In the years between World War II and the emergence of television as a mass medium, American popular culture as we know it was first created—in the pulpy, boldly illustrated pages of comic books. No sooner had this new culture emerged than it was beaten down by church groups, community bluestockings, and a McCarthyish Congress—only to resurface with a crooked smile on its face in Mad magazine.
When we picture the 1950s, we hear the sound of early rock and roll. The Ten-Cent Plague shows how -- years before music -- comics brought on a clash between children and their parents, between prewar and postwar standards. Created by outsiders from the tenements, garish, shameless, and often shocking, comics spoke to young people and provided the guardians of mainstream culture with a big target. Parents, teachers, and complicit kids burned comics in public bonfires. Cities passed laws to outlaw comics. Congress took action with televised hearings that nearly destroyed the careers of hundreds of artists and writers.
The Ten-Cent Plague radically revises common notions of popular culture, the generation gap, and the divide between "high" and "low" art. As he did with the lives of Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington (in Lush Life) and Bob Dylan and his circle (in Positively 4th Street), Hajdu brings a place, a time, and a milieu unforgettably back to life.
When Bob Dylan, age twenty-five, wrecked his motorcycle on the side of a road near Woodstock in 1966 and dropped out of the public eye, he was recognized as a genius, a youth idol, and the authentic voice of the counterculture: and Greenwich Village, where he first made his mark as a protest singer with an acid wit and a barbwire throat, was unquestionably the center of youth culture.
So embedded are Dylan and the Village in the legend of the Sixties--one of the most powerful legends we have these days--that it is easy to forget how it all came about. In Positively Fourth Street, David Hajdu, whose 1995 biography of jazz composer Billy Strayhorn was the best and most popular music book in many seasons, tells the story of the emergence of folk music from cult practice to popular and enduring art form as the story of a colorful foursome: not only Dylan but his part-time lover Joan Baez - the first voice of the new generation; her sister Mimi - beautiful, haunted, and an artist in her own right; and her husband Richard Farina, a comic novelist (Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me) who invented the worldliwise bohemian persona that Dylan adopted--some say stole--and made as his own.
The story begins in the plain Baez split-level house in a Boston suburb, moves to the Cambridge folk scene, Cornell University (where Farina ran with Thomas Pynchon), and the University of Minnesota (where Robert Zimmerman christened himself Bob Dylan and swapped his electric guitar for an acoustic and a harmonica rack) before the four protagonists converge in New York.
Based on extensive new interviews and full of surprising revelations, Positively Fourth Street is that rare book with a new story to tell about the 1960s. It is, in a sense, a book about the Sixties before they were the Sixties--about how the decade and all that it is now associated with it were created in a fit of collective inspiration, with an energy and creativity that David Hajdu captures on the page as if for the first time.
From the age of song sheets in the late nineteenth-century to the contemporary era of digital streaming, pop music has been our most influential laboratory for social and aesthetic experimentation, changing the world three minutes at a time.
In Love for Sale, David Hajdu—one of the most respected critics and music historians of our time—draws on a lifetime of listening, playing, and writing about music to show how pop has done much more than peddle fantasies of love and sex to teenagers. From vaudeville singer Eva Tanguay, the “I Don’t Care Girl” who upended Victorian conceptions of feminine propriety to become one of the biggest stars of her day to the scandal of Blondie playing disco at CBGB, Hajdu presents an incisive and idiosyncratic history of a form that has repeatedly upset social and cultural expectations.
Exhaustively researched and rich with fresh insights, Love for Sale is unbound by the usual tropes of pop music history. Hajdu, for instance, gives a star turn to Bessie Smith and the “blues queens” of the 1920s, who brought wildly transgressive sexuality to American audience decades before rock and roll. And there is Jimmie Rodgers, a former blackface minstrel performer, who created country music from the songs of rural white and blacks . . . entwined with the sound of the Swiss yodel. And then there are today’s practitioners of Electronic Dance Music, who Hajdu celebrates for carrying the pop revolution to heretofore unimaginable frontiers. At every turn, Hajdu surprises and challenges readers to think about our most familiar art in unexpected ways.
Masterly and impassioned, authoritative and at times deeply personal, Love for Sale is a book of critical history informed by its writer's own unique history as a besotted fan and lifelong student of pop.