Over the years I've had people question the degree to which I focus on race, or the ways in which I focus on race, in my approach to the study of rock music. Some students who take my rock history class - not all, or a majority, but definitely some - have complained in their evaluations about how much time we spend in class talking about race. I start my rock history course with lectures on blues, bluegrass, and blackface minstrelsy, and make it clear that from my perspective, rock 'n' roll is born not just from the intermingling of white and black musical styles, but from white fascination with blackness as that thing which is culturally marked as alluring and forbidden in roughly equal measure.
My book on the history of the electric guitar, Instruments of Desire, is steeped in similar arguments, and when it came out, some reviewers took me to task in the way that some of my students have done, wondering why the story of race and rock should be made to sound ridden with conflict rather than conciliation, as though music could only erase difference rather than reinforce it. I've always found such perspectives frustrating, as have many other scholars who study race. They arise out of the belief that color blindness is the best way forward, a belief that chooses to circumvent the continuing power of race rather than recognize it more directly and address it head on.
I'm now in the midst of reading Keith Richards' new autobiography, Life, and these issues have arisen anew for me. It's a great read - Richards is a good storyteller, his voice captured well by co-writer James Fox; and there are loads of revealing anecdotes that say as much about the larger context in which rock music took root in the UK in the late '50s/early '60s as they say about the specific history of Richards and the Stones.
The book opens with a rousing tale of a near drug bust in the mid '70s when the Stones were touring through the Southern U.S. In the middle of the account, though, Richards falls into flashback mode, recalling the dangers of traveling through the South in the mid 1960s as a group of long-haired Englishmen, disdained by the locals and only finding comfort on the other side of the tracks. By Richards' account, while white Southerners were bent on calling him and his band mates "girls" for their unseemly long hair, black Southerners were far more open minded. "You got welcomed, you got fed and you got laid. The white side of town was dead, but it was rockin' across the tracks. Long as you knew cats, you was cool." (p. 8)
All of which is mere prelude to a more extended riff by Richards concerning the wonders of a Mississippi juke joint for a group of white, blues-worshiping Brits. Richards' words here are worth quoting at length:
"And there'd be a band, a trio playing, big black fuckers and some bitches dancing around with dollar bills in their thongs. And then you'd walk in and for a moment there's almost a chill, because you're the first white people they've seen in there, and they know that the energy's too great for a few white blokes to really make much difference ... But then we got to get back on the road. Oh shit, I could've stayed here for days. You've got to pull out again, lovely black ladies squeezing you between their huge tits ... I think some of us had died and gone to heaven, because a year before we were plugging London clubs, and we're doing all right, but actually in the next year, we're somewhere we thought we'd never be. We were in Mississippi." (p. 9)
I've edited this passage a bit but the long version is every bit as suggestive. It's remarkable, first of all, that here in 2010 such unabashed racial exoticism is still every bit as potent as it was back in 1965 when Richards is writing about, or 40 years before that, and so on. It's also so telling that this comes within the opening pages of Richards' autobiography. These reflections are clearly meant to lay the foundation for all that is to come, for the deep immersion in the blues that Richards and his cohort experienced, for the intensive effort to reproduce the sounds they heard on records by Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed, Chuck Berry and a host of others. Richards' impressions of black Mississippi don't invalidate anything that he's accomplished - indeed I'm sure in the eyes of many readers they precisely authenticate his dedication to the real, the true, the Southern blues life blood that birthed rock and roll.
In my reading, what these passages reveal is how much racial reality and racial fantasy are inextricable in the realm of rock, or popular culture more generally. I wouldn't necessarily call Richards' impressions racist, but I would observe - and more strongly, I'd assert - that his perceptions are steeped not in the "real" stuff of Southern blackness but in Richards' own search for something outside of himself with which he could identify so as to reinforce his own standing as outlaw, rebel, outsider. White men have been turning to their imagined notions of blackness for two centuries or more to fulfill similar desires, with results that have been mixed in more ways than one.
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