When I was in junior high and high school (1972-78), if a kid came in and told the class “Dad threw a shoe at the TV last night” nobody had to ask who had been on. Not Johnny Rotten, not Mick Jagger, not David Bowie or Alice Cooper or some politician.
The only person who drew that kind of response in my part of the world–the only real threat to order–was Helen Reddy. I always thought that made her the truest rock ‘n’ roller since Elvis. After 1978, my local oldies’ stations did not agree, because they never played her records again and by “never” I mean not once. She was dropped down the memory hole. I’m sure they played her somewhere. Just nowhere I was.
I pity those who missed her. There was no combination of sights and sounds to quite match Ms. Reddy in a bare midriff halter and hip huggers belting “I am woman, hear me roar, in numbers too big to ignore” on one TV show after another, so ubiquitous you couldn’t miss her, even at my house, which seldom had a functioning television set.
I assumed she would be a permanent fixture in my generation’s lives. Instead she was kicked to the curb as soon as she stopped being a force on the radio. Some of this may have been by her own design…but surely the larger part of it was due to other forces. The same forces that spent the last forty years screwing up literally everything else.
Nothing damns our present more than memory-holing the feminist who had the best idea of where it all might have gone.
And yet, if I listen close, I still swear I can hear a roar, like a seashell held right next to the ear, intimate and epic in equal measure:
I think “What would Elvis do?” has become a handy substitute for “What would Jesus do?” the difference being Jesus (or at least his followers) left a well-defined set of instructions to guide our speculation, while Elvis was as obscure as any person can be who achieves enough fame to make wondering what they would do occur to anyone in the first place.
Over at Greil Marcus’ website, he just received the inevitable question “Would Elvis have voted for Trump?”
Marcus took it for granted that the question referred to Elvis Presley (perhaps Elvis Costello is not, per Steven Van Zandt, the “real” Elvis after all) and answered at length. You can read his answer under the May 29, 2017 mailbag at his site (link available on my blogroll at the right–sorry, I can’t link to individual questions inside the mailbag itself).
In summary, it’s the usual mishmash: The Elvis who died in 1977 “probably… would have” voted for Trump, but if he had lived another forty years he might have turned into a good person, unlike the millions who actually voted for Trump because he represents the kind of evil country they want to live in. I’ll just point out that Marcus does not address the key demographic of the 2016 election, the several million people–many of them concentrated in the industrial swing states which crumbled the Blue Wall and decided the election–who voted for Trump after voting for Obama twice.
Did they suddenly change their minds about which kind of country they wanted to live in? Did Obama simply fail to deliver the evil country they thought he had promised? Or was Trump seen as more likely than Hillary Clinton to maintain the country they wanted to live in when they voted for Obama?
I encourage you to read Marcus’ response, but, in short, he doesn’t say.
What I really want to do though is answer the question.
Would Elvis have voted for Trump?
I wonder why we only wonder who Elvis would have voted for? Does anybody (well, any white boy critic or wannabe) ask themselves whether Ray Charles or James Brown–both much further to the right on the public record than Elvis ever was–would have voted for Trump? If they don’t, why not? I’m sure it’s not because they don’t think Mr. Charles or Mr. Brown lacked moral or intellectual agency. I mean, that would be sorta racist wouldn’t it?
Comes to that, why don’t we wonder who the more-or-less still living “Johnny Rotten” would have voted for if he were an American? Is it because all the cool people might not like the answer? (Just an aside: Marcus was recently asked about this one as well and basically gave Lydon a pass–and not because Trump is as an inevitable part of Lydon’s legacy as he is a rejection of the real Elvis’.)
I don’t have the least clue who the real Elvis–who at least tacitly endorsed both Adlai Stevenson and George Wallace whilst he was living–would have voted for.
Neither do you. Neither does anyone.
I know what he did when it mattered. When it mattered he sang “If I Can Dream” into the teeth of the anti-Enlightenment forces, Left and Right, that were dismantling the Dream he had done as much as any man to make real. And he put more pure anger into it than anyone has ever conveyed on a record that reached the Top 40. (Listen again, with headphones and your eyes closed if you can. You’ll hear it, right there from the heart of ’68.) When it mattered, he did things like this.
There were reasons why James Brown, who, like many an ornery American liable to vote for Obama one time and Trump the next, preferred dying on his feet to living on his knees, wept over Elvis’ coffin. Seeing around the corner, where the Dream would shatter, and the post-Carter political class–yes, all of them–would crawl from the wreckage, was no doubt foremost among them.
(This is a new category which I’ve been thinking about adding for a while. Most of them will also be additions to my informal, uncategorized series which I like to call “Scenes From an Actual Boyhood” a play on Richard Linklater’s film Boyhood, in which he fantasized about boyhood and left out anything and everything pertaining to boys that didn’t fit the dream life of middle-age soccer moms.)
Back in the Spring of ’77, a time in American history which seems to have left no trace on the future, I was in my junior year of high school in the Florida Panhandle, that part of Florida which is sometimes jokingly, sometimes wistfully, referred to as L.A.: Lower Alabama.
One Monday morning I showed up at school, stepped out of my ride’s car in the parking lot, and felt something different….something I hadn’t felt since the spring of ’74 when I was in the eighth grade in another part of the state known, then and now, as the Space Coast.
I had been in Lower Alabama for three years by then, but the culture shock hadn’t worn off. (Comes to that, I’m not sure it’s worn off yet–must be some reason I prefer living like a hermit.) That feeling in the air when I got out of the car that Monday morning was the closest I had ever felt to a real connection between the two places.
So I knew right away it had something to do with the one thing every Southern place shares with every human space occupied by what are now called “multi” cultures: Race Tension.
The Tension soon had physical manifestations: The sound of a body being thrown against a classroom wall. Black kids with picks and blades trying to decide whether they wanted to descend from the school’s back door to a parking lot (yes, the same one my ride parked in) full of rednecks standing next to pickups with hunting rifles hung in the back windows (the black kids thought better of it–first Rumble averted). Reports of a fight. An actual fight. Then another actual fight.
That was the first couple of days.
After that: A teacher promising to give everybody ten points on next week’s test if the violence planned for Friday recess (planned by who, nobody knew….the plan had its own life, like the new Air) failed to materialize. White boys muttering darkly about the privileges granted blacks. Black kids muttering darkly about the privileges granted whites. Me telling my ride how not entirely unhappy I was to no longer be riding the bus where, in my freshman and sophomore years, I had usually been the only white kid (an experience worthy of its own post some day, now that I’ve opened this can of whup-ass memories).
And, of course, discussions all around about “here it all came from.
A general consensus formed, among white folks at least, that a black kid from New York had moved to the area. Though he didn’t go to our school, he shared Vo-Tech classes with some who did. Word was he had a habit of calling the local kids Uncle Toms for not standing up to the Man, meaning White People, meaning….us. Word was some of them had decided to show him–and us–what they were made of.
