Rock music scholar gathers no mossEMP director Bob Santelli stays tapped into youth culture.
June 9, 2008 · Updated 3:35 PM
"The photograph was taken at the Seattle Center, sometime in the mid-1960s.Packed into the frame, a few dozen kids out for a Teenage Fair mug for the camera, several waving electric guitars, others with fists in the air and faces wild in a youthful declaration of purpose:Yeaaahhhh!!!And in their midst is a fiftyish man, conservatively suit-and-tied, gazing somewhere past the camera with a face that suggests bemusement or chagrin or maybe a little of each.The photo - which appears midway through the Experience Music Project Northwest Passage display of Seattle rock memorabilia - suggests the uneasy detente between teens and adults best embodied by rock and roll music.It's a precarious relationship that Robert Santelli, a preeminent rock scholar who finds himself at midlife, would seem to understand.It's by young people, for young people, says Santelli, 49, of the music and culture that has been his passion and his livelihood. Some people my age are lucky enough to still get something out of it. It's helped keep me young, that's for sure.Deputy director for public programs at the EMP, Santelli will speak on Popular Music in American Culture at the Bainbridge Library Jan. 25, as part the Arts and Humanities Council's American culture inquiry series.Santelli and his family moved to Bainbridge last summer after a five-year stint in Cleveland, Ohio, where he was vice-president for public programs at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.He exudes a frank if somewhat straightfaced enthusiasm for rock music - the iconography of which, to the writer's surprise, is not readily manifest in Santelli's Fletcher Bay home. Roaming the household on a Saturday afternoon are three teenagers, a cat, and golden retrievers named Jagger and Kesey. Santelli's music collection - estimated at 12,000-15,000 albums, and another 5,000-6,000 compact discs - is nowhere apparent. A bookshelf dominates one wall, stocked with tomes on popular music; a few bars of the Sex Pistols' punk anthem God Save the Queen wafts through from a television in another room, but that's about it.I don't consider myself a collector, he said, adding, Most of it's still in boxes.Originally from New Jersey, Santelli was weaned on the music of Bruce Springsteen and moved by Beatlemania; equally fortuitous were forays into New York City's Greenwich Village, where he was exposed the archetypal folk of Bob Dylan and the incendiary stylings of Jimi Hendrix.Numerous trips to Jamaica immersed him in reggae, as he rubbed shoulders with Bob Marley.I always liked music packed with social significance, he said, (and) artists who used music to make people do more than want to dance.He earned a degree in American studies at Monmouth University in New Jersey, and did his graduate work at USC and New York University. Beginning as a freelance journalist, by 1992 he'd parlayed his interest in music and education into an assistant professorship and lectureships at Monmouth and Rutgers. His popular-music studies programs included courses on rock and blues history, concert production and the music industry.He then moved on to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But he was lured to Bainbridge by the Northwest lifestyle and the chance to direct education programs and exhibits at the EMP, Paul Allen's $240 million shrine to rock music in Seattle Center. Santelli said he was challenged by the charge of constantly reinventing the facility - it's a project, not a museum, he says flatly - with its endless string of music workshops, performances and rotating displays.He even likes the amorphous Frank Gehry-designed building, the architectural merits of which have been the subject of some debate among Seattleites.It's the perfect representation of rock and roll, Santelli said. It's wild. It's unpredictable. It has no straight lines. It's about free form and freedom.The idea of rock and roll continues to resonate in that building. It's an artifact itself.As a scholar, Santelli is adamant that popular music must be considered in a serious context.He cites as rock's best moment its first - July 5, 1954, when a young Elvis Presley stepped into a Memphis studio and, between takes, put a rock strum to Arthur Big Boy Crudup's blues standard That's All Right.And, Santelli said, (producer) Sam Phillips was smart enough to record it.The moment represented the nation's first real confluence of black music and white music, black culture and white culture. And what evolved was a quintessentially egalitarian art form, one that didn't require rigid study at a conservatory or even much talent for expression and success, in which any kid can pick up a guitar, learn three or four chords, and rock and roll.What followed was the now storied arc of rock as social shaper and mirror - from the provocative sexuality of Elvis, to the expansive pop vocabulary of the Beatles, to the language of a new counterculture, to the stadium spectacle and radio-friendly pop of the 1970s, to an increasingly niche-marketed corporate commodity today. And all with an avant garde bubbling under the surface, paving the way for the rare Nirvana moment.You'd be hard pressed to find any art form, including film, that says more about where America's been and what it's done, Santelli said.While he certainly finds some music of more artistic merit or in better taste than others, Santelli won't tell his own kids what not to listen to. And he is emphatic that you can't understand black youth culture without an appreciation of hip-hop, even as he admits being turned off by the misogyny and violence of gangsta rap. I always thought the best rock and roll offered hope, and the best songs offered solutions, he said.As to the spate of pre-fab, teen-oriented bands that dominate the charts today, Santelli posits that rock goes through periodic lulls in which the form reconnects with its youngest audience. Those periods, he says, usually give way to great flourishes of creativity, as when the teen idols of the early 1960s gave way to the Beatles.That's the great thing about rock and roll - it never stands still, he says, adding, like EMP.A tour of the Experience Music Project suggests a curious relationship with its subject - teen rebellion at yuppified prices, punk rock under glass.But the displays and programming are thoughtful and sometimes dynamic - and indeed, it's hard to imagine a single adult in America who doesn't have a fond memory associated with an Elvis tune or who can't hum at least one Lennon-McCartney melody.There's also a certain self-validation that comes with finding one's own tastes enshrined as culturally significant; even the Pixies, who inspired the writer to pick up a guitar for the first time, and R.E.M., who caused him to stick with it to proficiency, get nods in the indie rock section.So after a few hours spent perusing the displays and the gift shop - coming home four CDs and a cheeseburger heavier, and $75 lighter - the writer finds himself hunched over the guitar beneath the singular glare of a bright white beam, awash in reverb and feedback and cheered on to endless refrains in the dark, smoky club of the imagination.Which, to Santelli's thinking, is exactly the point.The ultimate kick would be for a kid to walk through EMP...and five years later (we) find out that he's gone down into his basement and written a great rock and roll song, he said. Then I'd know we'd done our job. "