Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Franklin Rosemont: Mods, Rockers and the Revolution

Robber Bridegroom (Surrealist London Action Group) notes the passing this month of Franklin Rosemont (1943-2009), Chicago-based 'poet, artist, historian, editor, and surrealist activist'. Rosemont was active in the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, also known as the wobblies). The following is an article he wrote for The Rebel Worker (no.3), published by the IWW in Chicago in March 1965 - ahead of its time in rejecting the sniffiness of many leftists towards pop music. Many more articles from The Rebel Worker and its London counterpart Heatwave can be found in the excellent Dancin' In The Streets!: Anarchists, IWWs, Surrealists, Situationists & Provos In The 1960s which Rosemont edited with Charles Radcliffe.

Mods, Rockers and The Revolution

Wobblies and other true revolutionaries are much less interested in the vague longings of college professors and Nobel prize-winners for a "better world" than in the day-to-day struggles of our fellow workers- not only the direct strug­gles against exploitation by the bosses, but the struggle to live some sort of decent life against all the obstacles presented by a society divided into classes. Thus it is essential that we concern ourselves not only with the job situation and economic questions but also with more "superstructural" anthropological factors: working class culture.

In this connection, the significance of rock'n'roll, and popular adolescent culture in general, has for too long been ignored. That rock'n'roll is one of the most important working class preoccupa­tions (among the young, at least) is clearly evident. That it has been ignored by the "left" press is additional testimony to the isolation of the ‘socialist’ intellectuals from the class in whose name they so often enjoy speaking.

Certain unfortunate souls, including many of traditional "left" ori­entation, have attempted to deny that rock'n'roll is really a working ­class phenomenon, even suggesting that it is imposed (!) on working-class adolescents by Madison Avenue, etc., as a form of exploitation through cheap talent, record sales and juke-boxes. To them rock'n'roll is a sign only of the "decadence" of contemporary capitalist society. They can neither take it seriously as a form of music nor see in it anything other than a possible "reliever of tensions" which they feel might better be expressed in more constructive activity. Thus Marshall Stearns in The Story of Jazz, thoroughly puts down rock'n'roll as a form of music but claims that by offering "release" to anxious kids, it actually contributes to the decrease of juvenile delinquency. This uneasy, patronizing anti-rock'n'roll "theory" is, amusingly enough, shared by Stalinists, lib­erals, Presbyterians, conservatives and bourgeois sociologists.

We must have done, once and for all, with this kind of evasive excuse-mongering, and look at the situation as it really exists. Rock'n'roll must be recognized not only as a form of music (which, for its players and its listeners is clearly as "serious" as any other) but also as an important expression of adolescent preoccupations.

As music, rock'n'roll is certainly ‘primitive’ but this must not be assumed to mean that it is therefore inferior. No one is less able than musicologists and other prisoners of academic limitations to situate this problem in its proper context. For the importance of rock'n'roll lies not only in the music itself, but even more in the milieu which has grown up with it, characterized above all by delirious enthusiasm, a frenzy which is no stranger to tenderness, and which undoubtedly appears scandalous to the easily-outraged watchdogs of bourgeois morality.

Much could be said for the influence of rock'n'roll on the emer­gence of a new sensibility (intellectual as well as erotic and emotional). Much could be said, too, of its unconscious quality, which, with its roots in speed-up and automation (and thus in the class struggle) lends to its "subversive” aspect. For rock'n'roll is, more than anything else, a latent cultural expression of the age of automation. Indeed, a study of the psychoanalytical and anthropological implications of automation might well make rock'n'roll its point of departure. Witness the fact that almost all of the most popular rock'n'roll groups are from the most intensely industrialized and highly-automated cities: in the United States, Chicago and Detroit; in England, Liverpool, where one out of every fifteen "Liverpudlians" between the ages of 15 and 24 now belongs to a rock'n'roll group.

The best of the new groups - Martha and the Vandellas, Marvin Gaye, The Jewels, The Velvellettes, The Supremes, Mary Wells (all from Detroit), and The Kinks, The Zombies, Manfred Mann and, of course, The Beatles (all from England)- have brought to popular music a vitality, exuberance and rebelliousness which it has never seen before.

