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Don't Mind Dyin’: Rock & roll’s last encores at the Ponderosa Stomp: OC WEEKLYby CHRIS ZIEGLER
We were just about in Texas when the photographer realized he’d left his Earl Palmer LP at home, propped prominently against his record player, and now when we got to New Orleans, he would have nothing worthy for Earl Palmer to autograph. This was a problem because Earl Palmer—famed session drummer for Little Richard, for James Brown, for Sam Cooke, for Ike Turner, for the Beach Boys, for Neil Young, for the Batman theme, honestly one of rock & roll’s essential musicians—was born in 1924, and Earl Palmer—knock three times as I type this—would probably soon be dead.
There hadn’t been much talk about the death of rock & roll for a while now, but we were headed to a sort of ultra-Hootenanny, a two-day R&B/soul/rock & roll show in April called the Ponderosa Stomp (justifiably touted as “two nights of insane rock & roll,” and held in a stifling New Orleans bowling alley), and actual non-metaphorical death was practically second billed on all the advertisements: “We’re losing so many of these first-generation artists,” Dr. Ira Padnos, the Stomp’s curator and a Louisiana State University assistant professor of anesthesiology better known by his nom de musee Dr. Ike, would say. “It’s important to hear these performers and dance to their music. Ten years from now, they may not be around.”
Rock & roll has always played like it’s unafraid of death, yet not death in quite this way: live long, die slow, leave a wrinkled-up old corpse. But Dr. Ike was right. The last encore was about to happen. Elvis Presley had his first hit on a major label in 1956, a moment that means different things to different people; most romantically, the debut of the King dimmed the lights on what we now call the “early” days of rock & roll, an anarchic, mythic era when the music had neither a name nor a template. And while new variants of style and taste would bounce back and forth post-Elvis, establishing a very American form of pop culture that would survive pretty much until the Beatles (famously described as stealing our 1956 rock & roll and beaming it right back to us), it’s that wild early spirit—record reviewers use words like swampy, primal, primitive—that something like the Hootenanny or the Stomp tries to honor.
But 1956 was a long time ago. Even Elvis would have been 70 this year. The average human life span is around 76, from a sample that didn’t hammer at their own guts like almost every musician since drink tickets began. Sometime soon, just like with Civil War veterans, there will come a time when everyone who was there—those who wrote the songs, played the guitars, even just saw the concert at the teen center—will be gone, which will make a certain kind of rock & roll from then on a secondhand experience.
Which it almost is already. The recorded document of a live band is, at best, a supplemental but equal work—a Raw Power, for example, to stand separate but side-by-side with Iggy trying to fight a biker gang in 1974. Post-Pet Sounds, post-Sgt. Pepper, that’s not so much true anymore—the recording is an art form unto itself. But in 1956? The big studio trick was slapback. You cut to tape live. You did your best, and then you went out and gigged. Maybe that’s what reviewers mean by “primitive”: musicians still had a bit of the medieval in them, the tail end of the troubadour tradition, an art form that was a very transient one, presented in fallible real time to whoever showed up to hear it. Live music is dynamic; it must be re-created on the spot, over and over, and created anew as it happens—the inspired improv, the happy accident. This is the heart of a band; filmmakers do not re-shoot a movie each time they plan to show it, and authors do not re-type their short stories. A hit 45 might get people excited, but that’s not where the process stops. There is something that must happen between performer and audience.
Unless nobody’s left to play. People understand this about music; they fly out to see “last shows” or reunion tours even if they have all the records because they recognize that the human part of music is the most special, as well as the most fragile—that once it’s gone, there’s only echoes on tape. Good, maybe, but not the real thing. And that’s why we were in New Orleans, though it makes me sound like a vampire: to see the real thing.
* * *
The Stomp was torture; it was designed to be: so much rock & roll, grinned Dr. Ike, that your body would collapse and you’d moan, “No more!” Which probably actually happened, since previous Stomps regularly ran till 6 a.m.—in New Orleans, the liquor stays up as late as you do—with septuagenarian soul singers belting it out for the last hardy (and blasted) survivors. This year, the first night ran—purportedly—to the minute. The second blew easily into 3 or 4 a.m. There were two stages set up in a bowling alley so vintage it still had hand-scoring tables and so vintage it didn’t even have windows . . . or ventilation. There was a dedicated bar for each stage and a ragged line of vendors—Rudy Ray Moore was selling pimp sticks, and he had one of the most professional setups—and a thousand-some old people who were tough as fucking nails. I must have been one of the very youngest people there, and I’m not that young—older than a lot of dead rock & rollers ever were, by far.
