Bob Dylan Lays Down What Really Killed Rock ’n’ Roll
Writer’s Note: This is not an indictment on any particular act or genre of music. Music is the Word. Period. This is an attempt to shed light on an unnerving moment in music historicity, and the devastating effects big money can have when it hijacks music’s forever unfolding. Input/ feedback/ distortion is welcome.
Bob Dylan gave only one interview about his recent live album Shadows in the Night, composed of ten pop ballads made famous by Frank Sinatra in the late 50s and early 60s.
Was the sole interview with Rolling Stone or Vice? No — it appeared in the February/March 2015 issue of AARP. Of all things, right? I wondered, staring at Dylan’s aged visage in aviators and a bolo tie, if he was still up to his old tricks of trolling the press with salty wit.
It turns out the editor-in-chief Robert Love used to work at Rolling Stone, which is why Dylan reached out to him. “‘I don’t work at RS anymore,’ I told [Dylan’s representatives], thinking it was a case of crossed wires, since I put in 20 years there. No, they said, there’s no mistake; he wants to talk to your readers…”
Keep in mind, Dylan is also 74 years old, and given the fact no one under the age of 50 could genuinely appreciate the new album, it all started to make more sense.
I picked up the issue that sat atop a neglected magazine pile on my father’s desk (if I hadn’t visited that weekend, I would never have known of its existence). On the cover were the words, Dylan Behind the Shades: his new album and what he thinks about passion, aging, Sinatra — and why rock ’n’ roll died.
Okay, fine, I’ll bite. I’ll read your geriatric rag about how rock died, according to Dylan. After all, this man was a bona fide troubadour in his 20s, the scrawny minstrel toad who channeled to us “Blowin’ In The Wind” — an instant classic that made its way into the American folk canon as seamlessly as Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” — and then turned around to give us “Like A Rolling Stone,” a rambling six-minute trip that shattered the Top 40 pop paradigm at the time, and revealed to us the dicey, awesome schizophrenia of Bob Dylan.
Surely, he must have some insight.
There’s always been that sardonic sense that “real rock is dead,” from Johnny Rotten to Kurt Cobain, up to today, where it seems everyone is bitching about it. (For the record, rock is far from dead). But it’s never clear where the genesis of this sentiment actually stems from, and like trying to locate the Big Bang, it proves futile… until now.
I expected another old-guy-yelling-from-his-porch sentiment on how modern rock is boring blah blah blah (I’m looking at you, Scorsese). What I got, however, was a heartbreaking revelation of a silent assassination. Essentially:
From its fused inception, rock ’n’ roll was already a racially integrated American invention being blasted in teenage bedrooms as early as 1955, but as the Civil Rights Movement was gaining momentum going into 1960, the genre was being commercially segregated, on the sly, into white (British Invasion) and black (soul) music by the (WASPy) establishment.
Needless to say, I was floored. Why wasn’t this common knowledge? It was quite the bombshell, and one that predates the beloved (no matter how tired) rock pantheon whose zenith is too often capped at the Beatles and the Rolling Stones — who, it should be noted, however great, are not American bands. It’s also important to note that no one person or act invented the genre formally known as rock ’n’ roll, it was, generally speaking, wrought from the confluence of Americana forces: big band, jazz, and country blues.
“My Payola,” a Racial Divide, Rock’s Sexual Problem & the Year the Music Died
So the article starts out with Dylan discussing the production of his recent album, the fact that his band was made up of old-timer elements like the pedal steel and stand up bass, and that there were no overdubs or separate tracking and it all sounds great. But when the conversation moves into his early influences during childhood, he goes off onto a tangent about rock ’n’ roll.
“I was still an aspiring rock n roller. The descendant, if you will, of the first generation of guys who played rock ’n’ roll — who were thrown down. Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins, Gene Vincent, Jerry Lee Lewis. They played this type of music that was black and white. Extremely incendiary. Your clothes could catch fire. When I first heard Chuck Berry, I didn’t consider that he was black. I thought he was a hillbilly. Little did I know, he was a great poet, too. And there must have been some elitist power that had to get rid of all these guys, to strike down rock ’n’ roll for what it was and what it represented — not least of all being a black-and-white thing.”
Love probed further, asking Dylan, “Do you mean it’s musical race-mixing and that’s what made it dangerous?”
