Freud and Little Richard
Psychoanalysis, Rock ‘n’ Roll, and the Liberation of the American Body
by Richard A. Koenigsberg
Chapter 1: Freud on Neurosis and Repression
Chapter 2: Wilhelm Reich: Orgasm as Therapy
Chapter 3: From Perry Como to Jerry Lee Lewis: Release of the “Great Ball of Fire.”
Chapter 4. Norman Mailer, the Hipster and the Struggle Against Middle-Class Morality
Chapter 5: Norman O. Brown and the Abolition of Repression
Chapter 6: “Dancing in the Street”
Chapter 7: “Light My Fire”
Chapter 1: Freud on Neurosis and Repression
“Psychoanalysis has enabled us to recognize that the symptoms of neurosis depend on the operation of repressed ideas having a sexual content. They originate in the sexual needs of unsatisfied people and represent a substitute for gratification.” “Our civilization is largely responsible for our misery. The price we pay for our advance in civilization is a loss of happiness.”
Freud’s theory of sexuality shook the Victorian world. Yet the Freud embraced by the psychoanalytic establishment is the sober, rational Freud who said, “Where id is, there shall ego be.” Many believe that Freud advocated the control of sexual desire.
Although perhaps Freud came down, finally, on the side of sublimation, he often made statements such as “We may well raise the question whether our ‘civilized’ sexual morality is worth the sacrifice which it imposes on us.” Freud believed that the suppression of sexuality damaged healthy psychological functioning.
During Freud’s time, the power of religion and traditional morality made it nearly impossible to conceive of a world that affirmed the pursuit of sexual pleasure:
What decides the purpose of life is simply the program of the pleasure principle. Yet its program is at loggerheads with the whole world. There is no possibility of its being carried through; all the regulations of the universe run counter to it. One feels inclined to say that the intention that man should be “happy” is not included in the plan of creation.
In Freud’s world, the “reality principle” far outweighed the pleasure principle. “Society” imposed its rules and regulations, and the possibility of evading them seemed impossible.
In today’s world, the boundary between the reality principle and pleasure principle is not clearly demarcated. Sexual impulses and activities which, in Freud’s time, were forbidden and hidden from public view—now are expressed everywhere. Desires once condemned—considered morally reprehensible—are now openly depicted, and often embraced.
This Chapter introduces Freud’s ideas on sexuality, neurosis and repression, putting forth this book’s central argument: That however complex Freud’s thinking may have been, the public understood and embraced one message, which may be summed up as follows: “Human mental problems, suffering, and unhappiness are caused by the sexual repression. If one is to be happier and healthier, one would do well to overcome one’s inhibitions, and to act upon one’s sexual desires.”
This book shall attempt to demonstrate that a central idea generating the liberation of sexuality was Freud’s theory that neurosis is caused by repression. The societal project of sexual liberation was conceived as a form of collective psychotherapy.
Chapter 2: Wilhelm Reich: Orgasm as Therapy
“Psychic health depends upon orgastic potency, i. e., upon the degree to which one can surrender to and experience the climax of excitation in the natural sexual act. Neurosis is nothing other than dammed-up sexual energy.” “The entire politics of culture (film, novels, poetry, etc.) revolve around the sexual element, thrive on its renunciation in reality and its affirmation in the ideal. If all humanity dreams and poeticizes about sexual happiness, should it not also be possible to translate the dream into reality?”
Wilhelm Reich took Freud’s theory of the sexual origins of neurosis seriously, and sought to do something about it. Freud saw therapy as “making conscious the unconscious”—liberating sexuality from repression, but then helping the patient to control or sublimate his or her sexual impulses. Reich posed the question of whether it might not be possible for persons to “live out” their desires.
This Chapter examines the theories of Wilhelm Reich, and their profound impact upon the American sexual revolution. In the Sixties, intellectuals and many others sought the “good orgasm” as a means toward achieving liberation, and happiness. Further, Reich’s idea—that blockages within the body suppressed energy and distorted character—became extremely influential.
An article in Harper’s Magazine in 1947 depicted the “builders of the new Paris”—a bohemian community of artists and writers that arose in Northern California, and evolved into the “beat” movement. According to Mildred Edie Brady:
The core of the philosophy of this new bohemia rests on the sexual thesis. If by strange and splendid chance you happen to be one of the few orgastic potent, you are one of the few “normal, natural, healthy human beings” left in a world peopled by terrified and frustrated neurotics.
Brady found that what differentiated this bohemia from its predecessor was that it was “profoundly religious,” but not in a conventional way. This bohemian community saw the “sexual sacrament” as the acme of worship, believing that God “revealed himself fully only in the self-effacing ecstasy of the sexual climax.”
