A tale of two rock n' rolls

Posted: Nov 17, 2003 12:00 AM

I've always had a soft spot for the Cleveland mayor who, nearly 40 years ago, after a Beatles concert in his fair city ended in mayhem, banned all rock concerts from public venues. The reason? Rock music, he said, "did not contribute to the culture of the city and tended to incite riots." The words sound fantastic now, but once reflected a popular belief that rock music was a cultural and moral menace that would undermine ... well, our culture and our morals.

The fact that he was correct did little to thwart the march of history that led straight to the front door, some 30 years later, of Cleveland's own shimmering rock 'n' roll museum -- the I.M. Pei-designed, $92-million complex built to enshrine the memorabilia of a musical movement that, from the far side (i.e. losing side) of the cultural divide, is notable for having brought free love, hallucinogenic drugs and a reflexive anti-Americanism to all us masses.

Andras Simonyi, Hungary's ambassador to the United States, sees something more in rock 'n' roll -- and something more palatable to pre-modern Cleveland and the rest of Square America. Simonyi, who represents as stalwart an ally as any the United States has in "Old Europe," recently visited the rock museum to give what USA Today described as "a major address" on his conviction that rock 'n' roll was "a decisive element" in vanquishing communism. "When we were listening to the radio, we were part of the free world, if only for a few moments, whether the system we lived under liked it or not," the 51-year-old ambassador told the newspaper, recalling his youth under the communist dictatorship in Hungary that collapsed in 1989. "Rock and roll, culturally speaking, was a decisive element in loosening up communist societies and bringing them closer to a world of freedom."

It's hard to know which constituency would be more distressed by Simonyi's formulation: Square America, thinking that the culturally degrading force of rock music had aided in the West's triumph over communism, or the Rock Culture, thinking that its anti-establishment mantras had furthered the Cold War strategies of Ronald Reagan.

In his 1996 book "A Tale of Two Utopias" (W.W. Norton, 1996), left-wing journalist Paul Berman touches on this latter dilemma, relating the obvious dismay and unresolved confusion the Rock 'n' Roll Left experienced amid unreservedly pro-American crowds in post-communist Europe. He quotes a nonplussed Frank Zappa telling a 1990 audience of newly liberated Czechs that just as they have been living with secret police, "it will take Americans a while to realize that we have them, too." (Huh?) Berman himself goes to extravagant lengths to dismiss a sea of waving American flags in a Czech town as a joke. It's no stretch to imagine the disappointment both men would likely feel over Simonyi's high regard for, say, Edward Teller, the Hungarian emigre and Strategic Defense Initiative-hero of the Reagan administration, who was, as Mr. Simonyi recently noted, considered by communist Hungary (and liberal Americans) to be "public enemy No. 1," but is now thought of as a national hero.

The American Left's failure to understand that there are people in this world who prefer freedom as championed by the U.S.A. to any workers' paradise isn't the only key point to have been lost in translation. As the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported, all those years Simonyi and his chums were listening to rock 'n' roll, much of it anti-American in spirit, they never knew the meaning of the lyrics. As Simonyi put it, "Most Hungarians didn't understand what these guys were singing about. The real power was in the music." Indeed, Simonyi titled his talk "Rocking for the Free World," a play on a 1989 Neil Young song, "Rocking in the Free World" -- a tune USA Today notes is "a savage attack on the policies of Ronald Reagan and the first President Bush ... (and) anything but a celebration of democracy."

This is not to discount Simonyi's experience. But it does suggest that just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so, too, is pro-democracy boosterism in the ear of the listener. Frankly, it's hard to imagine Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon or Janis Joplin -- a few of Simonyi's old faves -- relishing a supposed role in helping the military-industrial-complex, assorted capitalist pigs and the rest of "Amerika" win one for the Gipper.

Not that they did, really. While rock music has been a strangely alluring symbol of Western culture, its narcissistic and destructive hedonism was never enough to destroy communism. That took democratic ideals and will -- simple, enduring and universal.