This lesson looks into the possible futures of Rock and Roll music. Not pretending to have a prophetic sense for what might be coming next, it examines the past to understand the future. Where did Elvis Presley come from? Howlin’ Wolf? The Beatles? Grandmaster Flash? Ask that question and the answer is generally this: “Somewhere out there, where only a few eyes and ears caught their first stirrings.” The Beatles didn’t start doing what they did because they thought they would become the Beatles. They were answering a personal need, finding their voices, seeing what they could make for themselves amidst the rubble of Liverpool. The most celebrated figures in post-1950s popular music have typically come from out on the margins of society—the working classes, the marginalized communities, the garages and the basements rather than the penthouse apartments. One can’t make a rule of this, of course, but history suggests that Rock and Roll and its offshoots have a special connection to what one might call “the outskirts.” And Rock and Roll’s future will likely be determined somewhere out there.
In the lessons gathered in this collection, much has been said about phases of exceptional musical change. It could be the periods associated with Punk Rock, Hip Hop, Early Rock and Roll, or Soul. But none of those periods of musical transition were untethered from their backdrops of social, cultural, and political change. New moments in music come when they’re needed, often just a little bit before, so as to be ready. But they are never born in a vacuum. Whatever comes next in this unfolding history of Rock and Roll—while it will likely be brought to us in the hands of some individual from “the outskirts”—will also be connected to its moment, a part of a wider history. A creative mind, a musical mind, is at work right now, in some corner we can’t immediately see, and though when that mind breaks through and presents its message it may at first seem out of sync with all that goes on around it (as has happened in the past), it will soon enough seem the very embodiment of its time. And it’s going to help us understand who we are and the times in which we live. But all of this hinges on the individual creators, working in what seems to be isolation.
In this lesson students will look at an unlikely film. It’s not about a musician. It’s not focused on someone they have learned about in their history classes. It’s about a man who lived in Watts, a Los Angeles neighborhood, a neighborhood you could definitely call “the outskirts.” In Watts, Simon Rodia, born in Italy and a laborer all his life, built his own version of a castle, from materials that others might have considered trash. His creation, the Watts Towers, is in some ways a perfect symbol around which to structure a conversation about Rock and Roll’s future, about the creativity at “the outskirts” that will play a role in bringing that future closer, and about the lasting power of art.