existing institutions is therefore almost impossible, and new organizations that arise to challenge them will be subjected to the most vituperative attacks.
Some especially thick-skinned artists will withstand the attacks, battered and bruised though they may be, but it’s difficult to see how they will compete with sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll in the current cultural marketplace. Contemporary liberal culture promises liberation from the sexual and social mores of the vanquished past in exchange for submission to governmental control of every other sphere of life in a utopian future, so any appeal to traditions rooted in personal responsibility and the harsh realism of the Judeo-Christian worldview will likely prove a tough sell. Sex, violence, and other titillating topics are all valid subjects for artists, and should be dealt with frankly, but the conservatives’ habitual concern with consequences will wind up taking the all the fun out of it for today’s audiences.
Conservatism requires complex explanations, too, and that seems to have no box office appeal at all these days. Much of the blame for this sorry situation lies with the educational establishment, dominated from the kindergarten classes to the doctoral programs by liberals, which seems to have lowered the country’s standards by literal and figurative degrees. Anyone familiar with the hit movies and best-selling books of the ‘30s has likely noticed that the movie-goers and book-buyers of that era had far more sophisticated tastes than today’s vastly more schooled audiences, and even the most credentialed critics currently holding forth so often seem to completely misunderstand what they’re talking about.
Perhaps that’s why the few conservative popular culture offerings that have gained any popularity in recent years seem to have done so with only a few sharp observers even noticing their conservatism. Mike Judge’s “Beavis and Butthead” was a withering satire of rock ‘n’ roll culture and his “King of the Hill” a sly celebration of rural working class traditions, but both were so cutting-edge hip they were taken for standard liberal television. The hit movie “300” extolled the virtues of western civilization’s martial spirit, explicitly enough to annoy all the critics, but its popularity had far more to do with its sleek look, copious violence, and homo-erotic costuming. At the other end of the cultural spectrum, writers such as Robertson Davies, Muriel Spark, Tom Wolfe, Martin Amis, and Evelyn Waugh have written devastating critiques of modern liberalism with such elegance and flair that they, too, are widely assumed to be liberal. We even have a friend who insists that George Orwell’s “1984” is a dark warning about what would happen if those Tea Party types were to gain power, what with their crazy notions about limited government and individual liberty and such.
Reclaiming the culture is going to be a hard chore, but the conservatives might succeed in slipping a few more works past the unnoticing censors.

— Bud Norman