article by Donny York of ShaNaNa
For me, getting this gig was a case of “Wait until the folks back home find outabout this!” It was like the gig of a lifetime—even measured against the great gigs I’ve already stumbled into in places like Woodstock or in cinematic majesties like Grease. I appeared in them, along with other worthy young talents by the dozen. But I’m the only guy who assisted Pat Boone in the preparation of his definitive autobiographical career memoir. Back home they’ll be more impressed about my affiliation with Boone than they were about Woodstock or Grease, and they’ll probably have gotten it just about right. (Think effect on history, as opposed reflection of it.)
Although I had met Pat Boone in passing, as being a lifelong member of ShaNaNa would bring about naturally enough, I never got acquainted with him until after I’d spent a memorable day in his office store room going through photographs and artifacts, only a portion of which have now gained their way into his new book. Some days later, he and I sat and talked, and I could tell he knew I was being merely truthful telling him that combing through his storeroom had been an experience I would never forget.
What I had forgotten, even though I’d known, was that during the early rock n’ roll years of 1955 through 1959 Pat Boone and Elvis Presley had only each other as serious competitors in record sales. They were by every objective measure the world’s biggest rock n’ roll stars. Nobody else was even in the same league.
Pat Boone’s real pre-eminence in that seminal period has largely been forgotten, and this needs some explaining. Explaining it will be among my intentions here, because even though I’m into this stuff, for all intents and purposes I too had forgotten!
I’m not sure why Pat agreed to sign me on as his editor or “expert commentator” to help round his photo collection and narrative into a coherent volume, but I think he looked past my having no professional track record as a writer and took special note of a couple of things: First, he seemed to like the idea that I actually got an “A” on my American Social History thesis The Role of Rock n’ Roll Music in the Development of Today’s Generation Gap back in 1971 at Columbia (our mutual alma mater, and the birthplace of ShaNaNa) in New York City. And second, he seemed to like that I’d spent my adult professional life portraying a late-1950’s rock n’ roll fan’s worldview as the true one worth holding.
Well, on some level, that is the worldview worth holding, or at least holding onto. The truth is, I found myself wanting the fifty-year Boone career scrapbook editing job from the moment I knew it might exist and, I must admit, ahead of Pat offering it to me. My enthusiasm for early rock n’ roll culture may not be 100% rational, but I would scream while they dragged me away straightjacketed that its richness has been worth my lifelong investment in it.
As it turned out, the publisher’s bean counters and editors clashed about the number of trees they would kill and pages they would commit to previously unpublished photographs, at the expense of text, in the Boone memoir. In the end, they re-affirmed that a picture is worth a thousand words. So, thousands of mine—contributed as “side bar” historical 2 commentary to run throughout the book—were left on the editing room floor. Some of them survive right here; I swear they were all really good. It’s just that the pictures were better!
A good reason to get into Pat Boone’s new book is nostalgia, but nostalgia is neither the book’s purpose nor the best reason for getting into it. The new book really is a surprising photo scrapbook and memoir of a unique entertainer’s one-of-a-kind career. And it spans a time of such extraordinary societal change that a Rip Van Winkle from the early days of that career might not recognize the America he would awaken to now. Boone’s life and times in photographs makes for an adventurous biographical study of both him and his country. And that is the best reason for most of us to get into his new book.
That also explains his having titled it Pat Boone’s America. We should not fail to note how extraordinary it really is—that a guy as self-consciously “square” as Boone was, was an American super-star in a realm as self-consciously “hip” as the recording industry during the rock n’ roll music era. His story is one of such vivid contrasts that we can’t help but reflect on where we’ve been and where we’re headed. As we partake of this memoir, we who have the normal reflexes of citizens will find ourselves thinking repeatedly about the hierarchical arrangement of our core values.
Of course, this country never was Pat Boone’s America. Nor was it ever Walt Whitman’s America (just one of the number from whom or about whom an equivalent title came) or Elvis’s, or Roosevelt’s, or Reagan’s. But “Pat Boone’s America” signifies something that so many people now living can identify (whether or not they identify with), that a demographer’s broadest brushstrokes actually are appropriate. If they don’t work for you personally, then they do for many of the people you have known or depended on. As a singing star at first, and as a film star and television personality later, Pat was as mainstream American as it got.
Living in a golden age never even crossed our minds
Today’s standard imagery of the “happy days” of the 1950’s and the first rock n’ roll is so insistently romantic that we forget how much has been distorted. During what later came to be called the golden age of rock n’ roll, it never even crossed our minds that we were living in what could be called the good old days. To us younger people living them, they were the days of on-rushing modernity, even frightening modernity, and nothing about them felt settled, sentimental, or simple.
In truth, few of us were really jumping into the backs of convertibles and cruising around with loud rock n’ roll, ever. That ’57 Chevy wasn’t “a classic” then, and anyway it was our pop’s property, if we were even that lucky. More likely, we felt okay just having the keys to some old pickup truck, if it made the difference between being stuck on foot and actually getting around. And, guess what else?—Rock n’ roll wasn’t even common on the radio; you had to work hard to find any at certain hours of the broadcast day.
