All shook up: a historian examines rock and roll…sorta

“Rock and roll might best be summed up as monotony tinged with hysteria.” – Vance Packard

All Shook Up: How Rock ‘n’ Roll Changed America by Glenn Altschuler (image courtesy Goodreads)

I just finished a book that is kinda/sorta amusing, kinda/sorta amazing. Glenn Altschuler’s All Shook Up: How Rock ‘n’ Roll Changed America will amuse anyone who knows a lot about rock music and rock music history (ahem); it will amaze anyone who thinks rock and roll books should be about – well, rock and roll, for one thing. This historical account of the rise of rock and roll in the 1950’s and its evolution and status through to the early 2000’s is long on what we call cultural history.

In some ways this is a good thing because Altschuler can focus on America as a society and how rock and roll music’s explosion into public consciousness, after simmering in a stew of up tempo country music (think Hank Williams’ “Hey, Good Lookin'”) and rhythm and blues (think of Joe Turner’s “Shake, Rattle, and Roll”), affected those who were teenagers, their parents, teachers, and other elders, and the social structure those parents supported and sustained.

The major figures who emerged as rock and roll’s stars – figures such as Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and, of course, Elvis, receive what feels like cursory treatment, at least as cursory a treatment as Altschuler can give them and explore his thesis (see title). In other words, Professor Altschuler is more interested in the effects of rock and roll on American culture than in rock and roll itself. Continue reading

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Nathaniel Hawthorne: who’s that?

Nobody, I think, ought to read poetry, or look at pictures or statues, who cannot find a great deal more in them than the poet or artist has actually expressed.” – Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Marble Faun

Nathaniel Hawthorne (image courtesy Wikimedia)

I was listening to a radio version of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Lady Eleanore’s Mantle” (called “The Curse of the Mantle” on the program) on XM’s Radio Classics channel several days ago. As host Greg Bell, a classic radio era expert who serves as host on the channel did his outro, he talked a little about Hawthorne and noted that he was an “American author whose noted works include The House of the Seven Gables and The Scarlet Letter.”

Greg Bell is a skilled announcer and a knowledgeable fellow, and I enjoy his program notes on the history of the programs he presents. He is invariably chipper and pleasant in his delivery, and he is almost always complimentary about the programs.

His remarks about Hawthorne in the quote above are accurate, of course, and certainly Bell meant only to provide a bit of gloss about the story (which comes from Hawthorne’s Twice Told Tales) and its author. But this was one of those times when his chipper delivery and all too brief remarks struck me as all wrong for informing his audience about an author whose work is as brooding and complex as Hawthorne’s.

As a thought exercise, let’s look at how some others contemporaries described the estimable Hawthorne….
Continue reading

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The McDonaldization of pretty much everything…part 3

 “If we are going to go anywhere, we’ve got to have talent. And, I’m going to put my money in talent.” – Ray Kroc, founder, McDonald’s

McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc, channeling his inner Che Guevara (image courtesy Pinterest)

Read part 1, part 2)

If you’ve ever worked in a fast food restaurant, especially any big chain fast food restaurant (and millions have, so the odds are good many people who read this will have done so), you remember the training: every action is done by a specific rule, and it must be done by that rule. Every. Single. Time.

There’s a reason for that.  It’s called Hamburger University.

Milkshake mixer salesman Ray Kroc approached Richard and Maurice McDonald in 1954 with the idea of franchising their Southern California hamburger stands. His interest was to create a series of stores, tightly controlled (Kroc would allow franchisees to purchase only one store at a time which gave him a measure of control no their restaurant chain possessed) and modeled on his vision of “mechanized” food served efficiently, predictably, and calculably.

His plan succeeded beyond even his fondest dreams. Continue reading

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The McDonaldization of pretty much everything…part 2

“Most specifically, irrationality means that rational systems are unreasonable systems. By that I mean that they deny the basic humanity, the human reason, of the people who work within or are served by them.” – George Ritzer 

Adolf Eichmann, the perfect bureaucrat (image courtesy Wikimedia)

When we ended part 1 of this series, we were talking about government bureaucracy. The hyper-rationalism and focus on chain of command, efficiency, and control that government bureaucracy relies upon, sadly,is epitomized by the bureaucratic machinery the Nazis developed to implement The Final Solution.

