A sprawling, enlightening mess

A sprawling, enlightening mess
Reviewer: JoshuaBBuhs
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Just around Midnight:
Rock and Roll and the Racial Imagination
352 pages
September 26, 2016
ISBN 10:
ISBN 13:

Challenges the racial categories that oversimplified the sixties revolution and provides a deeper appreciation of the twists and turns that kept the music alive.

Reminds me of a Neil Young album, something from after the Ditch Trilogy and before "This Notes for You": messy, comprising good ideas and bad, the language oblique, the development unpredictable, characters simultaneously solid and abstract, and, despite all the caveats, brilliant, in its way.

Hamilton starts out with a striking observation: in the late 1950s, rock 'n' roll music was made by blacks and whites--by Bill Haley and Little Richard, Elvis Presley and the Four Tops. Barely more than a decade later, rock music was almost entirely white, Jimi Hendrix the exception that proved the rule.  There are many things that could be said about this change. One could show how the change occurred, the social dynamics that controlled who was making music, and under what label; one could look into how rock music was classified and thought about--what counted as rock and what didn't. It's possible to imagine a counter-story, one that shows there continued to be interactions between white and black music. One could write about the circulation of session musicians and the places where music was made. Or one could look at the historical models of rock 'n' roll music, and chart their trajectory from the 1950s on.

The trouble--if one wants to call it that--is that Hamilton tries to say all of them, without any real organization. It's Stephen Leacock's Lord Ronald: "he flung himself from the room, flung himself upon his horse and rode madly off in all directions." The book is a mess, but a productive one, with insights studded here and there. Making the whole thing even more confounding is the language, which veers from rock criticism to musical theory to stilted academicese: he is especially enraptured with the words enfold and gesture--which I thought had been parodied to death by Clive James's poem "A Gesture towards James Joyce," but I guess not. Rarefied concepts--especially something he calls "the racial imagination"--are reified; one comes out of the book bruised from running into the idea repeatedly, him treating it as remarkably solid.

Hamilton does try to impose some order on the proceedings. He tells the stories in roughly chronological order through chapters that (mostly) link together different artists. So the first chapter is on the connections between Dylan and Sam Cooke; the second chapter then looks at the so-called British Invasion; chapter three considers Motown and the Beatles; chapter four, Aretha Franklin and Janis Joplin (with a dash of Dusty Springfield); and chapters five and six act as an extended pairing, one on Hendrix, the other on the Stones. This switching necessitates a great deal of repetition, and sows some confusion: Hamilton changes Dylan's age a couple of times in a few pages; basic concepts are explained, while abstruse ones are not. We meet the Stones and the Beatles again and again. At times, he drops in long biographical bits of pretty well-known people, even though these are not necessary to the story he is telling at the time.

As it starts out, the book looks to investigate the origins of rock's whitewashing in the language that attended the music. He argues that white rock music became associated with authenticity when Dylan (and others, but, really, Dylan) folk musicians moved into rock and the critical lexicon followed them. Black music, meanwhile, was caught in a double-bind: it was seen as authentic, but only in the past, while any attempt to innovate or reach a broader audience was seen as selling out.

And certainly this language of authenticity was one part of the transformation! If the book was going to be a history of the changes that caused a split between black and white music, I would have liked to have seen a deeper look into this language. But soon enough, Hamilton was on to other matters; after the first chapter or so, he wasn't so interested in telling the story of how rock music became white, but was on to other things.

He wants to break down the myth of the "British Invasion," and, indeed, dissolve the very notion of "British": the Stones and Beatles, he insists, came out of very different traditions, and very different parts of England, and so are, in many ways, incommensurable. But both were influenced by black American music, and willing to admit to being so, even if they built on this tradition differently. Here he is also concerned to show that popular music circulated, in small circuits and wide ones, and so any attempt to classify is going to be limited--pinning Jello to the wall. He is also insistent that the influences ran in all directions, from black groups to white, and white groups to black.

