Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.
KJV Matthew 7:5
Little Steven Van Zandt posted a question to his followers on Twitter asking them to name the first album or single they bought. One of the responses was Pronounced Leh-nerd Skin-nerd (the hilarious, self-mocking title of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s first LP).
In reply someone whose Twitter handle is TrumpIsaCriminal wrote:
@littlestevenug should play Skynyrd for a lark. They were not as ahead of the curve as the Allman Brothers, but they were not racists ( though some of their fans might have been).
I immediately thought “As opposed to who else’s fans I wonder?”
It got hilarious, though, when I scrolled through the first two hundred or so responses and found not a single black person had replied, and only one person had mentioned a black record (Eddie Kendricks’ “Keep On Truckin'”). To be fair I had been led to the feed in the first place by Odie Henderson’s funny tweet about going into a record store to buy the Four Tops’ “Reach Out” and hearing Chuck Berry’s “My Ding-a-Ling” on the store speakers and buying that instead. So one black person DID reply, even if he is a professional film critic.
I mean, if Ronnie Van Zant was still alive and had a Twitter account and asked his followers to list the first records they ever bought, the response wouldn’t have been more racist than that would it?
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.
One can still hear people as informed and intelligent as Little Steven Van Zandt opine that the Beatles invented the rock band, because, in addition to writing most of their own songs, they played their instruments in the studio while certain other bands (well, one particular band) only sang over tracks laid down by super-skilled session musicians. So many people have said something similar over the years I had almost taken to believing it myself. Propaganda works on you that way**
Despite what many rock historians and writers have suggested over the years, the instrumental track for this enduring classic features just the Beach Boys themselves: Brian on piano, Al on bass, Carl on guitar and Dennis on drums. Like many songs from this period, the background vocals were recorded and doubled first before Brian sang the lead…
The “enduring classic” was only this…which, once you’ve heard it a thousand times, only emerges as one of the greatest (and subtlest) instrumental tracks on any rock and roll record…on top of all the other things that made you listen a thousand times to begin with:
Somewhere in that piece they suggest (or is it assert?) that “Don’t Worry Baby” was conceived as an answer record to “Be My Baby”
Now that I think of it, this sounds true spiritually, even if it’s debatable as literal fact.
And it makes both records larger….which I admit I didn’t think was humanly possible.
**Wonder if Dave Marsh still thinks (as he asserted in The Heart of Rock ‘n’ Soul) that Tommy Tedesco played the guitar on “Surfin’ U.S.A.”?
NOTE: I’ve spent the last year working on a detective novel which (unlike my previous fiction projects) actually fits the commercial norms of the modern publishing industry, such as it is. I’m pushing myself to finish it by the end of March which is the principal reason posts have been short and sweet of late. There’s only so much “writing time” in a day. That said, these dedications are fun for me and I hope they are for you as well. I’ll be back to longer pieces and deeper thoughts (hah!) in the near future, but, for now, the hits just keep on comin’.
My erstwhile fellow blogger, Neal Umphred, also one of the world’s great authorities on record collecting, has a couple of very interesting Elvis-related posts up (Links below**). We’ve had some back and forth in his comments section which led down the circuitous trail that, via a reference to his experience wearing a Kinks’ button in the late sixties, inspired tonight’s dedication….which is not a record by Elvis or the Kinks.
Of course it’s not. That wouldn’t be circuitous at all!
Neal’s experience (in the late sixties) wearing a Kinks’ button as a kind of secret language understood by few reminded me of my experience with another band and another kind of secret language in junior college a decade or so later (circa the spring of 1980).
I was, by then, the editor of my ju-co newspaper on my way to a career in journalism. That was before my journalism professor, a Florida State grad, inadvertently talked me into becoming an English major (FSU does not have a journalism school) by convincing me I should attend her alma mater. This was happening at the same time my yearbook professor, a University of Florida grad (the only reason I wasn’t editor of the yearbook was because I had already accepted the position as editor of the newspaper), talked me out of going to UF, where I had previously been headed, by suggesting I’d be happier as an English major.
