Tuesday, December 11, 2007

GLORY BE TO GOD FOR DAPPLED THINGS. William H. Dutton quotes Ted Nelson:
To the best of my knowledge, the first rock musical was performed fifty years ago today. No, you probably haven’t heard of it; it ran as scheduled for two nights at Swarthmore College, near Philadelphia. I wrote and directed it in my Junior year, when I was twenty. There is even an LP.
There is indeed; I own a copy:

And I hate to dispute the esteemed Nelson -- an infotech pioneer -- but there aren't any rock songs in it. The score of Anything & Everything is a (to me) highly entertaining pastiche of many different styles including dixieland, Broadway, old school songs and college yells, contemporary radio pop, folk, and the sort of influences that I expect excited bright young things in that era (the Theatre de Lys revival of The Threepenny Opera and the songs of Flanders & Swann, for instance). The tone is modishly disaffected, with gentle swipes at the Organization Man, campus radicalism, sexual license and so forth. Sample lyric:
Everywhere between the sexes
The seat of cathexis is the solar plexus
I just feel like bein' in love, anything will do
'Cause I just need a gentle shove to fall in love with you
The closest thing to rock in it is the climactic "Do The Rock-a-Doodle-Do" ("The kit and kaboodle/They're doin' the Rock-A-Doodle/So why the heck can't you?"), though it's really closer to a narcotized shuffle (except for the Highland fling break), whether by design or interpretation I can't say.

It's weird, though, and fascinating to music pervs like me. I'm glad to have it. A few years back, moving from one tiny rattrap to a tinier one, I had to discard most of my vinyl, keeping only a few dozen specimens, including sentimental favorites (Tonight's the Night), records of my own material, and oddities that I surmised would never be issued digitally. Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music has made it to iTunes, and you can get a box set of the original recording of Leonard Bernstein's hallucinogenic Mass (though without the groovy picture-book), but in some cases I predicted accurately. My LP of the Stephen Foster Carillion Tower playing lumbering versions of "Old Black Joe" etc. will probably never see publication in any other form; neither will Woody Woodbury's First Annual Message From the President of the Booze Is The Only Answer Club. And I suspect Anything & Everything will remain safely restricted to the mouldering discs of a few Swarthmore alumni and myself.

There are probably far fewer analog audiophiles now than there were once upon a time. That battle has been lost by attrition. When I first heard Raw Power on CD I thought it was crap, and maybe if I still had the LP and a really good sound system I'd still think so. But I don't, and digital is what there is. To what extent was the ass-kicking power of "The Real Me" from Quadrophenia through my college roommate's maxed-out shelftop stereo a superior experience to whatever digitally remixed version we're on now? Was it the grooves, or the time and place? I can't tell you and I don't have thousands of dollars to try and recreate the experience. Maybe we were all better off with Edison cylinders.

But the recesses of our cultural memory are an archipelago where vinyl certainly rules. Things were caught on wax that, with rare exceptions, no one will bother to digitize because there's no money in it, or because no one cares, or because they just plain suck. These artifacts have the same value as any unobserved details of life: they are either worthless or a treasure trove, depending on how much faith one has in the obvious, or patience for that which is not obvious. Like bookstall remainders, garage-sale handicrafts, photos found in the trash, or conversations overheard on the bus, or anything you might happen to attend that did not call attention to itself, they are part of a secret world that is larger, and often more interesting, than the consensus reality we half-awakenly inhabit, and to which we can only abandon ourselves at great risk to our souls.

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