This space has been devoted to theater since my column first appeared here nearly a year ago, so you may be surprised to see there will be no discussion of Shakespeare, Sondheim or season tickets today. We are deep in the middle of Summerfest, and I'm writing about rock 'n' roll.
Summerfest = rock music, and I believe theater and rock have been intertwined since Jerry Lee Lewis married his 13-year-old cousin, once removed. How could Little Richard not be considered theater? And what about Jimi Hendrix lighting his guitar on fire at the climax of his performance?
Alice Cooper and David Bowie went androgynous in the ‘70s to great theatrical effect. Lou Reed's 1973 appearance at the Marquette University Brooks Memorial Union, of all places, was a kinky fever dream of a show that remains emblazoned in my memory for its comedic and dramatic outrageousness. You get my point.
I am leading up to the acknowledgment of a new certificate program in rock 'n' roll studies that has just been established at the UWM Peck School of the Arts. Participants in the program will take a core curriculum of 15 credits that includes classes in American popular music and the literary aspects of rock 'n' roll.
An additional nine credits of electives will be required. A long list of those classes includes rock ‘n' roll criticism, rock ‘n' roll cinema, and the history and culture of the blues.
Martin Jack Rosenblum, a senior lecturer in music history and literature at UWM, has designed and will direct the certificate program, which he believes is the only one of its kind in the U.S. Rosenblum first taught music courses for UWM 30 years ago, and he has been teaching highly popular classes about American popular music since 1992.
The Appleton native is a fascinating fellow. He received his doctorate in English from UWM in 1980, and Rosenblum has been a frequently published poet, a recording artist, songwriter and live performer, and from 1993 to 2007 he was the official historian for Harley-Davidson.
An expert on the Objectivist poets of the 1930s -- think Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams -- Rosenblum has written about 30 books on subjects that range from Harley and music to his own poetry. He has recorded with the Violent Femmes, and his 1980 release "Free Hand," an American rock roots album, charted as high as No. 4 in France. Rosenblum has opened for Leo Kottke, and counts Little Steven Van Zandt among his friends.
The academic study of rock music is not always respected across American campuses, but Rosenblum says UWM has embraced his teaching of what he calls American vernacular music. Scott Emmons, the associate dean of UWM's Peck School of the Arts, provided the impetus behind the establishment of the rock 'n' roll certificate program.
"The program will allow students to explore the origin, evolution, and literary and cultural significance of this unique form of 20th century music," Emmons said in a statement. "The influence of this musical and cultural style can be seen and heard everywhere around the world -- it's like Coca Cola."
It should be noted that UWM has a serious music department. The Fine Arts Quartet are artists in residence, and 1999 graduate Josh Schmidt is a rising composer star in American musical theater.
Rosenblum says his goal for the rock 'n' roll studies certificate program is to examine American vernacular music in a way previously reserved for classical music. "No one has made pedagogical distinctions between the different kinds of rock 'n' roll, the different periods," he says.
"We're taking a scholastic approach to an American popular idiom, which hasn't been properly divided and analyzed for its content. Rock 'n' roll hasn't been sorted out properly.
"People write about it as if it were all one thing. It is not. We're drawing together various disciplines to rediscover vernacular music and the various phases of American aural tradition."
Rosenblum notes that there is no shortage of writing about rock music. "If you go into a library or big bookstore, there are shelves and shelves and shelves of books about American vernacular music," he says. "But they contain randomly placed information, often provided by serious fans who write about themselves and their initial contact with the music, how it changed their lives.
"They take a very subjective approach. There is no time line."
A time line is the spine of the study of rock ‘n' roll. "It didn't start with Elvis. He didn't come out of nowhere," Rosenblum continues. "This idiom deserves historical accuracy and pedagogical clarity."
Legendary bluesman Robert Johnson is a critical pre-Elvis point on the time line, according to the UWM teacher. "Johnson is extraordinarily important in the history of American vernacular music. You can see how he changed performance and recording styles."
Bob Dylan and Neil Young are pivotal later artists, according to Rosenblum, who emphasizes the narrative of lyrics as well as the music. He points to the famous Dylan performance at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, when he shocked his fans and the music world by setting aside his acoustic guitar for an electric instrument.
While most people to this day focus on Dylan plugging in, Rosenblum concentrates on the musician changing his narrative at that performance. "He sang at people, not for people, and that was an extreme narrative shift.
"That is not what Pete Seeger wanted. Seeger wanted a group sing."
Rosenblum says about half of the students who have been taking his vernacular music courses are enrolled in the UWM College of Letters and Science, not the Peck School of the Arts, and he expects that percentage to continue in the rock 'n' roll certificate program.
"English, history, anthropology, mass communications, as well as music, those are the places we get students. I have a history PhD. student who will probably get the certificate," he says.
I can foresee another demographic for the program. Old Baby Boom rockers like me.
Damien has been around so long, he was at Summerfest the night George Carlin was arrested for speaking the seven dirty words you can't say on TV. He was also at the Uptown Theatre the night Bruce Springsteen's first Milwaukee concert was interrupted for three hours by a bomb scare. Damien was reviewing the concert for the Milwaukee Journal. He wrote for the Journal and Journal Sentinel for 37 years, the last 29 as theater critic.
During those years, Damien served two terms on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, a term on the board of the association's foundation, and he studied the Latinization of American culture in a University of Southern California fellowship program. Damien also hosted his own arts radio program, "Milwaukee Presents with Damien Jaques," on WHAD for eight years.
Travel, books and, not surprisingly, theater top the list of Damien's interests. A news junkie, he is particularly plugged into politics and international affairs, but he also closely follows the Brewers, Packers and Marquette baskeball. Damien lives downtown, within easy walking distance of most of the theaters he attends.