The cold winds doth blow here in Ohio, down the street and up your pant leg. Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues” sure sounded inviting on the oldies station a few hours ago.
“Summertime Blues” sounds like it was recorded yesterday and rocks like there is no tomorrow. Rock has never been harder. Cochran’s rhythm is built like a boa constrictor: dangerous incompressable shiny muscle. Maybe that’s the difference between rock ‘n’ roll and metal. Rock ‘n’ roll – no matter how hard – is made of muscle and bone and skin. Metal is metal: inorganic alloys mined and smelted, not birthed and nurtured.
What the Who did to “Summertime Blues” is the difference between rock ‘n’ roll and metal (not that the Who is metal per se). The Who take the swing out of everything, even “Twist and Shout” – they take bounce and turn it into stomp. This isn’t bad, it just is. But, you’re not going to dance to “Summertime Blues” by the Who. With Eddie, it’s all in the upbeat, the Who crush everything on the downbeat. The Who aren’t harder, just louder and clumsier. I come not to bury the Who, but to praise the swing of first generation rock ‘n’ roll, and in particular Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues.”
Eddie Cochran was all energy and motion and arrogance. It can be misleading to read, but not hear, lyrics – so much of the meaning is conveyed by how the lyrics are presented. Often the attitude directly contradicts the literal meaning of the words, and that contradiction can make a song multidimensional. Songs are like people: they both have to be met to be fully understood.
“Well I’m a-gonna raise fuss
I’m agonna raise a holler.
About a working all summer just to
Try to earn a dollar”
The outrage is feigned. The voice jumps out of the grooves (as we used to say of vinyl records) – the guitar jumps and pumps like adolescent hormones. He’s working all summer, not all year. The work is optional. He needs money to fund fun, not for food, shelter or clothing. Cochran is mimicking working adult complaints. Eddie knows that he will be back in school in the fall. He’s just playing at being an adult for the summer.
What’s really important is that he’s “gonna raise a fuss, he’s a-gonna raise a holler.” What he’s going to raise it about is secondary. If the problem hadn’t been work, it would have been something else. Teenagers have to bitch. It’s a way to let off steam, and Eddie’s got so much steam that it’s fogging the windows.
“Well, every time I call my baby,
Try and get a date
My boss says: ‘No dice son,
You gotta work a late.'”
That’s a complaint that many people the world over wish they had – to have a job where they are wanted and needed and successful enough to have to work late. What does “have to work late” mean, anyway? He doesn’t really have to. He could say “no.” He could quit. The singer already has such a sense of responsibility that to be asked to work late translates to “have to” in his mind. He feels compelled to say “yes.” The singer’s life is on a pretty straight path, but he’s gotta let out the juice. The boy’s just gotta rock ‘n’ roll.
“Sometimes I wonder, what I’m a gonna do
For there ain’t no cure
For the Summertime Blues.”
He knows exactly what he’s a gonna do: he’s going to sing this song. He’s going to rock ‘n’ roll. That’s the cure for the “Summertime Blues.”
“Oh, well my Mom and Pop a told me
Son, you gotta earn some money.
If you wanna take the car
To go a riding next Sunday”
These are middle class teenage blues. There is a car to borrow, he just has to pay for gas. His parents have stressed responsibility as a character trait and it has obviously taken hold.
“Oh well I didn’t go to work,
Told the boss I was sick,
Now you can’t use the car
Because you didn’t work a lick.”
After all, he is a teenager. He has to screw up sometimes. Besides, the responsibility is starting to pile up on him. Working all of the time, staying late, a guy’s gotta rebel once in a while.
“Besides, I didn’t lie, I had a little bit of an earache.”
“Earache? Earache my eye! You just didn’t want to work, young man. Now the car is off for this weekend. Pull that again and you’re grounded for a month! Now clean up this room and turn that damn music down!”
“I’m gonna take two weeks
Gonna have a fine vacation
Gonna take my problem to the United Nations
Well I called my congressman and he said quote,
‘I’d like to help you son
But you’re too young to vote.'”
This is one of the great verses in rock history. The problem is teenage obligation and repression. In pure teenage fashion, Cochran escalates the problem to one of global importance. This is one of the things that teenagers are supposed to grow out of when they become adults – a monomanical self-centeredness.
Teenagers are solipsists. When people say that college broadens, they mean that it widens your field of vision beyond your mirror. You hear a lot of talk about lawsuits from teenagers: “My biology teacher gave me a C+ instead of a B-, I’m going to sue the bastard.”
“Gonna take my problem to the United Nations,” all they way to the top – the hubris of youth and shock value. If you want to get attention, say something dramatic, extend it all the way out, exaggerate it as far as it will go. At least you will make your point. Even if your point simply is to shock.
Remember: in 1958 the voting age was 21. You could die for your country, you could drink alcohol in most states, but you couldn’t vote for congress, school board or dog catcher. The absurdity of these conflicting rights and obligations led to the 26th amendment in 1971 which lowered the voting age to 18. Now politicians have to at least pay lip service to the interests of youth.
Eddie WAS a teenager, he wasn’t just pretending to be one. All of the energy of his teenhood is there in “Summertime Blues.” But his vision was amazingly perceptive for someone so young. Eddie started young, though. He recorded his first single in 1955 at age 16. One of the reasons that Cochran was so popular in England was that he was one of the first American rock ‘n’ rollers to tour there. Eddie Cochran died in a car crash on the way to London’s Heathrow Airport 1960, at the age of 21.
Somethin’ Else is an excellent Cochran collection put out by Razor & Tie in 1998. There are five great songs out of the twenty on the album: “Summertime Blues,” “C’Mon Everybody,” “Twenty Flight Rock,” “Hallelujah, I Love Her So” and “Somethin’ Else.” Based upon this evidence, Eddie Cochran doesn’t belong in the ’50s pantheon with Elvis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Fats Domino, or Buddy Holly. But who’s to say he wouldn’t have made it up there had a taxi cab not slammed into a lamppost in peasoup fog?