An Inappropriate Life

Memoir by Stan Gotlieb

How Bill Haley Changed My Life

It was spring, 1955. Eisenhower was president. The Korean War had been over for some time, and the Vietnam debacle was still over the horizon. Prosperity was the watchword of the American psyche. A new system of high-speed roadways was going to open the vast continent to a new sense of personal freedom at only 25 cents to the gallon of gas. Nuclear power was going to solve all our energy problems, forever, making electricity truly penny-cheap and enabling every family to live in the "smart house" of the future today, if the godless Soviet communists didn't blow us all up first.

I was getting ready to graduate from high school. I had just bought my graduation suit, a beige flannel one-button roll which I wore with a pale yellow shirt with a "Mr. B" wide button-down collar and a black knit orlon tie done up in a windsor knot: the height of cool for a middle-class white boy who thought that "Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White" was groovy music.

Now, I don't want you to get the wrong idea: I was no square-er than most of my pals. In fact, I was probably a little "fast" for many of my classmates, having -- while in tenth grade -- found a bar that served minors; and owning my own 1950 Oldsmobile 88 fastback two-door car. Nonetheless, I didn't have a clue about the music that was being played "up on the North side", where the black folks lived. I knew that the music I liked didn't do much for me, but I thought that it was all there was.

One blustery March night in Minneapolis, some of my buddies and I piled into my car and went downtown to the Orpheum Theater, an old-fashioned art-deco movie house, to see the latest teen flick, a daring film that many of our elders were denouncing as indecent and provocative and totally unsuited for youth such as ourselves: a sure way to insure that we would go to see it. The film was called "Blackboard Jungle".

As we sat there in the vast movie house, the lights dimmed, the previews and the newsreel and the short subject played, and then... and then... and then.. SOMETHING HAPPENED that we were none of us prepared for. There was a drum beat: DAH, Dahda DAH, Dohda... And a Voice: One, Two, Three O'Clock, Four O'clock, ROCK!... and after that, nothing would ever be the same again.

We looked at each other. We all had goose-bumps. Our eyes were like saucers. "What?" I said to myself. "What? Oh, man, what is HAPPENING? Where does this come from? Why haven't I heard this before? This is -- this is -- this is INCREDIBLE!" The movie? Oh, yeah, we really loved the movie, but it was the MUSIC that we couldn't get enough of. Rock and Roll. Our sound.

Looking back, it's easy to see what actually happened: the music the African Americans were playing in their clubs and on their records, had just gotten co-opted by a bunch of white musicians. White musicians had entree that was unavailable to black folks. White kids were the target audience: an audience that had a lot of discretionary spending available. The "record industry" was on its way into the big time.

At the time, though, we were just stunned. Blown away. For me, it was comparable to the first time I got drunk; the first time I got high on psychedelics; the first time I got to touch a girl's breast. Bill Haley and his Comets changed my notion of what was possible in the world; removed a barrier that I had never even known was there; altered my consciousness. Whether it was for good or not, that's up to you to interpret. As for me, I only knew that wherever it was going take me, I was definitely on the bus.

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All materials copyrighted, 1994-2004 by Stan Gotlieb and