Religious faith was supported by psychoanalytic argument: “The ultimate authority is no longer Freud, but one who now wears the mantle of Freud: Wilhelm Reich, whose The Function of the Orgasm is probably one of the most widely read and frequently quoted contemporary readings in this group.”
This Chapter shows how Reich’s ideas influenced both the “beat” movement of the Fifties and the hippie revolution of the Sixties, and how the “religion of the orgasm”—of sexual gratification—became central in American society. The sexual act, according to Norman Mailer and others, was one place where society could not enter or interfere.
The idea of sexual liberation became bound to rebellion against society. In the Sixties, the antimonies set up by Freud and Reich—between pleasure and civilization, health and society, the body and the intellect, liberation and oppression—became themes of the counterculture. The revolution of the Sixties— as well as subsequent liberation movements—took the side of the body and pleasure in the struggle against civilization.
Chapter 3: From Perry Como to Jerry Lee Lewis:
Release of the “Great Ball of Fire.”
America in the Fifties was a sunny, optimistic place. A survey indicated that the most pressing problems in American schools in 1950 were talking, chewing gum, making noise and running in the halls. Americans were becoming affluent, and many families were able to purchase their own homes—with two cars in the garage. Television came into being, providing entertainment for everyone.
The most popular American singer in 1953 was Perry Como. He had hit records, his own TV show, and was admired for his amiability, stability, and warm, easy-going personality. When he sang, he stood perfectly still. One year later, Bill Haley was “Rocking Around the Clock,” and shortly thereafter performers such as Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis were moving and shaking with an intensity unimaginable a few years before.
This Chapter introduces a central theme of this Book: That the world we live in today grew out of the explosion of the “great ball of fire” in 1955. Rock and roll introduced a new mode of consciousness into American society. We shall trace the evolution of this mode of consciousness. Rock and roll expressed a more energetic experience of the body, as well as a more intense, physical approach to women and romance.
The Four Aces called love “a many splendored thing”—comparing it to “an April Rose.” Shirley sang to Lee: “When you touch my lips, oh what a thrill I get.” Elvis Presley was known in the Fifties, not as “the king,” but as “Elvis the pelvis” for the way he shook his hips. Rock and roll revealed a more intense experience of the body than hitherto had been known in American life, beginning a process of releasing excitement and bodily energies into society.
This Chapter shows how early rock and roll was about energy, movement, and fun—expressed through the vehicle of dancing. Rock and roll represented a rebellion against the blandness of the Fifties, depicting a more intense experience of life. Some critics, however, saw something dark within the music.
As rock and roll was “beating its way into the national consciousness,” many condemned it, connecting it with rioting (that sometimes occurred at live performances), juvenile delinquency, and the breakdown of morality. The magazine Music Journal in 1958 saw rock and roll as a “definite threat to civilization.” Teens listening to the music were
influenced in their lawlessness by this throwback to jungle rhythms. Either it actually stirs them to orgies of sex and violence, or they use it as an excuse for the removal of all inhibitions and the complete disregard of the conventions of decency.
To teen-agers of the Fifties, looking for some old-fashioned, all-American “fun,” such statements seemed outlandish. The perceptions of critics, however, were prophetic. This Chapter will show how early rock and roll consciousness evolved into the “sex, drugs and rock and roll” of the Sixties and Seventies.
Gay Talese observed that before the publication of Playboy Magazine in 1953, few American men had ever seen a color photograph of a nude woman. A 1955 Gallup poll found that 55% of men and 73% of women disapproved of “Women wearing Bermuda shorts in the street.”
In Love and Death in the American Novel (1960), Leslie Fiedler concluded that the central characteristic of American literature was that our great novelists tend to “avoid treating the passionate encounter of a man and a woman.” Fiedler suggested that the “odd shape” of American fiction was only what one could expect, given the nature of American life: “Because there is no real sexuality in American life, therefore there cannot very well be any in American art.”
This book proposes to answer the question, “How did Americans get to be who and what we are today,” transforming from a sexually repressed and inhibited society—to one in which blatant displays of sexuality in all forms are part and parcel of everyday life.
Chapter 4: Norman Mailer, the Hipster and the
Struggle Against Middle-Class Morality
“The psychopath knows instinctively that to express a forbidden impulse is far more beneficial to him than merely to confess the desire in the safety of a doctor’s room.“The dream of the psychopath is that he seeks love. Not love as the search for a mate, but love as the search for an orgasm more apocalyptic than the one which preceded it. Orgasm is his therapy.”—Norman Mailer, ["The White Negro,"](http://www.dhs.fjanosco.net/Documents/TheWhiteNegro.pdf) 1957
Norman Mailer was among those who did not find the sweetness and light of the Fifties to his liking. He declared that “creeping totalitarianism” in America amounted to “slow death by conformity with every creative and rebellious instinct stifled.” Morris Dickstein, a historian of the Sixties (1977), calls Mailer’s psychopathic hero
a bomb that explodes beneath the bland surface of the Fifties, constructed out of all its repressed violence and rebelliousness, the longing for personal autonomy and extreme experience that could not be satisfied by respectability, maturity and competitive success.
