Richard Hell Searches for the Soul of Rock’n’Roll: SPIN’s 1991 Feature, ‘Bad Lands’

rapid city, south dakota, richard hell

In August 1991 — a palindrome year incidentally, the only one possible in the 20th century, if you’ll forgive the digression — we published a special issue dedicated to the deliciously impossible search for the soul of rock’n’roll.

The idea was inspired by watching the eye-bleeding tedium of the Grammys “live” on TV. (I quote mark “live” because I think there is more life in the deepest, darkest nothingness of the farthest reaches of space than in any Grammys broadcast. I went once. It’s worse in person, FYI.) I thought to my agonized self, before turning the broadcast off, this can’t be what it has come down to. I flipped channels and saw MTV, and the car and beer commercials using their faux, de-blooded rock music and knew that, in fact, this was what it had come down to.

So the next day I told the editors and staff writers that we were going to go look for music’s soul. It was clearly in hiding — if not worse, extinguished. Then I told them I would assign each of them to somewhere in the country, to look for the soul of eternal and purposeful defiance and personal and cultural evolution, for which rock, at least then, was the glorious soundtrack.

Then I told them I wasn’t actually going to tell them where they were going until the morning they were leaving. This was not met with universal enthusiasm, but I wanted them to arrive somewhere with no leads, contacts, preconceived notions or biases and, essentially, no idea of what to do. This would ensure, I told them, a fresh and open-eyed way of approaching the mission. We met at New York’s La Guardia airport at 9:00 one early summer morning and I handed each of them tickets and some cash, and the first they knew about where they were each individually going was when they opened the envelope. One editor, a perpetual pain in my butt, I thought really should see Alaska…. (He did a tremendous piece there, and, unless it’s a trick of my memory, was less of a pain thereafter.)

So now we’re posting some of those articles; we’ve already run Jim Greer’s report from Tulsa, Oklahoma and Celia Farber’s piece on Indianapolis, Indiana — here’s Richard Hell on Rapid City, South Dakota.

Everyone found the soul wherever I sent them. Turns out, it was with them all along.

— Bob Guccione Jr., founder of SPIN, October 15, 2015

[This story was originally published in the August 1991 issue of SPINIn honor of SPIN’s 30th anniversary, we’ve republished this piece as part of our ongoing “30 Years, 30 Stories” series.]

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The plane drifted down across patches of dandelions toward the modern little airport outside Rapid City. I had five days to find some rock’n’roll down there, or, rather, “the soul of rock’n’roll.”

It took me five days to even remember where I was. I kept saying, “Grand Rapids.” What difference did it make anyway? The Hilton was like any Hilton, the Hardee’s like all other Hardee’s. In the Rapid City Journal the main source of news was the weather (front-page headline the day of my arrival: “THUNDERSTORMS RUMBLE INTO S.D.”).

The fact is, a person would have a hard time finding the soul of rock’n’roll even if he had Elvis Presley strapped to a chair in his living room, dosed with truth serum. Is it in some roadside juke joint? Saturday morning TV? Out in the desert on a blanket? Inside a condom? Messed up in a hairdo someplace? Does the phrase have any meaning at all?

This rich guy with a magazine is putting me through mental contortions, paying me a K or two to watch me squirm. I hate him, but I have a secret weapon. The secret weapon is, I am rock’n’roll.

I liked Rapid City (population 65,000). I didn’t want to leave. It reminded me of my childhood, completely boring and fascinating. It occurred to me that maybe I wasn’t even there, that really I was 14 years old, daydreaming I was grown-up and that someone was paying me to drift through town looking for “the soul of rock’n’roll.” I liked that dream.

I spent the first couple of days sizing the place up. Just casually getting the feel of it: window-shopping, eavesdropping, barhopping (sharecropping, flip-flopping). I swear the euphoria never relented. There’s nothing like being a stranger with a few cents in your pocket. Every time I agree to go someplace to look for a story I have the hardest time getting past that. It feels completely magic.

Actually, the two most poetic moments of the trip happened when I was alone in my hotel room. One, when I was sitting up in bed with an icy glass of scotch (bottled r’n’r) beside me on the night table, and the cassette player rolled on with Van Morrison’s new album, my notebooks and papers spread out around me, and I caught this glimpse of my head in the corner of the mirror opposite the bed. There I was but I couldn’t see myself; my eyes didn’t show. I’d caught myself unawares. I was spying on myself. And the other time I was also lying in bed, looking out the wall-to-wall window crammed with sky. And I was feeling pretty comfortable, without too much to do, and the big bank of clouds up there looked so inviting, and I thought, “What I’d really like to do right now is fly straight up into that little clump of clouds right there in the middle.” Like I was shot out of a sling or had a jet pack on my back. Then I thought, “If I had a million dollars I could do that.” Then I thought, “That’s rock’n’roll.” How else could I get a million dollars?

While scanning the pickups-for-sale listings the Journal classifieds I’d noticed the personals. I had a vision.

By day three I was already instinctively uncomfortable in my own wardrobe and found myself helplessly eyeing the ads in the paper for flannels, boots, and cowboy hats. I really wanted another two or three years of hair, a pickup truck, and a farm dog beside me in the cab. I was getting more and more seduced. I resisted it because I knew I couldn’t really qualify as a cowboy, plus I thought my New York identity would be an advantage soon.