“Racial prejudice has been around awhile, so, yeah. And that was extremely threatening for the city fathers, I would think. When they finally recognized what it was, they had to dismantle it, which they did, starting with payola scandals. The black element was turned into soul music, and the white element was turned into English pop. They separated it […] Well, it was apart of my DNA, so it never disappeared from me. I just incorporated it into other aspects of what I was doing. I don’t know if this answers the question. [Laughs.] I can’t remember what the question was.”
It was jarring how he tossed it into the conversation so casually, a fun little tidbit, like, oh, by the way, real rock barely saw the 60s before it was hijacked, fractured, and packaged to different demographics (of color).
The payola scandals he’s talking about came about when it was revealed labels and distributing companies were bribing disc jockeys to spin certain records a certain amount of times per week. Before DJ’s were known as the lucrative, technical button-pushers they are today, they were lucrative curators of music trends in the 1950s, when cheap 45 rpms took off and the American teenager (*Boomer alert*) was, for the first time, a viable economic force.
In 1950, there were approximately 250 disc jockeys in the U.S. By 1957, the number had grown to over 5,000. The increase was partially due to the sheer amount of new records being produced, both by major and indie labels. As the name suggests, a disc jockey was responsible for sorting through all these releases (naturally, the sorting was influenced by payola). These on-air personalities had so much clout with younger listeners, Time magazine called them the “poo-bahs of musical fashion and pillars of U.S. low- and middle-brow culture.”
It took exposés from Billboard and Variety to finally call it out for what it was, demanding reform in the business. Billboard even took the discerning effort to write, “The cancer of payola cannot be pinned on rock ’n’ roll.” The hammer eventually came down in 1959, when 335 DJs admitted to receiving over $263,000 in “consulting fees” before the U.S. House Oversight Committee (that’s over $2.1 million in today’s money).
That figure was only the tip of the payola iceberg (before the hearings, Phil Lind, a DJ at Chicago’s WAIT had confessed that he had once taken $22,000 to play a single record). The trial heated up when the two most influential jocks in the country took the stand. Alan Freed and Dick Clark both played important parts in the rise of rock ’n’ roll (Freed embodied the incendiary spirit of the music more than Clark, refusing to play white cover versions of black songs, such as Pat Boone’s “Tutti Frutti”). And though they both denied ever accepting payola, it’s almost impossible to imagine two young, popular jocks not succumbing to a little temptation. Guilty or not, it was Freed who ended up taking the fall for DJs everywhere.
Why does this payola thing even matter? Because it means certain musical acts and groups signed to certain labels were ensured to be played, over and over, to every and any teenager in America in earshot of a radio. So if those same labels preferred to sign more white musicians over black musicians, it was a real effective way of keeping those black musicians out of the newly-created Top 40 loop.
This brings up a small, but vital footnote in music history. What mainly disturbed and threatened these “city fathers” Dylan mentions was the unabashed sexuality inherent in rock ’n’ roll — no doubt stemming from the sweaty gyrations of jazz. In this respect, rock ’n’ roll wasn’t much cared for by a lot of prominent, high-brow figures at the time, from Frank Sinatra to Martin Luther King, Jr.
Being a devout man, King acknowledged the threat that rock’s explicit sexuality posed to black assimilation into “civilized” America. In his “Advice For Living” column in Ebony (which ran from ‘58-‘59), he informed readers that rock ’n’ roll “plunges men’s minds into degrading and immoral depths.”
Sinatra had his own thoughts on the matter. In a 1957 article he penned in the Los Angeles Mirror News, he laid his disdain down pretty thick:
“My only deep sorrow is the unrelenting insistence of recording and motion picture companies upon purveying the most brutal, ugly, degenerate, vicious form of expression it has been my displeasure to hear — Naturally I refer to the bulk of rock ’n’ roll. It fosters almost totally negative and destructive reactions in young people. It smells phony and false. It is sung, played and written for the most part by cretinous goons and by means of its almost imbecilic reiterations and sly, lewd — in plain fact, dirty — lyrics, and as I said before, it manages to be the martial music of every sideburned delinquent on the face of the earth … this rancid-smelling aphorodisiac I deplore.”
This created a momentary rift between Elvis and Sinatra fans. In fact, it illustrates that there were always trolls quick to call a celebrity out, even ‘Ol Blue Eyes himself. Via letters to the editors of Herald-Express, teenage girl Elvis fans called Sinatra a “crabapple” after his denigrating comments. They went on to say, “[Elvis] is a gentleman and if you and others had brains, you would know that he wiggles around because he shows what’s in his heart. The reason Frank Sinatra doesn’t like Elvis is because he can’t wiggle around and he’s just jealous. Why? Because he’s an old croney.”