This Chapter presents the prophetic ideas of Norman Mailer, who expanded upon Reich’s notion of the liberating potential of orgasm. The “hipster” or “white Negro,” according to Mailer, was a newly emerging American type who “lived by his senses and sought kicks and adventure in the urban night.”
Mailer and “beat” writers like Alan Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac put forth a critique of the American middle-class character: the “square.” Steven Marcus (1966) said that the middle-class character was involved in “an immense effort of self-discipline and self-denial, the ability to learn how to defer gratification indefinitely and to persist in the deferral.” For some, this ascetic approach to life no longer made sense.
Ginsberg in 1959 sensed a “crack in the mass-consciousness of America—a sudden emergence of insight into a vast national subconscious netherworld.” He wrote: “America is having a nervous breakdown.” Kerouac defined the Beat Generation as a “swinging group of new American men intent on joy.”
This Chapter explores the birth of this revolutionary impulse in the late Fifties, showing how it was the source of the Sixties counterculture, generating a “breakdown” in traditional American morality.
According to Mailer, the essence of “hip morality” was the “divorce of man from his values, the liberation of the self from the Super-Ego of society.” To be hip was to “do what one feels whenever and wherever it is possible.” An analysis of the Beats found that writers such as Kerouac, Ginsberg and Corso shared the same “dissatisfaction with conventional American life, its obsessive sense of responsibility, its monolithic conformity.”
Evil was defined in terms of whatever inhibited experience or “impinges on the spontaneity of the individual soul.” Beat Philosophy was “a brand of hedonism” that reduced to “the psychology of self-expression, an attempt to murder the super-ego and liberate the id, a desire to break out of the traditional forms for living, to rediscover the innocence of the natural man who lives by instinct rather than by reason.”
This Chapter shows how the ideas of Mailer and the Beats represented the first substantial challenge to the “American way of life.” They generated rebellion against society by believing—with Freud and Reich—that “civilization” was a source of discontent—inhibiting spontaneity, sexual desire and joy.
The “struggle against the super-ego”—against conventional morality—was to become a central theme of the Sixties. Mailer set the terms of the struggle: “One is Hip, or one is Square, one is a rebel, or one conforms, one is a frontiersman in the Wild West of American night life, or else a square cell, trapped in the totalitarian tissues of American society.”
Psychoanalysts use the term “acting out” to describe a patient who acts upon his impulses and desires rather than examining and suppressing them. Moreover, the bellwether of the “middle-class character” had always been “postpone of gratification;” to modulate and control one’s impulses in expectation of future rewards.
Mailer set himself in opposition to these tenets, idealizing the psychopath—one who was strong enough to act upon his impulses rather than to suppress them.
What occurred was a “transvaluation of values:” What had been “good,” the capacity to control one’s impulses and to postpone gratification, came to be perceived as a sign of weakness; an inability to experience and express desire.
The “square,” or “well-respected man” (title of a song by the Kinks) came to be viewed as a person who blindly followed society’s norms; was obedient, dull and lifeless. Whereas one who was “hip” did not take the moral norms of society so seriously. The hip individual was in tune with his inner desires—particularly sexual ones—and not afraid to act upon them.
Whereas the patient in psychoanalysis was expected to examine his fantasies, Mailer’s psychopath was difficult to psychoanalyze because the “fundamental decision of his nature” is to try to “live the infantile fantasy.” This Chapter explores Mailer’s prophecy that the psychopath might indeed be the “perverse and dangerous fore-runner of a new kind of personality which could become the central expression of human nature before the Twentieth Century is over.”
We examine the psychological process whereby what once was furtive, hidden, mysterious, and suppressed—came to be articulated and enacted in society. Themes of rape, sexual abuse, homosexuality, sadism, and masochism now are common themes of public life.
How did this transformation come about? The world of the Fifties was governed by ideas such as self-control, postponement of gratification, and inhibition. Why did these ideas go out of fashion? How did the breakdown of middle-class morality come about?
This Chapter shows how Norman Mailer’s idea of the “hipster” became a model for what came next. In advocating the liberation of the self from the “Super-Ego of society,” Mailer was following Freud’s example—attributing human “discontent” to “civilization.”
