Knocking the rock
(From the editorial page of The Tulsa Tribune, 4/17/1979)
That riot at the rock concert in Wichita over the weekend in which 28 policemen and 37 members of the audience were injured could happen at any time in any sizable rock gathering in any American city.
What we have is a fascinating herd reaction in which normally amenable human beings are drummed out of their skulls and caught up in mass hysteria that skates close to the edge of violence. A heavy dollop of drugs, particularly marijuana, further separates the crowd from reality.
This separation is not a new phenomenon. Hysteria is a contagious disease. We get our word, "panic," from ancient Greek celebrations of the hedonist god, Pan, which regularly got out of hand. Roman bacchanalians, massive street brawls ostensibly in honor of Bacchus, the god of wine, left their quota of dead in the gutters.
Religious revivals on the American frontier often caused odd and even frightening demonstrations. People fell, shouted, foamed at the month and sometimes even died of over-excitement as leather-lunged preachers gave out with technicolor descriptions of Hell. American 19th century literature is full of these accounts which reached their peak shortly after the Civil War.
Modern rock festivals have added new devices for encouraging listeners, particularly those who are repressed and leading dull or unsatisfactory lives, to join in an emotional explosion.
First, of course, there is the beat. It is utterly simple, hypnotic and, all-pervasive. The use of strobe lights, in which normal motion seems to stand still, contributes to fantasy. Then, there is the amplification - the raising of sound to the point of pain which produces the effect of electric shocks.
The music isn't much. Who plays or even remembers the rock favorites of ten, five, even two years ago? It is ground out by persons incapable of melody, much less subtlety. The old masters would be utterly dumbfounded at this reversion to what used to be regarded as the exclusive preserve of cannibals.
But the lyrics - those of them that can be understood through the gasping - give a clue to another appeal. Some are obscene. Many are invitations to sex and narcotics. Some are revolutionary. That combos which annually bank millions should pretend that they are ready to lead their auditors to the barricades has got to be one of the best put-ons of the century. The general effect of rock lyrics is an assault on civilization. "Let it all hang out" is a call of the wild.
The performers, themselves, are fascinating, Usually unkempt, often physically dirty and bizarre in their dress, they are a personification of revolt against Mom and Dad, the "fuzz", the dean, the preacher, the boss. The dissolute lives of rock stars, their drug "busts", and clashes with the law are slavered over by fans who stand during the performances as though they were in the presence of gods.
This is not an American phenomenon. Indeed, the Beatles, who started it all, were spawned in Liverpool, and the late Sex Pistols, who had the distinction of being about the only rock group that was too raunchy for even the strongest-stomached American fans, were British, too. Some rock gatherings on the Continent, particularly those in Holland, Denmark and Sweden, are farther out than ours.
After things cool down, as they always do, it will be up to abnormal psychologists of the future to dissect and evaluate the rock phenomenon. Suppression is not the answer, although some parents who, with indulgent chuckles, send their children off to a rock concert under the impression that it is sort of a jazz jam session, ought to buy tickets to one.
In the meantime, every rock gathering has the potential of exploding, as did the one in Wichita. And the cure will probably gradually get underway when more and more young people, deafened by the sounds, blinded by the lights, choked by the blue smoke, weary of the standing, will begin to ask themselves, "What are we doing here, anyway?"