The attempt to exterminate all of the Jewish population of Europe was a highly bureaucratic operation, and it was characterized by Nazi attempts to implement the characteristics of effective bureaucracy. The system operated in a rigidly controlled hierarchical manner, which likely explains the now cliched excuse offered by many in that bureaucracy of death that they were “following orders.” Tasks within the system were hyper-rationally reduced to their simplest elements and personnel were given specific, limited jobs within the system and made to understand that they should not look beyond their given duties. Careful accounts of “production” were kept and provide some of the most chilling reading in human history.

Perhaps most importantly, human beings were detached from their humanity by use of abstract language. References to “units” instead of persons is but one example of this sort of abstraction. This detachment of the human (and humane) from the process, one suspects, allowed its performers, to use that lovely French term of description and derision, fonctionnaires, to rationalize their behavior as they performed their ghastly evil.  Continue reading

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Tom Petty…anything that’s rock and roll’s fine….

“It’s sort of hope amongst the ruins, I think. To me we’re all in the great wide open. I think life is pretty wild; I really want to like the world, but at the same time I have to write about what I see.” – Tom Petty

Tom Petty on the cover of the first Heartbreakers album (image courtesy AllMusic)

The outpouring of love, grief, and appreciation that has come in the wake of the unexpected death of Tom Petty has been, at the least, impressive, at the most, mind boggling. Petty created an admirable body of work, to be sure, and he kept working – and selling millions of records and selling out venues – long after many of his contemporaries faded into legacyhood, lugging their middle aged bodies – I refer to both their physiques and artistic achievements – around the summer shed circuit, playing the old hits for aging audiences.

Tom Petty never had to do that. He had a #1 album as recently as three years ago. And he completed his farewell tour, some 40 years after he began his rise to, first stardom and then, to legend status, with a triumphant three day stand in his adopted home, Los Angeles, at the Hollywood Bowl (a venue made famous by the band that first inspired him, The Beatles) only a week before his shocking death from heart failure at the age of 66.

But I don’t think that any of what I’ve said above explains the outpouring of love, sadness, and admiration being expressed in reaction to Tom Petty’s passing.  Continue reading

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The McDonaldization of pretty much everything…part 1

“It is not true that good can only follow from good and evil only from evil, but that often the opposite is true.” – Max Weber

Let’s start with a version of the old drinking game “Have you ever?”:

Ronald McDonald thanks you for your service (image courtesy Juvenile Justice Information Exchange)

  • Have you ever pumped your own gas?
  • Have you ever bussed your own table in a restaurant?
  • Have you ever used the self-checkout in a store?

Almost all of us would answer “Yes” to all three of these questions. That makes almost all of us compliant victims of the irrationality that comes from rationality run amok. Sociologist George Ritzer’s classic The McDonaldization of Society argues that our culture has become increasingly acquiescent in accepting irrational demands  as institution after institution has adopted tenets developed by fast food giant McDonald’s for the operation of its stores – tenets of what might be called “hyper-rationality” designed to reduce to as close to zero as possible human error – and input.

Ritzer’s book, now in its 8th edition and nearing it 25th anniversary, has a history behind its composition and a history of its own since its original publication. Understanding both those histories is important to recognizing the long history behind the rise of McDonaldization and how its effects have altered human culture – perhaps irreparably. Continue reading

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I Me Mine: George Harrison’s non-autobiographical autobiography

“I have suffered for this book; now it’s your turn.” – George Harrison

George Harrison (image courtesy Spotify)

George Harrison was in some ways the most interesting Beatle. Highly logical,  he spent the majority of his life imbuing himself in the spiritual life. A member of the most famous band of the 20th century, he eschewed the life of a celebrity preferring to work in his garden. A spiritual seeker, he adored Formula One racing and owned dozens of expensive sports cars in his life. According to some sources, while he publicly espoused a disciplined, even seemingly ascetic lifestyle, he was a notorious womanizer who even had an affair with close friend Ringo’s first wife Maureen.

So who was the real George Harrison?

If one goes to the source, Harrison himself, as revealed in his decidedly non-autobiographical autobiography, I Me Mine for answers, one will be disappointed. Chatty, direct, charming, humorously self-disparaging, Harrison provides the reader with a sense of who he was – in conversation.

Beyond that, one shouldn’t expect too much. Continue reading

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