Beating Back the Mores of the '50s

This article 1st appeared in my former blog The Prices Do DC

Before there was Bob Dylan, before there were the Beatles, before there was an American counterculture, there were the Beats, a 1950s group of outrageous personalities who were determined to overthrow the restrictive, repressive social mores of the time through their writings and lifestyles.

“They were exactly  the opposite of the conformity of the 1950s. They really wanted to upset the apple cart. It’s very difficult to believe that these people could live in the America then that was the way we know it was today” says author Ronald Collins.

Collins appeared at the Newseum to discuss Mania: The Story of the Outraged and Outrageous Lives That Launched a Cultural Revolution, the new book he co-authored with David Skover.

Collins said he and Skover decided to write the book after their research showed that most of the existing works on the subject were “deadly boring.”

“They would put anybody to sleep in minutes. We wanted to write a high octane narrative like the way they (the Beats) lived their lives,” he explained.

Of course, the work features the best-known of the literary rebels – Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs. But it also sheds light on some of the lesser known figures of the movement like Lucien Carr, who murdered a young New York college student, liked to chew glass at New York parties and then spit out blood, and eventually became the Washington Bureau Chief for UPI (United Press International).

The narrative is a tale of talent, but it is tempered with the effects of lives plagued by alienation, addiction, madness, demons, and often a general disregard for others.

“These people changed the literary landscape, but there was all this carnage,” Collins said. “It’s very easy to admire these men, but when you see these things they did in their lives, you take a deep breath. There was a real dark side. They were fascinated by criminals, by the seedy side of life.”

The Beat writers didn’t have to look too far for sources and settings for their stories, essays, and poems. “They wove the facts of their lives into their fiction,” Collins said. “They produced a body of work that has survived.”

Collins was asked if works of the Beats will last through the ages. “I think some of it will,” Collins maintained.
“‘Howl’ (Ginsberg’s most famous poem) and On the Road by Kerouac. Was Allen Ginsberg the Shakespeare of his time? Absolutely not. But he did have these remarkable moments.”

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Of all the figures associated with the Beat movement, the one that clearly stands out from the others was Lawrence Ferlinghetti . “He was the only one that wasn’t a madman,” Collin says. Ferlinghetti was a poet, but he also operated the famous City Lights bookstore, which still exists in San Francisco. Despite the racy language in the poem, Ferlinghetti decided to publish Ginsberg’s most famous work “Howl” and sell it in his store. Federal authorities seized all the copies of the book, claiming the poem was “a danger to young people who would be exposed to this depravity.” Ferlinghetti decided to fight the action in court, and, in a surprising verdict, the judge ruled in the poem’s favor. For his part, Ferlinghetti seemed to disregard any punitive actions that could have resulted from the legal battle. “What’s the worst that can happen to me. I’ll end up in jail reading poetry.”

I Read the News Today, Oh Boy (12.28.2019)

Each Saturday, Talking ‘Bout My Generation posts links to articles of interest to Baby Boomers which appeared in various news sources earlier in the week.

Monday Morning Music Memory (12.23.2019)

Before there was rock & roll, there was New Orleans’ Fats Domino playing his piano and offering his brand of Creole rhythm and blues. You can learn how much Fats influenced rock & roll music, especially that of the Beatles, by picking up and reading my new book Come Together: How the Baby Boomers, the Beatles, and a Young Counterculture Combined to Create the Music of the Woodstock Generation.

It’s available exclusively at the Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington, DC, or you can order it online by clicking here.

Since Christmas 1957, the Jingle Bells Have Been Rockin'

By Dave Price (this article 1st appeared in Booming Encore)

Once the sounds of rock n’ roll started filling the airwaves by the late-1950s, it was only a matter of time until someone would record and release the first Christmas-themed rock song destined to become a holiday classic.

And that honor goes to Bobby Helms with his 1957 hit “Jingle Bell Rock”.

Although today, Helms is considered a relatively obscure artist, the rockabilly singer had recorded two #1 hits on the country chart – “Frauline” and the still-performed doo-wop classic “My Special Angel” before “Jingle Bell Rock,” which peaked at #6 on the Billboard Chart. Helms’ version charted again in 1958 and 1960.

At first, Helms, who had moved to Nashville from his native Indiana, didn’t think much of the tune, which is credited to songwriters Joseph Beale and James Booth. Helms claims he and session guitarist Hal Garland worked to improve the song including adding the bridge which begins “What a bright time, it’s the right time, to rock the night away …”. Neither Helms nor Garland ever received songwriting credit for their work.

“It was such a bad song. So, me and one of the musicians (Garland) worked on it for about an hour, putting a melody and a bridge to it,” Helms said during a 1992 interview which appeared in the Indianapolis Star. “I really didn’t want to record it, but now I’m sure glad I did”.

For his part, Garland, is recognized as one of Nashville’s greatest session guitarists, playing on records by Elvis Presley, Patsy Cline, the Everly Brothers, and Roy Orbison. Producer and guitarist Chet Atkins called Garland, who also played on the other 1950s rock-and-roll holiday classic, Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” the best guitar player “to ever come out of Nashville”.

“Jingle Bell Rock” has been recorded by artists as diverse as The Platters, the Beach Boys, and southern rockers .38 Special. Two cover versions have made the charts. In 1962, a Philly version by Chubby Checker and Bobby Rydell made it to #40 in England and in 1983 a version by another pair of Philly musicians Daryl Hall and John Oates peaked at #6 on Billboard’s holiday play chart.

Helms’ song has been featured in dozens of TV shows and three holiday movies – Lethal Weapon 1, Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, and Jingle All the Way, all of which brought new, younger listeners to his classic.

Obviously, “Jingle Bell Rock” resurfaces each season from November to New Year’s Day and continues to be popular. It has sold more than 1 million copies in the United States alone. In 2016, StationIntel rated the song as the third most played that season. In that same year, the song was downloaded 700,000 times according Nielsen SoundScan, making it the 9th most popular song that Christmas season. Rolling Stone magazine names “Jingle Bell Rock” as the 10th greatest Christmas song of all-time, while Esquire magazine has it in 16th place in its list.

Helms’ Christmas classic, along with his other work, helped secure him a place in the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. Even though he never had another big hit, Helms continued to tour and perform for three decades after the release of “Jingle Bell Rock”. He died in 1997 at age 63 in Indiana.\