More on Boomers, Rock, and Walt Mossberg

For those arriving late to this dispute: In an earlier item (“FDR: Father of Rock ’n’ Roll“), Chatterbox wrote that “boomer math contradicts the boomer mythology that it was the baby boom that first absorbed rock ’n’ roll into the mass culture.” Chatterbox’s proof was that the first rock ’n’ roll records that reached a large, mainstream audience–Bill Haley and the Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock” and Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel”–were released in 1955 and 1956. The oldest baby boomers in 1955 and 1956 were 9 and 10, respectively–too young, Chatterbox reasoned, to be buying rock ’n’ roll records.

Walter S. Mossberg, who writes the Wall Street Journal’s “Personal Technology” column, wrote in to dispute this last point. (Incidentally, the link to Mossberg’s column that Chatterbox posted earlier doesn’t work for people who don’t subscribe to the Journal’s online edition; Chatterbox has now substituted a link that will work for everyone, free of charge.) Mossberg explained that he was born in March 1947, and that he was buying rock ’n’ roll records at the age of 9, which of course would have been in 1956. Chatterbox replied that he could easily picture Mossberg (with whom Chatterbox formerly worked at the Journal’s Washington bureau) as a smart-alecky 9-year-old but that he doubted many other members of Mossberg’s cohort were similarly precocious. Chatterbox then invited 52- and 53-year-olds to enlighten Slate’s ” Fray” as to whether, like Mossberg, they were buying rock ’n’ roll records at the age of nine.

Fray postings immediately started pouring in from people who said that yes, they are about Mossberg’s age, and yes, they were buying rock ’n’ roll records starting in the mid-1950s. So Chatterbox will now yield on this point–while noting this doesn’t really undermine Chatterbox’s larger point that FDR is an unacknowledged founding father of rock ’n’ roll. (For the details, see the first item.) Baby boomers were part of the record-buying public that made rock ’n’ roll an art form for the masses (as opposed to one for blacks and a few white hipsters) in the mid-1950s. Chatterbox continues to doubt, however, that boomers represented a majority of that public until the 1960s.

Please note the important distinction between listening to rock ’n’ roll music (Chatterbox, born in 1958, was listening to the Beatles well before he was 9) and buying rock ’n’ roll records (Chatterbox didn’t buy his first record–LP or single–until long after the Beatles’$2 1970 breakup). Several Fraygrants (click here and here for examples) missed this distinction. Here’s Fraygrant Sharon Saunders:

I plugged (!) the family radio into the wall by my bed, turned it low and listened past my bedtime to the real thing, LaVerne Baker, Little Richard, the Cadillacs, the Coasters–just about every black group, every doo-wop group around, plus Dion and the Belmonts (fellow Bronxites). Not only did we listen to it, but us little kids actually stood under the lamppost and sang a cappella.

But, except in the highly attenuated sense that Saunders was boosting the ratings of radio stations that were playing LaVerne Baker and Little Richard and the Cadillacs and the Coasters, she wasn’t really putting money into these groups’ pockets (or, as was more often the case, these groups’ record labels’ pockets)–as she would have been doing had she bought their records after hearing them on the radio.

That said, it must be conceded that several boomer Fraygrants did go out and buy the records well before their teen years. (Click here and here and here for a few examples.) “When 45s were king, pre-teens with limited finances were buying them by the crateful,” explains Duffy Hawes. Here’s Jill Tso:

I, too, was born in 1947 and bought rock ’n’ roll records when I was in the fourth grade. One of the first 45s I purchased was Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire.” My father had purchased a custom hi-fi and I played the 45 so loud and danced all afternoon. When he came home and heard the lyrics, he broke the record in two. I was crushed and resented him for many years. Last year, I finally realized why he thought “Great Balls of Fire” was terrible for his grade-school-aged daughter to be listening to. I had never associated the title and lyrics to the vernacular use of the word “balls.” Duh!

Indeed, one boomer Fraygrant– Sharon Smith–goes so far as to recall that she owned her very own copy of “Rock Around the Clock” (though she’s a little vague about whether she purchased it when she was 9 or 11 years of age):

I was born in October 1946, five months before Mossberg, and grew up in San Francisco. On the last day of sixth grade in June of 1958, Miss Barnett (one of the greatest teachers the world has seen) let us have a party. She brought a record player, we brought our 45s (my contribution was “Rock Around the Clock”), and two dozen 11- and 12-year-olds danced for two hours! How had we learned? A year of watching American Bandstand every day after school and practicing in front of the TV.

Chatterbox will give the final word to Mossberg, who has shown himself to be a gracious victor in this argument:

Everybody, including me, concedes that the older non-boomer teens played some role in the adoption of early rock, even though ultimately these kids didn’t get it and we boomers did. And you’re correct that boomer propaganda never allows for this possibility. Your only mistake was totally writing off the mystical power of 9-year-old boomers in the ‘50s. But how were you to know? Born in 1958! You can’t even remember black-and-white TV or those first transistor radios that one of the Fray peoplementioned [ahem, actually, Chatterbox can remember these things, but that’s a small point] I honestly think this 9-to-12-year-old age group’s discovery of rock and roll, against the wishes of our parents, cemented into us older boomers two lessons that were behind much of what happened in the ‘60s:

  1. Question authority
  2. Age matters

Because of rock, we had a lot in common with each other that neither our parents nor our older siblings or older friends shared. It was the start of the feeling, right or wrong, of generational bonding, and of boomer exceptionalism, which Gen-Xers so despise … I can still vividly remember the day I went to buy my first 45 rpm record, using my own funds. And I wanted something like “Maybelline” by Chuck Berry or maybe “Wake Up Little Susie” by the Everly Brothers. But my father forced me to buy a lame, horrible pop tune called “ Melodie D’Amour” by the Mills Brothers or the Ames Brothers or some lame brothers. I never let him do that again, and I never forgot that lesson about the way authority figures can screw you. (Interestingly, my dad and I later developed a great relationship, and he swore he couldn’t remember the incident. But it was etched in my mind.)