Chapter 5: Norman O. Brown and the Abolition of Repression
“For two thousand years man has been subjected to a systematic effort to transform him into an ascetic animal. He remains a pleasure-seeking animal. In spite of two thousand years of higher education based on the notion that man is a soul imprisoned in a body, man still secretly thinks of himself as primarily a body. Our repressed desires are not just for delight, but specifically for delight in the fulfillment of the life of our own bodies.” “The question confronting mankind is the abolition of repression—the resurrection of the body. The resurrection of the body is a social project facing mankind as a whole.”—Norman O. Brown
Perhaps no thinker played a more significant role in liberating sexuality than Norman O. Brown. This once-obscure classics Professor published Life against Death: The Psychoanalytic Meaning of History in 1959. By 1966, it had sold over 50,000 copies. Historians of the Sixties see Brown’s thought at the core of the counterculture.
According to, Theodore Roszak (1968):
The emergence of Herbert Marcuse and Norman O. Brown as major social theorists among the disaffiliated young of Western Europe and America must be taken as one of the defining features of the counterculture. It will be my position that the counterculture begins where Marcuse pulls up short, and where Brown, with no apologies, goes off the deep end.
Brown put forth the “social project” of “abolishing repression.” His belief that “the ultimate essence of our desires and our being” is nothing more or less than “delight in the active life of all the human body” set the stage for the sexual revolution.
The idea of the body as the essence of existence marked a reversal of the Christian point of view that had dominated Western culture for two-thousand years. Whereas once spirit had been idealized and given priority over the flesh, now the body became the object of idealization. The idealization of the body—and of pleasures contained within—became a central theme of the Sixties and Seventies.
Unlike Reich and Mailer, Brown did not focus upon the genitals and orgasm—rather on the pursuit of pleasure through the activity of “any and all organs of the human body.” Brown’s advocacy of “polymorphous perversity” is an important source of the world in which we live today, where each individual believes he or she is entitled to his or her “sexual preference;” where it is considered offensive to morally judge an individual’s sexual “life style,” however eccentric it may seem.
The power of Brown’s advocacy derived from his ability to build upon the idea of Freud and Reich that sexual repression constitutes the source of illness or mental disorder. Brown called man a “restless and discontented, a neurotic animal” whose unhappiness was caused by the fact that he had “desires in nature which are not satisfied by culture.”
In the Sixties, the idea of society as a source of mental disorder became powerful. The “sick society” was conceived as one blocking natural and spontaneous impulses such as sexuality and love. According to Frederick Hoffman: “For the young men and women of the period, repression served as a convenient label for all their grievances against society. Repression became the American illness.” It followed that the achievement of “health” required throwing off the oppressive burden of society.
This Chapter introduces another of Brown’s themes: the struggle against mind, intellect, and rationality. Brown’s Life against Death contains approximately one-thousand reference notes. Yet in a famous Phi Betta Kappa lecture presented at Columbia University (May 31, 1960), Brown spoke of mind as being at the “end of its tether.”
“Order as we have known it”—overdependence upon mind and intellect, Brown said— was “crippling and for cripples.” However, there was a “way out” of our character deformity. To “throw away our crutches,” one had to embrace “Dionysian faith” or “blessed madness.”
“Derangement is disorder,” Brown said, but “it is not possible to get the illuminations without the derangement. The alternative to mind is certainly madness, but our greatest blessings come to us by way of madness.” Brown— one of the great scholars of the Twentieth Century—advocated abandoning the intellect for the sake of madness, and Dionysian faith.
Letting go of mind and the intellect, Brown declared, was the “way down and out” for Western man. If mind were the source of discontent, then perhaps the abandonment of mind would bring human beings in touch with something deeper and more satisfying.
Norman Podhoretz observed (1958) that at the heart of the Beat Generation ethos was a tremendous emphasis on “emotional intensity, this notion that to be hopped-up is the most desirable of all human conditions.” The Bohemianism of the 1950’s, he said, is “hostile to civilization.” It worships “primitivism, instinct, and energy.”
In a famous passage from Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1958) the narrator says:
The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.
Where Freud recognized the power of the instinctive and irrational, but seemed to have come down on the side of the intellect and rationality, thinkers such as Brown, Mailer and Kerouac—in the late Fifties and early Sixties—idealized the instinctive life and explored the positive dimensions of irrationality. The intellect was conceived as blocking something deeper, more real.
Scholars like Brown advocated a “Dionysian consciousness” that does not observe the limit, but “overflows.” Writers like Kerouac extolled the “mad ones” who “burned like fabulous yellow candles.” At the same time, a similar form of unrepressed consciousness was coming into being in the form of rock and roll music—with performers such as Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis.
