Do you grok?
Watching the premiere of the sixth season of "Mad Men" last Sunday, Craven was struck by the use of a certain four-letter word that ends in the letter "K" - and I don't mean the one they bleeped.
The word was the aforementioned "grok," and it was dropped in an off-handed way by a hippie character. "What you can't grok is that we are your garbage," the hippie said to a stunned Betty Draper Francis (January Jones). And while it's unlikely Betty knew what he was talking about, it was quite a realistic touch on the writers' part to have a counter-culture type voice that word in December, 1967. Because there was a lot of grokking going on back then.
The word originated six years earlier in a science fiction novel written by the prolific and popular author Robert A. Heinlein. In 1961, Heinlein published his most famous and successful novel, "Stranger In a Strange Land," a story he had begun formulating 13 years earlier, about a young Earth man named Michael Valentine Smith who, raised by Martians, returns to his native planet, whereupon he becomes the charismatic leader of a new church.
"Stranger in a Strange Land" was hugely successful, and has remained in print ever since. Last year, the Library Congress named it one of the 88 "Books that Shaped America." Heinlein invented the word "grok" as an example of the Martian language. Its precise definition, according to Heinlein's mythos, is "to drink." But in common usage among Martians, it has an alternate meaning that is difficult to translate precisely. Roughly speaking, to "grok" is to understand something so deeply that you become a part of that thing (or person or place or concept).
"Grok" became a popular word among young people in the mid-to-late 1960s, and still gets bandied in certain circles to this day. But what Craven finds especially fascinating is how the word (and the book which introduced it) has found its way into pop music over the years.
Now, "Stranger in a Strange Land" isn't the only Heinlein novel to inspire song titles. Jimmy Webb admitted he nicked the title of his "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" from Heinlein's Hugo Award-winning novel of the same name, and Bill Martin "borrowed" the title of Heinlein's "A Door Into Summer" for the song by that name that he wrote for the Monkees. (We may assume Heinlein had nothing to do with Martin becoming the voice of "Shredder" in the "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" cartoon series in the 1990s.) But without question, few science fiction novels have inspired or influenced more songs than "Stranger in a Strange Land."
Next week, we'll look at examples of "grok n' roll" that have sprung up in the years since Heinlein's novel was first published - some of which are definitely out of this world.
By the way, if you are a fan of soul music, funk or the blaxploitation movies of the 1970s, tune into Craven's special Jive Turkey edition of Songs From Here and There, Then and Now on KAFM this morning, and then get your tickets for tonight's Radio Soul Train event at the Mesa Theater. Today marks the end of the Spring Member Drive, so if you haven't already, please make a pledge to community radio!
Notes is funded in part by the Gill Foundation's Gay and Lesbian Fund for Colorado, a proud supporter of local organizations like E-Net Colorado and its teacher development programs in Colorado's rural schools.
Craven Lovelace produces Notes, a daily cultural history of popular music, for KAFM 88.1 Community Radio, kafmradio.org. You can visit cravenlovelace.com for more of his musings on the world of popular culture.