There’s history in a book and then there’s living history.
University of Montana students in a class on the history of rock ‘n’ roll got a little of the latter Monday morning when Bitterroot Valley/San Francisco rocker Huey Lewis came to town.
Lewis, who had a string of major hits in the mid-1980s, lived and breathed rock ‘n’ roll in the 1960s, growing up in San Francisco and going to shows at the Fillmore, where he saw Cream, the Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, the Grateful Dead.
Most of the students who listened to the 54-year-old Lewis’ rambling, illuminating lecture Monday weren’t around in the 1960s – or the ’70s, for that matter – but they listened attentively as he spun tales from the old days.
"You know what they say: If you pretend to remember anything from the ’60s, you weren’t there," Lewis told professor Robert Ledbetter’s class.
The reference, of course, was to drugs, and Lewis didn’t shy from describing how marijuana and LSD helped define rock’s psychedelic era, particularly in the Bay Area.
"The cultural movement of the 1960s may have been the last social movement the music business really had to react to," Lewis said. "Since then, it’s essentially co-opted cultural change rather than be changed by it, and that would include punk and rap as well."
But Lewis wasn’t just telling old war stories. He has a scholar’s appreciation of rock’s history, the beginnings of which he traced to the cultural soup of New Orleans and the blues.
"It’s really the blues amped up," he said.
Rock history isn’t a straight line by any means, and Lewis dissected the threads that led to soul, rhythm and blues, psychedelic rock, funk, punk and ska.
He also linked rock inextricably with commerce, noting that the pioneering Chuck Berry wrote specifically with the idea of selling his music.
"He was the first songwriter ever to write for kids, and for white kids at that," he said. "Rock ‘n’ roll and commerciality are inseparable."
Lewis marveled for a moment at the way that music, unlike some other art forms, is packaged – same size, same price for everything.
"All paintings aren’t the same," he said. "They’re different sizes and different prices. Same with books."
In any case, Lewis said, those who today decry the corporatization of rock really should just look to the past.
"There’s a little corporate pig in those early music lovers," he said with a laugh. "Yeah, it’s corporate, but it’s always been about commerce."
Curiously, one of the commercially successful aspects of rock was the way the music broke down racial barriers. Bands like Sly and the Family Stone had an eye turned to bridging the racial divide, and Sly always insisted on having a few white musicians in his band, Lewis said.
And no one reached back into rock’s blues roots and extended that line into the culture of the 1960s quite like Jimi Hendrix, Lewis said.
"He turned the blues up to 11 and it became hard rock," Lewis said.
Lewis’ lecture was punctuated by music from the ’60s, and Hendrix’s "Voodoo Child" seemed as familiar to the students as the opening line of the Dead’s "Friend of the Devil," which set toes to tapping.