Don Hibbard (1983) saw “Wanton expressions of freedom, emotional release and physical movement” as the essence of rock and roll: a “sense of freedom, total unrestraint and physical expression. Bumps Blackwell, Little Richard’s manager, provided the following description of a”typical Little Richard show:”
The crowd was unrestrained, and Richard was like a wild man. Richard got up on the piano, took his shoes off and threw them to the audience. They were in frenzy. Then he took off the top of his costume and gestured as if he was going to throw that, too. The crowd went mad.
Little Richard and other rock and roll performers inspired many to experience a “Dionysian consciousness which overflows.”
Charles White, Little Richard’s biographer (1985) says that Little Richard “exploded onto the American music scene in 1955, demolishing established music structure and giving a whole generation a clarion-call to shake off the chains of repression.” He says that Richard “freed people from their inhibitions, unleashing their spirit, enabling them to do exactly what they felt like doing—to scream, shout, dance, jump up and down—or even more unusual things.”
He claims that Richard “changed the way of life for a whole generation,” and was an “uncontrollable genius whose influence on Western culture is incalculable.” This seems a bit much. However, another rock and roll historian—recalling his own experience at the time—says that when Little Richard sang, “we were introduced to an entirely new way of experiencing life.”
Rebellion against intellect, rationality and structures of control flowed, then, from two sources. On the one hand, thinkers and writers such as Brown, Mailer and Kerouac dreamt and wrote about untapped energies within the unconscious that could be released if structures of control were abandoned.
At the same time, rock and roll music—a form of popular culture—articulated this same idea. Musicians like Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis broke down structures of control to reveal deeper, more powerful streams of energy within the psyche. Rock and roll “shook the body,” releasing powerful forms of energy that had been buried within.
The breakdown of the ego and irruption of the irrational became a central trend in the evolution of the American character. The world of the Fifties presented itself as a clean, pure place—bright and shiny, secure, and under control. There was pleasure in this stable, optimistic world where everything seemed “knowable.”
Some, however, found stability and predictability stultifying. The world of the Fifties seemed too clear—lacking intensity, mystery, darkness. Psychoanalysis and rock and roll were cultural forms that shook things up; uncovering something deeper and more powerful within the psyche. Through a gradual process, psychoanalysis and rock and roll liberated fantasies and energies from the unconscious and allowed these to be enacted in society. I call this process the “return of the repressed.”
The year 1959 was a watershed, a year of transition—when forces of the irrational and unconscious began to be felt, but came face-to-face with a world dominated by ideologies that denied these forces. In a prophetic essay, David McReynolds wrote about “Hipster’s Unleashed:”
The real reason youth has adopted jazz is that jazz is irrational music. It is music of spontaneity, of improvisation. Jazz appears as something of a social movement in a society which fears the unconscious as a seething maelstrom of incest, murder and the death wish; a society terrified that the unconscious may burst forth and overwhelm the “rational” mind.
A central dynamic of American society beginning in the early Sixties was the “spilling over” of the irrational and unconscious onto the stage of reality. This book will delineate the process of psychic change whereby structures of rationality and control gradually broke down—revealing fantasies and energies that now constitute part of reality.
The writings of Norman O. Brown provided a rationale and justification for abandoning the intellect, exploring the irrational, and permitting desires and fantasies to be expressed in reality. Where Freud saw the “reality principle” as an unalterable structure that required submission, Brown—like Reich—considered another possibility:
Recognition of the world as it is by no means excludes desire or activity to change it, in order to bring reality into conformity with the pleasure principle. In fact, if we hold fast to the Freudian insight into the immortal strength of our repressed desires, changing reality can be the only rational response of the ego to the contradiction between the reality and the pleasure principle.
Brown suggested the possibility of changing reality rather than merely accepting it. If the keynote of the Fifties was “adjustment,” the dream of the Sixties was to change the world to make it compatible with desire. The idea was to make reality (the “reality principle”) consistent with the pleasure principle; to transform reality into a place where the instinctual life (including “polymorphous perverse” impulses) could be expressed.
Brown linked the Freudian ideology of sexuality with the ideology of freedom. In his Phi Betta Kappa address, he stated that “Western consciousness has always asked for freedom: the human mind was born free, but everywhere it is in chains.”
The linkage of sexual freedom and political freedom became a central theme of the Sixties. The fight against oppressive authority was understood as a struggle to free the mind and body from constraints that prevented the experience of pleasure. The objective of the Sixties was to “do one’s own thing;” to “let it all hang out.”
A teen-age girl on Independence Day, July 4, 1993, was asked by a television interviewer: “What do you think ‘freedom’ means?” She replied, “Freedom means being able to do whatever you want to do.” This linkage of political freedom to behavioral freedom is a powerful one. Americans sought to fulfill the dream articulated in the Declaration of Independence: the “pursuit of happiness.”
