LETTER FROM TRUMPLAND

A South African gatecrashes a Cleveland Moondog Ball

By Glen Retief 8 April 2019

Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame Museum, Cleveland. (Photo: Dr Bob Hall via Flickr)

Midwest’s Armpit. Mistake on the Lake. Question is, who, in their right mind, on a bleak winter evening, detours from the great I-80 highway — America’s carotid artery running diagonally across its land mass between its two largest cities — to Cleveland, Ohio?

Answer: among others, rock fans, for the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame, the world’s premier museum dedicated to the quintessential global music of the past half-century.

Do South Africans like the rock? Are we close to it? The question seems absurd until I look at sources like Encyclopedia Brittanica’s entry on “South African music”, which mentions township jive and Johnny Clegg, but not Voëlvry or Die Antwoord.

For this expatriate white South African, though, think 1987, a teenage party on a farm near the Swaziland border. Berholdus Niemand and The Cherry-Faced Lurchers sing Shot Down. We are the moer in at apartheid — hell, yes, we are. A white boy who looked at his life, we sing now — and look at our lives, we do, with this music opening up the view.

Or even 20 years earlier, my parents and aunt and uncle sitting around a swimming pool, tuning into Radio Lourenco Marques to hear the Top 40. Not for nothing has the state broadcaster banned this new music. African-American blues and gospel have combined with white country and bluegrass to generate a racially integrated sound — one that is already being echoed in the dance halls of District Six and Sophiatown, where artists like Makeba blend indigenous rhythms with the beats coming out of Motown and Stax.

But Cleveland! Why Cleveland? Why not Memphis, Detroit, Liverpool, or even New York, where Patti Smith and her punk rockers once riffed, crooned, and strummed?

To answer that question, let’s rewind the cassette tape — lift back the LP needle; scroll back on the playlist — to 1952. A young white DJ named Alan Freed has just moved to Cleveland. He’s making a name for himself with a show called Moondog Hour, which, or so the story goes, maybe the first show in radio history selling black rhythm and blues for white fans.

Freed calls this craze “rock ’n’ roll” and it’s such a hit that Freed now agrees to help MC a Cleveland concert titled the “Moondog Coronation Ball”, featuring Paul Williams and the Hucklebuckers, Tiny Grimes, and the Rocking Highlanders.

Counterfeit tickets are sold; the 10,000-strong stadium is overbooked. So many bodies heave in the arena that the fire authorities shut it down after the first song, and in the ensuing media controversy, a new genre is born.

When I step inside Cleveland’s Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame today, though, the first thing I notice, below the loud, sloping glass walls designed by I.M. Pei, are the dangling East German automobiles. These, an information plaque informs me, are from the pathbreaking 1992 Zoo TV concert, by U2, which blurred news, entertainment, and art.

Cool, man! Here we are, after all, a quarter century later, and who can argue with that concert’s stirring up of reality and satire, which seems to prophesy the times we live in, where a reality TV star can become president?

And U2’s dissent tradition continues. Since 2016, hundreds of songs have protested the man Busta Rhymes called “President Agent Orange”. Death Cab or Cutie has made fun of the man’s “Million Dollar Loan”. Janelle Monae has threatened to grab him back.

Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, Cleveland. (Photo: Michelle via Flickr)

Dozens of musicians have refused to allow their music to be performed at his rallies or inauguration — a rejection that must sting for the former concert promoter.

But the Hall of Fame’s orientation is historical rather than contemporary, and, at least on the day I visited, no odes to the contemporary anti-Trump resistance in music were on display.

The Hall of Fame contains six levels, the two most interesting being Zero, with the rock history exhibits, and Three, with the wall of plaques honouring the Hall’s 330 or so inductees, from ABBA to ZZ Top.

One thing the Hall can’t be accused of is colluding with rock’s notorious forgetting of its own black roots. The entire first quarter of Level Zero is dedicated to the African-American blues giants like Robert Johnson, Etta James and Joe Turner.

