Thursday, August 6, 2009

That Great Gig in the Sky

There was a painting for sale on eBay a few days ago depicting Elvis, dressed in a white, rhinestone-studded jumpsuit, poised as if he were about to step from a heavenly cloud, his hand extended in welcome to Michael Jackson. Rock and roll heaven, obviously, for which Elvis serves as gatekeeper, the role of St. Peter. Of course, the word kitsch immediately comes to mind, but what interests me more than the relationship between kitsch and mass culture is the link between Elvis and Michael Jackson. The painting seems to answer the fundamental question, did-he-go-to-heaven-or-did-he-go-to-hell? Apparently every rock star, even Jim Morrison, goes to heaven, as he does in the Righteous Brothers’ 1974 hit, “Rock and Roll Heaven”—speaking of kitsch—in which Morrison, Jim Croce, and Bobby Darin are in “a helluva band” along with Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and Otis Redding. The updated, 1990 version of the song added references to Elvis, Marvin Gaye, Jackie Wilson, Dennis Wilson, John Lennon and Roy Orbison. (So far, the only woman privileged enough to enter rock and roll heaven remains Janis Joplin, otherwise it’s a men’s club.) “Rock and Roll Heaven,” of course, is merely the rock incarnation of Tex Ritter’s 1961 country-corn song, “I Dreamed Of A Hillbilly Heaven,” in which all of the dreamed-of elect were also men.

All famous people forge their own spectacularly perverse form of cultural weirdness. Elvis has been perhaps exemplary in this regard, a true cultural obsession. In Dead Elvis (1991), Greil Marcus explores this cultural obsession, the “second life” of Elvis as revealed through “songs, art works, books, movies, dreams . . . advertisements, tabloid headlines, bestsellers, urban legends, [and] nightclub japes.” (One example of Elvis in the popular imagination is his depiction on the Bill Barminski cover for the 12” EP by Death Ride ’69, Elvis Christ [1988], shown above.) And now Michael Jackson, too, has begun his second life, his life after death, having joined Elvis in heaven for a great gig in the sky. The painting I saw for sale on eBay demonstrates as much, that Michael Jackson has entered a new phase, an image detached from his body, during which his image floats around to be attached to all sorts of cultural artifacts. This new, disembodied phase might well be called, Michael: The Ashtray.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Blog Days

Since we’re in the dog days, I thought I’d reflect on my blog these days. In an earlier post, in January of this year, I said I anticipated that I would not be able to stay on par with the number of posts I made last year, and this projection has proved to be true. On this date last year I’d posted 126 times; not counting today’s post, this year I’ve posted only 96 times—that’s thirty fewer posts over the course of seven months, or roughly four per month. The drop-off is slightly more than I thought it would be, but it’s not a huge drop in any case. Perhaps I’ll be able to make some of them up by the end of the year; we’ll see. I’ve found that blogging keeps the old writing muscle in good shape, and I think forcing myself to write regularly has actually enabled me to write both faster and with more accuracy. That’s a subjective impression, of course, but in any case I think despite the time it takes away from other activities, blogging has been good for me, and while the number of posts has dropped slightly this year, hopefully the quality has not. I’m quickly closing in on 40,000 page views, meaning that the past few months have seen a rather sharp increase in hits. So although in terms of numbers my posts are down from last year, the number of hits is up considerably.

By far, the most positive outcome of the blogging experience has been that I’ve discovered things I wouldn’t have otherwise discovered. In that regard I’ve managed to adhere to one rule I set for myself, not to approach the blog with a predetermined agenda or set of issues. Yesterday’s blog entry is a good example: I had only a vague approximation of what I wanted to write about, namely the subject of the rock ‘n’ roll movie, having seen Rock Around the Clock a couple of months ago. Beyond that general topic I had no idea what I wanted to say. I pulled a couple of books on the subject off the shelf— Thomas Doherty’s Teenagers and Teenpics, first issued in the late 1980s and revised and reissued in 2002, and also David Ehrenstein and Bill Reed’s Rock on Film, published in 1982 and badly in need of updating. The books provided me the gist of my blog on the rock movie, but ironically, by what they did not choose to talk about. As I paged through these books, I found myself forming a question, namely that of how the cinema relied on myths of African Americans to shape the fundamental narratives and ideologies of rock ‘n’ roll movies. I think that’s a legitimate question, especially since the so-called “rock ‘n’ roll movie” was one effect of the rock revolution created by Elvis, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and others. Admittedly, my question was formed by skimming two books on the subject, hardly a scholarly approach—but this is a blog, after all, not a scholarly journal. Moreover, my underlying motive is to teach myself something, however modest the insight, not to revolutionize the field of rock studies. I strongly suspect that I’m not the only one to have asked this specific question about the rock movie—in fact, although I have not thoroughly researched the subject, I’m quite sure I’m not. But the more important point is that had I not sat down to write on the subject, I never would have thought seriously about the issue, and that’s the whole point of this blog in the first place. There are days when I feel like throwing in the towel and tearing it all down—I’ve never spoken to a blogger who didn’t have the same inclination—but for now, as long as I’m learning something, I’m content to continue writing. I hope you will stick with me, if for no other reason than the odd pleasure of not knowing where you’re going. Neither do I.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Rock On Film

According to Thomas Doherty, in his book Teenagers and Teenpics, it was the use of “Rock Around the Clock” over the opening credits of Blackboard Jungle—released March 1955—that revealed to Hollywood producers rock music could heighten the appeal of a movie (p. 76). However, early on, movies featuring rock music and rock musicians are largely an undistinguished lot, and command little interest anymore, except that of an historic kind. I recently tried to watch the Sam Katzman produced Rock Around the Clock (released in March 1956 according to the IMDB, that is, precisely a year after Blackboard Jungle), featuring Bill Haley and His Comets as well as Alan Freed, and found myself dozing off after the first thirty minutes. Its most interesting feature was the way it demonstrated how the jive talk of jazz culture was quickly imitated by early rock ‘n’ rollers—the word “bebop,” for instance, was used early on to refer to rock music. This feature is revealing because it shows how early (white) rockers tried to manage their relationship to black (masculine) culture.

This historic hindsight allows us to see that a fundamental problem of early movies about rock music was how to handle the complex negotiation of white forays into black culture. Certainly this problem was often displaced, as it is, for instance, in Rock Around the Clock, in which the underlying dynamic is between competing forms of music. Little Richard and Chuck Berry each appeared in a film in 1956 (Don’t Knock the Rock and Rock, Rock, Rock, respectively) but the figure—the transitional object—that eventually allowed such white forays was, of course, Elvis Presley, who burst onto the national stage in 1956. And yet, with few exceptions, Elvis’s channeling of black male sexuality was largely confined to his stage performance, and virtually absent from his cinematic performances, revealing how rock culture and cinematic culture had radically distinct racial orientations. This disparate orientation explains, I think, why virtually no rock films of this era now have little intrinsic interest beyond their historic (documentary) value. Elvis’s rise to fame coincided with the huge increase in the number of televisions in American homes; the estimated number of viewers who saw Elvis on television in 1956 reveals as much about the sheer number of TV sets in America at the time as it does Elvis’s dynamic stage presence. However, the key point is that what was perceived as so threatening in Elvis’s TV performances is largely absent in his cinematic performances; the same disjunction explains why so many early rock films are so lifeless.