WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (The Memphis Boys….Elvis and Alex Edition)

Elvis Presley: Elvis At Stax (2013)

ELVISSTAX2

Big Star: Keep An Eye On The Sky (2009)

BIGSTARCOVER

Time and place sometimes make for very strange bedfellows. By chance, I spent a good portion of the last few days listening–with varying degrees of intensity–to these two box sets, both recorded in Memphis at around the same time.

Elvis At Stax has the complete masters (27 in all, plus numerous illuminating outtakes) of the two sessions he cut at the legendary Memphis studio in 1973 (one of the neat bits of anecdotal information found in the liner notes is that Stax’ reigning superstar, Isaac Hayes, moved a recording date to give Elvis his time slot…another is that Elvis made scant use of the label’s legendary house band).

Keep An Eye On The Sky has every completed master that various versions of the godfathering indie band Big Star (and affiliated side projects…plus, yes, more outtakes, demos, etc.) cut between 1973 and a date that is rather hard for me to pin down in my current scatter-brained state, but probably reached into early 1975 or so.

A lot of the music from both sets was able to snap into focus for me this week, in part because, as I mentioned in a previous post, I’m currently reading a new biography of Big Star co-leader Alex Chilton (who also had a run of hits with the blue-eyed soul garage band, the Box Tops, a few years prior).

One of the bio’s best aspects–very much aided and abetted by the excellent notes of these two very disparate sets–is its worm’s-eye view of the mid-seventies’ collapse of the Memphis music industry in general, and Stax in particular, (Stax, in addition to being a soul giant throughout most of the period when that meant something, also distributed Big Star’s boutique label, Ardent–the kind of over-reach that assisted greatly in its demise), and the devastating effects that collapse had on both the local music scene and the lives of so many who depended on it for something more than a paycheck.

The serendipity of it all (I pulled the Big Star set out for background music during my reading times, though it’s hardly like I need an excuse, while the Elvis set was, by complete coincidence, a cheap grab off of Amazon last week) might have me reading too much into all this, but, at least this time around, I didn’t have any trouble hearing the world fall apart on these two records that could hardly be less alike in every other respect.

In 1973, Elvis was doing what he had always done and always would do–searching for the convergence of excluded voices–white and black–which almost nobody has ever really wanted to hear actually converging, no matter how many somebodies insist they do so!

And, in 1973, like most every other year he recorded something other than his lesser movie soundtracks, he found a version of that convergence.

I wouldn’t say the Stax sessions are always his most convincing in this respect. His voice was in pretty rough shape much of the time–rough in the center instead of around the edges and not always in a good way.

But “almost there” Elvis is still more interesting than most other great artists at their very best and the better half of these sides are prime in any case. One can listen to him and feel his own demise lurking (this was around the time when more than a few people started predicting it) but that just makes the ache in his voice and the joy that’s found most especially in some of the outtakes all the more resonant and, finally, poignant. He sounds like a man who knows the way things should have been is behind him and there’s nothing left in front but regrets.

Big Star, on the other hand, still sound–at least on the first two discs of Rhino’s four disc set–like they will beat all odds and bring about at least a tiny part of that better future. Though they had no interest whatsoever in any sort of convergence–their respect for Black America’s music was real but entirely rhetorical, after the manner of bohemians everywhere–they were nonetheless carving out that rarest of achievements: a new thing.

Despite the band’s enormous, almost insidious, influence, their best music still sounds new and never newer than when it’s all in one place like this. Where Elvis’ unease and disappointment are palpable but contained–the sound of a man who has reached his personal limits and knows they are probably the future’s limits too–Big Star (their name not yet rendered ironic by the public’s indifference, let alone redeemed by a future that wasn’t too limited to let them set the direction for most of white rock’s very few remaining interesting developments) sound almost desperate to matter, as if they can’t believe the future won’t embrace them.

All the outtakes and studio chatter–neatly organized on Elvis At Stax, strung about hither and yon on Keep An Eye On The Sky–only reinforce the sense of both artists being taken under, of spirits treading water to keep from drowning.

Of course we know now there were to be no happy endings. No arrivals at some safe shore.

Elvis would  die at his home in Graceland in less than forty-eight months, by which time Stax was shuttered and Ardent cast adrift.

Big Star founder Chris Bell would wrap his car around a tree a few miles from the famous recording studios he had haunted even in life a mere sixteen months after that.

Alex Chilton–fragile to begin with and badly shaken by both deaths–would, coincidentally or not, retreat ever more relentlessly into the exhausting realms of dilettantish cult-hood and die in New Orleans in 2010 at the age of fifty-eight.

What they left behind, on the tracks collected here, now represents the sound that dreams make when they die–in this case on the very streets where they had been born twenty years before.

It might be that the voices Elvis heard in his head in the fifties–and was still hearing in 1973–will yet converge. It might even be that the land that the rock and roll revolution brought heaving into view–and which could still be seen plainly off the bow when these records were made–can still be glimpsed, somewhere not quite over the horizon.

If so, I’ll sure be happy if and when we get there.

In the meantime, I know this much about the long years since.

They haven’t brought that shore-line any closer.

 

 

 

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (Little Steven Takes the Easy Way Out…)

I love Little Steven Van Zandt’s Underground Garage radio show, especially when I catch it in the car.

It’s got three basic things going for it. The first is the host’s personality (key to any successful radio show). Second is the chance to hear music I would never hear anywwhere else and make judgments on it. Third, and most significant for me, is the chance to hear familiar music re-contextualized. At its best, the show does what modern radio so seldom does–hooks you.