The truth is, there was a tendency for a lot of us to be worried a lot. What was going to happen if Russia’s Khrushchev went another step too bold over there in East Germany, or the Red Chinese made their move on Formosa, or the communists really went for broke in what was called Indo-China? We learned the word “crisis” in the news broadcasts and tried not to think too much about each new one. No generation before ours had a nightly television review of the very latest possibilities worldwide that might lead to thermo- nuclear annihilation.
The new seriousness of the nuclear arms race with the Soviets, whose top leadership openly said “Your grandchildren will live under communism,” was awful to contemplate, considering that our parents had already known more than one war in their lifetimes, and another in ours was spoken about as inevitable. The idea was prevalent that both sides would have to throw everything they had at each other once anyone anywhere used a nuke. So gloom was simply appropriate. Whatever else we think about those good old days, we do know that stopping to smell the roses then meant risking confrontation with that constant backdrop of deep gloom about humankind’s likely doom.
Rock n’ roll’s coming was sudden enough to be mistaken for a fad. While it eventually became woven into the adult mainstream, it started as a youth sub-culture. A new generation as a distinct class possessing their own music was previously unknown in human history. Such a thing became possible in post-World War II America because of rising spending power across the whole spectrum of the population. The young were able to be a distinct sector of consumers in the marketplace, and they made rock n’ roll the first music ever to be distinctly their own and not something shared from their parents. Driven by all the newly erupting technology and wealth, great changes were at hand throughout society, and for popular culture to be facing its own big changes was inevitable.
Okay then, how important was Pat Boone in this new rock n’ roll culture? Well, let’s take a step back and ponder another obvious: If you find yourself to have become a big star, the only correct response is to recognize that most of what you do will still go un-noticed. Even as a top name entertainer— what today would be called a superstar—within the expanding universe of advanced civilization all around you, your imprint will be almost insignificant. (My own humble example of ShaNaNa having been a thriving presence for more than four years on national television—when TV channels were few by comparison to today—serves as a good example when you recognize that there are oceans of people who don’t even know or never did know we had a TV series.) There is no singular, all-encompassing mass culture, and if you seem to be recognized by everyone on the street this week, a dwindling number will even recognize your likeness some week in the future! In the larger scheme of things, that’s the truth for the biggest of stars this side of maybe Shakespeare or Beethoven.
It’s a mistake to think too seriously of mass-market entertainment careers as making an imprint upon society, because there is no “society” or even mass culture that all individuals partake of in quite the way we usually speak of. The “society” that even the biggest entertainers imprint is, by any honest definition, just their large audience. It’s thus an illusion for stars to imagine themselves imprinting society, because they are only imprinting audiences, how ever large, and their audiences’ representations of society are always changing and always limited.
Now, that said, there’s imprint, and then there’s impact. We can speak seriously of teachers or even merchants having an impact on society, because we witness that their lives generate ripples into all of society that are real, even if hard to measure. We can also speak seriously, I suppose, of stars leaving their imprint but not having an impact. (Who will you pick on? The Dave Clark Five? Art Garfunkel?) But Pat Boone’s career comes as close as any other star's we can bear witness to, to having made its imprint upon a mass audience in a serious enough way—and a well-timed enough way—to have its impact on all of society.
In saying this I am not backing away from the truth that if you’re anything short of Elvis or the Beatles (And you turned out not to be as, er… “leading edge” as they did, Mr. Boone… Sir!), the significance of your stardom will probably fade much sooner than you suppose, whatever the time/space cubbyhole in which your career happens.
Ah, but what if your rise to great stardom were to happen in the late 1950’s? If your rise to great stardom were to happen within the time/space cubbyhole of late 1950’s America, then you would seem at times to be presiding over the first generation defining itself without the aid of its parents and predecessors as adequate role models! This would be because parents then had no experience to draw from about being young in times of instantaneous mass communications everywhere and the day-to-day hair trigger possibility of global thermonuclear war! If you rose to great stardom in this timeframe, you would have the attention of a generation making its way for the first time in history without any available role models from previous generations who had been where and done what their young were now! No generation that came later faced so total a lack of useful adult role models, because young parents did come to include those who knew what being young amidst such revolutionary conditions was like. So this first rock n’ roll generation sailed in uncharted and scary waters, and yet it was their task to determine just what the post-war generation of Americans would be like. Having been among the defining entertainment personalities for that special generation in that special time period, and having done it with care, makes the significance of Pat Boone’s stardom sure to fade slowly. It means he not only made his imprint, he did have his impact.
The scholarly anthropology department types make the argument that the new mass communication and the new threat of sudden mass annihilation meant that a very different culture for the coming generation was very much inevitable, simply inherent with those times. They seem to have this correct, considering that we no longer hear about a “generation gap” the way we did back then! Without our Elvis Presley or our Pat Boone, the new mass communication technologies of TV sets and vastly more radio receivers were in place for us to have someone else like them, and we probably would have.
