Fritz the cast

Pop music is the body cast that gets pushed around, but never loses its shape.

By Sarah Vowell
Published April 3, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

One of the most tried-and-true visual gags in American TV and film is the
body cast -- when they dress that unfortunate character who has suffered an
accident of near-death proportions in mummy's clothing. The body cast is
always in bed, usually in traction. For some reason, even though he has a mouth hole,
the body cast rarely speaks, as if jumping out a window or whatever happened
to land him in the hospital turned him mute. And even though you'd think a
character who had broken every bone in his body would be used as a tragic
emblem of pain, the body cast is actually a stock comedic character, a
cartoon. You know the bit: His visitor trips on the traction wire or someone
knocks him out of bed, or his gurney careens down a flight of stairs. For some
reason, it's funny. Maybe because it's a perfect metaphor for life. The
lesson of the body cast is that just when you think you couldn't hurt any
worse, some klutz bumps into you and nothing short of a morphine bath is going
to stop the pain.

Last night, I took two video strolls down pop music memory lane. After
watching Ralph Bakshi's animated feature "American Pop" and VH1's first
installment of the five-part series "The 100 Greatest Artists of Rock & Roll" back-to-back, I
couldn't see American musical history as anything other than that body cast on
the brink. Even though the music itself remains intact, the people telling
its story are only clumsy torturers hindering its recuperation.

The idea behind "American Pop" is a promising one. It aims
to tell the story of 20th century popular music in the United States by following four
generations of a fictional family -- from the Jewish escapee of a czarist
pogrom who ends up doing vaudeville in New York, on through to his rock star great-grandson selling out arenas in the '70s. Shown in theaters in 1981, it's
finally been released on video, thanks to years of copyright battles for
usage rights. Its soundtrack includes Gershwin, Dave Brubeck, Jimi Hendrix
and Pat Benetar. In this relay of the generations, only a harmonica gets
passed down. The vaudevillian's son becomes a jazz pianist, whose son becomes a
junkie '60s songwriter, whose son becomes a punk enthusiast and Bob
Seger sound-alike! (He grooves to the Sex Pistols' "Pretty Vacant" and,
not having learned anything, writes Seger's "Night Moves.")

Conventional wisdom might begin the story back on the farm. Or, more
specifically, the plantation, sowing pop music's seed in the songs of slaves
whose descendants turned those moans into blues and then jazz and so on. Starting
the story in Russia must have taken a little Cold War chutzpah on Bakshi's
part, though the contribution of Jews to American songwriting in this century
is phenomenal -- Irving Berlin, the Gershwin boys, Lieber & Stoller and Bob
Dylan, to name a few. Tracing the exodus from ragtime to rock from a pogrom is
a marvelous idea, and a useful way to explore the tendency of great art to
be made by outsiders busting into the mainstream. Which is why a synopsis of
Bakshi's film is more satisfying than actually watching it.

The real story of pop accomplishment is one of self-determination and hard work. But "American Pop" is structured by the "accident theory" of history, the idea that the time line
of art is merely a series of felicitous mistakes, instead of the work of intelligent agents of change. Years ago, I watched a made-for-TV movie about the Beach Boys. One scene in particular illustrated the way in which the accident theory presupposes a very narrow view of inspiration. The band walks out of a recording studio just in time to watch playboy drummer Dennis get
picked up by a cute girl in a convertible. Mike Love says, "They'll have fun till Daddy takes her T-bird away." And the remaining Beach Boys look at each other as if to say, "Zoinks!" and head back into the studio to record, of course, "Fun, Fun, Fun."

