This all hit me in Buenos Aires a year or so ago when I turned the corner in a museum and saw a famous painting, described in the nameplate as:
“Self-portrait with Monkey and Parrot. Frida Kahlo, 1907–1954.”
I know it seems the height of philistinism, but I always read nameplates first. And, in this case, maybe because I’d seen the image on a million totebags, it was the nameplate, rather than the painting, that affected me most. And mostly because it told me I was alive at the same time as a nigh-mythical figure from impossibly remote history.
Now I’m sure it’s not a good and honorable way to respond to art (can you say “narcissistic personality disorder”?). But it did get me to wondering, who else? What other surprising historical figures from what seems like way, way back were alive — and maybe alive nearby — same time as me?
Doing the exercise, it turns out a lot of them were musicians, which is how I justify putting them here:
If there was one guy I’ve held close to my miserly little rock snob heart, lo, these 75 years, it’s Napoleon Culp.
You don’t know him.
Though even I didn’t know him until this morning, when to my shock and dismay the digital New York Times informed me of the passing of a 78-year-old gospel and R&B singer from North Carolina who was born Napoleon Culp, but performed as Nappy Brown.
You don’t know him either.
And isn’t that the point? He was my secret. My invincibly winning gambit in the compulsive bloodsport of musical oneupsmanship. The one name I could reliably whip out in a crowd, and nobody would know.
Sure, John Goddard knew who he was. And the first time I walked into Village Music, John’s jampacked, soon-to-be-legendary little record store in Mill Valley, and saw a new album by Nappy Brown in the “Artists We Really Like” bin, I was staggered. In those days before Google or iTunes, I had not only assumed no one knew Nappy, but that he had already taken my secret (his existence) to the grave. (And, of course, in those days before Google and Wikipedia, I also had no idea of Nappy’s long-gone ‘50s glory days.)
But Goddard — well, he’s so cool he had a copy of my book in his store for 20 years. Literally, one sad, permanently unsold copy of The Noise (and I never said a thing, btw). John is part of that .001% who know Nappy Brown — along with every other musician you think no one else knows. I mean, I would never consciously compete with Goddard. But that’s not really a problem because like a lot of hardcore record nerds he doesn’t turn up at very many social occasions. And now, alas, his store is closed.
Anyway, Nappy Brown.
This is the full — really full — text, with notes for slides and music, from my, ahem, lecture (see News section) to Smolny College of the State University of Saint Petersburg in Russia on April 17, 2008. Keep in mind that it was geared for Russian students who, I was told, might not know very much about rock ’n’ roll (and if you do, don’t tell them where I lied). Anyway, I spent so much time working on the damn thing I couldn’t resist re-purposing it as a column. The complete, killer playlist follows the text.
My name is Robert Duncan, and I’m from San Francisco, California. I’m definitely not a professor, and I’m not entirely sure what I have to offer you. But I have been listening to, playing, loving, hating and writing about rock ’n’ roll for more than 30 years.
I played guitar in a band when I was 12. I left college to be the singer in a band professionally, with some minor success and mostly frustration. At 21, I started writing about music. At 22, I became managing editor of Creem magazine in Detroit, Michigan, where I worked with the famous rock critic Lester Bangs, who became my close friend. If you’ve seen the movie Almost Famous, you’ve seen the great Phillip Seymour Hoffman playing Lester.
After Creem, I went back to New York City to be a freelance critic, writing hundreds of stories for Rolling Stone, Circus and just about every music magazine there ever was. Among my quote-unquote “accomplishments,” as you may have seen on that lovely flyer, I’ve interviewed Bruce Springsteen, Freddie Mercury, Patti Smith, David Bowie, Bryan Ferry, Kiss, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Ted Nugent, War, ZZ Top, Kraftwerk, and many others I can’t remember or you’ve never heard of. I’ve flown on a private jet with Keith Richards, jammed with Blue Öyster Cult, sung to Sammy Hagar (accapella) and Liza Minnelli, but not at the same time, and have witnessed Phil Lesh, the famous bassist of the Grateful Dead, in his underwear. I’ve seen the Yardbirds when both Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck were in the band. I’ve seen Elvis, the Beatles, the Stones, in 1969, when they were cool. Dylan, though not in a particularly good phase. Hendrix, several times, and he was too cool. I saw the Ramones at Max’s Kansas City, before the album, and Talking Heads at CBGB’s when there were about 10 people in the room. I’ve also written three books about rock ’n’ roll.
Which is where I want to start today.
D/C’s own rock ’n’ roll expert, Robert Duncan, has just returned from St. Petersburg, Russia, where he delivered a two-hour multimedia presentation on the history of rock to a full house of students and professors. The former managing editor of Creem and author of The Noise: Notes from a Rock ’n’ Roll Era was invited to speak by St. Petersburg State University’s Smolny College, where pop is part of the curriculum. His lecture, titled “The Noise: Notes from a Rock ’n’ Life,” was a 25-year update of his book, covering his experiences with music and musicians from the ’50s to today.
It is probably no happenstance that Duncan’s son, a Russian language major, attends the school, the first liberal arts college in Russia. But when the faculty heard that dear ol’ dad, a widely published critic and scrivener of three books on rock, was coming for a visit, they asked the son to sign him up.
According to the utterly unbiased Duncan, the lecture was a smashing success, with much furious note-taking by the mostly Russian crowd (who are required by the college to learn English) and rousing applause to cap it off. During a Q&A session at the end, one professor politely protested Duncan’s dismissal of prog rock and the band Emerson, Lake and Palmer. Otherwise, controversy was kept to a minimum.
Though Duncan had been counseled that the young audience might be naive about both historical and contemporary rock, there was surprisingly broad recognition when the discussion turned to punk pioneer Patti Smith. And one young Russian, an aspiring rock critic, his blond locks combed over one eye, collared the errant D/C ECD after the lecture to talk about Sufjan Stevens. Another student sporting a jam-band beard danced vigorously in his seat through every song of the presentation, from Elvis’s “Hound Dog” to the Hold Steady’s “Chips Ahoy.” Duncan was later informed that said student usually just talks to himself.
The complete playlist and text of the lecture is posted in the Noise column on this site.