Having completed the requirements for my major in English Literature but no desire to hop off the scholarship gravy train, visit this site I padded out my extended undergraduate career with a lot of low-level history, religious studies, and American studies offerings.
Even if I was already familiar with most of the material covered in these courses, it was a useful experience in terms of clarifying certain concepts and developing a sense of discipline that I assumed I need when eventually moved on to graduate school. (They were also an easy means of spackling over the damage my cumulative GPA took from my futile efforts at being a physics major.)
It was with the assumption of aquiring a formal framework for retrological study that I signed up for a freshman-level class titled “American Pop Culture.” What I got was a five-foot tall bulldog of a professor indulging in a semester-long freeform rant about the musical Oklahoma! and the life and times of Elvis Presley.
His digressive dissection of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s take on frontier life was mildly interesting, but it was his discussion of Elvis’s impact on popular music and popular culture that would have a profound impact on my both my musical tastes and my perspective on the multi-disciplinary Frankenstein’s monster known as “retrology.”
It wasn’t easy keeping up with the professor’s stream of consciousness flow of facts and bias (which included moments where he’d pause a song or video recording and jump up and down as he pointed out some important revelation, but it was well worth making the effort to follow the various narrative threads between current perceptions and past realities — what is popularly “remembered” and what actually was.
He also rescued the wild, raunchy early days of rock and roll from the quaint stodginess of nostalgia’s realm. To modern ears, “Tutti Frutti” and “Johnny B. Goode” are safe, santiary artifacts of a mythologized “Good Old Days,” but consider how they sounded to white audiences accustomed to Patti Page or Perry Como. Subsequent transgressive music genres (punk, metal, rap, et cetera) at least operated within a recognizable (if marginal) musical context. The moral panic resulting from rock and roll’s debut largely operated in uncharted territory opened up by a confluence of specific cultural, racial, and demographic circumstances.
I came away from the class with not only an easy 4.0 and new perspectives about cultural history, but also a newfound appreciation for rock and roll’s pioneers, forebears, and fellow travellers — folks like Billy Lee Riley, a Sun Records labelmate of Elvis, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis. Riley never reached the same level of fame as his peers, but did record some joyously wild rockabilly delivered in his trademark raspy yowl.
Riley passed away from cancer on August 2nd, so consider this my tribute to the man, his music, and the quirk of fate that introduced me to his rare talents.
Recommended Listening: Billy Lee Riley & His Little Green Men – Flyin’ Saucers Rock & Roll (from a 1957 single; collected on Red Hot: The Best of Billy Lee Riley, 1999)[audio:0805brfs.mp3]
It was a toss up between this and Riley’s other signature tune, “Red Hot.” While I think the latter song — featuring a great back-and-forth exchange betwee the Riley and his band — is the superior effort, you can’t get more retrologically perfect than an early rock ‘n’ roll cut about a musical invasion from the planet Mars.