Rock vs. School: Because a waste is a terrible thing to mind 

As America sends its children back to school for another year, “rocker Tommy Lee” is taking higher education to a new low on reality TV. But Lee’s presence at the University of Nebraska has one unforeseen benefit for students that doesn’t involve stealing Danishes from the camera crew’s buffet table. Among the courses Lee will be enrolling in besides Video Production 101 (where he can perfect his one-armed camcorder technique), is Rock History.

What better way to teach fellow students than by having a living, breathing tattooed museum dedicated to preserving rock ’n’ roll as it was perceived by adults when it first began — “the martial music of every sideburned delinquent on the face of the earth”? That comment was made by early rock opponent and Demarest High School dropout Frank Sinatra, who’d eventually make smart money off “imbecilic reiterations” by signing “cretinous goons” like the Kinks, the Jimi Hendrix Experience and the Fugs to his Reprise label.

From its inception, rock has vacillated through its own dumb and smart cycles. Teen idols? Dumb. Sgt. Pepper? Smart. Michael Jackson in a diamond encrusted Sgt. Pepper jacket? Dumb. Punk and new wave? Smart masquerading as dumb — after all, college grad Gordon “Sting” Sumner let two Police albums pass before dropping a Nabokov reference (and even that was followed by “Da Doo Doo Doo, Da Da Da Da”). Electronica? Dumb, but served with smart drinks.

Yet the lasting impression of dumbness has persisted for more than half a century because rock ’n’ roll didn’t start out with an academic foot up. What if all the early rock pioneers received the same long-term education as snooty Sting? How long would rock have to wait for pinheaded ideas like Tales from Topographic Oceans or Madonna using the words “bourgeoisie” and “boogie woogie” in the same song?

Dunno, but here’s what the Rock Honor Roll timeline might’ve looked like in its first 10 years if some caring guidance counselors got involved.

1954— Arguably the first straight-up rock ’n’ roll record, “Rocket Propulsion, pp. 88-92,” is recorded by Chicago bluesman and physics major Ike Turner and his Algorhythm Kings. Later Turner will become world-famous for his experiments with gravity using a telephone receiver and wife Tina’s head.

1955— Ellis Bates invents the Bo Diddley beat while pounding out a term paper on an Olympia manual typewriter. He will infuriate fans when he goes IBM Selectric at the Newport Pop Festival in 1961 for the subsequent album Bo Diddley is a Stenographer.

1956— Ray Charles, the future “Genius of Soul and Trigonometry,” combines the rhythmic sway of gospel music with the ordered logic of algebra to come up with his first two million-sellers, “I Got a Polynomial Way Across Town (It’s Good to Me)” and “What’d I Subdivide (Parts 1 & 2).”

1957— English minor Antoine “Fats” Domino is mortified when Pat Boone points out all the grammatical mistakes that have kept educated, upper-class whites from enjoying his music. The Fat Man immediately halts the pressing of his latest single so the label reads “Isn’t that a Shame.” Fats rerecords several other early hits like “Goin’ Home,” “Whole Lotta Lovin’” and “I’m Walkin,’” and fans agree these songs rock a lot harder with the missing “G.”

1958— Expelled from a fundamentalist Bible school, the ideologically challenged Jerry Lee Lewis attends a philosophy class at Tennessee U. and is blown away by Nietzsche’s idea of “life-affirmation.” At the same time, Sun Records’ founder Sam Phillips has been telling his secretary Marion Kessler over and over, “If I could just find me a white man who has the Negro feel and thinks like a German existentialist, I could make a million dollars.” Jerry Lee turns out three huge hits — “A Whole Lotta Proust Goin’ On,” “Great Balls of Kierkegaard” and “High School Confucius”— but begins a rapid career slide when he marries his 13-year-old cousin. An impenitent Lewis paraphrases John Stuart Mill to reporters: “The task is not to follow nature but to improve it, especially human nature. Besides, she’s jes’ my third cousin.”

1958— At the height of his popularity, Elvis shocks his fans by going on to graduate school. His accelerated curriculum leaves him virtually no free time to cut new material, so the Colonel records Presley’s last moments before becoming a full-time student for the audio vérité EP, Elvis Registers. After receiving his degree in 1960, Elvis’ scholarly adventures are exploited in a series of quickie Hal Wallis films, including Grades! Grades! Grades!, Blue Hypothesis and Harem Theorem.

1959— Marijuana-smoking college dropouts champion an anti-intellectual genre of rock called folk music. Leading the charge is Jan and Arnie with “Baby Talk,” and NYU flunkies Simon and Garfunkel with “Hey Little Schoolgirl,” both of which celebrate cerebral hemorrhaging in the pants. This lowbrow movement, slow in catching on with the mainstream, will eventually lead to bubblegum music and, later still, “Frippertronics.”

1960— Dance major Chubby Checker takes minors in economics and political science. This syllabus later inspires his string of successful dance crazes including the chart-topping “Do the Universal Suffrage Twist,” “Let’s Have a Multi-Party System” and “Let’s Reduce to the Cost of Labor (Like We Did Last Summer).”

1961— Just as hunger is sweeping Red China, “Papa Ooo Mao Mao,” the Rivingtons’ musical dissertation on communism after the Great Leap Forward, is one of the year’s more insightful hits. Minnesotan undergrads the Trashmen blatantly plagiarize it two years later with “Surfing Peasant.”

1962— Bobby Vee’s piano player Robert “Dylan” Zimmerman goes back to college after hearing Donovan for the first time. In his 2004 book Chronicles, he writes, “When I heard, ‘You’ve got to pick up every stitch,’ maaan, that spoke to me ...”

1963— Beatlemania spreads across Europe and eventually reaches the United States when “The Fingletoad Resort of Teddivicious” goes to No. 1, closely followed by hits like “I Sat Belonely” and “Treasure Ivan.” “Nonsensical prose set to a big beat” is the brainchild of Liverpool Art College grad John Lennon and the chief reason Beatles music appeals to intellectual rockers (who get all the puns and James Joyce references) as well as fans of dumb folk music or its U.K. equivalent, skiffle. The Fabs will enjoy three years of across-the-board acceptance until Lennon quips that “the Beatles are more smarter than Jesus, and the apostles would never pass their ‘0’ level exams,” pissing off atheists everywhere who thought the Beatles were along for the ride.

1964— London School of Economics grad Mick Jagger becomes rock’s first billionaire by self-managing and self-marketing the Rolling Stones. Their first U.S. tour is sponsored by Clearasil, which first stamps its logo on every overpriced T-shirt and souvenir program, and makes sure to have the stage adorned with 50-foot “before and after” blowups of spotty Keith Richards’ complexion. The Stones hardly falter until Altamont, where they make the mistake of hiring Hell’s Angels as security. A fight breaks out when somebody touches Sonny Barger’s bike and triggers a heated exchange about whether all extant physical activity occurs everywhere at all times at the same rate in order to have theoretical science. “Something always happens whenever we play that number,” Jagger says, laughing weakly as the band resumes playing “Sympathy for Velikovsky (Fuck Newton’s Law).”

Serene Dominic is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]

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