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August 2, 2000
Rock Hall of Infamy: Anti-heroes from Elvis to Eminem
By ROGER ANDERSON Scripps Howard News Service
One thing you have to say for hip-hop star Eminem - he's an old- fashioned kind of guy.
Sure, he's shocked the pants off everyone by hitting the sales charts big-time with his album "The Marshall Mathers LP," In which he makes scurrilous, unprintable threats against his mom, his wife, gays and pop star Christine Aguilera.
Sure, his mom is even suing him, and Aguilera’s stepdad offered to go knock him out.
Sure, if you get him to stop foaming at the mouth long enough to comment on all this he is extremely unrepentant.
But blatant, in-your-face hostility has become as much an element of the rock scene as porkpie hats were an element of bebop.
It all started, of course, with Elvis Presley - although it's crucial to note that Elvis never really said anything in the least provocative the whole time he was becoming a star. On the contrary, he was careful to make nothing but socially constructive remarks and to be an advocate for family and church.
The only truly provocative thing he did was to sing and dance and wear clothes.
The clothes alone would have sent the message - the baggy pants on that supple waist, those pleats, those cool-cat shoes, all under that glistening mass of black hair, that sneer, and those love-dungeon eyes. Even before he opened his mouth and cut a rug, this was a guy who clearly meant America's daughters no good.
But note again: Elvis claimed out loud to be nothing more than a nice boy with a good churchgoing background. That helped to make his fellow-Sun Records phenom, Jerry Lee Lewis, a truly traumatic shock to the American system when his turn came.
First there was Jerry Lee's blatantly sexual, gutbucket singing and piano playing ("Great Balls o' Fire" indeed). But it wasn't
until Jerry Lee's awkward little secret - he had married his
cousin, who was underage - became widely known that the public was faced with its first prime example of rocker-as-anti-socialcreep. Jerry Lee has rather proudly spent the balance of his career living up to the image.
James Brown was such bad news, pumping and jiving and twirling to pelvic discord, that white parents could barely even see him. Implicitly threatening to the established order, he nevertheless remained well-behaved for several decades - until a series of episodes involving firearms and drugs made him one of pop music's most visible anti-heroes.
But let's get back to the mid-'60s. Now, the Beatles' hair may have been a bit on the longish side, but otherwise they were safe and sane dream dates for the girls. They wore suits and stood in a cute, orderly line as they sang.
Then the Rolling Stones came along and something different was in the air.
Yet for years the Stones never said or did anything much to excite parents' ire. They weren't even that baldly sexual. What they were was (a) ugly and (b) sullen.
Look at those early photos. You never saw a crew so patently prone to some vague kind of mopery and dopery. That was the shock to parents - that the kids could idolize people so loutish, so uneager to please.
It became a groundswell - the Animals, the Yardbirds, the Pretty Things - a long list of unprepossessing, inarticulate blokes with hair hanging over their eyes.
The ball of verbal vituperation that ended up in Eminem’s court first started rolling when John Lennon of the Beatles got a jump on all the other British plug-uglies by saying in an interview, "We're bigger than Jesus."
Was there hell to pay! Beatles records were ritually burned in Southern radio markets. Never mind that Lennon merely meant that his band's pictures hung on more adolescent walls than did images of the Nazarene carpenter.
Innocent as the remark may have been, presto-chango, Lennon responded to the outrage he had elicited by turning into a scruffy left-wing doper forever upping the revolution. He ditched his nice English wife in favor of a Japanese conceptual artist and took to ranting non-stop about how blind and stupid everyone was.
Right around then, two more true anti-heroes came upon the scene: Lou Reed of the Velvet Underground and Jim Morrison of the Doors.
Although the Velvets never came close to anything remotely resembling commercial success, the first track of their first album (1967) instantly became a perverse classic. Titled "Heroin," the song was a Reed monologue over two droning chords about the bliss of shooting dope, this at roughly the time Donovan's "Mellow Yellow" was thought to be corrupting youngsters into smoking banana peels.
Morrison, meanwhile, started out small and got big as his band's live concerts turned more and more into occasions for him to taunt and belittle the police officers unlucky enough to be assigned to the event. For maybe the first time, America was treated to the spectacle of a music star who closed his concerts by being led away in handcuffs to a waiting squad car.
Along came Alice Cooper, a man who dressed and identified as a woman while spouting rough-edged rock rebellion. Fortunately or unfortunately, he almost immediately turned himself into a harmless cartoon and a big commercial success. Quarter of a century later, a fellow calling himself Marilyn Manson would follow suit, making a fortune out of alienating religious people and other squares.
By the early to mid-'70s, the anti-hero concept was sufficiently evolved to give rise to the Sex Pistols, maybe the first band to be completely predicated on it. Johnny Rotten was, of course, basically a showman, but his bandmate Sid Vicious was the real anti-social article, ending up dead of an overdose while under suspicion for the murder of his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen.
The '80s proved to be a relatively fallow period for rock anti- heroism, with the beginnings of the rap tradition even garnering accolades for an early lack of anti-social behavior and concert rowdiness.
Then the '90s got under way, and a scruffy little kid named Kurt Cobain took the matter to new heights.
He didn't do it alone. He had help from his wife, Courtney Love, who arguably changed the course of music history by going on the record in Vanity Fair magazine with the revelation that her Nirvana husband and she had shot heroin. Not only that, but that she had shot heroin while pregnant with their child.
Here come the child welfare workers, and there goes the baby. The big, mostly unspoken question among the rock audience was: Is it possible that these two, Kurt and Courtney, are really rock stars? They have none of that Keith Richards "elegantly wasted" panache, it's nothing but bad news, public fights, squawling music, police busts, firearms.
Who knows? It's possible that Cobain would have been perfectly content to be your average surly rock star if his wife hadn't upped the ante with her public revelations. As it was, the whole thing eventually was too much for him to handle and he checked out.
Violence ending in death - that was where this pop-music antihero thing was leading. Now you had hip-hop stars like Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. making records on which they threatened to kill their rivals and ravage their women. Both Shakur and B.I.G., of course, died in a hail of bullets.
In the good old days, the stars died quietly of drug overdoses.
Eminem is like Shakur and Cobain and many of the other antiheroes: a genuinely talented guy capable of making great music and with an amazing knack for hitting the nail on the head, even if the nail is begging for mercy. But the talent sometimes barely seems to leak out between layers of menace and hostility. Probably no one really wants to know how his story will end.
Roger Anderson is arts and entertainment editor at Scripps Howard News
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