This was because I’d had a brainstorm.

While scanning the pickups-for-sale listings in the Journal classifieds I’d noticed the personals. There weren’t many of them; basically a Christian video-dating service and three or four phone-sex ads. But I had a vision. This is what I foresaw:

GIRLS — Do you like to rock’n’roll? I came from NYC to talk to you. 348-8300, ext. 2502.

Along with:

In town from NYC doing rock’n’roll research. Help me! Interested girls call 348-8300, ext. 2502.

I laughed out loud at the beauty of it. Where really is the soul of rock’n’roll but in the quivering space between two teenage bodies that are dying to make love but are scared to death?

Immediately I went down to the newspaper offices and placed my ads.

That left me free to pursue the side of rock’n’roll especially favored by Elvis and Jim Morrison: sugar. I figured that in Rapid City I’d be much more likely to find a good cherry pie than a good rock’n’roll band, and I was more interested in the pie anyway. As it turned out the pie I found was a lot like the rock’n’roll I found: incredibly ugly but well-suited to its purpose. I had to settle for strawberry. It was so good. It was in this all-American-type, salad-barred, ice-cold, family restaurant where most of the patrons seemed to know each other. I ordered the special, $4.95. For that I got this big fresh crunchy salad, baked potato with sour cream, hot rolls, separate Ping-Pong balls of butter for every food item, and a T-bone so huge it hung off the edges of its ranch-size platter. You could definitely dance to it. (What’s more, you could dance on it.) This was living. And then the pie. As I said, it was homely. It wasn’t neat; it was sloppy, and it looked unreal. As a matter of fact it was Day-Glo, a kind of phosphorescent red that was a little frightening, and the ice cream had an unhealthy kind of ivory cast to it that wasn’t promising either. Plus the berries themselves were so massive, you could only imagine them growing in a laboratory. But the flavor — I actually found myself moaning with pleasure.

I did go to both of the local music venues, located a couple of blocks from each other in the middle of town. One was a wide, low, and dim country-western bar called Boot Hill, and the other, the Rush, a rock’n’roll club. I went early to the cowboy club, pre-soundcheck, and had a couple of beers as I watched a short chorus line of dancers — jeans, boots, cowboy hats — practicing a country step in unison to this twangy record. The girls looked like they were really having fun, the men seemed capable but looked more determined and dignified. I couldn’t take my eyes off this one girl, who I couldn’t even see very well, as I  watched her dance. The power of a T-shirt draped over the swelling back end of a tight pair of jeans on a girl who’s otherwise skinny is a truly astonishing thing. It’s like uranium, some kind of limitless generator. Sometimes it seems unbearable.

GIRLS — Do you like rock’n’roll? I came from NYC to talk to you. 348-8300, ext. 2502.

At the Rush the main subject was also lust. Everybody just wanted to know who they might be kissing. There’s no getting around rock’n’roll being a variety of foreplay (but then, what isn’t?). It was dark and cozy, like a little cup, with a stage at the bottom fronting on a dance floor and a bar opposite and above it. Twice as many men as women. The guys mostly raw-looking long-hairs, the girls trailer-park goddesses. The band for the night was a kind of frat-house garage three-piece from Kansas called the Wild Ones that played the reliables, from “You Really Got Me” and “Time Is on My Side” to “Too Hot to Handle” and “I Wanna Be Sedated,” sometimes with their own little lyrical embellishments, like a repeated refrain of “F**king bulls**t!” during “Bony Moronie.” They sounded fine, though the lead singer had a bowl haircut, was barefoot, and wore Bermuda shorts.

By the time my ads appeared I had only one day left in town. I woke up excited. As it worked out, I got three phone calls and saw two girls, one of whom brought her boyfriend. It was exquisite. The tension on the phone, and in the room when I had my visitor, was intense and potent, churning out adrenalin and a sharp clarity that was a true thrill. What was going on? Who was this girl who had responded to my ad and knocked on the door to my hotel room, and furthermore, who the f**k was I? I knew I was doing something sleazy, then again I didn’t misrepresent myself, but beyond that, of course, I held all the cards, and the difference in sophistication levels inevitably made me a villain. I felt a little bit like Satan, or at least a Jim Thompson character. She was 17, overweight, wearing thick glasses, worked at Hardee’s, and planned to start beauty school soon. I described my assignment and grilled her about the social ways of the local youth. I got a lot of information, but nothing remarkable — there were the same kinds of generational conflicts and mating habits given to music here as in all other similar American places. Of course the real question was what kind of move I was going to make toward her. There was no question that she’d come for the adventure.

Finally, I simply thanked her and showed her to the door. I just wasn’t feeling cold enough to push the thing to its limit. I was tempted to at least ask her something outrageous to test what she might be capable of, and I actually ended up feeling a little veneer of guilt for not having backed up the secret promise of my printed come-on, but I’d gotten enough cheap thrills just watching us, so I sent her on her way. The break in her impeccable composure that occurred at the moment I was indicating it was time for her to leave was moving. She had stood up, clearly a little surprised, and she just said, “Now I don’t know what to say,” and I felt terrible for an instant, and then I said goodbye.

IMPACT

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