And the Bleat Goes On

Wait long enough and every enjoyment is eventually placed on the altar, gussied up, and sanctified. Rock ‘n’ roll lyrics were once a readymade source of ridicule, regarded as gibberish written by and for bubblegum brains and blasting out of transistor radios to drive mom and dad mad. The late-night television host Steve Allen, equipped with Clark Kent glasses and a quipster’s fast draw, did a routine where he read aloud the lyrics of a popular pop song as if performing a poem at the 92Y in full authorial pomp. Most of the kinescopes from his show have been lost in the ghostly landfill of time, but Allen’s goof on Gene Vincent’s “Be Bop a Lula” circa 1956 somehow survives on YouTube, as Allen invites the studio audience and viewers at home to drink in the song’s simple beauty: “Be bop a lula, be my baby/bop a lula…I don’t mean maybe.” It was all in the timing, and Allen knew just when to pause for pregnant effect. Allen, a classic postwar liberal who jousted with William F. Buckley, Jr. on Firing Line, didn’t harbor hostility toward rock and roll, even though he was much more of a piano-tickling jazz guy; he was simply making sport of its conventions, much as he mimicked the hothead apoplexy of newspaper letters to the editor, and most of us wisenheimers who grew up with Mad magazine went along with the gag. But there were others watching in the cavernous dark of rec rooms across the land who took rock and roll more seriously, more protectively, and resented its being picked on. Allen’s mock-mimicry lodged in their craws as Exhibit 1 of the adult condescension toward the passionate, unfettered joy of rock and roll. These old gassers just didn’t get it! Rock and roll, it

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