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There are spooky vibrations. The authorities recognize this.

So in 1958, Link Wray and the Raymen's instrumental single "Rumble" was effectively banned by radio programmers in New York and Boston on the grounds that the title might incite gang violence. ("Rumble" was catching on as a slang term for street fight thanks to movies like The Blackboard Jungle and High School Confidential. West Side Story had opened on Broadway the year before, and one legend holds that the daughter of Wray's label head named the record because it reminded her of the scene where the Jets and Sharks squared off.)

That sounds silly and maybe even publicity stunty, for there's nothing inherently dangerous in the name. It probably helped the record's sales; it stayed in the Top 40 for two months and Wray and his band played it on American Bandstand where Dick Clark pointedly failed to mention the title.

But there is something genuinely spooky in the way the record shakes the air with its greasy tone and growling frequencies harmonically enriched with feedback and distortion. Other electric guitarists had employed two-note power chords before, but not so insistently or with such snotty menace. The whole campaign to ban "Rumble" might have been a wink-wink, nudge-nudge promotional operation, but that doesn't mean the noise itself wasn't authentically bad, that it wasn't somehow coercive of still-baking adolescent hearts and minds.

And just because "Rumble" is a largely forgotten record now--maybe it pops up on Little Steven Van Zandt's Underground Garage satellite radio show now and then--doesn't mean it isn't one of the most important rock 'n' roll records ever released, as it established the basis for everything from "You Really Got Me" to punk rock to Norwegian black metal. "Rumble" is one of the loose strings--the wild hairs--you can pull at if you want to begin to deconstruct the 20th century.

That assumes you want to think about such things. Most of us--like Nils Lofgren--came here to dance.

This is the central assumption of Good Booty: Love and Sex, Black and White, Body and Soul in American Music (Dey Street, $26.99), a new book by Ann Powers, the venerable music critic now ensconced at National Public Radio. Powers was in Conway last week, her visit overlapping a bit with Werner Herzog's sojourn at the University of Central Arkansas. I don't think they encountered each other while they were in Conway, though they both dined at Mike's Place at approximately the same time. It would no doubt have made for an interesting conversation; Powers was at Hendrix College specifically to talk about the spirituality in her music writing.

Herzog, while he professes to have long ago given up religion, has a restless ear that often taps out-of-context devotional music for his films. (And he once saw the Rolling Stones with Brian Jones.)

It probably ought to be said that Good Booty is a good deal more serious than some might imply from the title. Rather than a Hollywood Babylon-style compendium of anecdotes it's an expansive (though not encyclopedic) survey of "America's primary erotic art form--what we call rock 'n' roll, which is largely a product invented to take advantage of the disposable income that high schoolers in this country suddenly found themselves in possession of after World War II."

"[E]xpressing the erotic through music has required Americans to confront the ways in which this culture is grounded in exploitation and violence as well as democratic openness and liberty," Powers writes. Which implies the party didn't start with the fascinatingly conflicted Little Richard, whose "Tutti Frutti"--"a song that defines the spirit of rock and roll as succinctly as did anything by Elvis or the Beatles"--supplied her with a book title.

The song's original lyrics are widely thought to have been"Tutti frutti, good booty" bowdlerized to "Tutti frutti, aw rooty"--with "aw rooty" a colloquialism meaning "all right"--for the sake of radio airplay. The song itself dealt with some specificity with the mechanics of male-on-male canoodling. (But it should be noted that Dorothy LaBostrie, who shared writer's credit with Richard on "Tutti Frutti," claimed she alone wrote the song and it had nothing to do with sex, much less homosexuality: "I used to live on Galvez Street [in New Orleans] and my girlfriend and I liked to go down to the drugstore and buy ice cream. One day we went in and saw this new flavor, Tutti Frutti. Right away I thought, 'Boy, that's a great idea for a song'." LaBostrie's version is probably the one Pat Boone believes.)

For his part, Little Richard has oscillated between the Lord and rock 'n' roll his entire life. He left the pop music business to preach and sing gospel in 1958, returned to secular music in 1964, and quit to return to evangelism in 1977. In 1984 he launched a comeback in which he finally seemed to reconcile his evangelism and rock 'n' roll. Then last week he went on the Three Angels Broadcast Network to renounce the "omnisexualism" he once reveled in, and bemoan "so much unnatural affection."

"I don't want to sing rock and roll no more," Richard told interviewers Danny Shelton and Yvonne Lewis. "I want to be holy like Jesus."

Which might be the impetus for any number of rock idols, a lot of whom have offered themselves up for sacrifice. Powers cites Jim Morrison, whose Dionysian image was undercut by genuine intelligence and (rare for a would-be god) a sense of humor.

Richard's story is an American one; we are descended from Puritans and suspicious of those things that bring us delight. The devil hands out samples to hook us, the rhythms that rock our bodies--that possess our bodies--might give us moral pause. Music makes you dance. The tug is gravitational.

And gravity is scary when you're high.

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Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at pmartin@arkansasonline.com and read his blog at blooddirtandangels.com.

Editorial on 10/10/2017

Print Headline: Rockin' in rhythm

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