The premise of Jack Hamilton’s deep new study Just Around Midnight: Rock and Roll and the Racial Imagination seems like something that’s been on rock history’s tongue for a long time without ever quite leaving it. Chuck Berry, a black man with a guitar, had been a rock and roll archetype in 1960, but by the end of the decade Jimi Hendrix would be seen as rock’s odd man out for being… a black man with a guitar. How did that occur? The book, out September 26, began life as Hamilton’s graduate thesis (he’s a professor at the University of Virginia). But while it’s intellectually rigorous, Just Around Midnight is also clearly and entertainingly written—not a surprise to anyone who reads Hamilton on Slate, where he’s one of their music critics.
Hamilton locates the ways “rock and roll” (which tended to denote everything from soul to surf music) became just plain “rock” (which tended to mean only guitar music by white people)—namely, in San Francisco’s psychedelic scene, full of ex-folkies. There, a pattern repeated from the folk revival that preceded Beatlemania, in which largely white musicians tended to idolize black forebears while ignoring contemporary R&B. As Hamilton point out, this mindset often put black rock and rollers into the “predecessors” category even when the musicians in question were peers and contemporaries, like when a Beatles biographer claims Smokey Robinson as a precursor when, in fact, Robinson was born the same year as John Lennon.
Even that précis doesn’t do justice to the richness of Hamilton’s ideas, or his wide-ranging research, both archival and musicological—the latter particularly during a chapter on the musical interrelationship of Motown and the Beatles. Are there two more oversaturated musical topics on the planet? Along with the rest of the ’60s rock and soul canon, Hamilton thinks, convincingly, that we’ve only begun to understand them, especially side-by-side. Hamilton spoke to Pitchfork from his home in Charlottesville.
Pitchfork: What awakened you to this particular topic? When did it become a book?
Jack Hamilton: Early in graduate school, I wrote a seminar paper about the Rolling Stones, a lot of which ended up in the final chapter of the book, about “Gimme Shelter.” For that, I was doing a lot of archival research on the way the Rolling Stones had been covered by both the American and British presses. I’m a fan of their music, particularly their late-sixties music. And there are so many crazy issues floating around them—I mean, they’re the archetypal problematic rock band. [laughs] This band was so singularly obsessed with American blues and R&B, and really has been throughout their entire career. Why do we ensconce this band in the genre of rock music? You hear them on classic rock stations all the time in the 21st century, but you would never hear the vast majority of music whose influence the Stones themselves were trumpeting.
I think there’s been a tendency to think of a band like the Stones in particular as being obsessed with African-American music as something that’s old. The obsessions with Robert Johnson and Delta stuff, or later stuff like Muddy Waters—the stuff that was a generation, if not multiple generations, before them. The Stones were completely tuned into black popular music of the moment they were making music as well, just thinking about the “Dancing in the Street” references in “Street Fighting Man,” or who they chose to tour with in that period.
That got me interested very early in the specific postwar British context the Stones were coming out of. How had the Stones’ early encounters with black American music differed from, certainly, Elvis [Presley]’s encounters with it? But also, how had the Stones’ encounters with that music differed from the Beatles’ encounters with it? The Beatles being from Liverpool and the Stones being from London, and coming from pretty different class backgrounds, a lot of the individuals in those bands—how did those things filter through?
The Stones could afford to be bohemians, for example.
Exactly. A crucial difference between the Beatles and the Stones is that the Stones were coming from a high-minded, art-for-art’s-sake subculture of the blues, whereas the Beatles were much more interested in trying to make it as a pop band from the very beginning.
Ralph J. Gleason, who co-founded Rolling Stone, comes up a lot in the book. The quotes you utilize are blindsiding—endless “other”-ing, almost no self-examination. My favorite is when he writes about the “magic rhythmic power” of Santana’s rhythm section, presuming they could only be accessible to people with a direct line to Latin America’s “savannahs and inland plains.” Your respond: “The ‘magic rhythmic power’ that Gleason extolled was provided by Michael Shrieve and bass player Douglas Rauch, both of the savannahs and inland plains of San Francisco.”