Yet even without someone else like Elvis or Pat, performers like Fats Domino, Bill Haley, and Chuck Berry would have given rock n’ roll its predominance eventually. What did happen was that late 1950’s America became the critical cubbyhole in time/space where Pat Boone’s career imprinted nearly all of us who paid attention to the music on the radio. The way he handled being such a big star in times like those made a difference in his imprint that did add up to real impact. It could just as easily have been otherwise, but Pat happened to take seriously the idea of modeling personal responsibility and propriety, and the ripples it sent through all of society are still benefiting us—to this day.
Pioneers and culture heroes
Pat Boone has been credited with clearing the way for black rock n’ roll performers to get into the mainstream in a way they never had before. (The credit comes from, among others, Little Richard himself.) This usually silences those who profess pain with how Pat came along and ripped off the black rhythm & blues artists because he knew they'd never be allowed onto the playing field and he found their merchandise ripe for the plucking. (Why Elvis Presley didn't get the same heat for this as Pat needs some explaining. And why "cover" recordings of popular records aren't acknowledged as the standard operating procedure for the recording business of that day—as they were, much more than any time since then—needs some too.)
Okay, he opened doors to mainstream popularity for rhythm & blues talents, and they and we all benefited. All very fine and all very good. But that’s not what mattered most to the literally millions of kids like me who were going through the natural ordeal of adolescence during the early rock n’ roll years.
It should never have been a great surprise: The rowdy new sound of rock n’ roll found the younger and the more rebellious its first natural audience. Chuck Berry sang “Hail hail rock n’ roll, Deliver me from the days of old,” and social changes were indeed at hand that were felt to be threatening enough to draw active resistance from some of the more traditionally oriented grown-ups. “Rock n’ roll riot” was the phrase in a good many newspaper headlines, and rock n’ roll was routinely called the music of juvenile delinquents! Yet, here was an authentically new kind of music, with such easy foot-stomping infectiousness and lyrics so often about young love that it was bound to win over even the “good” kids!
With rock n’ roll’s increasing popularity, we adolescents (hardwired for conformity amongst ourselves as throughout history) were actually facing an either-or choice between being “square” or joining with the “juvenile delinquent” forces, or so it actually seemed for a time. For large numbers of us, there might have been no answer we could invent quickly enough, if not for the presence of a singer who would rock n’ roll with confidence and ease but do it without appearing to want to be somehow outrageous or indecent. Before some of us had even grasped how much we needed to, we found a way to be up-to-date and even “cool” without having to be rebellious. We’d gotten lucky. We’d discovered a one-of-a-kind rock n’ roll star named Pat Boone.
Sure, some of those "more traditionally oriented grown-ups" could still protest that making rock n’ roll okay for even the good kids only hastened its power to degenerate all kids. But Pat Boone's great popularity had permanently torpedoed the idea that it necessarily represented excess or degeneracy. Two years after Boone’s Tutti Frutti peaked at #10 on the Billboard charts and Little Richard’s original version peaked at #17, a Danny & the Juniors hit record told the truth that’s remained true for all of our lives so far: Rock n’ Roll Is Here To Stay! But already this was looking way less dangerous to society than the alarmists would have said when it was getting started.
Instances of misguidedness to be found within rock n’ roll had become subject to objection simply on their specifics. For sincere moralists, post-Pat Boone, the burdensome and nearly impossible chore of discrediting an irresistible musical genre had become unnecessary. What a relief for them! And all of us!
How ever else we define culture, we’re pondering the obvious when we include surviving and preserving the established way of life among its essential components. These are things cultures do, and without the ability to maintain a mainstream instead of fragmenting into competing streams, a culture will become weaker, by definition. Embracing and absorbing new streams into a mainstream instead of letting fragmentation handicap us has been pointed out as a delicate alchemy America has so far managed to perform enough that we are more present-day dynamo than collapsing empire.
The critical value of a Pat Boone to America in the early rock n’ roll era is thus un-arguable. When we speak of “culture heroes,” while leading edge artists and visionaries come to mind, the sort who help us find a mainstream and guide us through turbulence with our culture intact are heroes too. Some (the ideologues who infest even free-spirited realms such as rock music) may dismiss his artistic importance, but you want to talk about your culture heroes? Pat Boone stands irreplaceably as one of modern America’s authentic ones.
The Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame’s shame
When our depicting and celebrating the first rock n’ roll as we do in ShaNaNa was still being called a "fad," the public's unanticipated enthusiasm for it gave me the inspiration to write a song with the chorus lyrics “Yeah, some new names came around with a new kind of sound, and now things have never been the same, So let’s take ’em all down and save ’em for our children in a rock n’ roll hall of fame.” That was in 1970. Millions of viewers (some record industry executives among them, I do believe) eventually saw us do my “Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame” on our TV series in 1978. Out of the efforts of a coalition of record industry people and competing civic officials, an actual Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame came to be a reality at last in 1983. If the idea was for us to take ’em all down and save ’em for our children, it has turned out that the “us” who are doing it are music biz heavies and not the actual star-making music-buying fans I pictured in my song.
