I am reading the new Colorado Review, and there is a poem by Graham Foust called “Nine-Eleven in a Joke.” It ends with these lines:
Today’s blazing is a place we’ve only heard of.
And you say: “The laugh in grief’s way
Is grief’s way with us.”
This poem arrived in my mail box just a few days after writing this, about the difficulties (or supposed difficulties) between Bix Beiderbecke and his stern German father Bismark. They are difficulties that have been chalked up to jazz or sex, but could have simply been adolescence. And remember, in the 1920s, the whole idea of adolescence was quite new.
Okay. Let’s try another tack. To understand Bix & His Father, one must first understand irony. Not the irony of Oedipus & Fate, but the irony of rock and roll.
To understand the irony of rock and roll, however, one must understand “the stink of shit,” to quote Pynchon in Gravity’s Rainbow, “the smell of Passchendaele, of the Salient,” which was “[m]ixed with the mud, and the putrefaction of corpses.” It was the smell of the Great War.
And to fully understand the smell of the Great War, and so to fully understand the irony of rock and roll, one must understand how, the more it stank, the more people laughed. They “shouted with laughter,” the British veteran Philip Gibbs remembered in his 1920 memoir Now It Can Be Told. It was “the laughter of mortals” who had been tricked into believing that progress overcame the primitive, that perfection was somehow possible. “Now that idea was broken like a china vase dashed to the ground,” Gibbs wrote. “The contrast between That and This was devastating . . . The war-time humor of the soul roared with mirth at the sight of all that dignity and elegance despoiled.”
By this formulation, rock and roll is not a music but a reaction, a childish reaction. And Keith Richards’ guitar solos roar with—
“What the hell?” I imagine Bix saying. “I played jazz for crying out loud.”
So look at it like this: the subtext of American life is rock and roll. It’s in the speed of traffic, the sex of spring break, and the vernacular of that moment when a politician takes off his jacket and rolls up his sleeves. This shift away from Queen Victoria and toward Keith Richards began in the Jazz Age, but it didn’t fully take hold until the 1950s, when the music’s supreme vitality and childishness took control of what George W. S. Trow calls the Assumed Dominant Mind, or the various social and cultural understandings that we all take for granted even when we don’t all subscribe. And we don’t. When, in 2004, the Bix 7 road race in Davenport put Elvis on its poster and hired an Elvis impersonator to unveil it while shaking his hips and singing, “A whole lotta running goin’ on,” the Bixography forum erupted in outrage. Albert Haim objected that “there is absolutely no connection between the music of Bix and that of Elvis Prestley [sic] or Jerry Lee Lewis” and that making such a connection was an “abomination.” Another Bixophile offered that “Bix could have kicked Elvis’ ass in a race any day”—but her playground taunt only served to the prove the point: a less-than-adult sensibility has prevailed. According to Trow in My Pilgrim’s Progress (1999), the hydrogen-bomb reality faced by post-World War II America was too terrible. The smell of Auschwitz, like the smell of Passchendaele, was too unbearable, and into that void walked television. Into that void walked Elvis.