At this point, it is impossible not to be thinking in terms of minstrelsy, the language of which has been so important to understanding the relationship between white and black performers. Was this cultural borrowing or thievery? Eric Lott wrote about this way back in 1993, his book title capturing the ambiguity: Love and Theft. One would think Hamilton would be intrigued by this coupling, given that Dylan later used the title for one of his albums. But for all that he is constantly referring to minstrelsy--almost to the last pages--he early on makes it known that he is completely uncomfortable with seeing any connections. I noted no reference to Lott, nor to John Leland's Hip: The History. W. T. Lhamon, who has written about the complicated influence of minstrelsy on rock music at this exact moment, is dismissed in one defensive endnote.

Chapter Three switches up the narrative focus once again. It starts to look like what Hamilton really wants to do is not tell a history, but a counter-history. There's the received story in which rock music is associated with authentic white rebels, individuals, and artists; he wants to show that there was always a relationship between white rock music and what was becoming black music--variously labelled soul or R&B or Motown. So here he shows that the Beatles and Motown influenced each other. To do so, he brings to bear a whole new kind of evidence: he looks at the musical structure of various songs in great depth, tracing changes in key and notes, and also showing what stayed the same. It is effective, though fits oddly with the language and narrative styles used to this point.

But before the reader can settle into this new groove, Hamilton has tacked back, and returns to history, of a sort, grappling with what counted as soul music--the quintessential black musical genre. Here, again, he wants to show that musical ideas circulated between white and black communities as well as between America and England. He again reads the music itself closely. The point here is that the category "soul" hardened in such a way as to (mostly) exclude whites.

Chapters Five and Six mean to look at the way rock was similarly hardened as a category by the end of the 1960s--not so much concentrating on how the process unfolded, but as a static thing, a deed already done. Hendrix was the odd-man out, a black man in what was white music, and so was a troubling presence for white critics, who dwelled on him as a "superspade." The Stones were the obverse, considered dangerous exactly because they were seen as closer to black forms of music than other rockers. Hamilton, though, gets in his own way here by foregrounding "violence" as an analytical concept, out of the blue, forcing him into all kinds of weird contortions to make his argument.

As the book reaches its conclusions, the questions pile up. Why were the Stones considered dangerous for their connections to black music--when, as Hamilton notes, the connections between white and black music continued (but was just ignored). Listen to something as anodyne as the classic rock staple "Free Ride" by the Edgar Winter Group, which borrowed heavily from R&B. Consider Clapton and Steve Winwood, who continued to work in black musical forms. Or look at it from the other side: why was Funkadelic ignored by rock stations? It was producing straight rock records and evinced a hippie mindset. Something more had to be going on. But what? Indeed, the book really needed to push into the 1970s, given that it stopped being about the separation of black and white music genres as early as the first chapter.  What do we make of Southern Rock and the association of Confederate Flags with what is now Classic Rock?

Hamilton chooses to end elsewhere, though, with an awkward interpretation of the song that gives the book its title: the Stones's "Brown Sugar." He says it "boasts some of the most appalling lyrics ever written for a rock and roll song" (273)--but then too no more "morally outrageous" "than the many, many songs since that have sought to replicate its fantasies of white male sexual hedonism," and he even tries to . . . ahem . . . offer sympathy for the devil by saying the Stones were just acknowledging the troubling history of rock music, and implicating themselves at the same time. Why, then, did he try to hard to avoid discussion of minstrelsy--it seems a perfect fit here.

Never mind, though--it's one more bit of confusion in a confounding book. But confounding is not the same as bad, or mistaken. Hamilton has focused on an worthwhile observation. He has brought to bear on the question intelligence and a great deal of knowledge. He hasn't really answered the question, but then sometimes answers are the least interesting part. The tangle of racial relations that lies at the heart of rock 'n' roll music is too sordid, too tightly bound is no Gordian Knot, to be undone with a single cut--or even a single book. Hamilton gives the reader much to think on, which may be the greater gift.