Time is a funny thing. Not a “ha ha” funny or even a chuckle funny, but more of a confusing funny. The funny that when we are so confused, it produces a strange laughter that feels more like a shrug. This is a high school reunion funny. One with a few “Well, a lot of things have changed since then”s, a smile, a laugh and maybe a bout of staring at the ground. We laugh to assure ourselves that we’ve got a handle on it, we smile in the face of change.
John Hughes’s early films have plenty of characters whose smiles seem sufficiently reluctant. Portraying teens in the midst of what seem like world-rending crises of the self, Hughes’s films had teens that came a long way from “Beach Blanket Bingo.” Their smiles were hard won.
But not unlike Avalon’s teen beach fantasias, Hughes’s films gave music a sort of hypnotic power, capable of inducing superhuman feats of self-expression: Duckie’s crotch convulsions to Otis Redding in “Pretty in Pink,” the library dance in “The Breakfast Club” to Karla DeVito’s “We Are Not Alone” (itself a fine example of the ’80s communion between dance and rock) taking the private dance, turning it public and communicative.
But the most memorable of Hughes’s scenes’ pop-induced hysteria is the madcap “Twist and Shout” parade scene in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” in which the entirety of downtown Chicago is rendered utterly batshit by a lip-synching Matthew Broderick, some Austrian milk maids and Ringo’s drums. Everybody effervescent, reborn in the dance. Smiles all around.
But at this point in my life, I can’t think of “Twist and Shout” without thinking Eldridge Cleaver. Cleaver, the former Black Panther Minister of Information, presidential hopeful on the ’68 Peace and Freedom party ticket and author of “Soul On Ice,” had quite a bit to say about the twist, the Beatles and the conventions of how we respond to music. In his essay “Convalescence,” Cleaver dissects music to get at its racial guts — in particular, the fermenting synthesis of black and white music.
“It was Chubby Checker’s mission, bearing the Twist as good news, to teach the whites, whom history had taught to forget, how to shake their asses again,” he writes, comparing it to the nervy “head music” of the “Hot-Dog-and-Malted-Milk norm of the bloodless, square, superficial, faceless Sunday morning” white American ’50s conscious, upon which the hula hoop and Watusi became hip (literally) radical ambassadors. The Beatles and what Cleaver calls their “Body-Based” music became a waypoint on the road to “America’s attempt to unite its Mind with its Body, to save its soul.”
How can I see “Twist and Shout” the same way again? What was once an afternoon release in downtown Chicago, an aural assault that required no words but only hip- and knee-shaking, is now complex, political and somewhere caught between my body and my head.
The two albums I’ve got in the Windstar right now, the Stooges’ Fun House and Aretha’s Amazing Grace are troublesome to say the least. On one hand we’ve got Iggy, pterodactyl-screeching sex undulations over blues (black?) rock and I get hung up on lyrics when my body tells me to just blow out the speakers on “Loose.” Then we have Aretha flexing her tongue in unimaginable ways for Jesus, where key changes make my stomach drop as I question whether or not I can dig straight-faced preaching.
When I was young, I didn’t have a vocabulary for this stuff. It was all gorgeous noise. Now, I am the little kid piggybacked on his father in “Ferris Bueller” as everybody holds the high note on “Shout,” just as it breaks, holding his ears in confusion.
Maybe I am one of LeRoi Jones’s whole “people of neurotics,” Cleaver’s “Omnipotent Administrators,” labels on bodies held back from pure, aesthetic release. But I think growing older has opened me up to those “aural assaults” on my senses becoming their own vocabulary — to bathing in the purgatory of this tension.
This isn’t a howl to become child-like. This isn’t some nostalgic lament. It is, to me, a way of seeing that youth fades, and how ass-shaking, messy and liberating it can be.