"Hail, Hail, Rock and Roll"

Ronald Tiersky
January 2017

Book review:

Sean Kay, "Rockin' the free world! How the rock & roll revolution changed American and the world" (Rowman & Littlefield Pubs., Lanham, Md., 2017, 277 pp.)

Sean Kay is Robson Professor of Politics at Ohio Wesleyan University, director of the Arneson Institute for Practical Politics, an associate at the Mershon Center at Ohio State University and a non-resident fellow at the Eisenhower Institute in Washington, D.C.

He's also (like the present writer) an erstwhile rock and roll musician. In college at Kent State, he played guitar with typically-named groups called the Good Rockers and the Flying Locomotives. And, he writes, he's still playing gigs around Central Ohio somehow in the midst of his day job(s), which recently included advising the Bernie Sanders election campaign on foreign policy.

In other words, Kay has street cred to write about the music and about its influence in society and politics. The book is based on dozens of interviews with musicians and journalists, but also some of the people running the business side of rock and roll, whose commercialization of the culture in general has inevitably affected rock and roll.

Kay is an enthusiast of course. But his book is more than nostalgia for the good old days when it all began. "Rock and roll," he says, "is more than a music form--it is an idea, an attitude, a way of thinking about the world."

He quotes the Irish rocker Sinead O'Connor on the influence of Little Richard: "The most powerful words in rock and roll (are), 'A whop-bop-a-lua--a whop bam boom.' Do you know what I mean?" We know what she means.

If you were there and conscious at all in the 1950s, the explosion of rock and roll into the culture was more earthshaking than Beethoven (as Chuck Berry put it: "Roll over Beethoven and tell Tchaikovsky the news.") It wasn't even close. (This writer has compassion for Sean Kay, who was born too late, in 1967.)

Kay's book stresses the upside of rock and roll: "Rock and roll affirms and spreads freedom, equality, human rights, and peace advanced via education and activism." Given the damage rock and roll did at the same time, this probably needs qualification. The overwhelming narcissism, disregard for others (including, and especially, women), the drugs and alcohol-fueled morality--live fast, die young and have a good-looking corpse--needs to be taken into account as well.

But even the downside of rock and roll had a dialectically uplifting message. Kay's conclusion quotes Jann Wenner, co-founder of Rolling Stone magazine. The enduring message of rock & roll is hope. "Hope. That's a good message."

Hope in what sense? Rock music is nothing if not full of energy - which is the first element of hope. We're not dead, complacent or apathetic. It's worth getting up in the morning. The feeling that there's something to hope for, something to look for, something exciting. The message in Leonard Bernstein's song in West Side Story: "Something's coming. Could be! Who knows?"

Rock music is more than pop music. If anything, pop music is rock and roll's dull child. It's the part of pop music that is original, alive and urgent.

Indeed, a sense of joyous urgency: the reason jazz coalesced as a new music, the reason Dixieland developed into Big Band that developed into Be-bop. This urgency is the message of break dancing and hip-hop, with gymnastics added, still alive as anyone riding the New York subway sees every day.

This is the creative urge, the urge to create. Which is of course another way of saying human freedom.

That feeling of freedom is what rock and roll reinvented in the 1950s. But it wasn't alone. There was be-bop and beatniks, our great generation of post-war novelists, the civil rights movement, the world's perception (true or false) of the Kennedy administration, Muhammad Ali. Rock and roll was America, but America was much more than rock and roll.

Wordsworth said it: "Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive. But to be young was very heaven."

Sean Kay's "Rockin' the free world!" is a declaration of faith, in the music and in America.