It seemed outside agitators had come to Lower Alabama.
Once that idea took hold, no amount of Confederate cannon-fire could have dislodged it.
The additional word was this had all come to some sort of head–at a party? a club? an impromptu meeting of a newly formed local chapter of the Black Panthers?–the weekend before the Monday I showed up at school and, from the nearly empty parking lot, with no evidence available to the eye or ear that suggested it was anything but another school week, I thought, unbidden: This feels like eighth grade.
Through all that I’ve described above and more, that feeling persisted and grew for two full weeks. Every day a little stronger.
There were moments when it not only seemed possible that some terrible thing might happen but that–no matter how many times we white kids reassured ourselves that it would be absurd, ridiculous, suicidal, for black kids to “riot”–there was simply no way it wouldn’t happen.
It was coming. There was no way to avoid it.
Because it was in the Air.
And what did I, no great respecter of the Air, do through all this?
I did what I always did.
i practiced the careful art of doing nothing.
Except for the day when the art of doing nothing sort of accidentally became the art of doing something.
My usual nothing consisted of sitting around during break times–recess, lunch, school assemblies I had a habit of spending in the library—with my nose in a book.
None of that changed during the two weeks of the Race Tension.
Come recess, lunch, assembly, you could still find me, alone in a room, or off in a corner somewhere, reading.
And the time you could be most alone, I found, was recess.
I actually did get out and about a bit at lunch. Even I had to eat.
And not even I could get out of every assembly.
But literally nobody else stayed in his seat reading a book during recess.
Which is why I found it a little odd, on Wednesday of the second week of the Tension–to find myself in Social Studies (my next class), during recess….and not alone.
I was sitting in my usual seat. Second row if memory serves (and dammit, memory, you better serve–this is a memory piece!). And there were several kids sitting behind me.
The room had risers, so they were not only behind me but above me. All black kids–four? five?–whispering among themselves. Whispering, I assumed, because they did not want to be heard by the only other occupant of the room. Namely me. The only white boy.
As time passed, their voices got a little louder. This was a phenomenon I was already a bit familiar with, one which time has consistently reaffirmed: If you are in a room with a group of people from which you are for some reason excluded, they will begin by worrying about whether you can overhear them. If you are quiet long enough, they will become worried that you don’t hear them.
So their voices got louder. And, eventually, I heard them.
They were talking about the Rumble. The new Rumble that was going to be, if nothing else, more effective than the Rumble that had broken on the wave of all those rednecks standing next to all those shotguns. It was going to be more effective because it wasn’t going to be a Rumble. At least not according to any definition I had ever heard.
This was all going to be planned, rather like D-Day. Nothing would be left to chance this time!
Come Friday recess, every black kid was going to find a white kid–their special white kid, by prearrangement with all the other black kids, so there would be no duplication of effort–and “get even.”
This was the memo.
By the Wednesday before the Friday of the new, improved Rumble, everybody had gotten it. Some of the white kids were complaining because all they were allowed to pack was a pocket knife, which wasn’t much good against a steel pick. At least a couple of white kids were rumored to have started carrying their own steel picks (though I confess I never saw one).
And what the black kids who were sitting up behind me at recess on Wednesday in my Social Studies classroom were talking about–I see you Michael. I see you Daryl, Jeffrey, Ricky….Walter, is that you?–was the memo.
Who was going after who.
More time passed and I heard some names: “I got ____!” “You got____?” “Who got ____?”
I also heard their growing indifference to my presence becoming mingled with their increasing need to engage me–their awareness of my awareness of their awareness.
So, finally, one of them–Jeffrey, is that you?–speaking low enough to pretend he didn’t want me to hear and loud enough I couldn’t miss it.
“Who got Ross?”
At which point there was a small silence.
Apparently nobody had Ross.
Which I took for a good excuse to put my finger in my book, bend the page over the finger, and turn around.
I made sure to smile the smile with which Michael and Walter, at least, were intimately familiar and to shake my head.
Then I rolled my eyes.
Then I held up my book.
“If ya’ll get it figured out,” I said. “You know where I’ll be.”
At which point we all started laughing.
Did it matter? Did it matter that it was me? That it was them? That I reacted the way I did? That they reacted the way they did? That I was there, where I always was? That they were there, where they never were?
Maybe the Rumble–the Big One, the Efficient One, the One that Couldn’t Possibly Fail to Come Off This Time!–would have failed to come off anyway.
Maybe one of the hundred other things that can prevent such a thing would have happened and the whole thing would still have died on the vine.
Maybe one–or ninety-nine–of those things did happen and I never heard about it.
So far as I know, none of the others who were in that room with me, ever ventured any ideas about why it never came off. They certainly didn’t say anything to me. After the other kids started filing in, on the Wednesday-Before-the-Friday after recess, it was like it never happened.
What I did notice was that, for me–and I suspect for them–the air broke in that moment we all started laughing.
It broke because, in a single instant and all together, we realized how stupid it all was–and, far more important in our teenage world, how stupid it would all look….if it even tried to come off.
Suddenly, we all saw there was only one way for it not to come off stupid, not to come off looking the one thing no teenage boy ever wants to come off looking–and that was for it to never come off at all.
Coincidentally or not, it didn’t come off.
Of course, when I got out of that class an hour later and walked the halls again, amongst all those people who hadn’t been in that room, I realized that the Air hadn’t broken for anyone else. For everyone else the Tension was still real and palpable. For them, the Rumble was still inevitable and queasy-making. It was still all of that even on Friday afternoon, after first recess, then lunch, had passed into history, and the Rumble hadn’t come off.
Even then, the Air was still the Air.
It still promised we had come to a place–a place perhaps even teenagers in Lower Alabama in a time as lost as the late seventies must come to now and again to feel alive–where anything was possible.
And me and the kids who didn’t know the answer to “Who got Ross?” and everybody else, spent the weekend wondering what the following week would bring.
The confidence in the power of absurdity to finally embarrass everyone into inaction–the power I had felt so strongly in my Social Studies room at recess on the Wednesday-Before-the-Friday–waxed and waned.
Sometimes I laughed. Sometimes I shook my head. Sometimes I felt a little queasy.
Monday morning my ride took me to school like always.
Monday morning, on the drive in, me and my ride made some lame jokes to each other about what the new week would bring.
Monday morning, we drove into the parking lot and nothing felt any different there inside the car, where it was just us, with the Air left over from the weekend and the Friday before.
Monday morning, we rolled to a stop and then opened our car doors like usual.
Monday morning, we stood up in the actual air…and knew instantly that the Air was normal again, and that there was no more explanation for the return of Normalcy than there had been for its abandonment exactly two weeks earlier.
That was when I learned to respect the Air.
Since then, I’ve learned to pay attention to it as well.
