A friend once asked if I, in the privacy of my home, ever yell at the television screen. Well, yes. He referred to my behavior during football games, but I do most of my yelling – complaints, generally — during presidential press conferences and while watching “Jeopardy!”
The median age of the “Jeopardy!” viewer is 64.2, which indicates that half its audience is older, and that includes me. While many old-timers in the program’s audience think a half-hour of questions and answers is an adequate daily workout for an aging brain, I regard it more as a celebration for those who know information they somehow obtained and remembered without the imprimatur of social propriety, such as a formal education. You can show off what you know about Japanese interior design, for example, without having to mention that you did not learn these facts in school but in one wild weekend in Okinawa.
There is a hidden value in knowing things you’re not supposed to know, especially if they were imparted in ways about which your teachers and parents need not know.
I was about six, and spinning the dial of my grandmother’s furniture-sized living room AM radio, when I first heard the crazed and joyful music of Little Richard. It was accidental, I was uniformed, and the sound came through a vessel designed to capture messages delivered through the sky, and therein are the typical seeds of a religious intervention. I remember marveling at the uninhibited nature of his delivery, what I assumed were nonsensical lyrics and the locomotive-like assistance of his band. Later on I learned the meaning of “flamboyant.” Also “gay,” “Negro” and “menace to public decency.”
It turns out that I enjoy the occasional menace to public decency. With a generation it turns into a communal benefit, with wonderment that anyone objected.
I later learned the phrase “Tutti fruitti, oh rooty” had been rewritten, for the purposes of radio airplay, from “Tutti fruitti, good booty,” and learned, years after that, that the rest of the lyrics to the song originally concerned a graphic depiction of the practice of gay male sexual relations. Knowing stuff like this makes me glad I know it.
It was reported last week that Richard Penniman, a.k.a. Little Richard, had finally died, of bone cancer, at 87. He had few hit records in the 1950s, and none for decades, but his time in the public eye was galvanic in its influence. Think for a moment how your life would be without rock and roll, however you define it, perhaps as the soundscape of your life. I submit that it would be bereft, lacking in something if not necessary than at least beneficial and irreplaceable.
I once attempted to explain the explosive power of Little Richard to a young woman who’d never heard of him. She seemed unimpressed until I said he was once the trigger point of the suggestion by white adults that teenagers were on the highway to hell. That, she seemed to understand.
You may not have heard of Little Richard until this weekend, but the Beatles had. The Rolling Stones had, as did every musical act suspected of driving a wedge between young people and their parents, church, music, American society as it was in the Eisenhower years and whatever else stood for that white-bread uprightness of the time so ready for upheaval. Watch him today on YouTube: you may wonder what the fuss was about, but the manic energy, the effusive joy that evidently comes from mixing gospel and rock, gay and straight, the sacred and the profane, all in one personality – it’s all there.
Little Richard once had Jimi Hendrix in his band. The concert performances of Prince were essentially a tribute to Little Richard. These days, a man performing in bouffant hair, high heels and capes with glass mirrors sewn in is considered mainstream entertainment, examples of which can be seen every night on television.
Society’s outlanders eventually become conventional. It could take a generation or two, but little now frightens a culture in which white suburban women cook in woks, Chinese or Pakistani restaurants are no more exotic than the rest of the dinnertime landscape and that “500 channels” ethos exposes Americans to stuff they may have heard of but know little about.
We can discuss who started rock and roll, a cultural phenomenon that moved across the earth like Christianity, only faster. They have slowly died off, as is natural, and you can name them as easily as I. Jerry Lee Lewis remains, at 84, and Don Everly is 83. Most of those responsible for that start were eventually replaced by cleaner-cut performers – Fabian, Franke Avalon, that crowd – and the record-buying public hardly noticed the transfer. That was the power of the ones who initially shook up society, in a long-ago place called the Fifties.
Contact Ed Adamczyk at EdinKenmore@gmail.com.