The Beatles are the most successful group in entertainment history. Their flippant replies to interviewers; their wild, raucous behavior; their riotous and insulting sense of humor remove them far beyond the pale of ‘respectable entertainers’. Their first movie, A Hard Day's Night, will remain one of the greatest cinematic delights of 1964, a lone cry of uninhibited freedom and irrationality in a cold desert of "seri­ousness" and pretentiousness.

The legendary quality, which can almost be called mythical neces­sity, of The Beatles, has not failed to attract the critical attention of some perceptive commentators. Consider this judgment from the pen of Jean Shepherd, who interviewed The Beades for Playboy maga­zine (February 1965):

‘In two years they had become a phenomenon that had some­how transcended stardom or even showbiz. They were mythical beings, inspiring a fanaticism bordering on religious ecstasy among millions all over the world. I began to have the uncomfortable feel­ing that all this fervor had nothing whatever to do with entertain­ment, or with talent, or even with The Beatles themselves. I began to feel that they were the catalyst of a sudden world madness that would have burst upon us whether they had come on the scene or not. If The Beatles had never existed, we would have had to invent them. They are not prodigious talents by any yardstick, but like hula-hoops and yo-yos, they are at the right place at the right time, and whatever it is that triggers the mass hysteria of fads has made them walking myths. Everywhere we went, people stared in open­-mouthed astonishment that there were actually flesh-and-blood human beings who looked just like the Beatle dolls they had at home. It was as though Santa Claus had suddenly shown up at a Christmas Party’.

Another British group, The Rolling Stones, has risen to popular­ity more recently, bringing with them a more disquieting, more sin­ister, more violent attitude into the rock'n'roll arena.

It is in England where the adolescent revolt (of which rock'n'roll is only one constituent element) seems to have assumed its largest proportions. In England the kids are categorized into two "tenden­cies": Mods, fashionably (often bizarrely) dressed, and who are asso­ciated with motor-scooters; and the Rockers, who prefer black leather jackets, blue jeans, and motorcycles. In both cases the boys wear their hair long, considerably longer than in America, and (according to a New York Times writer from Britain) "the word in London and Liverpool is that male hair is going to get longer and longer." The girls' hair is usually straight and worn down to the middle of the back.

The hair itself deserves comment, particularly since hair is growing longer in the United States as well as in England and elsewhere in Europe. The social implications of hair fashion have been inadequately studied, if studied at all. Some psychologists and sociologists have confined them­selves to brief, unexplained remarks on "sexual confusion”, "identity problems," and the like, which help very little. Others, it is true, have gotten a little closer to the heart of the matter. Thus the New York Times writer referred to above mentions that "sociologists, always a pessimistic lot, look on our jungled tresses and prophesy a future filled with indul­gence and rebellion." For it is an undeniable fact that short male hair has always been a characteristic of submission to authority. The police, pris­ons, army, schools, and employers are all in agreement in insisting on short hair and regular haircuts. Also, crew-cuts are the symbol, almost, of Goldwater conservatism. Before making unfounded judgments on the "identity problems" of today's kids, one might consider the problems of a culture so obsessed with keeping male hair short.

The riots and brawls of the Mods and the Rockers have also called attention to another aspect of the youth revolt: that rock'n'roll represents the only mass protest music today- another reason why it deserves the sympathetic appreciation of revolutionaries. The most pop­ular jazz has entcrcd the colleges and become respcctable. The most important developments in jazz during the last few years (Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy, Charles Mingus, Roland Kirk, et al.) are hardly known outside a small audience of connoisseurs. It is useless to point out that jazz is, musically, ten thousand times better than rock'n'roll; that's not the point. The audience for contemporary "classical" music is even more limited.

As for "folk" music and its derivatives (country-and-western, bluegrass, etc.) these have become the official expressions of today's college fraternities. (Real folk music is primarily of historical inter­est.) Those unhappy souls of the traditional "left" who try to pre­tend that the "folk revival" has some sort of revolutionary content rellect only their sentimentality and intellectual superficiality. I do not mean to imply that there's not much that is beautiful and impor­tant in the folk tradition, and certainly it deserves serious study. But it can no longer be assumed to have anything to do with the working class. At any rate, workingclass kids are bored by it. Like it or not, what today's workingclass kids are listening to is rock'n'roll.