It’s how I once knew something as historically insignificant as that it was okay to stay in our seats the last time FSU and the local HBC, Florida A&M, played basketball, even though a hellacious fight (which ultimately resulted in the suspension of the game) was breaking out on the court.
It’s also how I knew, as far ago as the summer before last, something as historically significant as that Donald Trump–a man I had never previously spent ten seconds thinking about–had a real chance to become President of the United States (and why I felt confident predicting his win on this blog).
It’s useful, respecting the Air.
Among many other things, it keeps you from being too surprised.
And, as I’ve mentioned here a time or two, it’s also defined my respect for artists, especially popular artists.
The best of them know the Air far better than you or I do.
They also know it way-y-y-y-y better than the highbrows do.
The Air belongs to the pulps, the singers, the comedians.
That’s why Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry were able to dream Rock and Roll America into being while the intelligentsia slept. It’s why Philip K. Dick’s “science fiction” novels have the jittery feel of the modern Security State down to a tee, while Norman Mailer’s “political” novels feel like ad copy and the famous dystopian models of Orwell and Huxley read like tracts. It’s why Ross Macdonald’s detective stories carry the weight of impending middle class doom and John Updike’s are strings of adjectives. It’s why Mary Weiss’s voice, from 1964, carries everything true that would come to pass in the cross-cultural maelstrom known as “punk” and why Johnny Rotten–who didn’t have the Air–always sounded like a fake to anyone who did. It’s why the primal scream of the inner city crack epidemic can be heard and felt, years earlier, in the voices of Al Green and Marvin Gaye, or the comedy of Richard Pryor, but not in the most beautiful or painful or lucid essays of James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison. It’s why the muffled moan of the “White Death” meth epidemic that has since descended upon Appalachia can be heard in Patty Loveless’s voice a quarter century ago.
The Artists–the real artists–know. They’re the canaries in every modern coal mine. They’ll tell you about the Air if you let them.
And they’ll keep on telling you.
Whether the big Rumble building just now comes to pass or not.
(My favorite rock critic, at 41, the year I was born.)
The earliest memory I retain with any certainty happened when I was four (or five) years old. It was the Christmas season of 1964 (or 1965). My favorite rock critic and and my sister and I were walking through a shopping mall (somewhere in Florida…my memory says Merritt Square, the internet says it didn’t open until 1970 so maybe it was Titusville or even Orlando…I know I wasn’t nine, I swear my memory is at least that clear). My favorite rock critic was holding my hand (or else my sister was). They were piping music through the mall (or whatever it was). I wasn’t paying the least attention to the music. Until I was. Something new and wonderful started playing (or maybe it was the chorus that got me) and I broke away from whoever was holding my hand and started running towards that sound.
The only problem was, the sound was being piped over speakers that pointed from every direction. This probably saved me from getting lost in a bustling Christmas crowd, because, having completely lost my senses, I started running around in circles. My favorite rock critic could no longer run, so it was left to my sister to finally catch me, after which they both kept asking me “What is it?”
I couldn’t tell them.
(My favorite rock critic, my brother-in-law and me, circa the time period in question. Memory says the play list was heavy on Peter, Paul & Mary. Lovely. But they were not who was playing at the mall…or wherever.)
I probably knew the words “music” and “song.” They were concepts my favorite rock critic lived for. But, in that moment, overwhelmed by that sound, I wasn’t able to call up the words. My senses weren’t merely lost but overwhelmed. I was, for the first and last time in my life, experiencing a strange, benumbing combination of physical pain and an insistent inner command to laugh out loud, which, for some reason, I could not obey.
All I could do was keep pointing at the roof of the mall (or wherever it was).
And that was all I was ever able to do.
Years later, when I finally bought the record that was playing over some set of surround sound speakers somewhere in Central Florida in 1964 or 1965 (on an “oldies” 45, which I still have), I didn’t even think to ask my favorite rock critic if she remembered this little incident. Nor did I ever think to ask afterwards. Because I didn’t think to ask, I’ll never know.
She loved the record. I remember that much. My favorite rock critic had killer taste. Just listen and hear…
* * * *
My favorite rock critic never bought records herself (she was into sheet music).
(My favorite rock critic, a little later on. With her sheet music….Or somebody’s.)
There were some kids’ records around the house when I was growing up, and some albums my father picked up at thrift stores, mostly Broadway soundtracks or easy listening instrumentals. I listened here and there after I learned to work the stereo’s record player. If I listened to the radio, it was to Braves’ games or college football. Never the radio. If I knew the words to any pop song, “Snowbird” say, it was from my favorite rock critic’s song books, the vast majority of which were religious. My favorite rock critic arranged and directed church choirs when she wasn’t singing in them or, more likely, in front of them. There was music everywhere at my house. Just not much rock and roll.
The first peak at my own future came when my sister moved out, for the last time, after my brother-in-law came back from Viet Nam. She left her 45s, which consisted of a Little Richard that was too beat up to play (I can close my eyes and still see every single thing on that Specialty label except the title), Gale Garnett’s “We’ll Sing In the Sunshine,” which I liked well enough to learn the words to (and which I still have), and this one (which I also still have):
Unless maybe it can be traced to that experience above (about which more later…reveal at the end!), I don’t doubt my inordinate affection for what, in those days, were still called “girl” singers, dates from the summer afternoons when I was ten, eleven, twelve, when I played “Ode to Billie Joe” ten, eleven, twelve times in a row, day after day, while my favorite rock critic went about her business, never once asking me to stop or play something else or even becoming the least exasperated when I asked her, yet again, for the tenth or eleventh or twelfth time “What does it mean?”
“There were a lot of rumors when it came out,” she would say. “But nobody really knows.”
I was convinced, in those days, that my favorite rock critic, the most honest person I knew (or ever would know), was keeping some horrible adult secret from me. I was convinced of it, even though she never had the least bit of trouble telling me I was too young if I really was. Such is the power of the Gothic tale.
By the way, I’ll save my deep thoughts for a “How Much Can One Record Mean” post some day, but this much I can say here: There are still a lot of rumors about what “Ode to Billie Joe” means. And just because Bobbie Gentry has taken a stab at explaining it herself, doesn’t mean anybody really knows.
* * * *
You might think that, having been captured by a 45, I would seek to replicate the experience. I did not. I’m not sure why. Money would certainly have been an object. I didn’t have any. I did not get an allowance. Any money I made working for my father, from nine to nineteen, went into a college fund (which would remain untouched and, in its interest-bearing entirety, one day pay for exactly three months at university…there were reasons we did not buy many records at my house).
But it’s just as possible that, being surrounded by music in the house, I did not feel any great need to seek it elsewhere. And still more possible that being captured by that particular 45 put a brake on what might otherwise have been my natural development.
