Do elephants ever dance to Rock Lobster? If you dig the B-52s, and you love animals, it’s fun to imagine that possiblity in a mammoth tiki lounge inside your mind.
Some sapient primate could explore the prospect tonight in Portland, when the B-52s kick off the summer concert series at the Oregon Zoo. Public access to the animals ends at 7 pm, the same time the band starts playing. But maybe an out-of-the-box zookeeper could record what happens on video.
If the elephants move, the keeper would need to determine whether they are dancing or displaying stress-related rocking behavior (a habit some captive elephants develop that has never been observed in the wild). Someone would also need to compare said video with others made of the same elephants, at different times when the zoo grounds are relatively quiet. They could also get tapes of the animals during other concerts scheduled for this summer. If the elephants don’t dance to the B-52s, perhaps they’ll respond to Jimmy Cliff, Leo Kottke, k.d. lang, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Melissa Etheridge, Pink Martini, or Roseanne Cash.
In my tiki lounge I imagine the video(s) going viral. Then they prompt articles in scientific journals and music magazines. Money is raised to protect natural habitat where the few remaining wild tuskers can thrive, plus build large playrooms at zoos where pachyderms can hold dance parties.
Maybe there are more direct ways of pursuing this line of thought. I called up my neighborhood animal communicator, Lisa Fraser, who grew up in Portland and has lived in Cannon Beach for many years. She and her husband John run a kite store next to my bookshop.
“One of the first things I did back when I was newbie with this work was go to the Oregon Zoo to speak with the elephants,” says Lisa. “They’re some of the wisest creatures on the planet, and I wanted their advice. I was the only visitor at the time, with one adult male elephant in the yard. In my mind I framed a dorky question about getting started in the profession. He came over near me, peed, then walked into the barn.”
Based on that message, and having attended several zoo concerts, Lisa suspects the animals don’t like the reverberation of the music from the events. She thinks they’ve gotten used to it over the years, though, along with all the other stuff they endure in captivity.
Lisa has advanced in her profession since that day. She tries to steer clear of zoos now, because she finds them depressing. But she likes the B-52s.
“They’re a kick,” she says.
The first memory I have of the band, aside from the iconic yellow cover of their first album, was busting loose to Rock Lobster at a high school dance in 1980.
Part of my social niche growing up in a small southern town was to promote danceable music that rattled the cages of the status quo. I was an importer of the exotic, and the B-52s helped me do my job. From their birthplace in Georgia, the band surfed the crest of a New Wave combo of pop and weird that circled the world.
According to Wikipedia, the B-52s wrote Rock Lobster in a tin-roofed shack outside Athens — the college town where three of the five founding members were born. The song sounds just plain silly on the surface, like most of their hits I’ve heard. And like much of their work, it’s great art.
Rock Lobster borrows the beach blanket ingredients of the early 60s and re-fashions them into a countercultural bomb. The music feels armed and dangerous, with the band’s lead sprechgesanger, Fred Schneider, firing off words like a drill sergeant in drag while pounding his cowbell. The lyrics are riddled with surrealist surfer poetry that reverses norms (boys in bikinis, girls with surfboards … a dogfish chased by a catfish, followed by a sea robin).
Of course none of the sea creatures in the song’s line-up actually emit the crazy primal sounds made by Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson. These women are utterly amazing. When I first heard their vocal acrobatics I figured they were goofing around with the backup female style of earlier pop kitch. But there’s much more to it. I think they travelled here from Planet Claire to wig out the dumbed-down devotees of Mars.
In 1984 a bioacoustic researcher was studying whale songs on the west coast. She heard news that four baby elephants were born at the Oregon Zoo, and went to see them. While there she sensed a vibration near the elephant cages. It turned out the animals were using low-frequency sounds to send messages back and forth across the zoo grounds.
Subsequent studies with the Elephant Listening Project have shown that pachyderms use these rumbling infrasounds to communicate over distances of many miles. They feel the vibrations through the sensitive skin of their feet and trunks, which act like the head of a drum. To listen, individuals will lift one foreleg from the earth and face the source of the sound. This presumably increases the ground contact and sensitivity of the remaining legs. Whole herds are known to do this at the same time.
The retro space-age style of the B-52s exposes the silliness of human progress. At least it does in my tiki lounge. Many of their songs convey the feeling that their creativity is beamed down from some place beyond the confines of global empire. Couple this with their driving percussion and guitar – small wonder the band has been a source of release at dance parties for over three decades.
At their official website Fred says: “We just did our own thing, which was a combination of rock ‘n ‘roll, funk, and Fellini, and game show host, and corn, and mysticism.”
And Kate says: “We always appealed to people outside the mainstream, and I think more people feel they’re outside the mainstream these days.”
Humans can dream of being outside. Our herd desperately needs redirection from our conquest of the planet, a suicidal safari that’s killing whole ecosystems and all the creatures who depend on them. For me, the B-52s represent an artsy genius that frees up some of the wildness imprisoned by that conquest. They energize us to move in a different direction.
The band’s getting older, as are we all. May we all live long enough to be as wrinkled as the elephants. If we hope to pass on something of longstanding value to the youngsters who now hold our tails, we need to regenerate. Time to reach across the manmade barriers and collaborate with a much older genius that inspired people to dance and communicate before the slap of the first tom-tom.
The family and I are headed off to Portland in a few minutes. Due to circumstances we won’t be able to attend tonight’s concert, but I might play Rock Lobster in the car. If we have time I’ll take a brief detour, drive us up close enough to the zoo to hear the music. Maybe I’ll come up with a little ritual to compliment this post — take off my shoes and stand off the asphalt.
Regardless of what happens, I’ll pray for the elephants, and all their kin who keep an ear to the ground.