The one small fly in the sea of ointment is Van Zandt’s occasional tendency to indulge a bit of uber-hipness, which, oddly, cuts against the grain of the whole enterprise (he’s not, for instance, afraid of praising the Monkees or Herman’s Hermits).

This week, driving home on a Saturday night, I heard one of those re-makes which was sufficiently different from the original that I couldn’t place it until I heard the chorus.

Turned out to be some obviously punk-ish version of “Yo-Yo” (which I have posted in the past and can be viewed again here), a hit for the Osmonds in their brief run of genius before some idiot induced them away from Memphis’ American Studios, songs like “Yo-Yo,” and any chance of being real long-term competition for the Jackson 5 (an idea that isn’t nearly as heretical as some might assume–the American period was the only time the Osmonds had a similar level of musical support to what the Jacksons got at Motown, and while the difference between the two groups vocally was real, in the words of John T. Chance, I wouldn’t want to live on the difference).

Anyway, when the deliberately off-key remake was followed by Deep Purple’s hit version of “Hush,” I thought maybe there was some kind of Joe South tribute going on (he wrote both songs).

Turned out that wasn’t the case, though when Steven came back on the mike he did mention that South wrote both songs and remarked on the oddity of the same man writing a big hit for both the Osmonds and Deep Purple in the same era. Unfortunately, that was only after he had claimed the “Yo-Yo” remake (by the Doughboys as it turned out) had made the song “kinda cool.”

Which I heard with a touch of bemusement because my first thought when I realized the song was actually “Yo-Yo” was along the lines of “Too bad Steven didn’t have the stones to play the Osmonds.”

I had that thought because the Osmonds’ version smokes the Doughboys seven ways from Sunday.

And it would have taken some moxy for Little Steven to admit as much, right there in the Underground Garage.

Besides which, “cool” is such an elusive concept:

 

ALL APOLOGIES (Duck Dunn and Robin Gibb, RIP)

I generally write an obit when–and only when–the passing of some prominent person affects me on a deep level and I also think I might have something worth saying that hasn’t been said in the usual outlets.

It’s been a hectic year (and it took me a while to get used to remembering to look up recent deaths on-line, as I’m not exactly a ravenous consumer of any “regular” news). That’s the best explanation I have for missing RIP’s of figures as deserving on all levels as Donald “Duck” Dunn and Robin Gibb.

Dunn was, of course, the bass player for Booker T. and the MGs, who happened to be the “house” band at Stax records, in addition to being a hugely successful instrumental act on their own (one of only two such bands, along with the Ventures, to be inducted as performers into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame).

Writing about the possibilities for racial harmony that were endemic to what I like to call the rock and roll revolution–and how we’ve largely short-changed those possibilities–is one of the main reasons for this blog’s existence. No one embodied that ethos more perfectly or profoundly than Dunn, a southern white man who, along with a southern black man named Al Jackson, Jr., made up what was likely rock and roll’s very greatest rhythm section (granted there is competition, but not much).

That rhythm section was planted in the very heart of what I believe is the greatest inter-racial experiment in the history of America’s cultural life…or perhaps just the history of any country’s life, period–the Memphis/Muscle Shoals soul scene of the sixties and early seventies.

That scene was where white label and studio owners and a mix of white and black songwriters and session men backing an extraordinary group of African-American vocalists, merged to provide the truest and deepest soundtrack for the nation’s moment of hope for a better day coming–and, eventually, the lament for its limitations.

It was a small scene, frankly, and perhaps a couple of dozen people at most were truly indispensable to its contemporary success and its enduring legend. Not one of those people–not Otis Redding or Percy Sledge or Sam Moore or Mavis Staples, not Booker T. Jones or Isaac Hayes or David Porter or Steve Cropper or Andrew Love, not Jim Stewart or Rick Hall or Quin Ivy….no, not even Al Jackson, Jr.–was more important than the man who tied the rhythms to the melodies at “Soulsville U.S.A.”

At least musically, the best chance for reviving “The Death of the Dream” (as Peter Guralnick’s final, epic chapter of his finest book, Sweet Soul Music, termed it), came in the dread “disco” era of the mid and late seventies.

That’s the era I grew up in and the era the Bee Gees dominated to an extent that had only been managed by Elvis and the Beatles before and has only been matched by Thriller-era Michael Jackson since.

I can’t say I was all that taken by the Bee Gees at their apex (though I love most of that music now). But they had already got through to me in their earlier incarnations, which I happened to be discovering at the same time “Staying Alive” and “Night Fever” were playing something like forty or fifty times a day…apiece.

Gibb’s brother Barry was the lead voice on most the group’s signature hits, but Robin’s distinctive quaver–always on the verge of breaking, always holding on somehow–was put to great use on more than a few, with “Massachusetts” and “Run to Me” (a co-lead) being two of the three songs (Barry’s “To Love Somebody” was the other), that convinced me there might be something to these folks even as my high school buddies were assuring me that the disco stuff wasn’t half bad if you were good and drunk by the time your girl-friend got control of the radio or dragged you onto a dance floor.

Like I say, eventually I loved the disco stuff, too. And I’m glad I got to live through one of the last moments when the dream still sparked a few embers in the ashes. Robin Gibb was as important to that moment as Duck Dunn was when the flame burned brightest.

I don’t know how they’ll fare in the next world. But they were among the precious few who earned a state of grace in this one.

Booker T. and the MGs “Green Onions” (Live)

(On a related note: While I was searching for the above, I found this very beautiful duet from Lulu and Maurice Gibb–Robin’s twin brother who passed away in 2003 just months after this was recorded. It’s appropriate to this moment, I think, and it’s one of her very finest vocals…which is saying something. Their marriage, incidentally, was from 1969 to 1973. Better then.)