In any case, time passed, and we moved to another part of the state. For reasons I went on at some length about here and here and here, I became a record junkie.
And a smart aleck.
One day, in my full-blown smart-alecky phase–sixteen maybe, or seventeen–I was listening to the radio in my room (yeah I listened to the real radio by then, a lot). The local Top 40 came out of South Alabama and played a mix of current hits and oldies. It was a Saturday and me and my favorite rock critic were cleaning my room and one of Roy Orbison’s ballads came on. “Only the Lonely” if memory serves. Roy at his greatest. Elvis’ favorite singer. I thought I’d play a smart aleck joke on my favorite rock critic, who was a huge Elvis fan, so I spent two and a half minutes convincing her it was Elvis. She didn’t buy it at first, but I was so convincing, and she so much believed I was sufficiently like her that I wouldn’t treat such a thing frivolously or pointlessly, that she finally accepted my truth. Elvis sang “Only the Lonely.”
One of Elvis’s ballads came on. God help me if it wasn’t “Love Me Tender,” which, perhaps sacrilegiously, I’ve never really considered primo Elvis and, as a record, wouldn’t consider in the same league with “Only the Lonely” even to this day.
Except…The joke, my joke, was about the voices. Not the records.
As my favorite rock critic liked to tell people with a smile ever after, when she, never I, would bring up the story: “And you could hear the difference. . . .Right away.”
By which she meant, you could hear why Elvis was Elvis, even on “Love Me Tender” and why even Roy Orbison wasn’t, even on “Only the Lonely.”
And, God help me, you could.
That was the last time I tried to play a musical joke on anybody, let alone my favorite rock critic.
But something about that moment made us closer (perhaps I should say even closer) than we had been. I think the shock I felt at being so coyly betrayed by the Cosmos, and the clarity with which I learned my lesson, left her with a feeling that we might meet in the middle on my new favorite subject…that she might yet teach me something about it that couldn’t be learned in books.
She taught me.
One thing she taught me was not to take professional rock critics too seriously. A few years later, I gave her Greil Marcus’s Mystery Train, with which I was very much impressed at the time, to read. Her response to the Elvis part was, “Well, at least he treated him with some respect.” Which was her way of saying he didn’t quite get it, a judgment which time has confirmed. On the other hand, her response to Marcus’s description of Randy Newman’s “Sail Away,” (“a vision of heaven superimposed on a vision of hell”), which I read to her right after I played her the record, was: “Yes, that’s perfect.” Meaning both the record and the description, judgments time has also confirmed.
And she “got” things I didn’t get but someday would: Everything from Grease to, yes, Elvis.
Most of all, my favorite rock critic got voices. Their power, their seduction and, above all else, their cost. The only two voices she ever described as being “like an angel,” were Martin Luther King’s and Karen Carpenter’s. I’m not sure I took that comparison (which she never made directly) all that seriously. Kinda silly really. Until Karen Carpenter turned up dead. Turned out, my favorite rock critic knew, just by listening, who was likely to be chased out of this world by hellhounds. So while I didn’t know if she was wise beyond her years, I soon learned she was wise beyond mine. There was, for instance, no chance anyone raised by my favorite rock critic would ever be taken in by Johnny Rotten (the way to dusty death for me, whatever he meant to you).
Thus, there were some happy days, of which a few still stand out:
One day I was listening to this…
…and she asked me who it was. When I told her, she smiled and nodded and said: “I knew it had to be brothers. Only families can harmonize like that.”
Another day, (the day after I brought it home and played it as incessantly as I’d played “Ode to Billie Joe” once upon a time), this…
My favorite rock critic: “Now who did that song you were playing last night.”
Me: “A group called the Shangri-Las.”
My favorite rock critic (with her familiar smile and nod): “I thought it was them. I always remembered them because they were always so different.”
Another day, this…
…to which, assuredly: “That’s as good as Little Richard.”
Another day, this (just out on the radio)…
The opening chord was chiming as we pulled into a parking space at the bank, me driving (she didn’t), me in control of the radio (she always let me), me ready to go inside, her saying: “Oh let’s listen to this.” To this day, I don’t know whether my favorite rock critic loved the song or just knew I did. She’d have told me if I asked. But my favorite rock critic knew I wouldn’t.
Voices. Or maybe just sounds.
Another day, this…
My favorite rock critic, with her eyes closed, ten seconds into hearing it for the first time and not knowing the Band from Adam: “They must have played together for years to have that kind of timing.”
Voices. Or sounds.
Another day, it might be this…
And my favorite rock critic would say something like “Where do you find these?” and I would be able to recount little tales of the record collector’s art that, among other things, demonstrated that professional rock critics were not always entirely worthless!
(My favorite rock critic in her element. That’s our long-gone stereo behind the chair. I still have the guitar. I can’t play a lick and it’s one of exactly three physical possessions that will have to be pried from my cold, dead fingers.)
Then, one day, it was late in the game, toward the change, when the happy days weren’t so common and were more typified by me playing something like this…
And my favorite rock critic, eyes closed, her own voice racked by age and disease, sighing and saying, “I used to sing like that.” To which my father, befuddled, said “You never sounded like that.” Meaning my favorite rock critic was an operatic soprano, not a soul baritone. To which I said, as gently as I could: “That’s not what she meant.” Meaning even my favorite rock critic never spoke truer.
(My favorite rock critic, near the end of happy days)
Anybody who has followed the blog knows my favorite rock critic was a major Elvis fan.
They may not know that she always thought if she could have reached Elvis somehow she could have saved his life. Tom Petty was among the many who thought the same. I doubt anyone could have, but if anyone could have, I’d have bet on my favorite rock critic before I bet on anyone else.
They may know that my favorite rock critic used to tell stories about singing with the hobos, who eventually taught her to hop trains, in the Salisbury, North Carolina train yard when she was barely older than I was when I had my first musical memory.
They may not know that she started to give me and our pastor’s son guitar lessons but went in the hospital two lessons in for one of her longer stays. By the time she got out, the pastor’s son was on summer vacation. By the time he got back, his father had found a new church. I don’t think either she or I knew that the real reason I didn’t want to take guitar lessons again was that my nine or ten-year-old self–not much younger than she was when she hopped those trains and rode them only to the edge of town–arrived at some subconscious conclusion that guitar lessons equaled hospital visits and there were enough of those already.
That’s how it is, sometimes, when your favorite rock critic happens to be the person who brought you into this world.
If I’m even a little bit better person than I was born to be, I have my favorite rock critic to thank. And wherever she is now, I know she can see and hear my earliest memory–wherever and whenever it was–far more clearly than I can.
And, if she ever thinks about that moment when I was running around like a chicken with my head cut off, wherever and whenever it was, I know she’s smiling, knowing it turned out okay.
Here’s to then. . . .And to Voices. And sounds.
Happy Mother’s Day!