[laughs] Yeah. I realized at the time I was coming down fairly hard on Gleason. I definitely don’t feel like I unfairly demonized him or anything. He was an elder figure who had come to rock as a longstanding jazz critic, and who in those early years was a really influential voice because he had that prestige. He was really seen as a critical authority on music. That Santana material is from Rolling Stone; he also wrote a lot [about rock] in the [San Francisco] Chronicle.
Another essay that he published in The American Scholar in 1967 was called “Like a Rolling Stone.” It’s this interesting, bizarre intellectual and artistic manifesto on rock music—in 1967, when this is a fairly early concept, the idea that rock is art. The amount that race figures into it, these quotes where he’s trumpeting white creativity over what he sees as black music selling out. One thing that came up a lot while I was writing the book was that notion of selling out, whether or not a black musician is making music that’s “black” enough. No one’s ever said that Dylan or the Beatles aren’t white enough.
But in the book, you mention the persistent, racially coded mid-’60s news headline, “Would you let your sister (or daughter) date a Rolling Stone?”
That’s true—the Stones are one of the few groups [where that was the case], and I think Elvis prior to that as well. It’s much less pronounced, certainly, in rock music. With the Stones, that is a real disruption they represent. Not just that headline, but throughout the early-to-mid-’60s, the amount of weird racial whistles being used in description of the Stones in both the mainstream British press and the mainstream American press is pretty stunning. They really are being othered in this way that conflates their physical appearance with social danger. Their proximity to black music is really harped on by the fear-mongering pieces about the Stones.
Did you look into how Ike & Tina Turner or Chuck Berry or B. B. King were treated by the audience when they opened for the Stones in 1969?
I didn’t read anything about those artists getting booed or anything like that. There’s obviously footage of Ike & Tina in Gimme Shelter—electrifying footage—where it appears the crowd is hanging on them. By 1969, everybody knew that’s who the Stones were. Earlier in the decade, they’d brought Howlin’ Wolf on TV with them. But when the Stones tour in ’72 and Stevie Wonder opens for them, he’s on the record about feeling that the crowd treated him terribly, feeling like the Stones treated him terribly. By that time, of course, they had a ton of issues of their own. It was the tour after Exile on Main Street. You’d think, these crowds are getting to see the Rolling Stones and Stevie Wonder in 1972. What more could you possibly ask for? [laughs]
When Greil Marcus wrote about Prince opening for the Stones in 1981 and getting pelted with garbage, he included a virulently racist letter about the incident, all misspellings verbatim. Looking at it again it’s reminiscent of comment boxes, specifically post-Trump. Especially in light of the book, what do you make of Trump using “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” as his campaign music?
What’s odd to me—no, it’s not odd, it’s depressing—is the way that rock music, particularly rock music of the 1960s and ’70s, has become the soundtrack to the reactionary right, the way it’s become the white-male right-wing revanchist soundtrack. Yeah, the way this music gets appropriated by that side of things; it kind of boggles the mind. But at the same time, it speaks to the extent to which a lot of that music has been really drained of its context, and drained of understandings of the contexts that produced it, understandings of the various political and cultural commitments of the artists that produced it…
Drained of the meaning of the lyrics that are in it, for God’s sake.
Absolutely. Obviously, there’s a long history of politicians, particularly on the right, clumsily using rock and pop music, the Reagan-Springsteen example being the most iconic.
One of the things that did inspire me to write the book: So much of the music that I discuss in this book is so incredibly famous. We just know it effortlessly; it’s in the air. A lot of the songs I write about are songs that people are really sick of hearing. They’re so familiar that they’ve been worn of meaning through cultural use. Part of what I wanted to do was to recapture what was actually going on here. A band like the Rolling Stones, who in 2016—or even in 1989—it’s so easy to be cynical about, and so much of that they have brought upon themselves. But there was a period when this was a band that was making incredibly vital, dangerous, exciting music, in the best sense—music that really was coming out of status quo and doing it in a way that was really exciting and artistically impressive. There was real greatness and teeth and fury there; there was passion.
That’s what gets lost in the way it’s all turned into commodified nostalgia. I think there is a way we can recapture at least some of what made that music great, and great in ways that can still be surprising, and vital in ways we’ve lost touch with.