Thursday, September 07, 2006

Alien Nation

“All that hatred down there,” he said, “all that hatred and misery and love. It’s a wonder it doesn’t blow the avenue apart.”
--James Baldwin, “Sonny’s Blues”

It is no secret that rock music has long offered a home for rebels without a cause (or at least rebels uncertain of their cause). A big part of what attracted me to Springsteen and his music, as I mentioned before, was a sense that it spoke in some way for me, that it was my music. And a lot of that feeling, from the beginning, was tied up in the song, “Adam Raised a Cain.”

With guitar work that snarls and stings, a menacing bass progression that says “stay out of my way” and a vocal that leaps from cool anger to shouted anguish, this comes close to being Springsteen’s angriest cut ever, and at that time, with a Pentecostal fury that smells of fire and brimstone, it was the closest he’d come to both metal and gospel.

Though the song might be characterized as a showdown between father and son, it is really about the sins that both carry, that tie them together in their ongoing struggle with one another. The frustrated rage comes from both the son’s desire to take his pain out on his father and the recognition that his father carries the same pain, thus confusion over who deserves blame.

This intense identification with a father the son would like to consider the enemy speaks to the way art complicates easy answers, and the way that song spoke to my 15-year-old self makes it that much more complicated. My father and I always had an unusually close relationship. But at that moment in my life, my father had just remarried, and my father’s parenting style was in sharp conflict with the dynamics of his new wife and three new children he’d adopted. In that way a child has of being able to empathize with parents in conflict while seeing their mistakes all the more amplified, I felt helpless, wishing I could somehow stop my father from pushing this new family too hard. Deep down, I know I was angry with both him and my new family, to various degrees.

But, like most of us, anger was a problem for me. In my early nuclear family, I had always been the peacemaker--or at least middle man--between my mother, father and brother, and while I might openly be angry with both my mother and father, I generally felt protective of them. And I could almost never express my anger with my brother or anyone else. I’d watched my parents rage enough that I had learned not to vent my anger in that way, and I’d learned also to always think long and hard about the other side’s point of view.

The sad thing about that perspective was it would take me about two more decades to realize this way of thinking often led me to repress my own anger. I denied my rage. I ate it, and it ate me up inside.

By identifying with the murderous link between father and son in this song, I was able to vent some of that rage. That was the song that had me shouting at the top of my lungs and pounding the dash as I drove my car, and in many ways it was the doorway that opened me to much of the rest of the rage that was central to the punk and new wave music of the time. Later, it would be what I heard stated most honestly and dramatically in the social and political aggressiveness of heavy metal and gangsta rap.

All of this is to say anger is one emotion we often don’t understand, but we feel it, and we bond with art that we see as expressing it. Over the years, I’ve noticed two qualities in my students who I can most easily identify as music fans. One, is their sense of alienation, illustrated by their tendency to wear black music t-shirts and seat themselves in far corners of the room. The other, ironically, is their general characteristic of being kind and open people when they are addressed without condescension. As I project from my own experience, the sweetness and the anger may be inextricably connected. The passive and the aggressive can so easily go hand in hand.

Music fanatics (and I would call myself that, yes) tend to bond with one another in their alienation from mainstream society. In my high school, I knew the handful of fans of underground music by band pins and t-shirts they wore. I’ve generally known my student music fans by their various levels of outlaw dress. Whether they have ultra-white skins, black hair and black clothes; or Harley Davidson, heavy metal shirts and wallet chains; or odd hairdos of different colors, and the occasional extravagant make-up; or dreadlocks, tie-dyed and marijuana-leafed clothing; or their hip hop-cocked hats and low-slung pants—they identify themselves as separate from the dominant culture (which gets harder and harder to define) and aligned with some subculture associated with a specific style of music. Of course, not everyone reveals themselves so openly and certainly not in these precise ways, but my music fans generally announce their sense of self as an outsider in the sterile atmosphere of the academic classroom. I felt that way enough in my own experience as a student, and I still carry a sense of that as a teacher who can’t quite figure out how I ended up on the other side of the podium.

Of course, some kind of alienation has consistently inspired rocking and rolling. I think there’s little coincidence that Clyde McPhatter, Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding and Bobby Womack were preacher’s kids, not only because they learned something about the spirit and showmanship in that environment but also because that role set them apart—for better and worse.

Elvis Presley illustrates the alienation that gave birth to rock and roll as well as anybody. Like Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Elvis Presley was a “cat,” a white kid who immersed himself in and aligned himself with black music. But unlike the relatively affluent Leiber and Stoller (who seemed to consciously engage with black culture out of a sense of social justice and/or rebellion) from an early age, Elvis simply identified with black culture as much or more than he identified with the dominant white culture.