(Next Up: My Favorite Music to Break Rulers By…By Which I Mean the Kind You Can Use for Drumsticks If You Don’t Have Drums)
There are some artists I keep coming back to, assuming at some point I’ll get it.
This week, I think I finally got Jerry Lee Lewis.
Oh, I’ve listened to a lot of his music, from all eras, over the years. I count fourteen vinyl LPs on my shelf, several of which have seen heavy play at one time or another (I’m especially fond of the album he did with his sister). I owned the first Bear Family box set, a massive collection that runs to something like 8 CDs as I remember, until the great CD selloff of 2002. And I’ve never had any problem seeing him as an all timer in both rock and roll and country.
But, as with certain others–Ray Charles and Otis Redding come to mind–I could appreciate the greatness, and love a dozen or so songs unreservedly, without quite feeling him at the deepest, most unreserved, level.
Now, as with Ray Charles and Otis Redding of late, I think I finally really get him.
The box set pictured above is all the Killer I have on CD at present. It’s been kicking around for a couple of years and I had listened to it once through when I first got it.
But this time I actually went in the other room and let it drift through the house and it turned out that, straining just a bit to hear, being half-distracted by a work project-from-hell, was the ticket in.
I suddenly felt like I was standing outside a country church listening to somebody preach to the empty pews as if they were on fire and stomping on a piano was the only chance of putting them out. That’s kind of a melodramatic and hokey image, but it suits Jerry Lee’s insularity. I think maybe the reason I never quite “got” him was that he always sounded like he was singing mostly to himself.
In that respect, he really was the first true punk. The first, and maybe only, rock and roller sufficiently narcissistic to prophesy Johnny Rotten.
Like Johnny Rotten, Jerry Lee was born to be a Show Biz Lifer. Like Johnny Rotten, he will always be viewed by many as unrepentant, crude, the opposite of a sellout, no matter how artfully he represents himself or his art and no matter how many times he stands before some version of the man with his hat in his hand, begging for one more chance. Like Johnny Rotten, he’s completely full of himself, to the exclusion of all others, living or dead.
Unlike Johnny Rotten, he clearly believes that among the excluded are God and his own immortal soul. Hence the devil’s own assurance in every note sung or played. Hence the burden of genuine torment, eternally dancing around the edges, forever needing to be dodged or bucked.
Hence the famous argument with Sam Phillips, which occurs here at the end of the first disc.
I honestly never thought much about it before. I’d heard it maybe half an dozen times, here and there. There’s not really anything too startling about it….
Heck, in the Pentecostal South that’s just good dinner table conversation.
But by then that first disc had called up the image of the loner inside the empty church, confronted by his own demons, and the first twenty-three cuts had taken the story all the way up to 1963. The music and the man had traveled from “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On” to “Carry Me Back to Ol’ Virginia,” from the eye of the good old rock ‘n’ roll hurricane to country so pure that when Nashville finally decided the unrepentant Killer’s half a decade of constant repentance was enough, half of it made the Top Ten six years after the fact.
The Country Top Ten that is.
Jerry Lee under wraps had his own kind of power and, if I always sort of knew it, it never came home quite so forcefully before.
Maybe because the first time I listened to this box I clearly wasn’t paying attention to the continuity of it all.
The Great Divide, the pure representation of the wife-beating gun nut beloved by the purest representatives of the Good Liberal intelligentsia everywhere, was there all along and I could always feel it, waiting to be bridged.
Nothing quite did it until this time around, when I went straight from the end of the first disc and Jerry Lee saying “If I believed that, I’d be a Christian!” (and applying a meaning to “Christian” that is unlikely to ever be spelled out in any dictionary unless we arrive in some strange future where a Southern Evangelical Mystic has taken over for Noah Webster, an event that is even less likely to occur than the Yankees believe) to the first cut of the second disc, which was only this…
..with Jerry Lee playing Mephistopheles in a preacher’s coat, the Big Bad Wolf, right up on stage, with the pulpit kicked aside, the pews no longer empty, the fire still burning, and every Little Red Riding Hood in Birmingham, Alabama clapping and stomping her feet.
Which was what I always wanted from him and never quite got before–something more than a sense he was putting on a show for the Yanks.
Now I think I get it.
He might not be the only hell raiser who ever sold his soul to the devil. But I can’t listen to those sides bumping into each other and believe he was anything but one of the very few who went in knowing the cost.
Suddenly, his whole career makes sense.
And I really got to find a way to get hold of that 8-disc Bear Family monster again.
THE BELIEVER MAGAZINE: It seems like the middle of the ’60s marked a distinct change in the demographics, subculture, and kinds of restaurants and clubs that filled Hollywood from what had been the popular landmarks during your father’s generation–like Ciro’s, the Trocadero, etc. Was there a reason that you weren’t part of this transformation? Was that your label’s decision?
NS: No, Reprise was very much into that scene. They had a lot of great artists join the label at that point. But I think most of the executives at the label looked at me as Frank’s daughter. They didn’t look at me as a fashion icon or an influence on the women’s movement or anything like that. The just tolerated the existence of me. And I know the result of it made me not welcome by my musical peers. I never felt I was part of [a scene], and they never accepted my music or me.
(Source: The Believer, July/August 2014)
This month marks the centenary of Frank Sinatra’s birth and there have been plenty of celebratory markers, including Sinatra being named “Voice of the Century” by London’s Daily Mail and a new, much-lauded documentary on HBO. As in much of the past twenty years or so, deserved acknowledgment of Frank’s genius has come from across the political spectrum (you can get a sampling from conservative critic Terry Teachout (Commentary, The Wall Street Journal) here and The Daily Beast‘s Allen Barra here).
Me, I appreciate Frank a lot, both as a singer and an actor and, of course, he’s the greater artist and all that. No one’s going to put his daughter up for Voice of the Century.
But the last measure for a fan of singers is the listening they do and, when it comes down to it, I’ve always listened more to Nancy.
The famous Nancy, of course…the Nancy of “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’” and “Sugartown” and those strange, cool duets with Lee Hazlewood.
And the not-quite-so-well-known Nancy, too (I’m especially fond of her “Hard Hearted Hannah”…aka “the vamp of Sa-van-nah, G-A!”)
More than that, though, I’ve listened to this Nancy…the Nancy who is neither terribly hip or, outside of her hardcore fans, terribly well-known. The Nancy of Nancy:
Along about now, I should make two things clear.
First, I don’t believe in “kitsch” or “camp” values. I don’t think art should be a shield, or an inside joke or a snigger. It works on you or it doesn’t. It gets around your defenses…Or it doesn’t.
Nancy’s music was hit and miss for me, to be sure, but I never thought “ah well, I really like that, but I better put it through the hipster strainer before I confess it to anybody.”
What I might or might not confess to others in any given moment has always depended on a number of factors (albeit fewer and fewer as I get older and older). But what I believe has always depended on how the object of belief struck me.
