I just finished producing a CD box set that reissues the music of a singer many of you have never heard of. His name was Billy Riley. His obscurity is a shame: the guy was a spectacular example of Memphis rockabilly back in the days when Sun Records was spinning out stars like Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash. Riley made records called Flying Saucer Rock & Roll and Red Hot. (You may recognize the latter title from Robert Gordon's 1977 remake.) If there was better primitive southern wildman rock & roll in the mid-50s, it's yet to be discovered.
For every international superstar like Presley, Lewis and Cash, there were plenty of Rileys - equally talented singers and performer who never made it to the top. They made some great records whose impact was not lost on a smaller, but very appreciative group of fans and collectors. I should know; I was one. I still have my original copies of Riley's Sun records and I still play them.
In 1992 when Billy Riley was enjoying something of a comeback (a European tour, a new record), an interesting thing happened in Little Rock. Riley is from Arkansas and was in the audience at Carter Memorial auditorium on September 8 when a much more famous rock & roller was in town giving a concert. This one, you've probably heard of. His name is Bob Dylan. And perhaps at some point you might have wondered what kind of music Bob Dylan grew up listening to. Which music meant a lot to him? Which singers did he - an idol to millions - himself, idolize?
Those questions were answered in no uncertain terms on that September evening in Little Rock when Bob Dylan stopped his concert and called Billy Riley up onto the stage. Dylan took Riley's hand and told the audience, "This man is my hero. He's my favorite person in the music business."
This raises an interesting issue and also allows us to draw the topic away from Rolling Stone back into the realm of Psychology Today. Putting the matter as economically as possible, Even Heroes Need Heroes. I've got to give some of the credit for that idea to Jack W. Hill, a writer for the Arkansas Democrat Gazette. Hill worded it a bit differently, but he wasn't writing for Psychology Today. In fact, if you want the issue couched in psychological terms ("couched" is a pretty good pun as you'll see in a moment), think about the critically acclaimed HBO series In Treatment. Paul, the therapist/central character is clearly heroic to others around him, but just as clearly he needs his own hero and role model. Indeed, the screen-writers take pains to humanize Paul in ways that transcend his own heroics. Does that diminish the power of Paul's character and the therapy he dispenses?
It surprises many of us to think that a hero is not a self-contained individual. That he or she was not born whole and fully formed, above the influence of those around them. Above the need for outside influences. The thought that a hero might be like us - listening, watching, absorbing, admiring, even idolizing - may be troubling to us. Does it humanize our heroes more than we'd like? Perhaps even to the point where they are no longer what we think of as heroes?
For some people, that answer may be ‘yes.' In fact, most dictionary definitions of "hero" begin by emphasizing godlike qualities. It isn't until the third or forth definition that we read phrases like "a man admired for his achievements or qualities." Many people want their heroes to be cut from a different cloth. They don't want to see the same human frailties and vulnerabilities that they find in themselves. The fact that I have heroes suggests that I need heroes. Can that need be a heroic trait? Shouldn't actual heroes be above that kind of need? And then there's the issue of my hero's heroes. If I idolize Bob Dylan, for example, am I required to idolize his heroes as well? What if I never heard of Billy Riley or, worse yet, I don't like his music? What kind of Dylan fan am I then? Have I broken the heroic cycle?
Like most authors, I try to relate the content of the posts I write to my book. Is our need for heroes a form of Caveman Logic? (www.cavemanlogic.com). I believe it often is, although there are other aspects of human nature I'd worry about considerably more. Our difficulty accepting the fact that our heroes need heroes is perhaps the most troubling aspect of hero worship. It suggests that the dictionary distinction between godlike heroes and ordinary humans acting heroically is anything but trivial.