Psychoanalytic ideas affected the evolution of national character by becoming linked with the ideology of freedom. Freud argued that human discontent was caused by civilization. Human beings were burdened by inhibitions and a sense of guilt caused by overwhelming demands placed by society upon the individual— preventing people from expressing their true desires.
Brown felt there was a “way out;” a way to overcome discontent. Human beings could be released from suffering with the “abolition of repression:” the coming into being of a world where the body’s desire for pleasure could be acknowledged and acted upon.
Chapter 6: “Dancing in the Street”
Nobody likes Rock ‘n’ Roll, except the public. In spite of the stream of adverse criticism aimed at Rock ‘n’ Roll since it became popular, Rock ‘n’ Roll continues to roll along at an ever-increasing pace. It has virtually mushroomed like an atomic cloud. And most of all, it has teen-age America dancing again…in schools, dance halls, or dance parties…wherever Rock ‘n’ Roll is played. The 50’s will be known in the years to come as the decade of Rock ‘n’ Roll…the years when music became danceable again. For, if we must select the one major contribution that Rock ‘n’ Roll has made, it is the fact that more people are dancing than ever before. There have been many recent arguments as to whether or not Rock ‘n’ Roll will last. What is more important is that the rhythm of Rock ‘n’ Roll is here now…urging us to dance.—Album liner notes to _A Rock 'N' Roll Dance Party_, 1955
“Callin’ out around the world, are you ready for a brand-new beat. Summer’s here and the time is right for dancin’ in the street. They’re dancin’ in Chicago, down in New Orleans, in New York City. All we need is music, sweet music, there’ll be music everywhere.”—Martha & the Vandellas, 1964
This book examines how rock ‘n’ roll was part of a developmental dynamic within American society—leading to the liberation of sexuality. But initially, rock ‘n’ roll was primarily about physical exuberance and dancing.
To say that rock and roll led to the liberation of sexuality is not to say that rock and roll was primarily about sex. In spite of efforts to find “dirty lyrics,” early rock and roll was about movement, dancing, excitement, and energy.
To hear the driving beat of Jerry Lee Lewis’s “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” (1957), for example, was to become energized. Jerry Lee says, “Shake, baby, shake…All you got to do is stand in one spot. Wiggle around just a little bit, that’s what you gotta do.” Rock and roll inspired—compelled—energized movement.
Contained within the dream of rock and roll was a proselytizing impulse: The idea that rock and roll could change the world. In the beginning, this impulse was rarely articulated. Soon, however, people began to believe that rock ‘n’ roll was more than “just music.”
Responding to criticism in 1958, Danny and the Juniors sang, “Rock and roll is here to stay, it will never die. It was meant to be that way, though I don’t know why.” Then they declared, “Rock and roll will always be; it’ll go down in history.” Rock ‘n’ roll, this song claimed, was much more than “teen-age dance music.”
At the time, the idea that rock ‘n’ roll would “go down in history” seemed a far-fetched proposition. No one could have imagined or predicted the impact that rock ‘n’ roll would have.
This Chapter will explore rock and roll’s sense of grandiosity—its missionary dimension. Boosters of the music, it turned out, were correct: Rock ‘n’ roll’s impact was profound, changing the character of the American people.
The excitement of early rock and roll was the surprise or shock of new energy revealed and released into the world: a new level of passion; new experience of the body and the potential for joy contained within it.
The popular music of the early Fifties, sung by performers such as Eddie Fisher, Perry Como, Patti Paige and Teresa Brewer was light, romantic, cheerful. Bill Haley and the Comets, Little Richard, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino and others introduced a new level of excitement into American music and life, suggesting a kind of energy and intensity that seemed, at the time, astonishing.
Rock and roll discovered something within human beings which, prior to rock and roll, people did not know existed, releasing desires and fantasies from the unconscious. This book seeks to ascertain what it was about rock and roll that permitted it to “shake” the consciousness of Americans, and alter the American character.
Rock and roll seemed like a spontaneous irruption; an inchoate form of energy. From the beginning, however, rock ‘n’ roll contained an ideology. The rock and roll ideal was the pursuit of perpetual movement; never-ending “rocking” and “rolling.” At the very beginning (1955), Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” conveyed this idea:
One, two, three o’clock, four o’clock rock, five, six, seven, o’clock, eight o’clock rock, nine, ten, eleven o’clock, twelve o’clock rock, we’re gonna rock around the clock tonight. If the band slows down, we’ll yell for more. When the clock strikes twelve we’ll cool off then, start a rockin’ round the clock again. We’re gonna rock around the clock tonight, we’re gonna rock, rock, rock ‘til broad daylight, we’re gonna rock, gonna rock around the clock tonight.