And only me.
I thought Nancy Sinatra was great back in the late seventies, the first time I heard “Sugartown” on a small-town radio station in the Florida Panhandle (’bout sixty miles from Tall-a-has-see, where it very definitely “also rains”).
The station played a very odd mix of current pop and country hits and threw in an oldie every hour or so that was always announced by a warm, friendly male voice that I later learned was computer-generated and named “Bruce.” (The oldies in question, incidentally, were a constant rotation of about a dozen songs–the four I remember are “Sugartown,” Lulu’s “Oh Me, Oh My” and Tanya Tucker’s “Lizzie and the Rainman” and Led Zeppelin’s “D’yer Mak’er,” all of which are still playing in my head no matter how long it’s been since I last heard them.)
I’ve thought she was great–no fooling or excusing–ever since.
Having said all that, I freely confess I bought the album above for the cover.
Three bucks at a record show? What, are you kidding? So what if it didn’t have any hits on it (all I knew of her at the moment) and so what if the idea of Nancy doing “Light My Fire” or “Big Boss Man” seemed a bit of a stretch even for a fan like me?
Didn’t matter. I wanted that record cover in my house!
Mind you, I didn’t even know about Nancy’s killer album covers back then (circa 1990 or so–long before she had registered any significant reverse-hip-cred from the likes of Morrissey, or her definitive version of “Bang, Bang” had provided the only piece of music ever played in a Quentin Tarantino film that promised something he couldn’t possibly either deliver or successfully take a crap on). I don’t think I had ever even seen this one. But I was buying that record of hers, even if I never played it more than once or ever bought another one.
To be honest I didn’t have terribly high expectations when I got it home and put it on the record player. See, I didn’t have camp values then, either. But I had the mistaken impression that certain things could never transcend camp. They were bound to be that, or they were bound to be nothing.
Like Nancy Sinatra doing “Big, Boss Man” for instance.
Boy was I wrong.
“Big Boss Man” was at the top of side two (back when you had to flip the darn things in the middle!), and I knew I was wrong long before then.
Side one started with “God Knows I Love You,” which is one of those old-fashioned romancers that, if it ever took place anywhere, did so as far from Hollywood High as anybody could get, and wasn’t likely to grab me less with each ensuing year of confirmed bachelorhood.
I was suspicious of it, to be sure. It was, like a lot of Nancy’s music, familiar, without being quite like anything else. There wasn’t anything to orient it to–to help me figure out whether it was actually good. It was dangerous because it made me want to develop a camp impulse just so I’d have somewhere to put it.
Nothing could make me more suspicious than that. Not then and, frankly, not now.
So, as my own brand of defense, I figured “well, it’s definitely got something” I wasn’t sure what, except that it probably drove the staff at Rolling Stone deeper into drugs and delusion.
That and the cover surely made it worth three bucks!
I might have been safe, then. That might have sufficed, if only the “one cut’s bound to be pretty good at least” syndrome had kicked in and the rest of the album had left me be.
On the very next track she plain-songed “Memories” into a completely different take on Elvis’ heavy (and gorgeous if, for once, actually a tad louche in the manner some critics were always pretending was his norm) sentiment.
That got me listening closer, thinking…well-l-l-l….
Well, I didn’t think too long before I realized I was smack dab in the middle of my first great “easy listening for the midnight hours” album, and it was all the greater because it so obviously wasn’t easy at all.
How “not easy” has been made clearer by the decades since, when Nancy has been joined by Doris Day and Harry James’ soundtrack for Young Man With a Horn, Sam Cooke’s Night Beat, Charlie Rich’s Set Me Free, Louis Armstrong’s Favorites, and the odd item from Julie London as the handful of albums that fill that very particular smoky space.
I don’t mean those are the only albums I play after midnight or even the ones I play most. Just that those are the ones that suit a particular mood and, if you study those names, you can see it’s both the highest company a certain kind of singer can keep and the company is hardly rooted in genre or style, unless “Midnight Blues For One” really is its own style.
I don’t know what possessed Nancy Sinatra to make such an album in 1969, immediately upon her split with her hit-making producer Lee Hazlewood. Whatever it was, it wasn’t born of any impulse to follow the fashion. Torch albums by top-40 gals weren’t exactly the going thing in the Age of Aquarius, even if the top-40 gal was Frank Sinatra’s daughter.
So it was an act–or series of acts–that required some kind of artistic courage. And there’s a certain style of courage that always shines through, provided a proper measure of talent is also on hand. Courage is never enough by itself.
So, at the moment when her eternally hip father was, frankly, embarrassing himself trying to keep up with the times, Nancy reached straight across the broadest possible Pop spectrum and made that reach seem natural–ran the songs I already mentioned into the quiet seduction of “Just Bein’ Plain Old Me,” and a country-politan arrangement of “Here We Go Again” and a tender rendition of “My Dad (My Pa)” that provided a perfect setup for her to torch “Light My Fire” to within an inch of its life.
In other words, made the kind of effects her Dad was trying–and failing–to pull off at the time seem easy as pie.
And, like I say, that was all before she got to this…
…at which point I was a complete goner. ready to track down every Nancy Sinatra album in existence (which, given when and where I was getting ready to do this was, shall we say, a lot harder than it is now…and didn’t come close to landing me any more three-dollar deals either). I mean, plain-songing “Memories” was one thing and torching “Light My Fire” was another thing but plain-song-torching a number that already existed in truly great versions by Jimmy Reed, Elvis, Charlie Rich, Bobbie Gentry and maybe fifty or sixty other folks and making them all sound like they had missed the point…well…that was some kind of perverse genius and if I wasn’t quite past the point of caring who knew it then, I’m way past the point of caring who knows it now.
Frank found his stride again soon enough (turned out retiring, officially or unofficially, and coming back, officially or unofficially depending on how you left it, was the Career Move of the Century–it beat dying by miles and these days, you practically can’t find a big name in Show Biz who hasn’t tried it, up to and including Johnny Rotten.) Nancy, the meanwhile, soldiered on for a couple of years and started going decades between comebacks, always with some good things, but never quite hitting this height again.
Somewhere in those decades, she started to get hip. Not just quasi-hip but really hip, so much so that she finally reached the Quentin-Tarantino-has-you-in-his-movie-the-producer-from-the-Sopranos-is-on-the-phone-you’re-in-regular-rotation-on-Little-Steven’s-Underground-Garage-and-Greil-Marcus-is-calling-you “shockingly avant garde” stage, which is to say she had finally grabbed all the hipness and cultural currency our present world has to offer.
Which is great. On top of everything else, she always seemed like the sort of decent stick who deserved it and double for all the crap she undoubtedly had to put up with from what she nicely termed her “musical peers.”
