Rockin’ with Texans ’til the end
August: Bombs dropped, ideas shifted, Elvis died and the comet to finish Ozzy
August, the month white kids’ rock music began and the month the world might end. Except in parental minds, they are unrelated. Maybe. Read on.
What’s now called rock was once called rhythm and blues and, in an earlier and stupider time, “race music.”
In August 1954, Evan Hunter’s The Blackboard Jungle hit bookstores. The white juvenile delinquent (JD) had arrived. A month later, Alan Freed went on the air at WINS in New York City, playing race music or rhythm and blues, which Freed euphemized to “rock and roll.”
R&R became the music of white JDs wearing DA (duck-ass) haircuts. Parents got PO’d thinking of their dear DA’d JD arriving DOA of an OD at a hospital ER.
In August 1955, MGM bought rights to The Blackboard Jungle. Theme song, they said. We need a theme song. “And none of those colored people, right, CB?”
Right. They found, of all unlikely things, a chubby balding white Texan with a spit-curl in the center of his head whose band included a steel guitar and an accordion. Nobody dangerous ever played an accordion. I mean, Dick Contino played an accordion. So the studio hired Bill Haley and His Comets. (Pun, see, Haley/Comets—look, it was ‘55 and you expect great wit?) Haley played “Rock Around the Clock” on the Ed Sullivan show on Aug. 7, 1955. The fox was in the henhouse, the Stones were in the wings and Ozzy Osbourne was wending his way to MTV (which came on the air Aug. 1, 1981, and yes, I can keep this up all day).
Ozzy leads smoothly to the end of the world. Last week, we heard that a mile-wide asteroid might hit the Earth in 2019. “Eek,” said astronomers, who did sweaty precise calculation. Now it looks like Asteroid 2002 NT7 will miss. Don’t relax. There’s still Aug. 21, 2126, and that one you might put in your Palm Pilot with the note, “No appointments after this date.” Here’s why—and it’s really weird because it involves the name of Bill Haley’s group, which those of you with a short-term memory like mine need to be reminded was the Comets. So. When Comet Swift-Tuttle zoomed by in 1993, measurements of its trajectory showed a dead-center hit on Earth in 2126.
Well, maybe it won’t. Maybe we can blow it up with nuke bombs (first dropped in anger on Aug. 6, 1945, on Hiroshima). Maybe it’ll miss. As Kurt Vonnegut says of life and its end, “So it goes.” Vonnegut was also the guy who said, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”
And that leads us to Elvis Presley, a white kid made rich by playing colored folks’ music. Elvis tried to be a straight arrow. He told President Richard Nixon (who later resigned in disgrace Aug. 9, 1975) that he, Elvis, would be a great national drug commissar because he, Elvis, could tell teen-age kids of the danger of the devil weed, marijuana having been outlawed Aug. 2, 1937, after a stupid scare campaign by people who should have known better. Elvis had pupils the size of pinpoints and was high as a kite at the time, of course, but that was on legal pills.
Nixon said, “We’ll call you, yeah, that’s it,” and nothing more came of it. Elvis went on to pretend to be one hip dude who swallowed everything and then pretended to die of an overdose of everything on Aug. 16, 1977, and has rarely been seen since. And so it goes.
Guy Richardson was born a month after killer weed was outlawed, which means his mother might have smoked legal dope. That could explain a lot, such as why he worked for the Reno Gazette-Journal 37 years before retiring.