Anyway, with all that roiling around me–I’d been spotted as a talent! Pressure, pressure!–one of the ways I insulated myself from the madness was by walking up to the chalkboard in the journalism room every week or two, taking a furtive look around to make sure no one else was present and writing the following:
Sebastian, Yanovsky, Butler, Boone.
There was a reason I thought somebody–somebody!–might get this.
John Sebastian had been a ubiquitous presence in our high school lives, via his #1 hit with the theme song to Welcome Back Kotter, which also played every week when that show aired. (It was, God help us, very popular with high school audiences of my day. Not everything that was wrong with us could be blamed on the hippies!)
I thought somebody–somebody!–might see the name Sebastian, and think “I wonder if that means the guy who sang ‘Welcome Back Kotter?'” And that after that somebody might have some vague memory that John Sebastian had been the lead singer of a certain rock and roll band from the long lost sixties of our elementary school years.
I waited a whole semester for this to happen. I waited through all the speculation about who might be writing this mysterious message on the journalism school’s chalkboard every week or two. I waited through the occasional dark murmurings that it might be somehow linked to the school’s occasional bomb threats (ubiquitous even on rural southern college campuses back then, lest we forget), which forced evacuations in one building or other (usually around test time) throughout my two years there (though never of the journalism school…which only made some people more suspicious that it might be one of us, utilizing the classic diversionary tactics of guerrilla movements everywhere!)
I waited through the occasional fellow saying that he didn’t know why, but those words continually appearing on, and disappearing from, the board, were driving him crazy!
I waited, hoping somebody–anybody!–would get it.
If it was a guy, I was going to shake his hand and buy him a Nehi Grape sody pop and a Heath ice cream bar (my college drugs of choice).
If it was a girl, I was going to marry her.
I had my priorities straight!
Nobody got it.
I finally had to fess up it was me.
But I never did tell anybody what it meant.
Let the Philistines figure that out for themselves.
I was off to Florida State. To major in English and stay broke the rest of my life!
I’ve stuck to my guns. I got my English degree. I’ve stayed broke.
Many years later, permanently literate, permanently broke, wandering about in the new millenia, I chanced upon Little Steven’s Underground Garage one late night (probably coming home from watching an FSU football game at my friend MG’s house). Little Steven was expounding on the virtues of some sixties’ moment or other (The Big TNT Show?…the memory hazes), and, at the end of a long monologue on how there had been one shining moment when we were truly together he set up the next song by saying:
“before the Empire divided us.”
And he played this, which I now dedicate to whoever’s left in the Empire’s wake, still trying to muddle along, just outside of its Leviathan reach.
Courtesy of Sebastian, Yanovsky, Butler and Boone:
**Link to Neal’s very worthwhile pieces here and here!
The Fabulous Wailers, circa early sixties. Buck Ormsby, far left
Guitar player, producer, label owner, raconteur, talent scout and record hound. And, yeah, visionary.
If anyone could be said to have “invented” the garage band ethos, Buck Ormsby, who passed on October 29th of this relentlessly horrible year, has as much claim as anyone. Much as I”m certain he’d disagree, maybe it’s just as well that, he, of all people, will not live to see what’s coming next, as the things he did as much as anyone could to prevent inevitably wash over us. If his contributions are the among the traces left behind–and you can bet they’ll be among the first things the new Overlords try to erase from human memory–then the future will at least have a chance.
SPANISH CASTLE WIZARD…. Dave Marsh writes: Buck Ormsby was the guitar player in the Wailers of “Tall Cool One” and the leader of all the madhouse rock that came after him and his great band that rescued “Louie Louie” from a trash-heap.
