Don't Mind Dyin

Rock & rolls last encores at the Ponderosa Stomp

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At this point I had to decide if I felt like a ghoul, and if so, why? I wouldn't say it was better then—before the Beatles came, before Elvis, like talking about an occupation. But there is a gravity that pulls us back to the source. Or maybe that's just nostalgia, afflicting those without any authentic experiences of their own. Fitzgerald wrote that the artist appreciates the inventor over the imitator, which was his own polished version of the Picasso original: "You do something first, and then someone else comes along and does it pretty." He died eight years before Wynonie Harris released his No. 1 "Good Rockin' Tonight"—and 16 years before Elvis hit it big, which really would have been something for him to write about—but the point still stands.

And the recordings themselves still stand. They are sometimes capsules in amber and sometimes crystal balls; they preserve a lost past, and the very best still predict a future. But they're static. They change only because the listener changes, and at something like the Stomp they become independent: the songs not only the way they were supposed to sound then but the way they actually sound now, Johnny Farina's "Sleepwalk" caroming live off cell phones and breast implants. They offer a new chance for experience, they say something different, create something anew—you know, at this point, I start feeling like a vampire again.

But these songs were written at a strange time—the birth of one of America's most lasting forms of pop culture, at a time when America itself was about to enter its most dynamic era—and to hear them performed by the very people who'd written them was to experience a very dissonant juxtaposition, a sudden and startling animation of all those inanimate records. Author Nick Tosches writes that early rock & roll offered so much freedom it must have been blind: that lack of limitations that comes as something builds enough momentum to make a movement, but before anyone makes any rules. That's the spirit something like the Hootenanny or Ponderosa Stomp remembers; that's something only the people who were there as it happened—who worked on and were worked on by every instance around them—still have. Meaning is a sucker's game, says Tosches. But then again: there's Ray Bradbury's story about an old, old man who discovers that he is a time machine—more correctly, he is a remembering machine until he is given a chance to tell a story, and then he becomes a time machine, taking a set of young boys all the way back to the Civil War. "Living history" is such an airline-magazine idea, but, well, someone like Betty Harris is alive, and she made history, and when she is gone, what else goes with her?

The history of popular music is written about the hits, a reasonable enough distortion that nonetheless tends to propagandize pop culture: certainly literate teenyboppers like you or I don't take Wowsville's Rockin' '50s Diner too seriously, but what would something like that feel like to Earl Palmer, whose songs are absolutely in the CD jukebox? (Hope he got paid, by the way.) And what will we think in 2045 when the grandkids take us to '50s Blingin' Burger Shizzle—will we care when our own lives become the next generation's cartoon characters? Maybe not, since we've been raised on that sort of thing anyway. But I saw a lot of people at the Stomp who were raised on something different; surrounded by hundreds who knew their songs, they mostly looked very happy. Even as epilogue, there was a kind of energy, enough to make you wonder what it would have been when things were actually happening: lunatics and geniuses, set blindly free, now lost under years of circumstance and self-destruction and simple bad luck. Does it matter who these people were and what they did? I don't know: What kind of world would it be now, and what kind of music would they play on the radio, and what kind of person would you or your parents be if Jerry Lee Lewis had been Elvis instead? But beyond that, it's just their due. These are songs that deserve to be remembered. Or at least played one more time.

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Detroit soul singer Nathaniel Mayer closed the Stomp this year, to (of course) the last hardly-any people, all real drunk but still proud of themselves for making it to the end of the marathon. It wasn't that tough; the day I can be out-rock-&-rolled by a seventysomething man turned out to be April 27. But I saw Mayer in LA later, with a better backing band from his Detroit hometown; he played before a awful pretentious-punk band, and even though his voice had cracked out of the smooth crooner's range he had on his 1962 sorta-hit "Village of Love," I feel confident reporting that he still had . . . it. ("He's very spry," added a Detroit friend.) He had girls out of the front row and dancing onstage, he had kids who had never heard the name Nathaniel next to the name Mayer before in their lives ("Who's this My-er dude?") singing along to his song "House of Correction," and most inspiringly, he was still pissed at Detroit soul rival Gino Washington, over something that you'd have to be 65 to understand.

These were all encouraging signs. And while he wasn't brilliant, there was an appealing economy to his band—who barely had working clothes, much less effects pedals or drum toys—and a certain disciplined, unflagging energy. It was a very practical sort of rock & roll; a soundtrack from a Detroit assembly line. The Ponys (from Chicago) headlined above him; unlike Mayer, they had neglected to include anything people might want to listen to or remember later in their songs—choruses, melodies, you get it—and presented instead some rambling student poetry through a lot of guitar noise. There was nothing in the songs for the audience to understand or relate to, and the band obviously didn't care; they played staring over everyone's heads into the black back wall: those who do not learn their history are condemned to disgrace it.

I had a Nathaniel Mayer 45 I meant to bring, but I'd forgotten too; it was sitting at home, propped prominently against my record player. I settled for shaking his hand. But I saw the photographer there—he had soldiered through Mayer's 3 a.m. set in New Orleans, and he asked if I wanted to go visit Earl Palmer sometime. Palmer couldn't play drums anymore—doctor's orders, though that doctor was such a supportive guy he'd actually come to the Stomp to see Palmer emcee between bands. But he lived now in Palm Springs, and he had invited the photographer to come by and get that record signed. As of today, he was—knock three times as I type this—still very much alive.

Hootenanny, Oak Canyon Ranch, Past Irvine Lake, Santiago Canyon Rd., Orange, (714) 740-2000. Sat., noon-8 p.m. $49.50-$100. All ages.

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