The cultural politics of the Elvis display seem more contentious: A movie about Presley, projected on to a screen right behind one of his zoot suits and his custom-made “supertrike”. In it, the King croons and sways with his gorgeous, natural charisma, while a parade of white rock stars praise him for his progressive racial attitudes.

Bruce Springsteen: “Elvis Presley was a revolutionary figure.”

Joe Perry, from Aerosmith: “Elvis didn’t get enough credit for the walls he broke down.”

Is it just me, but do rock fans deserve at least some exposure to the admittedly debunked arguments that Elvis made his fame and fortune from shameless cultural appropriation? And overall, I thought the Hall of Fame could have done a better job of airing, and countering, the credible anti-racist and feminist critiques of the genre, rather than making it seem as if the only people ever to take issue with the music were the reactionary John Birch Society and the North Alabama White Citizens Council.

As a 1980s synthetic-pop fanboy during high school, I enjoyed the four-page handwritten letter from Madonna to her friend Ondina Sweet, saying that “I really don’t think I’m into the college scene” and talking about her dreams of wild, fast-paced life.

Even better was the handprinted, hippie-style invitation to Janis Joplin’s funeral. How those of us in the late 1980s South African counterculture sanctified that overdose! Dreamed, although we would never have admitted it, of similar tragic romances — perhaps a beautiful death, crushed by Botha’s bulldozers at a Group Areas Act protest, all while letting organic Transkei mushrooms transport us to shining strawberry fields in the sky.

But there it was, just “Drinks at Pearl” — just a few close friends, toasting a beloved fellow traveller.

There was a giant room with the Beatles exhibit squaring off against — who else? — the Rolling Stones. Both were, of course, icons for my parents’ generation, who spent countless adolescent hours debating their relative merits, while their Moral Preparedness teachers lectured them about “communist subliminal messaging”.

Talking of: Every South African over the age of 40 should, for historical perspective, watch Shakhnazarov’s beautiful film, Vanished Empire, about growing up in Brezhnev’s Moscow. It is a bit surreal, seeing the teenagers in Gorky Park having the same discussions about music that we did, and under a precise mirror version of apartheid’s opprobrium: “Capitalist propaganda.”

But there were no South Africans in the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame, or, depending on how you count cultural hybrids like yours truly, precisely one: Trevor Rabin, who was inducted in 2017 as a member of Yes.

ABBA, ubiquitous background singers of my youth, have only a tiny commemoration, and even their induction itself seems to have inspired a fair amount of controversy.

What about Boney M? Growing up in Skukuza staff village in the Kruger Park, they were the rock stars par excellence — bigger than the Beatles, I’ll wager, if not quite more popular than Jesus. Many were there at the night we braaied under the Cape ash trees, shaking our hips to Ra-Ra-Rasputin or Daddy Cool.

When I lived in Miami, though, the joke was always that if you heard Brown Girl in the Ring blaring from a convertible, it was being driven either by a middle-aged Russian or a Brazilian — someone shaped, in other words, by a dictatorship.

Milan Kundera said kitsch is the default aesthetic of police states because its optimism hides unpleasant realities.

But the German-Caribbean vocal group doesn’t receive a mention in Cleveland. When I asked a guide about them, he retorted, as Americans always do: “Boney who?”

Meanwhile, outside the Hall of Fame, in Trumpland, the government now indefinitely detains green card holders without trial. It supports the right to armed territorial conquest and blocks efforts to limit emissions that risk making the earth semi-uninhabitable.

Where is rock ’n’ roll rebellion in the face of such danger? Rock itself has, of course, since the 1990s, split into dozens of sub-genres. Sometimes it seems as though the gravest existential threats to human civilisation have arrived at the precise moment that global society is too atomised and polarised to respond effectively.

As I left the Hall of Fame and headed north along Lake Erie, on what they call America’s North Coast, the seagulls did their own strange, stiff dances on the frozen waves. That day in Anchorage, Alaska, the temperature was 5°C, five above its historic average: cold comfort in an Arctic wind shaking the trees along the Cuyahoga River. DM

Glen Retief’s The Jack Bank: A Memoir of a South African Childhood, won a Lambda Literary Award. He teaches creative nonfiction at Susquehanna University.

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