Now, this won’t mean a damned thing to anyone not fully steeped — soaked to the DNA — in Pacific Northwest rock’n’roll lore. But without Buck, and the shows he did with the Wailers and other bands he was in, at the Spanish Castle (not a figment of Jimi Hendrix’s imagination but a true crazoid rocker hatchery) and elsewhere in Seattle and Tacoma and Portland, that whole area, there would not have been the Kingsmen doing “Louie Louie” (because they were only doing it ‘cause they’d seen the Wailers do it), there would not have been any of the Sonics, etc. powerhouse garage punk music, there wouldn’t be any memory of “Louie” at all.
He was a pioneer in having a band own its masters (and for that matter, its record company), he was a champion of the lost memory of Rockin’ Robin Roberts, of the blues and R&B musicians they copped all their licks from before warping them into teenage overdrive. He was one of the toughest guys I ever met and although I usually couldn’t deliver, I’m proud of the fact that he always at least tried to include me in all his over-ambitious projects. He had a vision, more vision than pretty much anybody out there, certainly more vision than anybody in his area until the grunge gangs evolved (and that wouldn’t have happened without the foundations he laid, and there’s nobody part of it I can think of it who was as visionary as Buck was on a bad day). And nobody outside of Seattle-Tacoma-Portland will remember him in a half inch of obituary.
But I can’t forget. He was my shepherd when I wrote the “Louie” book. But it wasn’t just that. He was a throwback to every indomitable rock’n’roll impresario I’ve known from Jeep Holland to Frank Barsalona. He was even in his own merciless way a prefiguration of Little Steven. I own no higher praise.
I told Eric Predoehl, the “Louie” archivist who’s been close to finishing a Louie Louie documentary for the past 25 years that my reaction to the news was “Aw fuck” because I figured that was what Buck would have said. They tore down the Castle to widen the highway, or something equally useless. They will never tear down Buck Ormsby because they can’t even reach that high.
Take it from Jimi, who was there, up front copping licks from all those heroes, and didn’t neglect them as he became one:
Hang on, My Darling, Yeah Hang on if you want to go It puts everything else on the shelf With just a little bit of Spanish Castle Magic Just a little bit of daydream here and there.
Though, in the end, the musicians he aided and abetted on the road to freedom did the best job of all:
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.
Born Paul Revere Dick, as keyboardist, hustler, entrepreneur and visionary, he ended up leading the most successful “garage” band in the history of rock and roll. It was right that they were the most successful, seeing as how they were the best and had basically helped invent the notion (he was already fronting a local band when he got together with lead singer Mark Lindsay in 1958…they had their first hit in 1961 and recorded their version of “Louie, Louie,” the same week as the Kingsmen and in the same studio, a sequence of events I wrote about here, on the eve of the British Invasion).
The revolutionary war costumes they wore were, of course, a play on his name–and a way to stand out from the crowd (not the mention the crown, as the Brits were certainly coming). Little Steven Van Zandt has repeatedly said on his great radio show Little Steven’s Underground Garage that those costumes–so redolent of dread Show Biz–are the main reason the Raiders have never been nominated for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Since Little Steven’s on the nominating committee, I’ll assume he knows of whence he speaks.
So maybe, on the occasion of his passing, it’s worth remembering that Paul Revere was a conscientious objector–in 1959. (His assignment to help out on the psych ward at a mental hospital strikes a chord as it sounds very much along the lines of what happened to my father when he tried to register as a C.O. in World War II, though dad got to spend a few years fighting forest fires and a few months being a psych ward test subject first–at least that’s the way he told it some of the time).
That made Revere one of the very few sixties-era musicians who ever walked the walk, and probably the only one who did so long before it was cool to even talk the talk.
And maybe it’s also worth remembering that, however many very temporary diversions there were along the way, the bands he led for nearly sixty of his 76 years (he left the road only a few months before his death) had a single mission from first to last.
And the mission was…Aw, you know what the mission was.
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.
I just came across this and it’s too good not to pass along (The quote in my title here is something Steven likes to say on his radio show and he likes very much to say it about the artist in question. As well he should.)
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.)