Very few of those peers had the guts to truly go their own way when “being hip” was nowhere in sight. And these days, you don’t need to scour record shows or out-of-the-way vinyl bins in Florida beach towns to find a copy of Nancy. Right now you can go on Amazon and pick it up for a mere thirty bucks. Wait a week and maybe it will be a little more or a little less, but in any case, it will have a bunch of beautiful bonus tracks, which, unlike the bonus tracks on nearly every other reissue in existence, actually deepen and enhance the original concept and end with this, which we can all ponder as our overlords seek the newest excuse to send the next batch of twenty-year-olds into the next meat-grinder with the same old promise to make it come right this time.
So thanks, Nancy. Thanks, on the hundredth anniversary of your legendary dad’s birth, for staying true to something other than a moment of turbulence and helping see me and ever how many others through the long decades of increasingly discomforting numbness that have descended upon us ever since.
I have to walk softly around Karen Carpenter, lest I get something opened to the bone.
I’m of the Seventies–different than having merely lived through them, though that was trial enough. So between her and, say, Johnny Rotten, I never was confused about which one was an eminently reliable Show-Biz Lifer and which one was being ridden by a Hellhound. Not even lingering memories of an overdose of “Rainy Days and Mondays” in Junior High Chorus could make it otherwise. (The other biggie, circa the fall of 1972, was Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again Naturally,” a cheery paean to Suicide evidently deemed suitable for seventh-graders. No idea if that teacher ever suffered a reprimand, let alone offed himself. “The Seventies,” for those who are neither of them nor old enough to even remember, was a time of some extremely weird Ju-Ju.)
That being said, I didn’t necessarily love a lot of the Carpenters’ records. The need to fence the female voice in takes a lot of different forms and brother Richard’s preferred method–perhaps a bit too ably aided and abetted by massive public acclaim–was to ladle on tastefully muted instrumental touches and needlessly cushy vocal overdubs. Over time, even his melodies got a bit sing-songy for my tastes.
Those elements aren’t entirely gone here, by any means, but this BBC concert from 1971 is still a godsend–early days with just enough of the sheen knocked off, just enough of the time, for the Voice to truly take hold in front of an audience that clearly knows what it’s getting.
And, somewhere in there, she absolutely kills “Rainy Days and Mondays.”
For the most part I never connected too deeply with his music even though–for reasons I’ll touch on below–I certainly admire a lot of it. The one time I did connect, with the Velvet Underground’s Loaded, I connected about as deeply as anyone can–on that level that means all else is forgiven, assuming anything needs to be.
And by “all else” I do mean all.
There are/will be a lot of encomiums to Reed’s status as a founder (perhaps the founder) of “punk.” That doesn’t carry much weight with me. It was rock and roll that I loved and I always took Johnny Rotten at his word when he used to say, more or less, that he had come to destroy it. I never did get around to thanking him for succeeding.
Reed was not Johnny Rotten.
He was cantankerous, of course, maybe even obnoxious. Sometimes maybe to the right people, though I’ve never known anyone who made a habit of being obnoxious who was obnoxious only to the right people. The price you pay I guess and it’s certainly better to be right some of the time than never. A two-edged sword beats no sword at all.
Of course, I do remember reading a nice, blunt, single-edged quote of his where he claimed, in effect, that the reason tourists got mugged in New York was because they didn’t know how to spot muggers and stay out of trouble. Assuming he wasn’t misquoted–and it sure sounded like him–that always struck me as the perfect “New York” attitude. Sort of like: “I’m from here, you’re not. Therefore one of us is a rube and I think we know which one that is.” Try as they might, even the nicest New Yorkers–or make that “New Yorkers”–seem to have a bit of this in them.
Lou Reed had a lot of it.
As for me, I happened to have been raised among the rubes (Florida division), by an ex-carnie who took me to Disney World not too long after it opened in the early seventies and, after walking around for about ten minutes, said “Somebody finally figured out a way to cut the travel expenses”–and proceeded to explain to me just what sort of security apparatus had to be in place to maximize the profit on a deal like that (said apparatus, which evidently includes what I really hope is the world’s only amusement park secret police force was scandalously exposed many years later, though, in the usual manner of these things, it has since been swept back down the memory hole). Given that and all the country music (“Daddy left them both, soaking up the sawdust on the floor,” “Pardon me, I’ve got someone to kill,” like that) and Baptist preaching (the profession my ex-carnie Dad would be pursuing within a year or two) that was in the air–I ended up being a little difficult to impress with “attitude,” punk or otherwise.
But having said all that, I never saw any point in blaming Lou Reed for “godfathering” such things.
It would be like blaming Hitchcock for the state of the modern horror movie or John Ford for the state of the modern western or Patty Loveless for the state of contemporary country radio.
The geniuses do what they do. They create the possibilities and the state of wonder. If we muck it up, then it’s on us, not them.
And Lou Reed was a genius. I may never have connected on the deepest level with any of his albums except Loaded, but there were plenty of other individual tracks that struck home and, really I’d say the same even if none of them had because, even if a given song didn’t strike home with me, I always got why it struck home with others.
It might not have been my life he was singing about. It might not have even been the life of somebody I “related” to or vaguely understood or even wanted to understand.
But I always felt like he was singing about somebody’s life.
So whatever poses he struck, I never understood posing to be his thing.
Always figured him for real.
Never more so than here, from, yes, Loaded, when he spoke most truly for all of us who used the music of the revolution to seek shelter from the storm:
…Or, “Yes, There Was a Reason They Drafted Him…However Coincidentally”
A few weeks turned out to be a few months, but I’m finally getting around to continuing the discussion of Elvis Presley’s unprecedented impact in the fifties. Parts 1 through 5 can be accessed in the “Concerning Elvis” category on the right (you’ll have to scroll down a bit–I’ve been busier than I thought). I indicated at the end of Part 5 that I would use this as a sort of philosophical summation, but I realized in the intervening gap that I had left out one important statistical component of my basic argument–and that it was perhaps the most important one!–so I’m inserting it here. It’s a little shorter than previous posts but I think it covers some necessary ground.
(NOTE: Up until November 10, 1958, Billboard’s Pop Chart was divided into multiple lists–for a time, as many as four per week. For historical purposes, any record that made it to the top of any of these charts is generally considered a #1 hit. Thus, there may be significantly more than fifty-two weeks’ worth of “#1″ records in any given year from 1954 to 1958.)
(SECOND NOTE: Within the definition of “rock and roll” below, I stretched to include the rather dubious likes of Charlie Gracie and Paul Anka–that is to say I even included artists who might well have enjoyed very similar levels of success with very similar sounding records had rock and roll never happened but who nonetheless can at least tangentially be called “rock and roll” acts. I also included those ballads, like Tommy Edwards’ “It’s All In The Game,” which at least get played on rock and roll oldies stations. I did, however, exclude “novelty” records, which tend to thrive in defiance of purely musical trends.)
