Aug. 5, 2011: You call that rock ’n’ roll? by Susan Sutton

If you want to create a spirited, cross-generational debate, start with the question, “What is rock ’n’ roll?”

To help zero in on a definition, one might cite a particular artist or band as being the embodiment of the genre. For Baby Boomers like myself, that artist was Elvis the Pelvis who shocked the World War II generation out of its wits on Sept. 9, l956, with his “Ed Sullivan Show” gyrations, flopping patent leather forelock, snarly upper lip and abuse of a microphone like it was a 4-on-the-floor.  After that, we weren’t in Perry Como-land any more (hooray).

Thanks to the miracle of television, the real-time broadcast of Elvis singing “Don’t be Cruel” and “Ready Teddy” possibly launched the original generation gap.  Of the 65 million viewers watching that night, surely half agreed that THIS was Rock and Roll and Elvis was the King of the kingdom!

For those of my generation, defining moments also included, “Where were you when you heard President Kennedy was shot?” or Bobby or Martin Luther King? Of lesser magnitude, but still a defining moment was, “Where were you Feb. 9, l964?” Hmmmm? Need a not-so-subtle hint? It was the night the Beatles made their first appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”

With all the ear-piercing screams coming out of the black-and-white, Monkey Ward TV, close-ups of teenage girls fainting or clutching their Aqua-Netted flips and the four mop-tops bobbing to “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” my disbelieving parents, who came of age during the Depression and served in WW II, sat on the sectional in frozen silence. In eight year’s time, the cultural divide between Perry Como and the head-nodding lads from Liverpool had grown into a chasm like the Grand Canyon.

It’s worth noting that Señor Wences was on the same show. Some with a good memory may remember him as the ventriloquist who made his hand into a puppet with the help of greasepaint and a little lipstick. Really.

When I boarded the school bus Friday before “The Beatles” were to appear on the Ed Sullivan’s “Really Big Shoe,” many male high schoolers still emulated the pompadour Brylcreem ducktail-do worn by pop celebrities of the day.  But by Monday — less than 24 hours after the Sullivan show — that was all over. Gone was the “big hair for boys” and in was the mop top for men.  The “greasy kid’s stuff” was out the window and fly-away, eye-socket length bangs were in — thanks to the Fab Four.  In a 900-student high school in those days before cell phones, Facebook, email or Twitter, how did all those guys get the memo? This Cultural Revolution literally happened over night.

What’s the point of all this? It’s that we love our nostalgia. Sacred moments in time shared by thousands and millions, seen as flickering black-and-white images on the “idiot box.” Elvis and the Beatles, eight years apart, on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Collective memories that connected a generation. Memories that grow more real with every passing year.

So … a couple of weeks before college classes ended this spring, I was helping a student with a speech about left-handed people.  The student was, himself, left handed.  My suggestion was that he mention other exceptional left-handed people: Presidents Truman, Ford, Reagan, Bush 41, Clinton, Obama; Beatle Paul McCartney … And guess what? The student had never heard of Paul McCartney — or the Beatles!

Lucky for him, I had signed the 2011 Civility Pledge.


— Susan Sutton is Dean of Humanities and Social-Behavioral Sciences at Cloud County Community College.

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