Rock and roll imagines a world where the rocking never steps: the “beat goes on,” the pleasure continues, perpetually, throughout the night and day. Contained within the ideology of rock and roll was Norman O. Brown’s dream of the reality principle transformed by the pleasure principle.
The ideological fantasy of rock and roll revolved around dancing, and a community of joy united by music.
Robert Pielke (1986) writes about the impact of radio:
Radio is a unifying medium; in no way does it isolate us from one another. Even while listening alone, we are aware of others doing the same, even if this awareness isn’t always conscious. The medium itself overcomes the physical separation and is, in a sense, its fundamental message. It retribalizes our diversified and alienated culture, creating empathy among listeners where none existed, bonding people together who would otherwise remain alienated.
Alan Freed was the pioneer disk jockey who invented and promoted the term “rock and roll” to describe the music he played on WINS radio in New York City (1955). He called his station “the home of the big beat.” The inspirational, missionary aspect of rock and roll was contained within the beat, which created excitement; compelled everyone to move.
The radio-listener is usually alone. But rock and roll created the fantasy of a country in motion, everyone excited by and dancing to “the big beat.” The vision of a community united by dancing is conveyed in Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen” (1958):
They’re really rockin’ in Boston and Pittsburgh, Pa.
Deep in the heart of Texas and round the Frisco bay.
Way out in St. Louie and down in New Orleans
All the cats wanna dance with, Sweet Little Sixteen.
“Sweet Little Sixteen” is not one young lady, but a typical teen-age girl in cities throughout the United States, rocking to the music, inspiring “cats” to want to dance with her. Rock and roll’s mission was to get everyone dancing, everywhere, moving to “the big beat.”
Soon, the joy of music and dance spread. Danny and the Juniors sang, “If you don’t like rock and roll, think what you’ve been missin’…Let’s all start to have a ball. Everybody rock and roll.” The phrase “everybody rock and roll,” repeated again and again, implored people everywhere to experience the excitement; join in the good times.
The rock and roll dream of a community of dancers united in joy was expressed vividly by Martha and the Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Streets” (1964). Martha, “callin’ out around the world,” asks everyone if they are “ready for a brand-new beat. Summer’s here and the time is right for dancin’ in the street.”
Like Chuck Berry, she conveys a vision of dancers throughout the major cities of the United States: “They’re dancin’ in Chicago, down in New Orleans, in New York City.” The music evokes an experience of communal joy: “All we need is music, sweet music, there’ll be music everywhere. There’ll be swingin’, swayin’ and records playin’, dancin’ in the street.”
There are no qualifications: “It doesn’t matter what you wear, just as long as you are there.” The dancing can happen anywhere: “Every guy, grab a girl, everywhere around the world, there’ll be dancin’, there’s dancin’ in the street.” The song describes what is already occurring, and predicts a future when everyone will be “dancing in the streets.”
Another central theme of rock ‘n’ roll was the desire to escape the unpleasantness of reality. Chuck Berry’s “School Days” (1957) describes an arduous day in the life of a student:
Up in the mornin’ and out to school
The teacher is teachin’ the Golden Rule
American history and practical math
You studyin’ hard and hopin’ to pass
Workin’ your fingers right down to the bone
And the guy behind you won’t leave you alone
After more suffering, “three o’clock rolls around.” The school day is over—and the student can finally “lay his burden down.” He goes up to the store on the corner, drops a coin into the juke box, and begins to dance: “Feeling the music from head to toe, round and round and round we go.”
The climax that follows conveys what amounts to an anthem: appreciate for the music that has generated such wonderful feelings:
Hail, hail rock and roll
Deliver me from the days of old
Long live rock and roll
The beat of the drums, loud and bold
Rock, rock, rock and roll
The feelin’ is there, body and soul.
When Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” appeared on the soundtrack of the 1955 film “Blackboard Jungle,” it marked the beginning of rock and roll’s full breakthrough as a popular music form among the young. It also laid the groundwork for a firm association of rock and roll and juvenile delinquency. The first shot in the film showed kids in a schoolyard, with a high, chain link fence in the foreground—a symbolic jail—while “Rock Around the Clock” blared away in the background.
For teens, the song represented a call to break out of their “jail” and to celebrate. It was a stand against parents and teachers. “Rock Around the Clock” became a youth anthem, the “Marseillaise” of rock and roll, and moved to the top of the charts. Adults arrayed in almost unanimous opposition. They believed “Blackboard Jungle” advocated violence and disrespect. In “Blackboard Jungle” the students made defiance and insolence the norm, committed acts of vandalism, and assaulted their teachers.