In her Elvis book, Bobbie Ann Mason writes, “Elvis was born into the mind-set of poverty: the deference toward authority and the insolent snarl underlying it, the feeling of inferiority, the insecurity about where the next meal is coming from.” She continues, “The effort to keep from falling off the bottom social rungs into the despair of abject poverty requires an almost gothic desire—and will. The American dream is more urgent when dreamed from near the bottom.”

And somehow, Elvis could hear that dream in music. He grabbed every chance he could to hear music, going down to the courthouse to watch Mississippi Slim play the WELO Jamboree, heading home to hear the Grand Ole Opry on Saturday nights, and getting up and, some Sunday mornings, going to the all black AME church to listen to gospel and spirituals. He was really that kid who carried his guitar with him when he went to school and told the other kids, the ones who would talk to him, that one day they’d be hearing him on the radio.

In what may be my favorite passage, Mason continues: “In high school, he grew his hair long and wore ostentatious outfits from Lansky’s when other kids dressed in simple, nondescript duds and wore their hair in crewcuts. Of course, they made fun of him. Today we may not realize how gutsy it would have been to wear a bolero jacket or black pants with chartreuse-trimmed pistol pockets to school in the conformist fifties. Elvis’s choice of clothing affirmed his marginal status, and it was also an expression of freedom. The shy kid, who often hid in the back row at school, wanted to draw attention to himself.”

That is the heart of the impulse that binds together the glams, greasers, gangstas, ganjas and Goths who people the far corners of my room to this day. A vision of self and community that comes with the music—a unity that seems not to exist anywhere else.

In the mainstream of society that surrounded Elvis, there was no clear path to freedom. But the choir down at the AME sang of freedom, and anyone who played and sang exhibited a freedom to follow their dreams that was simply taboo anywhere else in society. That’s why Springsteen’s, “It ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive” hit so close to the heart for so many of his fans.

A few years ago, when I was sitting watching a concert on TV with my father, he said, “You know why I have such a hard time getting into this music? I resent the fact that they can be so free. I never felt I could be so free.”

Why are teenagers in particular so alienated? Maybe because they sense what their parents feel, have felt? And maybe their own daily trials show just how high the stakes really are? For a million personal reasons, we each have our own means of looking in the mirror and seeing only the freak. One kid feels lepered by acne, while another feels ostracized by a few extra pounds. I can speak for my own list. I had big features that looked goofy, and I’d been sickly a lot as a kid, and I wasn’t particularly coordinated at sports. I was too shy to talk to girls I liked, and my brain went blank when forced into small talk.

The thing most of us face, at least by junior high if not earlier, is that we’ve been lied to. As young children, we tend to be taught that goodness is a virtue, and cooperation is the key to getting along. Some of us are taught that we are special and that we can achieve our dreams when we grow up. Sometimes we even get told that we live in a country where everyone is free and anyone can be President when he or she grows up.

But we don’t escape third or fourth grade without knowing most of these promises are empty. Goodness means nothing when you are the kid targeted by a playground bully, and competition, not cooperation, is the real name of the game. Glares and flicks on the head and a thousand humiliations tell us that we aren’t special at all in the real world, and kids that have fancier homes and nicer clothes tend to be more popular than others.

By adolescence, both school and church begin to represent nothing else so much as the hypocrisy of the world around us. The most self righteous and arrogant kids win heaps of approval, while we struggle against anonymity and degradation. Once, when I was writing a love poem to my crush in the margin of my notebook, my Spanish teacher stopped just over my shoulder and began to read the poem aloud to my classmates, who burst into laughter. That’s the real world of adolescence, in direct contradiction to all that wonderful stuff Robert Fulgham remembers from kindergarten.

Rock music speaks to that betrayal with an honesty that’s all but missing elsewhere. The credit belongs to that class of America’s poor who started the whole thing. In the land of the free and the home of the brave, the founders of rock music and its descendents knew freedom meant the right of one class to enslave another while bravery risks the lynch mob. Whether or not they knew it consciously, the field holler in their voices spoke it and continues to speak it today. The call and response between singers and players asks for a larger conversation with a world of alienated people, suffering in isolation, seeking solace and rejuvenation to make it through another day. What we all know is the way the warmth of melody and rhythm—even when it’s white hot with anger--counters the cold world that surrounds it.

In a world where virtues are expendable and ideals are written off as naiveté, the dreamers naturally feel alienated. And in the Jim Crow world of 1954, it’s significant that Elvis Presley’s first record was a message of acceptance. “That’s Alright Mama, any thing you do.” It was the first of a new breed of records that said this land is truly made for you and me.

(from Monsters, Marx and Music) --art by Lauren Alexander