Uncommon People: The Rise and Fall of the Rock Stars by David Hepworth
review by Kevin Harvey
For some time, I’ve had a book floating around, unformed, in the back alleys of my mind, a book that put together a set of things that I felt hadn’t been said. When I read the marvelous forward to David Hepworth’s Uncommon People, I thought he’d written that book. He hadn’t. But, in all honesty, he has written parts of it. Uncommon People, beautifully written, is a wonderful book, full of insights and remarks that no one has made before or dared to write. I loved most of it and liked all of it.
What Hepworth does, allowing five pages to each artist, is define the rock star, his relationship to his or her audience; and then, with delicacy and accuracy, beginning with Little Richard and ending with Kurt Cobain, chart the rise and fall of the major players. He misses a few and discusses a few who didn’t make the majors, but his insight, and precision, are a joy.
Here’s what he’s done: He begins by telling us that the age of the rock star is as dead as the age of the cowboy, that both have gone that-a way. On first reading this lands with a very specific sadness, not for the rock stars but for the cowboys. The Durango Kid is gone, and Paladin, and Gene Autry, who once picked me up and carried me across a stage; Hoppy and the Lone Ranger, and yet…one thinks first of Miles Davis’ response to Wynton Marsalis plea to preserve the music: We must preserve the music! Miles replied: What do you think records do? I nod before realizing that Hepworth is saying something different: the age is gone, not the cowboy, but the age! The age we live in doesn’t need a cowboy any more than it needs more rock stars. When did the age of the cowboy end? When Clint Eastwood climbed down and started directing? Did it end with Gregory Peck’s Gunfighter? When John Wayne’s old shootist hit the deck from cancer, his doctor an aging Jimmy Stewart? What exactly died, why and how? Shaking it off, ignoring my own arguments, I turn to Hepworth’s first Rock Star: Little Richard. Now this appeals to me because Richard, a true original, recorded as early as 1949 for RCA, a half decade before rock n’ roll existed! I’ve always believed that in spite of his longevity, Richard was under-rated, that he and Bo Diddly were both more entertaining than Chuck Berry, who gets so much credit. (For that matter, Cab Calloway has a body of work that threatens to turn into rock n’ roll.) So Richard is the first because he will himself, against all odds, into being a consummate, screaming, rock n’ roller. He had a head like an Eastern Island statue, more make-up than the combined Gabor girls, legs too short for the rest of his body, a foot- high hairdo, was black and, long before anyone bothered to notice, GAY. (Hepworth, doing his homework, tells us that Richard had his first homosexual experience with a man named Madame Oop. How great a name is that?) Richard, a born outrider, embodied contradictions: Raised on Gospel, his first hit, Tutti Frutti, was originally, obviously, about anal sex. Cleaned up by a local woman, it was about anything you wanted it to be, it was about nothing more than how it made you feel. So give Little Richard his due, call him the first and wish him well.
Elvis is next. Hepworth tells a story about Elvis driving his brand-new Lincoln form Memphis to Tupelo to perform two last shows in his home town. He is already a god, but new enough to the job to want to impress the old town. After the show, driving back to Memphis, the hood of the Lincoln blew straight up, blocking Elvis’ view of the road, his right arm saving his date from hitting the windshield. Someone, out of mystified curiosity, had peeked under the hood- the Lincoln was a marvel of a car- and failed to secure it properly. It was nothing less than a sign. Elvis could no longer walk safely with common people. He was, to use Hepworth’s phrase, an uncommon person. I loved this little anecdote because within the space of five pages Mr. Hepworth captures the pre-stardom Elvis while allowing us to glimpse what Presley became and how he ended. It is an extraordinary act of editing.
Moving on: On June 6th 1957 Althea Gibson of Harlem became the first “colored person of either sex” to win Wimbledon. In Woolton, that same day, John Lennon was meeting Paul McCartney. Master of the over view, Mr. Hepworth has a wonderful way of doing this kind of thing, of reminding us that valuable moments are occurring while the larger world is going about its business.
Jerry Lee Lewis, a true original, talent and monster, explodes upon the scene, marries his grade school cousin and self-implodes. Buddy Holly, a man antithetical to Lewis, creates the non-image image. And dies before the world is allowed to see just how good he really was. Would he have gone on to make a deep and lasting body of work or had he peaked and died without needing to prove himself? Think of Little Richard, who dared to live a long and hitless life, a legend because he insisted he was a legend. Elvis would go into the Army, move his grade school girlfriend into Graceland - avoiding Jerry Lee’s blunder and ensuing scandal - to make a body of work with extraordinary highs and bottomless depths. Skipping a great deal, overlooking many a major figure, Mr. Hepworth grants Hank Marvin of The Shadows, Cliff Richards’ back-up band, the honor of being called the first Guitar Hero. Not Scotty Moore? Not Rick Nelson’s guy, James Burton? Duane Eddy? Link Wray? Well, Mr. Hepworth is British and he has something else in mind, a something that skips over the Everly Brothers, Roy Orbison, Dion. All rock stars in the truest sense, but Bob Dylan is waiting in the wings.