The movie shows students committing radical forms of violence against teachers. What does juvenile delinquency have to do with rock ‘n’ roll? The implicit message conveyed is: “To hell with school and education. We’d prefer to Rock Around the Clock.”
In the next Chapter, we’ll see how the Sixties represented an intensification of the rebellion against the reality principle. Drugs would join rock and roll music as the “turn on” that could make people feel good; transform painful “reality” into a place where pleasure was possible.
Chapter 7: “Light My Fire”
“You shake my nerves and you rattle my brain.
Too much love drives a man insane.
You broke my will. But what a thrill.
Goodness, gracious, great balls of fire. “—Jerry Lee Lewis, 1958
In the Sixties, ideas of radical psychoanalytic thinkers such as Reich, Brown and Marcuse—and rock and roll music—converged, leading to psychic and cultural transformations that altered the American character. The revolution of the Sixties, simply put, was a struggle to attain freedom from society—in the name of freedom for the mind and body.
Added to psychoanalysis and rock ‘n’ roll was a third element, drugs. The combination of “sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll” created a potent mix that worked to “blow the mind,” shatter the ego—destroying mental and social structures that inhibited self-expression.
Brown had advocated abandoning the intellect in the name “holy madness.” Performers like Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis hinted at ecstasies lurking within the madness. The Sixties was a mass movement whose purpose was to access hidden dimensions of the mind, seeking a more profound experience of existence.
The goal of radicals at the time was _liberation_—opening the mind and body to love, sexuality and pleasure. The fundamental achievement of this decade, however, was breakdown of the structure of the Western ego. What poured out was the contents of the unconscious in all its forms. The Sixties initiated a psychocultural process whereby what had been repressed—began to “return.”
In the previous Chapter, we saw how rock and roll provided an escape from the burden of prosaic, everyday reality. One rock historian observes:
Rock songs provided their audience with a temporary means of relief, of freedom now. Through the music, listeners found a way to lock into the “away” dimension. Away from all responsibility, worry and doubts, away to sheer ecstasy and the only genuine freedom, sensation.
Rock and roll in the Fifties provided a temporary respite from reality. After “rockin’ on bandstand,” it was necessary for the teen-age girl to “change her trend, be sweet sixteen and back in class again.”
In the Sixties, the escapist impulse intensified. People sought more permanent forms of ecstasy. Rock and roll was a momentary escape into the “away” dimension. In the Sixties, people sought to stay high permanently.
Timothy Leary, ex-Harvard Professor, was the guru of the Sixties who advocated the use of psychedelic drugs and coined the phrase “Turn on, tune in, drop out.” To “turn on” was to consume drugs in order to “tune in” to one’s mind. Once tuned in, one’s own mind would be sufficient, and one could “drop out” of society.
In “Whole lotta Shakin’ Goin’ on,” Jerry Lee Lewis sang:
You shake my nerves and you rattle my brain. Too much love drives a man insane. You broke my will, but what a thrill. Goodness, gracious, great balls of fire.
This song introduced the theme of madness—breakdown of the will—as a source of profound excitement. The rattling of one’s brain—insanity—brought about release of energy as a “great ball of fire.”
In the Sixties, the desire to achieve release—overcome barriers preventing the experience of excitement and pleasure—often took the form of a conscious effort. Ellen Willis writes about Janis Joplin (1976):
Her pursuit of pleasure had the same driven quality (getting high as singing as fucking as liberation): A refusal to admit of any limits that would not finally yield to the virtue of persistence—try just a little bit harder. This was a war against limits.
Janis Joplin was Norman Mailer’s “white Negro:” struggling to break through inhibitions, seeking to destroy her middle-class character—that she experienced as limiting, confining, insufficiently soulful. Like Mailer, she used drugs and sex as vehicles toward liberation. Unlike Mailer, music was the core experience she used to break out of her shell.
Commonly in the Sixties, people sought release—to get high—through a combination of music and drugs (typically, marijuana). Drugs broke down ego-barriers so that music could enter more deeply into the mind. Crystallizing this dynamic was “Light My Fire,” sung as a rocking version by the Doors (1967), and later in a mellower mode by Jose Feliciano (1968):
You know that it would be untrue.
You know that I would be a liar.
If I was to say to you, girl we couldn’t get much higher.
C’mon baby light my fire. C’mon baby light my fire.
Try to set the night on fire.
Was the fire up above (the marijuana joint), or down below? The “fire” of this song differs substantially from Jerry Lee Lewis’s “Great Ball of Fire.” The latter was a burst of energy—a two-and-one-half minute conflagration lighting up the cool world of the Fifties. “Light my Fire” was a much longer song, suggesting a steady, persisting flame. The fire of rock ‘n’ roll has stabilized—become part of the world.