But these were the originals. I watched a guy with a wedge of white hair push past some baby-faced doof in a cowboy-snap-button shirt and a shimmery D.A. cut: What’s that like, I wondered, to run into your own actual youth reincarnated, in the too-big-for-him clothes you probably donated to the thrift store in the first place? I was gonna ask, but then another grandpa turned around to me and said, “Hey, you look like a guy in the know. Where can I get a puff around here?” I was too shocked to shake out a sentence, so he mimed a joint between two fingers in case I didn’t get it and said, “Hey, if you’re gonna reminisce, you gotta REMINISCE!”
They had the look—what Michael Herr meant when he said he couldn’t tell the rock & roll veterans from the Vietnam veterans, and when he wrote that rock & roll was already getting pretty lame. You’d stand next to a guy who looked like an insurance salesman, and then 20 minutes later, he’d be onstage—he was Roy Head, shouter behind “Treat Her Right,” (the song from Catch Me If You Can, do you remember?), and he had his voice intact, and suddenly he broke off a story about falling drunk off a stage to drop to his belly and do the ’gator up and down between his guitar players. He had more charisma than kids a quarter his age, and (supposedly) he really was an insurance salesman!
The Stomp didn’t book like the Hootenanny, which deals mostly with . . . let’s call them “working musicians.” The Stomp digs for stars like those blues hunter guys dig for 78s, finding old men and women and handing them a 50-year-old record and saying, “Remember this?” (They really do that, says Dr. Ike: he’ll send people copies of their own recordings, just to refresh their memories.)
It’s a strange atmosphere, absolutely charged with devotion: performers who haven’t been on a stage for 30 years, maybe a week or two off from dawdling with the grandkids or snipping at the retirement garden, and then Dr. Ike knocks on their door and even sets up the backing band. There’s always plenty of guys kicking around who never stopped playing out, if at a more modest level—the Ventures’ Nokie Edwards barely cracked a smile as he led Hootenanny-and-Stomp alum Deke Dickerson though a pinpoint-precise set of surf songs. But naturally, for an event that draws from the obsessive collector crowd, it was the rarest appearances that everyone loved most—as it should be, I thought.
There is such an unresolved question of aging in rock & roll. I’ve had punk bands tell me they wanted to play for the rest of their lives, “like jazz musicians.” What they must have meant is they wanted a pass to be old and still cool—as opposed to, say, Billy Idol—and that they wanted their audience to age with them, so they wouldn’t feel shackled to the disgusting tastes of teenagers. (There comes a point when a 50-year-old man can’t and shouldn’t be able to relate to a 16-year-old kid; or maybe not just to a 16-year-old kid.) But for those who weren’t able to keep their career going, the Stomp offered a sort of second prize—a sweet twilight redemption for performers who felt their moment had come and gone. Which it had. But it feels good to know people remember. Betty Harris (the southern soul belle—born 1941—who sang “Cry to Me” and “Mean Man”) hadn’t performed since 1970; it’s hard to resist turning up the schmaltz, but she did look a little like she might cry as she stretched her arms wide open to hold a high note. “Thanks for coming,” she said. “Thanks for caring.”
* * *
At this point I had to decide if I felt like a ghoul, and if so, why? I wouldn’t say it was better then—before the Beatles came, before Elvis, like talking about an occupation. But there is a gravity that pulls us back to the source. Or maybe that’s just nostalgia, afflicting those without any authentic experiences of their own. Fitzgerald wrote that the artist appreciates the inventor over the imitator, which was his own polished version of the Picasso original: “You do something first, and then someone else comes along and does it pretty.” He died eight years before Wynonie Harris released his No. 1 “Good Rockin’ Tonight”—and 16 years before Elvis hit it big, which really would have been something for him to write about—but the point still stands.
And the recordings themselves still stand. They are sometimes capsules in amber and sometimes crystal balls; they preserve a lost past, and the very best still predict a future. But they’re static. They change only because the listener changes, and at something like the Stomp they become independent: the songs not only the way they were supposed to sound then but the way they actually sound now, Johnny Farina’s “Sleepwalk” caroming live off cell phones and breast implants. They offer a new chance for experience, they say something different, create something anew—you know, at this point, I start feeling like a vampire again.