I believe this has something to do with Pat Boone being among the missing in the inductees list. To the intensely hip who actually have opposed his induction into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame or who would argue with me as to whether Pat Boone would qualify as a rock star, I say get down off your perch. Did we miss the mystical ceremony when you were anointed protectors of the sacred flame? Under your robes are you safeguarding some tablets bearing the definition of true rock n’ roll we’re obliged to honor?
Let’s see—it had a strong backbeat, it had lots of images of young love in its lyrics… But wait a minute, exceptions to any definitions like that were on rock n’ roll radio and on the Billboard charts. The most significant part of any definition of rock n’ roll when it was new—the thing that actually was unprecedented—was that it was the music bought not by adults but by youngsters.
Rock n’ roll flourished back then not by conforming to a definition but by nothing so complicated as the kids taking notice of it and maybe dancing to it and, most importantly of all, paying money for it. Rock n’ roll music stars were nothing more than performers who were willing to take their chances with audiences of raucous youngsters. And if many were called, the few who were chosen were chosen by youngsters.
Pat Boone was one of those they chose. His first hit record happened before Elvis Presley’s first. In the new Pat Boone’s America you’ll find photos of near mob scenes where it’s just youngsters jostling to get closer to him. So get over it, ye keepers of the flame. Pat Boone was a rock n’ roll star.
A wop boppa loo bop, a lop bam boom!
The coming of the counter-culture
In the new memoir Pat’s narrative is about his post-rock n’ roll star years more than some old fans might prefer. But quite obviously, such years constitute the majority of his long public career.
Looking upon youth culture while no longer having any real influence on it has probably contributed to Pat’s observations seeming Jeremiah-like about America at times. “But Jeremiah was right,” you do hear thoughtful individuals say, so Pat isn’t really bothered by the comparison. My being active in the great rock culture that evolved a decade and more after Pat’s heyday has made me ponder a lot about his perspectives on American culture in general.
The popular culture of a historical period seems to get more lasting remembrance than the political events. (Quickly now, who ruled Austria in Mozart’s day?) Just as “the ’fifties” came to mean the late 1950s and early 1960s because of rock n’ roll, “the ’sixties” came to mean the late 1960s and early 1970s because of the anti-war/youth/music counterculture. Things like the economic boom or the cold war, not to mention the Korean or Vietnam wars during the corresponding periods, will never be as universally familiar to younger people.
We mistook it at the time for a landmark and forerunner of things yet to come, but the high water mark for that ’sixties counterculture was Woodstock. It came near the very end of the calendar-demarcated ’sixties, but it’s now strangely seen as the decade’s central cultural moment, and it did reverberate into the ’seventies. Scorn me as a sloppy historian if I over-use the term “Woodstock era” here, but there was one. I was one of its inhabitants.
All that far removed from the mainstream culture?
As I’ve noted earlier, Pat Boone was already on the adult side of any generation gap that might have existed by the time the escalating American military commitment in Vietnam was starting to define the 1960s. In the final actual calendar months of that decade, when the Woodstock rock festival was being mopped up, pre-production was underway for The Cross and the Switchblade, a movie starring Pat that would be released the following year to disappointing box office returns. The “Jesus freaks” phenomenon, a vibrant Christian recording industry, the rise of Christian broadcasting and such things would come later, but as far as attention in the mass culture was concerned during this period, things Christian were eclipsed like most everything else by things anti-war and things counterculture.
The rock music culture fused easily with the anti-war counterculture of course, because appeal to the individual’s rebellious streak had always been part of rock n’ roll’s allure, and if mass rebelliousness could bring a military pull-back, the appeal of avoiding individual combat duty (not to mention death in battle) as a fringe benefit was so obvious that nobody had to mention it. When we consider that adolescence never stopped being a time of natural conformism, and that rock music purveyors and consumers joined (in lyrics, in advertising, in public events) in taking it all as a moral consciousness thing, it’s easy for us to imagine how every youthful American male would take a greater interest in the rock culture then.
Something else that stoked the counterculture, not too obvious for repeating here, was a communications technology factor: Much of the second half of the 20th century turns out to be unique. Communications media were unlike those before or since. Before then, we had no TV; since then, we have internet, cell phones, cheap long distance, and so many competing broadcasts, pod-casts, blogs, and web-casts that financial people speak of market competition in “narrowcasting.” In the 1960s for the first time, nightly TV news broadcasts were bringing vivid reality—fresh deaths our side was suffering from actual gun-toting enemy forces—unlike any citizens back home ever got so routinely in any previous war. Never before had all the folks accessed all the images and stories so similarly and so simultaneously; never again will all the images and stories come from so few sources and so synchronized. News about the Vietnam war and domestic debate about it was so similarly digested in the late ’sixties, individuals inclined toward counterculture participation were staying “on the same page” together quite effortlessly.