Hepworth begins to pick up speed here: Like Elvis, Dylan’s ACT started long before he ever went on stage. The mystery of self-creation, obvious if still unnamed, made outsiders of both. They stood apart. They were different, first members of a new race. Working without blueprints, they made it up as they went along. Driven, they improvised; Elvis’ humility a shield against class inferiority; Dylan’s shifting stories, all lies, amounted to an exoskeleton of fabrication. They were larger than life because we sensed we would never understand them. The mysteries of identity, MYSTERY itself drove them. That and talent.
With the coming of the Beatles, the human Beatles, the world changed. For the first time you could be a god without looking like one. Who could match peak Elvis for beauty? No one. Not before; not since. But the Beatles were indeed beautiful; they were beautiful because they were cool. Because they were funny - I’ll say it again: They were cool! They were also brilliant. And what I’ve come suspect was most important: We couldn’t see them TRYING to be Rock Stars. They lived a realm apart and we wanted it that way, which leads me to two Rock Stars who trouble me: David Bowie, chosen for the cover of Uncommon People, and Bruce Springsteen. One felt an essential phoniness in both. It may be that Bowie’s constant changes in style, look, and music were some part of a larger con. Or not. Much of his work was very, very good, and yet we could see that he wanted to be Rock Star and this was a hint troubling. This obvious ambition, too visible by far in Springsteen, was worse. Bruce tried too hard. Huffing and puffing, play over-long shows, back to leaning back with his wonderful Black friend, Clarence, Bruce was out to show the world what a great guy he was. None of this Stones arrogance or Dylan weirdness for Bruce. He was a regular, working class Joe. In truth, he was corny. And after Darkness at the Edge of Town, boring. Every thing about him said: Look how hard I’m trying! And, believe it or not, I’m just like YOU. Bruce was Star Search written large. Here is where Hepworth’s ultimate point takes center stage: The Rock Star was dying because the Rock Star left nothing for the imagination. Nothing. Which leaves us where and with whom? Prince, talented, eccentric, blatant, possibly nasty, stayed out of reach, as if daring White people to like him. Madonna, an enormous star with limited skill, redefined live performance changing it into a crowded mess of artifice and bombast. But did she really matter? Did she contribute or did her image mean more than her work? Whatever she had failed to cross over to movies. Was anyone’s faux eroticism less interesting? The more she revealed, the less we cared. Totally naked, she wasn’t sexy. Keep in mind, this is the woman who changed Warren Beatty’s mind about marriage.
The tortured Cobain murdered himself, becoming immortal for at least the immediate future, his drummer proving to be a larger talent. Michael Jackson, the King of Creepy Sleepovers, self-destructed; Prince collapsed in his own elevator. Going down. Are all of the Ramones Gaba Gaba dead? I think so. No one I asked is sure. The original line-up of the Hendrix Experience has all checked out. Bowie dies, leaving behind excellent work that will quickly fade from the public ear. Hepworth leaves us with an excellent question: What now? Even the honestly real Tom Petty is dead.
Step back a bit. Think of Hank Marvin of The Shadows introducing the Strat to England or of how Ringo’s character, humor and drumming, by jettisoning a sullen guy named Pete, turned three other guys into The Beatles. Technology has stripped music of its human component: We no longer know who does what or where. While at the same time we know far too much about things that do not matter. It’s a bit like listening to people discuss athletes’ salaries as if they paid them. No one knew how much Mickey Mantle earned or Ted Williams was paid or a coach or General Manager made or lived. Today we know how much a shortstop on the west coast paid for his home in Florida. Its all part of the same problem, the March into the Void. The mystery - the humanity - has been drained from an Art Form, leaving us with interchangeable, faceless performers making instantly forgettable tunes, Think of contemporary Country and Western for a moment. Is it anything more than a soundtrack for a Trump rally? Is one guy’s hat taller than another’s? How many of these singing couples are actually married? Cross Steve and Edie with Roy Rogers and Dale Evens and you get what? The Rock Star is as dead as the cowboy, declares David Hepworth. Pausing, I think: Wasn’t Han Solo a cowboy? And what about DEADWOOD, a western so good a large audience demanded it be given new life. Somewhere, Jesse Fuller and Joe Strummer, cowboys both, are leaning into a mic singing: I Fought the Law and the Law Won. What they are doing is very real and, most important, timeless.