Arthur Crudup/Elvis Presley/Little Steven Van Zandt
Coming back from a Saturday night movie I caught “Little Steven’s Underground Garage,” which comes and goes on the local stations around here.
So Steven Van Zandt was giving one of his patented history lessons, calling something or other “probably the most important cover version of all time,” and it soon became evident he was talking about “That’s All Right,” Elvis’ first official recording for Sun Records in 1954, which was, of course, a cover of Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s 1947 original.
I reached my drive-way in the middle of Crudup’s version and sat in the dark waiting for the sequel, which did indeed turn out to be Presley’s version.
I had never actually made a point of listening to them back to back before and, yes, you could hear what changed, which was, technically, quite a bit more than you might think and, spiritually, virtually everything.
But I was more interested in Van Zandt’s followup commentary when the Elvis version was done, in which he called Presley the “so-called King of Rock ‘n’ Roll….Of course we all know the real king was Little Richard.”
And so on and so forth.
I once again found myself wondering exactly why the heavily romanticized version of rock and roll which underlies such blithe statements (opinion as fact–always delivered with a wink and a nod to let everyone know all the cool people are on the same side here) has so much appeal for so many folks who really should know better.
I mean the “real” king of rock and roll was no one (not even Fats Domino, who was Elvis’ own choice), because rock and roll wasn’t the sort of musical or social phenomena that needed a king–a fact Elvis recognized at bottom even if Little Richard and Steven Van Zandt and the RCA marketing department didn’t and don’t.
And it was this recognition that made Elvis, well, Elvis.
We have some pretty strong evidence that Elvis knew how limited the romantic, primitivist version of rock and roll was–and to what degree such self-imposed limitations were precisely what the reactionaries who came after him so much harder than they came after anyone else were counting on. That pretty strong evidence is the rest of Presley’s career after his initial starburst, which played out in defiance of all rational expectations, as opposed to the rest of Little Richard’s career, which, after a powerful starburst of his own, played out in precise accordance with those same expectations.
Left to Little Richard and his acolytes, rock and roll would have been manageable. Profits would have been made (just as they were). Maybe a few arrests as well (as long as they didn’t cut too deeply into the profits–just like what really happened). Cults would have formed (just as they did). A local law or two would have been passed (just as they were). Sermons would have been preached (just as they were). Talk show careers would have been launched. Hands would have been wrung, etc., etc., etc.
And then the music and the culture it inspired would have been pushed back to the margins (just as it wasn’t)–kept forever safely from the center where the real differences are made.
Little Richard was/is a perfect embodiment of what fifties reactionaries and modern liberals both desperately want in a “revolutionary”–a man who knows his place. A man who would, once upon a time, push the margin for a year or two, gain a little public space for himself, then apologize and retire, then make serial comebacks designed–decade by decade–to keep his name in lights while trivializing his very real accomplishments.
Naturally he has been ably assisted on all fronts, including Little Steven’s Underground Garage, which is actually a pretty wonderful place most of the time.
That it so routinely becomes a not so wonderful place whenever Van Zandt (who has also been known to call Elvis Costello “the real Elvis” though I’ve never heard him clarify whether Costello qualifies on purely musical grounds or if getting drunk and calling Ray Charles a “blind, ignorant nigger” is what tips the balance**) gets around to Elvis Presley–without whom he would almost certainly not have a career that includes playing Super Bowls with Bruce Springsteen and very likely would have no career at all–just serves as evidence of how easy it is to be wrong about the few things that really matter when you’ve been mistaking the Pod Police’s secret reactionary Kool-Aid for a fifth of Cool for far, far too long.
(**For a sample of the sort of forgiveness and understanding the actual “real” Elvis might have expected if he had ever made such statements, please go here….And, no, none of this means Little Richard and Elvis Costello didn’t make great records.)