"I am the Spirit of Rock 'n' Roll." The man in the next seat smiled enigmatically. He was a little man with a pointed gopher head and big black glasses, and did not look the part of a spirit.
"They say that rock 'n' roll is dead." He motioned about the audience. "Some wake--or maybe it's just sustained rigor mortis."
There were thousands in Boston Garden on Friday night for the Show of Stars for '57. Car-clubbers in leather jackets, sailors without girls, zoot suiters and dungaree dolls--an omelette of teen-age humanity.
"Maybe some people wish it were dead," he said. He pointed out the skeptics in the crowd, sitting like silent gods on the periphery--and cupping their hands to whisper clever comments to camel-haired coats from Radcliffe and B.U. "Filter-tip cigarettes and buttondown brains," said the Spirit of Rock 'n' Roll. "They come as a form of social entertainment."
Down on the ground floor the thick mat of folding chairs filled up, to the dull impendent drone of the devoted. Pushing, shoving, and other forms of creative expression were constrained by the blue propriety of the Boston police force--on sentry duty at each exit. Above, arc lights were attached to steel girders. Below, red flags and colored paper draped a stage of white wood slats.
A figure stepped out from behind the curtain, the snare drums rolled, and the show was on.
"The first thing you've got to understand," said the Spirit, "is that rock 'n' roll's more acrobatics than art." Chuck Berry, straddling an electric guitar, pounced about the stage with musical spasticity.
"You string together a minimum of same-sounding words and a couple of broken bars--and that's song."
Chuck Berry was succeeded by Eddie Cochrane, a little man with a big guitar. The Spirit of Rock 'n' Roll lit a cigarillo. "Too many people stereotype us--pleated peg pants and blue suede shoes; a calypso shirt and a black leather jacket--and axle grease to part our hair. Not true."
The music rose by decibels. "Man," said a voice, "another note and my argyle socks unravel."
"Rock 'n' roll is part of this generation," said the little man. "We were born with an atom bomb instead of a spoon in our mouth. And our whole life is the sustained debauchery of a spitting-out."
On stage the Drifters were singing White Christmas at top tempo, and the crowd was on its feet.
"They're happy," said the Spirit. "It makes them happy."
A bald-headed man in the front row arose and came down the aisle. He paused, and bit his fingernail. "Can you imagine?" he said. "I mean, can you imagine? My own children." He loosened his tie. "Stardust and White Christmas and Deep Purple--as played by Fats Domino and Billy Ward. I mean, what will my children think? My God, what will my children think?"
A lady was dancing in the aisle, and was ejected. A single finger beat with monomaniacal purpose on a single piano key, a one-chord keynote to a kaleidoscope of sound.
"It's the music of lonely people," confided the Spirit. "The music of a single saxophone at night. Like a train whistle. There's a lot of heart."
Fats Domino, a chubby torpedo with the hands of a rake and the voice of a raspy chain saw, deposited his 300-pound frame at the piano and began to play. They turned on the house-lights. Fats, in a red silk toga, had been known to inspire hysteria.
A Harvard man got up and started to leave. "You know what this stuff is?" he asked as he trundled by. "It's devolution. Spawned in the hillbilly hinterlands and the African jungle. And sustained by the gathered momentum of Sound. Sound and Motion--a sense narcotic to dispel the dim and Damoclean shadow of reality."
And with that, he wandered friendless into the multitude shaking his watch and brushing the dandruff from his hair.
The Spirit of Rock 'n' Roll continued, undeterred. First they said it was calypso. Then Hawaiian music. Now, what? All of them were supposed to replace us. Nothing."
Partisans in the third balcony were throwing chunks of wood at the stage, Frankie Lyman struggled about the platform, dwarfed in his 14-year-old grandiloquence by the microphone.
The spirit of levity had moved one gang of youths to hoist an usher above its shoulders and hurl him down a flight of stairs. The crowd roared and the City's Pride convened for action. The show went on, oblivious and even louder.
Laverne Baker, the grand lady of the rhythm world, emerged from the wings in a dress sprayed on by an atomizer. And the tumult shook all gods from their cynical periphery.
"We shall survive," said the Spirit of Rock 'n' Roll. "We shall survive despite the Sunday morning rock 'n' rollers, the disc jockey post mortems, and the third rate flicks. Despite Lawrence Welk and Lester Lanin. Despite the amateur sociologists and their 'adolescent subcultures.'
"In a thousand one-night stands and red-lit neon holes from San Diego to Baltimore. In a Beat as Big as a bass-fiddle, tight-drum Hot America. In the dull roar and muted chant of the Juke Box Generation. We shall survive--and prosper. Man, you heard it here."
And he had a chorus, a thunderous "Amen!" from the stamp of heavy shoes and the clap of hairless hands. Youth spilled out last Friday night like so much combustible gas, gathered as a gust and bright balloon, rose, burst with a desultory bang, and was gone. Leaving only the silence of the morning after.