History, as they say, gets to be “written by the winners.” The anti-war movement of the late ’60s and early ’70s eventually won congressional de-funding of the American military effort in Vietnam. So younger Americans since then have tended to get the winners’ view that the enlightened counter-culture tamed our over-reaching military adventurism and finally allowed an end to the Vietnam war. High school textbooks show the old street protests in a favorable light, often mentioning the youth music culture as having a role, while ignoring the greater human tragedy that befell distant populations after America’s dissenters got things their way. Today’s kids are often dismissive of the “old hippies” so numerous on school faculties, but they seem to quite buy into the view that it was the Woodstock era, and the Woodstock era alone, that made the world safe for alternative lifestyles.
Considering all this, thorough historians should not neglect to look at the Woodstock era from the “losers’” point of view. It seems not unfair to say that the trek through the rock n’ roll years had brought America by 1969 to the worst of the older generation’s original fears about what the music would do to the young. Except for certain instances of dignified oratory or procession, the anti-war youth culture had enough excess, license, and exuberance to embody what the early rock n’ roll detractors had seen as “mindless rebellion” on the part of its fans. The Woodstock era young were seen as self-absorbed and insular from adults, they were no longer looking responsibly toward the future, they were more promiscuous than any previous generation, their hygiene wasn’t so good, and they were rather prone to rioting!
But, the next thing we knew, an abiding truth both historical and anthropological came into play: Parents almost never give up on their kids, not even if their kids reach adulthood and run amuck. Those on the adult side of the much-noted generation gap (whether believers in or dissenters against the Vietnam war) exhibited a gradual acceptance of how the young were turning out. No matter how creepy some of the young were seeming, the adults of Pat’s generation found ways to keep a positive regard for my own generation that followed. Some of us were surprised how even older Americans warmed to the leftie-hippie young, and we heard how a lot of them identified with our ferment on campuses and in the streets, because in their own youth they had experienced some social upheaval in the 1930s depression era.
By the mid-1970s, the “counterculture” was seeming ever the more mainstream. Americans everywhere seemed to have broadened their definitions of socially acceptable styles and behavior. And—post-Vietnam War—an almost sappy, I’d-like-to-teach-the-world-to-sing, post-hippie mainstream took shape for long enough to allow disco and Jimmy Carter their turns on center stage.
The coming undone of the counter-culture
Many of those “losers” with a negative regard for the Woodstock era culture went to bed at nights in the 1970s despairing about America’s future, because the quasi-hippie, anti-capitalist mood in the land seemed to be bearing awful fruits like the military forfeiting of Vietnam to communism, price controls (abandoned once their harmfulness was obvious), a successful move to force a Republican president out of office, and a decline in military preparedness. In 1974 the Watergate scandal hugely benefited the electoral results and future prospects for the left side of the Congressional aisle, and doubts about capitalism even being allowed to function helped take the stock market to a historic low. For the sector of grown-ups like Pat Boone who never had found the counterculture all that charming, there was a reluctant acceptance of the youth culture having turned out badly indeed. But for Pat the only proper response to it was the patient embrace of the afflicted young in the hope of bringing them back into the fold of traditional Americanism.
That post-hippie, smiley-face mainstream did take shape, but there was a tentative feel about it. I remember the Vietnam years and their clamorous counterculture having so rattled Americans that, in all my road touring with ShaNaNa, I sensed that we all got a bit wary of each other in the mid-to-late-’seventies aftermath. Many a younger adult’s identity seemed to have been radically changed forever, and we weren’t all sure whether we “could relate” to each other any more. It was starting to be called “The Me Decade.” There came to be a lot of tentative posturing between people—especially old acquaintances or relatives who’d been little in touch and were unsure where each other’s “heads were at” by now—on the war, on capitalism versus socialism, on matters spiritual, on an array of lifestyle issues. The war years and the counterculture had subjected everything—even continuing the United States as a democratic capitalist republic—to challenge.
It was in the context of that aftermath that my channel-surfing eyes would happen upon Pat Boone on his prime time TV specials, with longish but very clean hair and sort of Partridge Family-style cleaned up hippie wardrobe, uttering lines like “You young whippersnappers get on now and… whip your snaps!” to his daughters. The same societal leadership function I describe in my introduction about Pat’s crucial role in the early rock n’ roll years—that of charting an accommodative middle ground—was still in play.
It was much needed in the post-Vietnam years, and Pat fortunately was not as lonely in trying to provide it as he’d been back in the ’fifties.
In our present day, the tension for guys like Boone comes from the fact that traditional Americanism itself is so constantly targeted for re-definition that it’s in danger of losing its substance. In Pat’s view, the idea of there being a definite mainstream based on Judeo-Christian values and decency is too often overlooked. Because overlooking that idea is a necessary precondition for redefining Americanism, Pat is branded “backward” by the hyper hipsters among us. In portions of the new book, his outrage over the decline of standards and decency does make him seem like a present-day Jeremiah prophesying doom. But it’s not a role a guy like Boone would invite or welcome, just a role that he feels is forced upon him by our propriety-deficient times.