So to begin, let’s consider the rise of Rock and Roll in three not entirely arbitrary stages:
Stage 1: July 19, 1954–April 21, 1956 (Elvis’ first official release on Sun to the week when his first major label release, “Heartbreak Hotel,” reached the top of the national pop charts)
Stage 2: April 21, 1956–March 24, 1958 (Elvis’ first national chart #1 to his induction in the Army)
Stage 3: March 24, 1958–April 25, 1960 (Army induction to his first post-Army release, “Stuck On You,” reaching the top of the national charts)
Now some statistics:
STAGE ONE (7/54–4/56):
Total weeks at #1–all artists: 125
Total weeks at #1–Rock and Roll artists only: 10 (8% of total)
Total weeks at #1–Elvis only: 0 (0% of Rock total)
STAGE TWO (4/56–3/58):
Total weeks at #1–all artists: 152
Total weeks at #1–Rock and Roll artists only: 83 (55% of total)
Total weeks at #1–Elvis only: 56 (67% of Rock total)
STAGE THREE (3/58–4/60):
Total weeks at #1–all artists: 119
Total weeks at #1–Rock and Roll artists: 71 (60% of total)
Total weeks at #1–Elvis only: 4 (6% of Rock total)
Followed by some quick thoughts:
Studying these numbers, a few things become obvious.
Rock and roll took off into the stratosphere and moved to the very center of American culture in the two years before Elvis went into the Army, (in the time frame which I’ve called “Stage 2”).
It took off into the stratosphere and moved to the very center of American culture (as opposed to becoming a real hot fad in the music business) because of–and only because of–Elvis Presley’s extraordinary success.
Elvis spent more than twice as many weeks at #1 in Stage 2 as all other rock and roll acts combined–even if “rock and roll” is stretched to its furthest possible definition. (Meaning, incidentally, the definition Elvis’ success gave it.)
As one method of considering rock and roll’s impact without Elvis: Pat Boone alone spent 18 weeks at #1 in Stage 2….all rock and roll acts not named Elvis Presley spent a total of 27 weeks at #1.
As another more straightforward method of consideration: Without Elvis, rock and roll only takes up about 28% of the total weeks at #1 in this all important and likely decisive stage.
That’s a long way from nothing. It’s a pretty big deal, moving from 10% to 28%. But, without Elvis, it’s not even close to being a Revolution. (Never mind that, absent Elvis, even the 28% would certainly be lower–he brought a lot of his competition with him.)
When we look at Stage 3, we find that Rock and Roll, broadly defined, really had become the dominant music (in the very era when rock historians have typically written it off), which it would remain until the rise of Hip Hop in the nineties. But that’s mostly because literally every record company in America had made a point of getting in on the act in the wake of Elvis’s extraordinary success, which was of a measure that no savvy businessman could afford to ignore.
Hence, what we find in Stage 3 is a string of #1 hits by Elvis surrogates: Bobby Darin, Conway Twitty, Ricky Nelson, Frankie Avalon, Paul Anka…even Johnny Preston and Mark Dinning (not to mention Nashville acts like the Everly Brothers and Johnny Horton and Marty Robbins who were still benefiting from the phenomena I discussed at length in Part 5, though that was about to end). These young men who might not have had recording contracts without Elvis re-directing the music business–and who certainly would have been singing a different kind of music–held the line until the main force returned (whence he immediately spent sixteen of the next thirty-seven weeks at #1 himself and spearheaded a “velvet revolution” in ballad singing that would flip the script so thoroughly that following developments–be it the Beatles or Dylan or Hendrix or Aretha or Johnny Rotten–became predictable in their broad outlines, however unforeseeable they were in their specifics. About that, more later, as we move into Elvis’ post-Army career.)
I wanted to present these numbers in simple, stark form, because I think they make the case more clearly than any amount of anecdotal evidence could, that, without Elvis Presley, the cultural narrative of the post-war era would be remarkably different. I’ll go into that more deeply in Part 7 before I move on to his return from the army.
If you’ve been following along for a bit here, then you’ve probably been able to guess that I have a high tolerance for what some folks call the “soft middle” of popular music (others call it the “evil-pond-scum-swilling-soul-sucking-die-you-fascist-pig middle” but I must troll along with my own judgements and do the best I can).
I mean, sorry, but I never thought “I Honestly Love You” or “Mandy” actually represented threats to the survival of the republic.
Even so, driving back from town night before last, returning from a secret 3:00 a.m. assignation with a dumpster (I just installed a floor, lots of scrap plywood in need of disposal around here), I was punching the car radio buttons, looking for a means to stay awake at the wheel, when I landed in the middle of “I’d Really Love To See You Tonight” and–perhaps because my weakened condition kept me from being able to summon sufficient energy to once more change the station–I came as close as I ever do to conceding that the “die-you-fascist-pig” contingent might have a point.
Every man has his breaking point, after all, and warm winds blowing stars around in sterilized two-part harmony designed to make the Everly Brothers shoot themselves in the head is pretty close to mine.
However, just as my palsied, enervated hand was at last finding the strength to reach for the relief of the late night UFO report or the BBC world news or, God forbid, the modern country station, the death song ended and, without even the obligatory digitalized ID call that blights virtually all radio experiences these days, Max Weinberg started hitting that same square inch of skin that always announces the birth-pang arrival of “Born In The U.S.A.,” his boss’ semi-heroic attempt to get America out of Viet Nam that came out in 1984.
And not only did I come fully awake, I managed to formulate and call forth a previously unbidden thought, which articulated itself (more or less) as:
“Johnny Rotten be damned….That’s how you answer England Dan and John Ford Coley!”
Of course, before the song even ended, it occurred to me that Springsteen, God bless him, is still trying to get us out of Viet Nam (“We Take Care of Our Own” is his latest, quite honorable, attempt) and–however many body bags do or do not pile up in any given year–is still no closer to succeeding.
So I went from the Dead Zone to the Mountaintop to the Valley of Despair in the space of five minutes right there on Highway 27 on my way home from the dumpster (see, I told you my condition was weakened).
Then, without my quite noticing it, “Born In The U.S.A.” bled into “Evil Ways” and a light came on.
Another unbidden thought.
“Hey,” I realized. “I think this is the song I’ve always wanted to secretly dedicate to Richard Nixon!”
I’ve been seeking one for a long time.
Always knew he deserved one of his own, by God–ever since that day ten or fifteen years back when I realized (don’t ask me how) that America actually had been not-so-secretly dedicating the Supremes’ “Reflections” to LBJ for most of my life-time.
Always knew “Ohio” and “Shame, Shame, Shame” were too darn obvious for full satisfaction, too.
Now, at last, this other key, which was lying close to hand all along, suddenly fit the lock.
A slender thread to pull yourself up by you may say, and I may even agree with you.