BOOKS AND ARTS JANUARY 27, 1979
A few months back I sat down to watch a three-hour television special consisting of films from two of Elvis Presley's last concerts. I meant to watch the entire show, but after half an hour I had to turn it off. It was no pretty sight. The face was fat and dull-eyed, the body practically immobile, the voice mechanical. Take away the once-scandalous gyrations and the inimitable voice, and what was there? Elvis never wrote anything to speak of, never contributed any real innovations after his burst on the musical scene. He was the King only because he was the first rock star, not because he was the best. His persistent popularity owes more to commercial hype than to his own talent. All I could think was, "He was no Buddy Holly."
Holly, who died in a plane crash 20 years ago next week, is my own nominee for the title Elvis never deserved. It wasn't for nothing that folksinger Don McLean memorialized February 3, 1959 as "the day the music died." It didn't die, of course, as rock's growth over the last two decades attests. But to imagine the development of rock music without Holly's contributions is almost impossible. Holly has languished in relative obscurity for these 20 years, although Cary Busey's thrilling portrayal of him in last year's film biography revived some interest in his music. He always has had a special following among rock musicians, particularly during the 1960s. Buddy Holly was far and away the strongest influence on the Beatles, who chose their name as a reference to Holly's own band, the Crickets. One of the Rolling Stones's first hits was Holly's innovative "Not Fade Away." The Hollies were named after him. Holly influenced the music of many others. If Elvis was the first rocker. Holly was the mastermind of the rock revolution. The range of his innovations is unparalleled in rock music history. He was the first to use only a four-piece band, which became the standard setup in the 1960s. He was the first to overdub his own voice on his records. He was the first to use strings on a rock record. And on and on. He drew on an astonishing variety of musical forms. He suffered, though, from being more interested in music than in self-promotion. Holly probably had more influence on the evolution of rock music than anyone. But in the US he never even had a number-one record.
The Rolling Stones were rock's original bad boys, the ones you wouldn't want your daughter to bring home, and they always have taken some delight in trying to shock. Most of their efforts have been pretty harmless, but some have been purely despicable. A few years back the Stones drew some well-deserved criticism from feminist groups for their album "Black and Blue," which celebrated sadomasochism, and in particular for a billboard ad featuring a bruised and bloody woman. More recently the Reverend Jesse Jackson has castigated the Stones for a line in a song on their latest album, "Some Girls," which alleges that "black girls just want to fuck all night." Ten years ago, when white liberals still worried about the civil rights movement, that line would have been seen for the dangerous racist slur it is, instead of being ignored or dismissed as a harmless jest. If there are any organized boycotts of the Rolling Stones, I haven't heard about them.
If TNR ever decides to close up shop because of financial losses—not likely, since we've been losing money for more than 60 years now—I hope it does so with more grace than New Times. I don't like to see other magazines go under, since we writers, at least, need all the magazines we can get, but I regret New Times's departure less than most. Occasionally it featured a couple of interesting, well-researched, carefully thought-out articles, but mostly it was shallow, flashy and predictable. Its readers were generally young, white and affluent, and New Times rarely challenged their preconceptions about the world. The magazine was more trendy than seriously left-wing, as demonstrated by its extravagant emphasis on environmental issues. The editors of New Times used their farewell issue, not to ponder whatever of their own failures might be to blame, but to assail Americans for not buying their publication. Its demise, they said, was due to the rampant "decadence" of the "Me Decade." They are deluding themselves. New Times owed what success it enjoyed almost entirely to that decadence. The problem with New Times was not, as the editors said, that it was too serious. It was that, in a trivial age, it was not quite trivial enough.
Another magazine to which I wish a speedy death recently celebrated an anniversary with a gala party here in Washington, attended by sycophants from the local news media. Hugh Hefner and Playboy have been degrading and exploiting women for 25 years now. No fewer than 800 people, including senators. White House aides and the mayor, turned out to ogle assorted Playmates and hail this gilt-edged pornographer as a cultural pioneer. I never fully grasped the extent of that degradation until the time I watched a man in a drugstore buying copies of Playboy and a couple of other girlie magazines, oblivious or indifferent to the stares of his two daughters, neither of whom was older than 10. I was flabbergasted, wondering what sort of example he thought he was suggesting to them. Hefner naturally denies that his magazine oppresses women. The message it offers a woman, he told one reporter, is that she can be anything she wants, from a secretary to a college professor. But what his magazine actually suggests is that your job isn't important at all. What's important, if you're a woman, is that you have a 36- inch bustline and a casual attitude about sex: that way lies happiness and self- fulfillment. Naturally I'm opposed to censorship. But I think that the world would be a better place if 10-year-old girls weren't led to believe that a woman's highest vocation is to cavort naked in front of a camera.
Buddy Holly's songs perfectly reflected the times in which he lived. They are simple love songs—playful, innocent, painfully sincere, devoid of any trace of political awareness. It's easy for disillusioned children of t h e 1970s to dismiss the 1950s as complacent, self- satisfied and unimaginative. Americans were much less politicized then; from our vantage point their lives may look somewhat pointless. Actually the Americans of the 1950s were probably too busy with the important things in life that Holly sang about to worry so much about politics. Is that so bad? Samuel Johnson said, "How small of all that human hearts endure, that part which laws or kings can cause or cure!" Contemporary Americans seem to have forgotten that. Jill Robinson, for example, recently wrote in The New York Times, "I do not remember the date of my last wedding. But I remember the dates the Kennedys died, the date Martin Luther King died." Anyone who thinks tlie death of a public figure is more important in the cosmic scheme of things than a spiritual and physical union between a man and a woman has totally lost her sense of balance. A few Holly records might help Robinson regain it.