The rise of the Mods and Rockers indicates to some degree a rise of young rebellion everywhere: the" new youth" of Tokyo, Berlin, Moscow, etc. Inevitably, this has provoked innumerable journalistic scare-stories about "new parent-teen crises" in Sunday supplements throughout the world. Such articles contribute nothing of importance to the understanding of the contemporary adolescent, though they do shed a little light on the problems and preoccupations of adults. Repressed adults, attempting to understand younger people, often merely project their own problems onto the kids.

Many parents, for instance, afraid of participating in uninhibited dancing, approach the question with the presuppositions that there is something wrong with this kind of dancing, and that it must be rooted in some deep emotional anxiety. I do not mean to say that rock'n'roll dances are expressions of "freedom" (the lack of physical contact berween dancing partners is especially problematical). But we cannot advance one step in our understanding of these problems if we begin by saying that the kids are wrong.

There can be no doubt that the present development of rock' n' roll, and the milieu of young workers in which it thrives, is more con­sciously rebellious than it has ever been before. To be revolutionary, of course, is to be more than rebellious, for a revolutionary viewpoint necessarily includes some sort of alternative. And popular adolescent culture is pregnant with revolutionary implications precisely because it proposes alternatives- however crude and undeveloped they may be- to the ignoble conditions now prevailing.

Songs like "Dancin' in the Streets" by Martha and the Vandellas and "Opportunity" by The Jewels show that the feeling for freedom and the refusal to submit to routinized, bureaucratic pressures, are not confined to small, isolated bands of conscious, politically "sophisti­cated" revolutionaries. Rather, they are the almost instinctive atti­tudes of most of our fellow workers. Presently these feelings are to a great extent repressed, and sublimated in bourgeois politics, television, baseball, and other diversions. It is our function as disrupters of the capitalist system, and as union organizers, to heighten consciousness of these feelings, to encourage rebellion, to do all we can to liberate the intrinsically revolutionary character of the working class. Rock'n'roll, which has already contributed to a freer attitude toward sex relations, can contribute to this liberation.

There is no use being overly romantic about all this. I do not, for example, think that adolescent hangouts and record hops will provide fruitful recruiting grounds for the One Big Union; at least, not right away.

And for my part, I vastly prefer the more raucous rhythm'n'blues - songs sung by ghetto Negro groups - to the lukewarm, diluted sounds promoted in teen-celebrity magazines and on American Bandstand.

But what revolutionaries must consider is that many younger work­ers - rock'n'rollers - are discontented with existing society, and are seeking and developing solutions of their own. If traditional revolutionary politics hasn't appealed to them, it's probably because these politics haven't been as "revolutionary" as their protagonists like to pretend.

We in the IWW are not tied to narrow theoretical traditions and immovable dogmas. We are rising today because we are free to seek new solutions and develop new tactics to meet new situations. If we are going to keep growing, we will have to turn more to the problems of younger workers. It might be noted that jobs most common to kids (stock work, filling-station work, store clerking, etc.) are almost completely unorganized, and offer us a splendid opportunity to chan­nel the "youth revolt" into a consciously revolutionary movement.

In any case, we cannot go on assuming that the rock'n'rollers are a helpless, ignorant, reactionary mass; that their problems are not our problems; that they are somehow "irrelevant." We must recognize that the rock 'n 'rollers, too, despite the hesitations of" socialist" politi­cians, are our friends and fellow workers.


Mister Trippy said...

Was sad to hear about FR. Charlie Radcliffe forwarded me the email he got from PR, so I'd heard pretty much straight away. The essay is wonderful, as it the entire Dancin' In The Streets book, a great insight into that period and the contextualising essays are really useful too. If anyone hasn't read this, it is really worth the effort of laying your hands on!

Poumista said...

Thanks for this. Links to more obits here:
Franklin Rosemont, fellow worker, surrealist poet, great American « Poumista