It was around this time Doo-wop came to commercial prominence, and not only did it help simmer the flames sparked by rock, but it also helped cultivate the eventual Italian-American assimilation (in tandem with the rise of Philadelphia police officer Frank Rizzo, a real bruiser who climbed the ranks by cracking down and raiding speakeasies in black neighborhoods). Doo-wop did to rock ’n’ roll what Sinatra and his previous generation of crooners did to jazz. In A Renegade History of the United States by Thaddeus Russell, it’s described as [emphasis is mine], “A style combining smooth vocal harmonies, romantic lyrics, and a stationary stage presence…doo-wop was invented in the 1940s by black youth on street corners, but it shot to the top of the pop charts in the late 1950s when Italian Americans adopted it as their own — just as most African American performers moved toward ‘soul music.’”
This isn’t putting doo-wop down, of course, or any groups that did get famous during that time (I love Dion and the Belmonts, it’s just a shame The Turbans didn’t get more play).
As Billboard wrote all those years ago — the blame isn’t on the artists. The point is these trends were (next to profit) racially motivated. This sort of detrimental mindset stemmed from where a lot of detrimental mentalities stem from: the sheltered, repressed living rooms of American suburbs. Recall in the Ritchie Valens biopic, La Bamba, there’s even reference that Donna’s father disapproved of Valens simply because he was non-white, asking his daughter if he’s “I-talian” and calling his rock music “jungle music.”
All of this certainly puts a heavier frame around “The Day The Music Died,” an American tragedy eerily telling of the music world at the time. 1959 proved an apocalyptic year in music. It started with the fateful plane crash in February that took the lives of Valens, Buddy Holly, and J.P. “the Big Bopper” Richardson in one ruthless, horrific swoop. It ended in December with Chuck Berry, now one of the biggest pop stars in the country, getting arrested under moot allegations. Specifically, “for transporting a minor across state lines for immoral purposes in violation of the Mann Act.” This, by the way, was shortly after he had established a racially integrated night club in St. Louis called Berry’s Club Bandstand. Berry had won an appeal, claiming the judge’s comments and attitude were racist, but after being retried, he was given a three year sentence. While in prison, Berry wrote a few songs, including “You Never Can Tell,” eternalized by Quentin Tarantino in 1994’s Pulp Fiction.
For the cherry on top, as mentioned, Alan Freed was thrown under the bus for payola — and the rest of us got stuck with Dick Clark on New Year’s Eve for the next 50 years.
Why did the committee single [Freed] out? Freed was abrasive. He consorted with black R&B musicians. He jive talked, smoked constantly and looked like an insomniac. Clark was squeaky clean, Brylcreemed, handsome and polite. At least on the surface. Once the grilling started, Freed’s friends and allies in broadcasting quickly deserted him. He refused — “on principle” — to sign an affidavit saying that he’d never accepted payola. WABC fired him, and he was charged with 26 counts of commercial bribery. Freed escaped with fines and a suspended jail sentence. He died five years later, broke and virtually forgotten.
As one can gather, Clark and the other DJ weasels were off the hook, and the rest is music industry history — something we need to make an discerned effort to divorce from actual music history. (The Dead Kennedys reminded us of that with their mock-new wave live single “Pull My Strings,” which was a parody of “My Sharona” i.e. “My Payola,” and performed one-time-only in 1980 at the Bay Area Music Awards.)
By the time “Twist and Shout” arrived to us from across the pond in 1964, rock ’n’ roll had already taken one hell of bludgeoning. Who, I wonder, was able to hear anything over the inescapable screams of Beatlemania?
The American Music Tradition of Integration, the White Negro & the Hendrix Enigma
Let’s face it, rock ’n’ roll opens up all kinds of cans of worms. Racial/cultural integration through music (along with a shit ton of alcohol) is intimately tied to the American tradition of protest and unruly congregation.
In fact, it goes back to the first days of early America. In Renegade History, Russell speaks to the fact that in the late 1770s, American cities from Boston to New York to Philadelphia to Charleston were busting at the seams with rowdy taverns and public houses (aka pubs) on every corner. The average ratio was something sick like 1 tavern for every 100 residents. In the wake of America’s independence, prominent figures like John Adams looked down on the new country’s street culture — and its rhapsodically free commoners — with a certain resentment. Russell attributes it more to disgust.