Pat discusses with understandable relish the success of those late 1970s prime time TV specials he did with his family. During the same timeframe, the Sha Na Na TV series came into being, not on a major network, but widely syndicated, beginning in September 1977. We enjoyed strong ratings and expanding numbers of stations through 1981—time slotted usually around 7:30 PM—with never a self-conscious thought about purpose. The notable fact was that the once-intimidating specter of rock n’ roll had now become harmless and family-friendly. Once notorious rock n’ rollers, we were now transformed into harmless cartoon characters for the young and old. Our concert audiences came to include kids accompanied by parents and even grandparents. Rather than being central to a generation gap as it had been circa 1970, rock n’ roll was now a generation bridge. Each Pat Boone prime time TV special consisted of a former rock n’ roll superstar showcasing and celebrating his family, and the ratings showed that America drank it in.
Our ShaNaNa episodes were musically true to the first rock n’ roll—we tried to capture the “feel” and never to change a note from the original hit records—but our series was altogether self-deprecating, if not downright silly. The big summer 1978 hit movie Grease had usportraying the dance band at the Rydell High School prom. If there was a message to the screenplay, it seemed to be that a girl could find fulfillment in the rock n’ roll age by becoming more sexually provocative and freeing herself from all that traditional “nice girl” propriety. The closing theme song that went “We’ll always be together” rang true for but a relative handful of the actual generation the movie portrayed.
Reflecting on all this, I guess there may be two things us aging baby-boomers are coming to believe by now with near unanimity. (The one-liners about us always went toward “sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll,” but it’s really more like…) One: It really would be nice if rock n’ roll were here to stay. And, two: It really would be awful if family weren’t. If that mindset should turn out to be our only particular legacy at the end of our run, at least we will be secure in the knowledge that we could have done worse. What we’re sticking with in the end has more in common with the Pat Boone years of our earlier memories than with the more hippy, trippy years where we sojourned later along the way.
The risk in romanticizing your rock
For early rock n’ roll era youth, there was a price for having rock n’ roll (as hailed in Chuck Berry’s hit School Days) “deliver me from the days of old,” and it included some loss of clarity about norms to guide how adulthood ought to be approached. The renowned anthropologist Margaret Mead pronounced post-World War II baby boomers “pioneers—not in space but in time.” As much as Daniel Boone had been in his day, Pat Boone in his turned out to be a guide for many of these pioneers. For most of them, rock n’ roll was assured of posing little of the danger people had feared. Pat, by example and in print and in spoken interview, was big on clarity about how adulthood ought to be approached.
But take note! Nobody’s going to say (except maybe just once, right here) “Wow, that man Pat Boone… Now he really helped things stay the same!” People get noticed in history when they make things different. School kids don’t say of Lincoln “He kept the United States together,” they say “He freed the slaves.” For some people, an Elvis Presley is important, because he changed certain things; for others, perhaps less conscious about it, a Pat Boone is even more important, because he kept certain things the same. But, because he made things different, Elvis will get all the notice. History notices people when they make things different, but when they keep things the same (even with great effort and against impossible odds) it usually—sorry, Pat—goes unnoticed.
At Woodstock the biggest common denominator among attendees was their barely adult age and the central place that they gave rock music in their lives. From the perspective of the “losers” in that moment of history, the Woodstock young were in danger and/or represented danger. Their excessive attachment to rock music and the counterculture seemed to have worked some ill for them and their world. Whether or not rock deserved blame for America’s failing traditional robust optimism, it took some years and some luck to remedy much of it. After Watergate and the 1975 military forfeiture of Vietnam to communism, Ronald Reagan’s election, coming as soon as 1980, felt to Woodstock era “losers” like waking up from a bad dream, and the obvious demise of most if not quite all of world communism by the end of the ’eighties felt like a flat out miracle.
I’m far from alone among history’s “winners” in the Woodstock era if I now look back with a degree of embarrassment. I did buy into the socialist ideal myself—would bore innocent bystanders advocating it. But I found time for further study and further reflection as I matured; and by the time Saigon fell, I had real trouble rejoicing. From time to time nowadays, into my humble fan mail box will arrive a request. This one is typical:
I was very impressed that my daughter would choose Woodstock for a project on an event that changed the world. Their teacher has asked that they attempt to contact persons who were actually there, especially any who performed there. Knowing ShaNaNa was part of it, we would like to know what your ideas of Woodstock are and how you think that it changed the world at the time.
