November 27, 2005

Dream Boogie and the ossification of boomer culture

By: Michael Brendan Dougherty

After Ray and Walk the Line you could be forgiven for hesitating to pick up all 700-something pages of Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke by Peter Guralnick. Again, we have a biography of a mid-century popular musician who has some shaky or controversial relationship to Gospel music, and finds himself beset by his errant affections for women that are not his wife along the way to becoming a “legend.” Your roommate could be forgiven for thinking you were trying to commit suicide when you play the Dream Boogie Drinking Game® I invented. (A shot of Hennessey every time Sam is described as charming, charismatic or ‘having a certain way’ either by the biographer directly or by one of Sam’s friends).

We meet Sam Cooke as a preacher’s son who sings with his family every week at church. At a young age he displays an ambition to entertain people — singing to inanimate objects as a rehearsal for his audiences. As a teenager he forms a group called the Highway QC’s to sing at Chicago-area churches. The Highway QC’s gig leads to him in a rather conventional way to replace R.H. Harris as the lead singer of the Soul Stirrers, one of the most successful gospel groups in the country.

It is the familiarity we seem to have with what a biography of Sam Cooke should be that leaves us a little disappointed in Guralnick’s excellent biography. The decision to leave the Soul Stirrers and Gospel for popular music is made out of ambition and the desire for success, but the lackadaisical way Cooke made the decision robs the reader of some Crossroads-encounter with the devil. When he approaches his father about it, the good Reverend says: “Whatever you strive to be, be the best at it.” We can credit Guralnick in this and in nearly every instance for discovering what actually did happen — but the reader can’t help but feel that there should have been some epic conflict here.

As Sam Cooke transitions into the world of popular music, Guralnick takes us on very detailed accounts of tours and recording sessions. Along the way unsettling and unfamiliar elements come into the story — for instance, Sam Cooke being jailed for “fornication and bastardy” in Philadelphia or Sam’s bizarre insistence to his producers that to say “axe” instead of “ask” was part of his “heritage,” or his painful relationship with Barbara, his wife.

More interesting are the stories of how black artists debated among themselves how to approach the civil rights movement and politics in general. Here Guralnick shines in showing how artists negotiated the difficulties of segregated performances. Artists with huge white audiences like Nat King Cole and Fats Domino often felt at odds with the more radical approach of the NAACP. Sam himself expressed radical sentiments in comparing the civil rights struggle and the possibility of its violence with that of the French and American Revolutions. The civil rights movement and the influence of Bob Dylan’s socially conscious music inspired what most critics agree is Sam Cooke’s most substantial original song, “A Change is Gonna Come”.

The whole book picks up steam as it moves away from the endless references to Sam’s charm and the minute details of his recording sessions and gives us glimpses of his personal interaction with people. The Sam Cooke we find is alternately unsure of himself and a control freak. He is cool-headed one minute and flies into a rage the next. The conversations he has with Leroy Crume of the Soul Stirrers as the fateful day of his departure approaches are touching and humanizing. Much more disturbing are the unseemly details surrounding Sam Cooke’s sudden and tragic death.

For the total music geek it may be fun to grab a copy of Sam Cooke’s greatest hits and listen to them for the distinct vocal and instrumental techniques so vividly described by Guralnick. But despite Guralnick’s rhapsodies to the simplicity of the melodies and lyrics of “Twistin’ the Night Away,” one can’t help but feel that the material is simply beneath the incredibly soulful and capable voice of Sam Cooke. It can be plain tiring to read the praises of artistry heaped onto an artist who is just trying to make a buck through workaday craftsmanship. We are reassured, however, when we read of his more raucous and daring live performances of these songs, which resembled a bit of the passion and excitement he elicited as a Gospel singer.

Dream Boogie succeeds in being a definitive biography of a particularly successful and innovative soul singer. It is dazzling in recreating the Chicago streets and apartments where Sam Cooke grew up and learned to sing. In its plain, reportorial style it astonishes the reader with the beauty of the music coming from a man whose life, on inspection, turns out to be rather seedy and sad. Dream Boogie‘s scale could easily intimidate the casual fan. One feels it is written by an archivist for archivists. What drives a writer into such painstaking labor over a pop artist?

The recent spate of musical biographies could be attributed to the Boomer desire that we kids know Ray Charles was more than “that dude in the Pepsi commercial when I was like, nine” and Johnny Cash had a career before Rick Rubin got a hold of him. Sam Cooke’s case is more desperate, as he is known only vaguely to post-Boomers who worked in mom-and pop grocers and delis that play oldies all day. — The “Only Sixteen” Guy! Oh, now I know who you are talking about!

But in some ways it is more convincing to say that these biographies attempt to legitimate pop culture itself. They do not feature saints but constitute a collective hagiography for an artistic culture that needs redemption from the sin of commercialism. They reassure us that our parents weren’t just easily led kids with disposable income — there really was something sacred in pop music; that the (inevitable) personal transition from Gospel music to commercial music parallels and justifies a liberating transition to secular and mass market culture. Today’s boxed sets aren’t devices to get even more money out of our gullible parents but really a commemorative hymnody to their adolescence, however extended. They shove this pleasant music in our hands and say “This is what my generation is about, listen to this, in memory of me.” Sometimes I wonder that if we indulge them a little — they’ll stop talking about themselves.

Michael Brendan Dougherty is Books Editor for the New Pantagrual and blogs at Surfeited with Dainties.