In a letter to James Warren, dated February 25, 1779, John Adams wrote, “But the Delirium that rages is enough to induce every Man of sense and Virtue to abandon such an execrable Race, to their own Perdition. And if they could be ruined alone it would be just.” Furthering the sentiment, two years earlier, when Philadelphia was on the verge of falling to the British army led by General William Howe, Adams expressed to his wife that he would not lament such a loss, “Because it would only lay the Foundations of American Independence deeper, and cement them stronger. It would cure Americans of their vicious and luxurious and effeminate Appetites, Passions and Habits, a more dangerous army to American Liberty that Mr. Howe’s.”
What kinds of attitudes, passions and habits was Adams talking about? Given the close density of these establishments (aka booze havens for the newly liberated), proprietors were in stiff competition with each other, and so, being astute entrepreneurs, they didn’t turn away customers based on their race, gender, or class. Russell writes, “[…] there was a public place where one could drink, sing, dance, have sex, argue politics, gamble, play games, or generally carouse with men, women, children, whites, blacks, Indians, the rich, the poor, and the middling. The Founding Fathers were keenly, painfully aware of this.”
Russell gives us a glimpse of what someone of Adams’ stature would’ve encountered walking into an everyday tavern [emphasis is mine]:
Before he reached the front door, Adams would have heard white men fiddling Irish reels and black men pounding out driving African rhythms on hand drums, rattles, and wooden blocks. He would have heard a hybrid, flagrantly sexual sound that was the first American urban party music. As he opened the front door, Adams would have felt the vibrations of dancing feet on loose wooden floors. Once inside, the statesman’s ears would have been assaulted by chants, responding chants, glasses clinking and breaking, laughing, and hollering of “fuck,” “shit,” “bastard,” and “cunt.” He would have inhaled the stink of old beer and the sweet aroma of warm, rum-laden grog […] he would have felt uncomfortably large inside the narrow, smoky, sweaty room that amplified the noise and made everyone very, very close […] he would have seen white men and black men sitting together and drumming their fingers to the music on long wooden tables. He would have seen white women dancing with black men and black women dancing with white men. He would have seen prostitutes openly and shamelessly selling their services. And, quite possibly, he would have seen a woman behind the bar who not only served the drinks but also owned the place.
Where some see depravity and vulgarity, others see liberation. Where some hear raging delirium, others hear music.
Indeed, those who shared Adams’ brand of liberty, with its elitist sense of puritanical morality, laid the foundations of American “independence” — and its consequently detrimental value systems still being inherited up to this day.
There are those, though, that actively reject such bequeathed value systems. And it’s this kind of rejection, deviation, transgression that not only lies at the root of what uninhibited Americana is all about, but it’s become a left-handed American tradition unto itself.
Fast forward to 1957, and Norman Mailer’s “white negro.” If this is a new term for you, it’s because the word “hipster” has become not only such a commodity of the modern bourgeoisie ideal, but it’s also become a derogatory moniker used to demarcate trend followers from their eye-rolling critics (who usually end up being trend followers themselves). The root meaning of “hipster” couldn’t be further from its current use, and its intersection with the “white negro” and 50s beat culture is too often overlooked.
The “white negro” is not referring to the more recent pejorative “wigger,” [think “Pretty Fly (For A White Guy)” by The Offspring]. The white negro is something else entirely. In his provocative essay (even by today’s standards), Mailer attempts to frame an emerging American subculture, “That post-war generation of adventurers who had absorbed the lessons of disillusionment and disgust of the Twenties, the Depression, and the War…
No wonder then that these have been the years of conformity and depression. A stench of fear has come out of every pore of American life, and we suffer from a collective failure of nerve […] It is on this bleak scene that a phenomenon has appeared: the American existentialist — the hipster, the man who knows that if our collective condition is to live with instant death by atomic war…or with a slow death by conformity with every creative and rebellious instinct stifled […] the only life-giving answer is to accept the terms of death, to live with death as immediate danger, to divorce oneself from society, to exist without roots, to set out on that uncharted journey into the rebellious imperatives of the self… The unstated essence of Hip, its psychopathic brilliance…
It is from here, Mailer locates the origin of hip within the black American experience, its howling expression via jazz, and its orgiastic collision with a growing legion of reckless white youth.
“If marijuana was the wedding, the child was the language of Hip […] And in this wedding of the white and the black it was the Negro who brought the cultural dowry. Any Negro who wishes to live must live with danger from his first day, and no experience can ever be casual to him, no Negro can saunter down a street with any real certainty that violence will not visit him on his walk […] So it is no accident that the source of Hip is the Negro for he has been living on the margin between totalitarianism and democracy for two centuries. But the presence of Hip as a working philosophy in the sub-worlds of American life is probably due to jazz, and its knife-like entrance into culture, its subtle but so penetrating influence on an avant-garde generation […] The bohemian and the juvenile delinquent came face-to-face with the Negro, and the hipster was a fact of American life.”