I wrote right back:
It hardly did at all. Only its mytholigizing had all that much impact. The myth was that we “freaks” (maybe “hippies” in your terms) had demonstrated how we could peaceably share and take care of each other, awash in brotherly love (along with the mud from the rainstorms) in some sort of socialist utopia model. The fact was, we were quite dependent on the life support systems offered by the “straight” capitalist world outside the festival. They literally rescued us and provided for us to the degree necessary. The idealistic equality yearnings of our generation ignored the fact that wealth has to be created before anyone can bother with redistributing it; and profit-motivated free market capitalism works better at that than any other system. Woodstock was much mythologized as “proof” that the young had found a more humanizing societal model, but it demonstrated nothing of the sort. I don't have time to be more expansive now, but we can do this as an on-going Q&A exchange if you like.
I never heard another peep in reply to this one. I suspect myths die hard for some folks. To disillusion the young would trouble me; but, with the parents on board—hey, no problem!
What I do want to log in here about my experience of Woodstock itself (apart from having savored my own little slice of immortality when repeat footage of me combing my ShaNaNa hairdo accompanied the credits rolling at the end of the hit movie) is that, for reasons having nothing to do with a drug high, there was just a goofy feeling of magic in the air there.
A performer, but not recognizably famous, I could wander in the crowd or backstage. In terms of life support—much less, creature comfort—in a poorly planned muddy sea of too many people, there was an obvious disaster underway. But nobody got hurt! Walking around, I encountered nothing but cheerful human warmth, and individuals taking good care of each other. It seemed a time of no competitiveness, and constant volunteerism, and sharing resources. It wasn’t socialism at all; there was no people’s committee directing anything in top-down fashion; there was just one-on-one caring and patience while we waited for the music to go on despite delays. It amounted to a love-in indeed—not sexualized, just very brotherly. And it felt like heaven. The lesson for the ages wasn’t that “socialism works” (as some of us would later read in those urban leftie rags prevalent at the time); it was that brotherly love really does have its magic power.
Rock n’ roll n’ politics less a natural than we thought
The June 8th, 1972, cover of Rolling Stone magazine consisted only of a caricature of the very liberal Democratic presidential aspirant George McGovern and the quotation “I stake my hopes in 1972 in large part on the energy, the wisdom, and the conscience of young Americans.” After McGovern secured the Democrats’ nomination in July, those and similar words were repeated often. The voting age had been lowered from 21 to 18 in 1970, and the young did support McGovern in much higher proportions than older voters did; still, he lost the November election badly. The "youth culture" was never again taken as seriously in mainstream American politics.
In December, 1972 also became the year when the United States took its last draftee into the military; it was all volunteer from then on, and the political idealism of youth faded noticeably for my rock n’ roll-steeped generation. By the time it had reached the “if it feels good do it” point—some time after the 1967 “summer of love”—the rock culture had already begun to lose some of its former usefulness for protesting injustices or advancing causes that would require self-sacrifice or a belief in duty.
Since then, it’s been very good for occasional “We Are the World” and “Band Aid” style fundraising, but not better than conventional efforts like the United Way or the Red Cross have been, year in, year out. Except possibly for libertine advocacy of personal “lifestyle” choices for government to legitimize, there turns out to be no political agenda that springs naturally from being a fan of hard-edged music. The self-anointed intelligentsia of rock may posture otherwise in places like Rolling Stone, but their opinions mostly go unnoticed by the mass music audience, which remains politically undefinable.
We did reach a point in the advanced Woodstock era where you were deemed as yet un-evolved, not quite hip, if the music had not changed you. In this climate, audiences at open-air rock music events came to have their standard component of entranced-looking free form dancers, taken to be a norm. Some outward sign that the music was big for you—the length of your hair, an article of jewelry or clothing—was not to be omitted in your daily life. It was understood that you were not fully human if listening to rock music had not transformed who you were.
I bought into that myself some, but even after publishing the idea in song that after rock n’ roll “Things’ll never be the same,” I can not honestly neglect to ponder the obvious: For the majority of Americans, whether young or old, rock n’ roll was always more of a side show than the focus of their lives. It wasn’t so “cool” of Pat Boone to treat it as a form to dabble in instead of a force to give in to, but treating rock n’ roll that way reflected the mainstream American attitude more than did the cute allegiance postured by the likes of the Grateful Dead and certain Rolling Stone writers to the music’s supposed transmutative power.
Even though their political feelings have more in common with Pat Boone than with, say, Mick Jagger, mainstream Americans who listen to popular music from the more edgy, rugged end of the spectrum tend to assume that their political feelings must be unlike those of conservative “squares” like Boone. Thus the professing liberals behind things like MTV’s “Rock the Vote” seem hopeful of moving election outcomes in their favor essentially by enlisting music fans to vote reflexively against things square.
No wonder the trendy-haired, ear-studded Hollywood types who decide about “induction” to the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame (It’s no grass roots process, kids!) prefer to keep a known conservative like Pat Boone strangely out of it—so that his political views can also seem to be!
The grown-ups quit calling rock n’ roll a fad some time in the late 1950s and accepted that it was part of the mainstream setting in which their children’s adolescence would take place. From the late 1950s right up until maybe sometime in the ’90s, there actually was a rock music culture to speak of.