But "American Pop's" director doesn't let his four generations
make history. He imposes history upon them, letting one get killed by a
Nazi soldier after playing "As Time Goes By" on the piano, plopping another into a beatnik coffeehouse to hear a ridiculous, beret-wearing "Allen Ginsberg" reciting "Howl" in overblown
inflections. I don't have a problem with fictional condensation, such as in
the way one character writes "A Hard Rains A-Gonna Fall" and walks onto a
stage to perform "Somebody to Love" in her best Grace Slick. I don't even
have a problem with the film's insistence that great songs are written by
druggies and bad decision makers, which is true enough. What I do mind is the
distance between the filmmaker and his subject. What could be more fulfilling
for an American than lovingly remembering all those great songs? Bakshi trots
them out like he's marking off a checklist.

Rock 'n' roll is extremely difficult to characterize, but it's easy enough to
caricature. Pete, the great-grandson '70s punk at the end of the film, is all
sunglasses and snarls. It seems unfair to condemn a cartoon for being
cartoonish, but looking at this leather jacket-wearing imbecile, you can
forget why you ever cared about music in the first place. I'm sure this film
felt differently in 1981, partly because in terms of animated commentary on
popular culture, it didn't have "The Simpsons" to live up to, a cartoon that
gleefully -- and faithfully -- walks the line between reverence and irreverence
toward pop history. With the probable exception of Jim Morrison (whose Doors hit "People Are Strange" plays in the background of a shooting-up heroin scene), the pop practitioners who made history weren't dummies. But every musician in "American Pop" is a dolt, leaving the
viewer to conclude that the great songs are written by, at best, idiot savants, and, at
worst, just plain idiots. The vaudevillian, made to dress up in a
costume as a horse's hind end, says, "I don't want to be a horse's ass
forever." But that's all his family will become.

VH1's bungling "The 100 Greatest Artists of Rock & Roll" is equally
capable of making our musical body cast cringe, though it really doesn't mean
any harm. It's hosted by actor/"musician" Kevin Bacon, for starters, and its narration is howlingly bad. But this program is so random, so hit and miss, its lack of logic almost passes for suspense. All you want to know is, Who's next? VH1 polled musicians who have appeared on
the channel over the years, asking them to vote for their favorite colleagues.
So you get Fats Domino (No. 97) being lauded by Billy Joel, and both Neil
Young and Charlie Daniels gushing over Lynryd Skynyrd (96). Once you get past the fact
that what you're watching is heroes you care about being loved by musicians
you hate, it's a real hoot.
(The network will run all five segments as a block on Saturday night.) Though Nos. 94 to 92 are a Motown sweep of the Supremes, the Four Tops
and the Temptations, most of the list is all mixed up, featuring what might be
the first Ramones-to-Santana segue in history.

"The 100 Greatest Artists of Rock & Roll" is a mess, which works in the
music's favor. Iggy Pop, at No. 83, has the misfortune of silly send-ups by Jim Kerr (the Simple Minds guy!) and Henry Rollins. Rollins barks, "When the
chips are down, man, you put on 'Raw Power' by Iggy, and you're back in the mix." When the
chips are down? In the mix? You'd think that Rollins' rock-talk would wreck
your Iggy inspiration, but all he does is make "Lust for Life" sound that much
better. And the first segment couldn't have a better ending: The Band, at
No. 81, seen in clips from Martin Scorsese's "The Last Waltz." When the last
piece of tape is Levon Helm screaming behind his drums, you almost forgive the
cut to Kevin Bacon holding a guitar. Somehow, after the abuse of dumb
hosting, bad narration and Daryl Hall interviews, rock 'n' roll keeps its
shape. Because the most important thing to remember about the body cast is
that the body cast always lives. No matter how many times he's shoved or
dropped or mangled, he keeps on keeping on. He might groan. He might let out
mousey squeaks of horror. But the body cast never dies. So go ahead and smack
him around. That's what he's there for.

Sarah Vowell

Sarah Vowell is the author of "Radio On: A Listener's Diary" (St. Martin's Press, 1996) and "Take the Cannoli" (Simon & Schuster, 2000) and is a regular commentator on PRI's "This American Life." Her column appears every other Wednesday in Salon. For more columns by Vowell, visit her column archive.

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