Here the inherent sexuality of jazz is highlighted.
[…] The Negro could rarely afford the sophisticated inhibitions of civilization, and so he kept for his survival the art of the primitive, he lived in the enormous present, he subsisted for his Saturday night kicks, relinquishing the pleasures of the mind for the more obligatory pleasures of the body, and in his music he gave voice to the character and quality of his existence to his rage and the infinite qualities of joy, lust, languor, growl, cramp, pinch, scream and despair of his orgasm. For jazz is orgasm. It is the music of orgasm, good orgasm and bad. And so it spoke across a nation, it had the communication of art even where it was watered, perverted, corrupted, and almost killed, it spoke in no matter what laundered popular way of instantaneous existential states to which some whites could respond, it was indeed a communication by art because it said, ‘I feel this, and now you do too.’
We can start to see how and why rock ’n’ roll was wrought out of a natural hybridity, and why the bourgeoisie didn’t take too kindly to it. It wasn’t just the white bourgeoisie, it was also felt among the more or less upwardly mobile black population that sought integration into white America. “They have strongly internalized middle-class values emphasizing self-control, deferred gratification, achievement, extreme cleanliness and rigid moral standards. With their strong acceptance of these middle-class values, these Negroes are attempting to separate themselves from the supposed values of the Negro lower class and hipsters.” In this light, MLK’s adamant aversion to rock makes more sense. Ironically enough, the active and systematic deterrent of rock and its roots is antithetical to the very idea of cultural integration (or, rather, inclusion), and the effects were anything but short-lived.
Fast forward 10 years: 1967. R&B-sideman-turned-mesmerizing-rocker Jimi Hendrix not only revolutionized the way the electric guitar was played, but he psychedelicized its form in a single performance.
At the Monterey Pop Festival, 17 year-old Ed Caraeff was in the front row when the Jimi Hendrix Experience was playing its set. Having never heard the music before, nor of the band itself, Caraeff became a first-hand witness to one of the most powerful moments in American music history. Not long after Hendrix set his guitar ablaze, Caraeff, with literally the last shot on his roll of film, snapped one of rock’s most iconic images. He even had to use his camera to shield his face from the flames Hendrix summoned higher with his fingers.
The footage filmed by D. A. Pennebaker shows girls in the audience frozen in astonishment. “Is this really happening?” It was one of those moments when cheering is almost vulgar, like when there was no applause after Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address. “I was in the audience, and I was appalled!” Michelle Philips of the Mamas and the Papas recalls. “It wasn’t the sexuality of his show that appalled me. It was what he did to his instrument. Here he was throwing lighter fluid on his guitar and setting it on fire. I had never seen anything like that in life.” Was it something at once so sacred and so electric, it points to the spiritual — or more accurately, the essential? After all, it was the first declarative marriage between the blues and psychedelia: rock ’n’ roll was given a mystical rebirth. By burning his guitar in effigy, did Hendrix ensure the salvation of unadulterated rock for anybody willing to embrace it? If the 1950s were the Old Testament days of rock, was Hendrix its anointed one here to die for all our sins?
That’s probably me being dramatic. But the question we should ask ourselves is: why, in 1967, was it so rare to see a black man not just fronting a major American rock band, but being arguably the best guitarist in the world — despite Chuck Berry having already blazed that trail a decade earlier? Could it have been because he wasn’t strictly playing soul music?
In the documentary, Jimi Hendrix: Hear My Train A Comin’, disc jockey Jim Ladd commented, “Music was cast in terms of racial context, you know, R&B is black music, rock is white music. What you didn’t see was a black man fronting a rock band — it just didn’t happen before. A month after Monterey, the Are You Experienced album came out. Now you had graphics, now you could see what the Jimi Hendrix Experience looked like.” David Fricke of Rolling Stone vividly remembers Hendrix’s arrival, “When I saw that cover, I knew I wanted it. The fact that he was a black guitar player, for someone who was into rock ’n’ roll, who knew Motown, who knew soul, for this to be a black American rock guitarist was something that I really wanted to know about.”
Without even knowing it, Hendrix crossed an invisible line drawn by a prejudiced music industry, and effectively revived the raw sexuality intrinsic in rock ’n’ roll, transmuting sex into sound, riffs into feedback improv noise, and ending in burning climax. “When I play with my teeth, I do it because I feel like it.”