Today, I’m not sure there is one to speak of. There’s hardly one to speak of the way we did, as though it’s the natural epicenter in all societal tectonic plate motion. In our present day, the mass culture many of us thought we inhabited is no more. The “generation gap” ain’t what it used to be; today rock music is as often a generation bridge as the mainstay of any gap.
Instead of a single, obvious youth culture, today we have stratification. We may still identify rock music as youth music, but too much other entertainment (e.g., video games, hip-hop) successfully lays claims to the youth market any more. Nowadays, not all boys, but many, are wearing their caps backwards; not all young men, but many, are wearing cowboy hats.
But hey… (said the aging co-founder of ShaNaNa) Rock n’ roll is here to stay!
Let the record show…
Most observers’ wisdom on Pat Boone’s career is that he was a conventional ballad singer who tried his hand at songs from the rhythm & blues and rock n’ roll side of the tracks, because—young, white singing star that he was—he could pile up sales to a white record buying public that wouldn’t even learn of the original recordings by black artists in that day and age. Them he in effect “ripped off.” (And somehow in a more guilt-deserving way than Elvis or other early white rockers did!)
The more I’ve looked into this conventional wisdom, the more sense of mission I’ve felt about setting the record straight. For its own legitimacy, the industry self-promotional establishment that calls itself the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame needs Pat Boone’s induction—a whole lot more than he needs it for his legitimacy. Early in the history of rock n’ roll—doubters, get used to it—he was one of the revolutionary warriors. It’s altogether shameful for the RRHF historical revisionists (who’ve inducted the Sex Pistols …who’ve inducted Miles Davis!) that they’ve held off this long in acknowledging him.
Of course, Pat’s image never seemed that of a warrior. And anyway, he’d moved on, and already been simply a founding father, before we’d gotten around to noticing the revolution for what it was, enough to be writing any histories of it. Pat wasn’t much interested in “pushing the envelope.” And “reinventing himself” (a la Madonna or David Bowie) in the hope of somehow staying “on top” he was never neurotic enough to obsess on. He was doing some movie roles, was becoming a familiar television guest or guest host, and had become just one of the grown-ups by the time rock n’ roll had become “rock” and the symbolic locus of a much-noted “generation gap.”
Still, portraying Pat as a sort of Benedict Arnold turncoat is a labored attempt to sound hip, and doing it makes some denizens of the supposedly free and open rock music world seem ridiculous. Even after his career was centered on Christian music, Pat never discarded his interest in rock n’ roll. (At the drop of a hat, he sang Tutti Frutti on ShaNaNa’s microphones when we did an Easter Seals telethon he was hosting, and he quite put his heart in it, even if he sounded strangely “clean” compared to the sweet raunch of Little Richard or the more recent vocal commerciality of a Bruce Springsteen or Steven Tyler!) He may not be a turncoat, but portraying Pat as a pioneering revolutionary is a labored attempt to be charitable, some rock music buffs will insist. Well… They haven’t adequately considered Pat’s very first hit record.
I can tell you Pat has. His eyes twinkle when you ask him about Two Hearts, Two Kisses. The story that’s fun for him to tell is about hitting the highway under Dot Records’ owner Randy Wood’s capable wing and promoting the release to local radio stations around the Tennessee region… And finding the receptionists and DJs who’d already listened to the record were expecting it was (in their terminology then) “a colored singer” they’d be greeting! Having spent his professional life caricatured as the “white bread” icon, as he rolls off the details here you do notice that Pat savors this taste of validation.
Sam Phillips famously discovered in Elvis Presley a white boy who somehow sounded black, like some of those R&B platters a white adult in those days could hear if he just took the trouble. Randy Wood less famously but quite consciously discovered an R&B song and sought from Pat Boone a black sounding vocal on it. It’s human nature for us to be all interested in judging who’s deserving scorn, but the far more important point of this story is the interbreeding of America’s black and white communities’ creative talents, well before interbreeding of their girls and boys gained its respectability.
Amazingly, from the standpoint of Pat’s mourning within his new book over the death of some of our standards, some “respectable” folks wouldn’t get caught leaving a porn shop nowadays with as much embarrassment or shame as they would have caught leaving a “race record” shop back then. “Race records” of course were mostly rhythm and blues records—“R&B ”—starting in the late 1940’s, and they were so infectious and danceable that some “respectability” roadblock was just about the only reason a casual listener wouldn’t want to hear more. If I can get away with quoting my own first line from the best song I ever managed to write for ShaNaNa, “It was rhythm and blues that was makin’ the news back in 1954.”
When you comb through the morgue copies of Billboard and other such publications of the time, that R&B phenomenon is obvious. Anybody ambitious to compete in the record business had to have taken notice. “Then some songsters from the country said ‘That’s real nice and funky, still we’d like to add a little more’,” the second line in my song, was about the likes of Scotty Moore (the artful twanger behind Elvis on That’s All Right, Mama and a legendary body of later work) who grew up cultivating their chops in the fields of country music where the models were pickers like Merle Travis and Chet Atkins. Business thinking “outside the box” was s