But these songs were written at a strange time—the birth of one of America’s most lasting forms of pop culture, at a time when America itself was about to enter its most dynamic era—and to hear them performed by the very people who’d written them was to experience a very dissonant juxtaposition, a sudden and startling animation of all those inanimate records. Author Nick Tosches writes that early rock & roll offered so much freedom it must have been blind: that lack of limitations that comes as something builds enough momentum to make a movement, but before anyone makes any rules. That’s the spirit something like the Hootenanny or Ponderosa Stomp remembers; that’s something only the people who were there as it happened—who worked on and were worked on by every instance around them—still have. Meaning is a sucker’s game, says Tosches. But then again: there’s Ray Bradbury’s story about an old, old man who discovers that he is a time machine—more correctly, he is a remembering machine until he is given a chance to tell a story, and then he becomes a time machine, taking a set of young boys all the way back to the Civil War. “Living history” is such an airline-magazine idea, but, well, someone like Betty Harris is alive, and she made history, and when she is gone, what else goes with her?
The history of popular music is written about the hits, a reasonable enough distortion that nonetheless tends to propagandize pop culture: certainly literate teenyboppers like you or I don’t take Wowsville’s Rockin’ ’50s Diner too seriously, but what would something like that feel like to Earl Palmer, whose songs are absolutely in the CD jukebox? (Hope he got paid, by the way.) And what will we think in 2045 when the grandkids take us to ’50s Blingin’ Burger Shizzle—will we care when our own lives become the next generation’s cartoon characters? Maybe not, since we’ve been raised on that sort of thing anyway. But I saw a lot of people at the Stomp who were raised on something different; surrounded by hundreds who knew their songs, they mostly looked very happy. Even as epilogue, there was a kind of energy, enough to make you wonder what it would have been when things were actually happening: lunatics and geniuses, set blindly free, now lost under years of circumstance and self-destruction and simple bad luck. Does it matter who these people were and what they did? I don’t know: What kind of world would it be now, and what kind of music would they play on the radio, and what kind of person would you or your parents be if Jerry Lee Lewis had been Elvis instead? But beyond that, it’s just their due. These are songs that deserve to be remembered. Or at least played one more time.
* * *
Detroit soul singer Nathaniel Mayer closed the Stomp this year, to (of course) the last hardly-any people, all real drunk but still proud of themselves for making it to the end of the marathon. It wasn’t that tough; the day I can be out-rock-&-rolled by a seventysomething man turned out to be April 27. But I saw Mayer in LA later, with a better backing band from his Detroit hometown; he played before a awful pretentious-punk band, and even though his voice had cracked out of the smooth crooner’s range he had on his 1962 sorta-hit “Village of Love,” I feel confident reporting that he still had . . . it. (“He’s very spry,” added a Detroit friend.) He had girls out of the front row and dancing onstage, he had kids who had never heard the name Nathaniel next to the name Mayer before in their lives (“Who’s this My-er dude?”) singing along to his song “House of Correction,” and most inspiringly, he was still pissed at Detroit soul rival Gino Washington, over something that you’d have to be 65 to understand.
These were all encouraging signs. And while he wasn’t brilliant, there was an appealing economy to his band—who barely had working clothes, much less effects pedals or drum toys—and a certain disciplined, unflagging energy. It was a very practical sort of rock & roll; a soundtrack from a Detroit assembly line. The Ponys (from Chicago) headlined above him; unlike Mayer, they had neglected to include anything people might want to listen to or remember later in their songs—choruses, melodies, you get it—and presented instead some rambling student poetry through a lot of guitar noise. There was nothing in the songs for the audience to understand or relate to, and the band obviously didn’t care; they played staring over everyone’s heads into the black back wall: those who do not learn their history are condemned to disgrace it.
I had a Nathaniel Mayer 45 I meant to bring, but I’d forgotten too; it was sitting at home, propped prominently against my record player. I settled for shaking his hand. But I saw the photographer there—he had soldiered through Mayer’s 3 a.m. set in New Orleans, and he asked if I wanted to go visit Earl Palmer sometime. Palmer couldn’t play drums anymore—doctor’s orders, though that doctor was such a supportive guy he’d actually come to the Stomp to see Palmer emcee between bands. But he lived now in Palm Springs, and he had invited the photographer to come by and get that record signed. As of today, he was—knock three times as I type this—still very much alive.