Though many attribute the transformative, yet controversial, rendition of the “Star-Spangled Banner” to that of a divided and volatile national climate, it’s hard to ignore Hendrix’s unabashed, orgasmic facial expressions and thrusting guitar work during that live 1969 performance at Woodstock. By this time, Hendrix was the highest-paid rock musician in the world, and he was mixing overt sexuality with nationalism. While critics were scrambling for some esoteric anti-war interpretation, Hendrix simply showed us the most direct way to make love to your country was through rock ’n’ roll. “What was the controversy about the national anthem and the way you played it?” Dick Cavett asked him during a guest appearance. Hendrix just shook his head, “I don’t know, man. All I did was play it, I’m American, so I played it. I used to have to sing in school, they made me sing it in school. It was a flashback, you know. I never forgot it. We play it the way the air is in America today. The air is slightly static, see.”
Had Hendrix lived, who knows what sonic territories he would’ve explored. His restlessness for discovery was already obvious with the breakup of the Jimi Hendrix Experience and his formation of Band of Gypsys, with Billy Cox on bass and Buddy Miles on drums (both black). My guess is he would’ve gone the way of those like Sun Ra & His Arkestra, and Parliament-Funkadelic mastermind George Clinton. He would’ve confronted the Afro-diaspora (i.e. exile), still very much apart of the black American experience, via the fusion of advancing technology and that mystical vision he so aptly and carelessly bled from his fingertips. As Mark Dery quoted journalist Gregg Tate in Flame Wars: the Discourse of Cyberculture, “black people live in the estrangement that science fiction writers imagine.”
He would’ve taken experimental cosmological jazz to new dimensions, marrying philosophical inquiry with technological speculation, and tapped into the potentialities of futurist prophecy long before Silicon Valley.
It’s like what he said during an interview when asked how much he relies on gimmicks, “‘Gimmicks,’ here we go again, ‘gimmicks.’ I’m tired of people saying I rely on gimmicks. What is this? The world is nothing but a big gimmick, isn’t it? Wars, napalm bombs, and all that. People get burned up on T.V., and it’s nothing but a gimmick.” He knew as well as anybody (or better) that rock ’n’ roll extends far beyond Mick Jagger frills, or even beyond lighting your guitar on fire. Hendrix understood that exile, not only as a black man in America, but as a rock ’n’ roller in America.
Erik Davis speaks to this in a chapter called “Mad Science” in Nomad Codes, “The prophetic art that arises from this condition of perpetual exile does not simply escape from the pragmatic demands of politics. But neither does it deny the ark of the imagination that lies on the other side of the inner door — a trickster craft that navigates the shadowed valleys of this world, guided by a black star whose very invisibility renders its possibilities infinite.”
Whatever Hendrix was, he was the only performer capable of reconciling the broken, racially-charged, and dichotomized state of rock ’n’ roll.
Alas, dust in the wind.
Without forgetting to mention Hendrix’s biggest single was the immortal cover of Bob Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower,” I’d like to get back to the still-living legend in his own right. When Dylan turned electric in 1965, it was seen as a betrayal to the folk genre, something a lot of fans hated and scorned him for, even to this day. In reality, the move from lone troubadour to electric frontman was, in fact, his total acknowledgment and loyalty to pure music Americana. Rock ’n’ roll was a new art form that emerged with the deepened expansion of the American spirit. He was honoring his roots. “I’m not a folk rock singer,” he adamantly told the press. When asked by journalists why he didn’t write protest songs anymore, he simply responded, “Who said that? All I ever do is protest.”
Fast forward to 2016. What’s happening in garages and makeshift basement studios across the country — the fourth wave of garage rock, as loosely described by Ty Segall — tells us that despite the turbulent effects of the digi-scape on all sectors of our culture in the 21st century (from music to cinema; from porn to taxi cabs), rock ‘n’ roll is not only still kicking, but it’s thriving, and it’s doing so in the illuminated dark, out of the mainstream limelight. Though it may be snatched or bought off the streets and shamelessly adulterated in corporate studios now and again (and forever doomed to the purgatory of PR sub-genre-labeling), the current garage revival underway proves its spirit is what persists, and what returns to haunt the status quo. It still compels the young at heart to flock to live shows, it’s still pulling teenagers out of the sanitized drudgery of strip mall suburbia, and, above all, it’s still irking inhibited parents.