Ian Whitcomb - "Confessions Of A British Invader"
The Bolshie attitude of my fellow Invaders was even affecting American performers. When I returned to Hollywood, I was on a television show with a hot new folk-rock group called the Byrds. Now, while everyone else and I were clap-ping along to the beat, beaming and showing teeth, these Byrds stood like tombstones. They didn't wear band suits; they wore buckskin with fringes and soiled sweaters and jeans. There was no velour in sight. They halfheartedly lip-synched, and I could have sworn they were having a chat while they were supposed to be singing along to their record. But the main surprise was they didn't smile.
They performed a version of "We'll Meet Again" on twelve-string guitars and with a kind of sneer in their voices. I pointed out to them that this song was originally made famous by Vera Lynn, "The Forces' Sweetheart." "We think it's funny, spooky, and very old," said one of the Byrds, a fellow in Ben Franklin wire glasses. I replied that the song meant an awful lot to those in Britain who had experienced World War II. At last I was given a smile, a bit twisted. I wasn't sure what was happening, but whatever it was, I didn't care for it.
In August I went on a disk-plugging trip with George Sherlock, the Tower promotion man. He was in good form because Mick Jagger had immortalized him on the flip side of the Rolling Stones recent hit "Satisfaction" as "The Under Assistant West Coast Promotion Man." We were armed with promotional copies of my new single, "N-N-Nervous," and we had an appointment with a top San Francisco radio program director called "Swinging Swallow." He was a fat man, sleek and sallow, and he had little time for us. When George finally managed to get "N-N-Nervous" on the audition turn-table, all Swinging Swallow did was lie back in his expanding chair, sip a beer, and talk about last night's baseball game while he kept picking up the tone arm in order to skip grooves on my new record, the one that my pop-life future depended on. "When you gonna make another record?" he asked. Before I could reply, he said, "I mean a record, something that'll fly. Have you guys heard this 'Eve of Destruction' mother by Barry McGuire? No? Well, it's gonna be a stone fox smash!" and he busted open another can of beer, soaking my record. "A lot of the lyrics I can't make out, but what I can is goddamn treason! Can you believe a guy who knocks our draft, our senators, our church—and all on a pop record?"
"So I take it," said George, with a boogaloo gesture from his hips, "that the disk, Swallow, is negative as far as your big boss playlist is concerned?"
"Not on your Hollywood scalp doily! It may knock the U.S.A., but I don't knock success. Never knock success, Whitcomb. This 'Eve of Destruction' is Dylan made commercial. It's a new kind of loot music under the title of protest. Remember that! Get me? And get out!"
It certainly was the eve of destruction for me. My moment of fame was over. It was time to go. Just before I left for Dublin and my finals, I got a letter from a sort of fan. I have kept it:
Dear Ian Whitcomb,
I have watched you several times now and I want to say that sure you have talent and you're magnetic, but why, oh, why, do you screw it all up by horsing around, being coy, by camping—as if you're embarrassed by show business? You could be great if you faced your potential and saw it through but that takes guts. Instead you mince, or treat it all as a big joke. Come on now!
In October I sat for my finals in Modern History and Political Thought. A month later I received this letter from my tutor:
My dear Whitcomb,
You'll be glad to learn that we've awarded you a second class degree. Under the circumstances—I mean your musical career and success in America—we all feel that you performed remarkably well. I speak for all of us on the faculty, including Julian [the college postman], when I say "well done" and "good luck" in your future life, whatever that may be.
My future, as it turned out, lay in the past. I left the pop scene to its apocalypse and, in the seventies and eighties, its subsequent coagulation into a monstrous corporate business that had nothing to do with roots music. Indeed the roots—ragtime, blues, jazz, country—had all been pulled up and gobbled and spat out by a long line of rock stars. Especially the British Invaders and, I'm sorry to say, me.
And what happened to the British Invasion? It was absorbed, like the Norman Invasion of 1066. American youth, after the first flush of infatuation, turned around to face their own heritage and started contributing once again to mainstream culture. The already burgeoning folk movement was electrified, leading to the heady (and sometimes even heavy) work of the Byrds, the Doors, and Bob Dylan. All had been galvanized into artistic action by the artless cheeriness of the British Invaders.
And I am glad the Americans acted, for I have always believed that ragtime, jazz, rock 'n' roll, and rhythm and blues are vernacular styles best carried on by the natives themselves. There's nothing more embarrassing than a Mick Jagger impersonating a poor black from the Deep South. All that we outsiders—we curators and enthusiasts—can do is to encourage by example. America is pop, the nation's great and only contribution to world culture. I mean that as a compliment. Heaven knows, we don't need any more Joyces, Prousts, or Picassos.
For myself, I became a writer of pop history, a reviver of older styles, a neo-Tin Pan Alleyman. Once, at Trinity College, Julian the postman had asked me: "What d'ye want to study history for? It's all happened, and there's nothing ye can do about it." But there was: By writing about it, I could create my own world. So I marched steadily backward until I reached the sunny banks of vaudeville, where I rested. Here I am, where the proscenium arch separates actor from audience, where the singer is not yet the song, where you still end a sentimental ballad with a wink. Where, on a sad and dripping pier, I can still thrill to Al Jolson's recorded call to come to California, and be right back where I started from.
Ian Whitcomb has produced many albums and has published fifteen books, including After the Ball: Pop Music From Rag to Rock and Rock Odyssey: A Chronicle of the Sixties (Limelight Editions).
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