A little more than ten years ago, Ian Whitcomb's After the Ball was published. My curiosity was immediately piqued. I remembered Whitcomb from his one great song success (he is one of those who can be described by that cruel line, "And now, singing a medley of his hit..."), "You Turn Me On," a frenetic, heavy-breathing number which, if nothing else, sounded more like an obscene phone call than any song that had previously hit the charts.
The book itself opened with one of the most magnificent images in the history of music journalism. Whitcomb, at the time of his one best-seller, was touring America, while on leave from college in his native England. On the bus, he was catching up on his studies, a book of Marx's writings open in his lap when--but let him tell it,
Suddenly, with a dull thwopp, a human book marker hid the print. One of the rock stars had placed his dong, his tool, his wedding tackle, right on the Marx.From that auspicious beginning, the reader was treated to a history of popular music in the 20th century. It was a well-written book, discussing musical trends on both sides of the ocean. It offered a sense of perspective, reminding the contemporary reader that most of the frightening things said about rock & roll in the 50s echoed similar remarks made about ragtime in the 1890s, except that the proprieties of the later date forced the critics and doomsayers to merely hint at what could be stated openly in the earlier days, that the stuff was Negroid Animal-Sex Music being promoted by the Elders of Zion to destroy the Moral Fiber of Christian Youth.
The music of the 50s and 60s--my music--was given only a proportional share of the book, and I hoped that some day Whitcomb would write a fuller treatment of that time, offering more of his own experiences.
Now that book has appeared: Rock Odyssey, a Doubleday trade pb. It is, like its predecessor, the view through an intelligent and jaundiced eye, but it is not the book I had hoped for.
What I had perhaps not paid enough attention to was that Whitcomb wrote about the popular music before rock because he liked that stuff. To me, as to much of my generation, rock & roll music was a glorious revolution against all that crap that had preceded it--big band, "easy listening," and that ultimately loathsome personification of both, Frank Sinatra. (The very last page in that magnificent collection of musical fantasies, Rock Dreams, sums up my feelings perfectly.) To Whitcomb, that was the good stuff, and what he liked best about rock was the music that remained in the tradition.
Whitcomb's experience of the 60s was not mine. He had the misfortune of being introduced to LSD by one of those fools who thought the best way to do it was by surprise, and that colors his view of the cultural and pharmacological aspects.
And now I am older, and as I have said before, I am depressed when I think of the extent to which my opinion of contemporary popular music resembles the feelings the 40-year-olds had about rock and roll when I was a teenager. Well, I guess it's not quite as bad as some of the stuff they said about ragtime.