Max Decharne‘s new history of rockabilly for Serpent’s Tail, A Rocket In My Pocket: The Hipster’s Guide to Rockabilly, takes a little bit to get going. It’s understandable – there’s a lot of history to set up, and a lot of characters to introduce, be they Sun Records owner Sam Phllips, cover boy Elvis Presley, or the queen of rockabilly, Wanda Jackson. Basically, Decharne takes several dozen rockabilly musicians, as well as various labels that run the gamut from international to recording in someone’s garage, and gives them to the reader in a flurry of names.
After several chapters of set-up, both in terms of individuals, groups, and history, A Rocket In My Pocket really takes off. Once the cast of characters is set up, they’re then put in motion in a variety of settings. The chapters that form the latter half of the book cover the various media outlets available to rockabilly musicians once they’d put their music to wax (and in some cases, beforehand). Decharne traces the venues for performance in terms of gradually increasing visibility. He starts with the gin mills and honky-tonks where the bands would hone their live shows, and then moves up to radio and television.
In terms of television, Decharne makes an excellent point in that, while Elvis’ television performances (especially his “shot from the waist up” appearance on Ed Sullivan) might be the stuff of legend, he was hardly the first rock ‘n’ roller to appear on television, having been preceded by the likes of Bill Haley & His Comets and Bo Diddley.
Decharne puts enormous emphasis on the early rockabilly artists, and he gives equal coverage to everyone. Just because he mentions Charlie Feathers and Elvis Presley doesn’t mean that lesser-knowns like Glen Glenn and the titular Jimmy Lloyd get ignored. The unfortunate aspect of his focus on the progenitors of the genre does mean that a lot of the revival stuff gets left by the wayside. In the chapter on rockabilly on the silver screen, “Hollywood Be Thy Name,” all of the classic ’50s and ’60s films like The Girl Can’t Help It see mention, as well as stinkers like Rockabilly Baby. However, because Decharne focuses so heavily on the early days, he misses out on the opportunity to pontificate on such latter releases as Wild Guitar, to say nothing of Troma-esque schlock horror like Rockabilly Vampire and Die You Zombie Bastards!.
The book’s final chapters – “Back From the Dead, Bigger Than Ever” and “Stray Cats, Polecats, and Born-Again Hepcats” do focus on the latter-era rockabilly revival in the ’70s and ’80s, and those chapters could easily be expanded to fill a special issue of Mojo. It’s brilliant to see the love given these artists twenty years past their prime. Granted, this is further coverage of the same artists who get a lot of coverage in the earlier chapters, like Elvis and Wanda Jackson. It would’ve been nice and rounded out the book a bit more to cover more than just the big names of the ’80s rockabilly revival. The Cramps, Polecats, Stray Cats, and Tav Falco’s Panther Burns are the only artists of that era to see any notable mention. Further coverage of the psychobilly scene (the Meteors, Guana Batz, et al) at the time would’ve provided a quality counterpoint the the earlier artists.
These are all minor quibble, in the grand scheme of things. I’m a rockabilly head, myself, so what I want in a book on the subject is certainly more specific than the casual reader coming to this subject. It’s exhaustive, in either case. Were Decharne to fill in all the details I wanted, the already stout volume would become a veritable tome. It’s a breeze to go through, while still managing to be very instructive, informative, and entertaining.
If you want to explore the music featured in the book in an easy way, Ace Records has put out a companion CD curated by the author.