Saturday, March 20, 2010

Arbor Day

In Douglas Sirk’s grand melodrama Written on the Wind (1956), the river represents a sort of lost innocence, a past happiness (however illusory). When in the film the river is finally shown, the actual location associated with this long lost innocence is at the base of a giant old tree (a sycamore?) perched along the bank of the river. The sanctity of the place by the river is like that of a sacred grove. Trees have figured prominently in world mythology, largely figuratively, as in the image of the “tree of life,” for instance, or as a metaphor for family relationships, as in “family tree.” Forbidden fruit is associated with the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, but in The Hanging Tree (1959), the titular tree is a multivalent symbol, an emblem of death (crucifixion) as well as life. The lyrics to Marty Robbins’ song, “The Hanging Tree” makes this linkage explicit: the tree of death becomes the tree of life, associated with the moment in the story when the hero is saved by the power of love. Cast in structuralist terms, the hanging tree is an excessive signifier. In The Melodramatic Imagination, Peter Brooks argues the melodramatic form creates an asymmetrical relationship between the signifier and the signified, specifically, a signified in excess of the signifier. This asymmetry “in turn produces an excessive signifier, making large and insubstantial claims on meaning.” Songwriters love trees because their conventional symbolism allows the songwriter to invoke a certain emotion or value—the oak with steadfast endurance, the (weeping) willow with melancholy, the palm tree with the erotic pleasures of paradise, and so on. The yew tree represents the mourning for a lost loved one, and is associated with death. Hence the yew tree is often found near churches and cemeteries as a reminder to the bereaved of the spirit’s ultimate victory over death. Likewise, in the sublime “Bristlecone Pine,” the tree (several thousand years old) is an image of eternal life. The reference to the sycamore tree in “Mama” Cass Elliott’s “Dream A Little Dream Of Me” (first recorded by Ozzie Nelson and His Orchestra in 1931) is not entirely capricious given that the song is a love song. Given their longevity, there is a long tradition of sycamore trees being planted by the door of the homes of newlyweds. My remarks are intended only to suggest the richness of the subject of the mythology of trees, and are therefore hardly definitive. What follows is a short playlist of songs with arboreal references.

Songs From The Wood:
The Ames Brothers – Tammy
The Andrews Sisters – Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree (With Anyone Else But Me)
Joan Armatrading – Willow
The Band – Whispering Pines
The Beach Boys – California Girls
The Beatles – Matchbox
The Brothers Four – Yellow Bird
Mama Cass Elliott – Dream A Little Dream Of Me
James Darren – Under the Yum Yum Tree
Dawn with Tony Orlando – Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round The Ole Oak Tree
Dino Fitzgerald – Apple on a Cherry Tree
Ella Fitzgerald – St. Louis Blues (Fitzgerald’s version only)
Fleetwood Mac – Bare Trees
Dick Gaughan – The Yew Tree
Johnny Horton – Whispering Pines
Alan Jackson – Tall, Tall Trees
Jethro Tull – Songs From the Wood
Tom Jones – Green, Green Grass of Home
Lynyrd Skynyrd – That Smell
Peter, Paul and Mary – Lemon Tree
The Platters – Trees
Radiohead – Fake Plastic Trees
Marty Robbins – The Hanging Tree
Rush – The Trees
Jim Salestrom – Bristlecone Pine
Frank Sinatra – Willow Weep For Me
The Steve Miller Band – The Joker
U2 – One Tree Hill
Stevie Wonder – Tree

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Invisible Man: Alex Chilton, 1950-2010

When I heard the wholly unexpected news yesterday of Alex Chilton’s death at age 59, I immediately thought of a line from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald (or rather the book’s narrator, Nick Carraway) says about the character Tom Buchanan, who’d been a star football player at Yale, that he is “one of those men who reach such an acute limited excellence at twenty-one that everything afterwards savours of anticlimax.” Such was Chilton’s peculiar fate, to have achieved his greatest success very early on in his life, making everything after that brief time smack of anticlimax. As has been reiterated in the many obituaries available on the web, “The Letter” was a #1 hit by the Box Tops when he was just sixteen years old. But fame behaves rather like the moon—it’s either waxing or waning, so by the time he was nineteen, the Box Tops, or rather a later incarnation of it, had disbanded. At age twenty, in 1971, he formed Big Star (pictured; Chilton is standing), and at age twenty-one he recorded with the band #1 Record, perhaps the group’s best album, released in 1972. The band’s subsequent record, Radio City, was also neglected, and a later one went unreleased for many years. Thus, rather like the Velvet Underground, Big Star’s reputation emerged long after the band itself no longer existed, when its records started showing up in the used record bins, and after the first two albums were reissued. Big Star’s commercial failure was crucial in laying the groundwork for its later influence, as it is based on a fundamental myth of rock culture—first established by The Velvet Underground and Nico album—that initial neglect is a sign of greatness. Chilton himself seemed aware of this myth, saying in later years that he thought the band’s music was overestimated. The L. A. Times obituary quotes him as saying:

“There are only three or four of the tunes, like ‘In the Street’ and ‘When My Baby’s Beside Me,’ that still work for me,” Chilton said in 1995. “I think in general Big Star is overrated.”

Of course, one never asks the artist what he or she thinks of a particular work, as the artist is normally always wrong. I think Adam Duritz of Counting Crows said it best, observing of Big Star, “They sing about all those dreams that you had when you were young that got broken....It was very confused and vulnerable music, and it was great.” Duritz’ point is an important one: the things that make the music valuable to later listeners need not be understood by the artist at the time the music was made. Consider the history of Punk Rock. The term Punk used to describe the culture around a type of rock music had no currency until 1975. But immediately after the word “punk” gained currency, people identified themselves and their culture with the term and they started piecing together a history, memorializing certain figures who came before them and ascribing to those figures their own desires, which these chosen predecessors could not have fully known. Thus, some punks memorialized the MC5, others The Stooges, and still others the Velvet Underground. The new narratives that grew up around punk music invented predecessors who sacrificed for a future they could not have fully understood. Hence Rolling Stone’s proclamation, quoted in the L. A. Times obituary, stating “It’s safe to say there would have been no modern pop movement without Big Star,” is true insofar as Big Star is being memorialized as an influence in the construction of a particular explanatory narrative, but misleading insofar as the members of Big Star could have in any way predicted, or even imagined, their influence on later generations. Chilton’s claim that Big Star is “overrated” should not, therefore, be understood as false modesty: he’s saying, in so many words, he just doesn’t understand what the fuss is all about. I take his remark to be an honest admission. For after all, he might have said, Big Star was hardly the Beatles, whose annus mirabilis was 1964, the year Chilton was a mere thirteen years old. (Where is Elvis in all this, the most famous white singer associated with Memphis then as now?) Many young men in America that year were inspired to form a band and play rock music, and it would seem that Alex Chilton was one of them, although a chance encounter with the Byrds’ Roger McGuinn around 1970 also seems to have been a critical moment in his musical career. In retrospect one wonders whether the music played by Big Star was the kind of music he wanted to play all along, making the years with the Box Tops a career anomaly. Although Americans love to champion individuality and the individual artist, Alex Chilton’s biggest success, such as it was, came out of the creative interaction possible only within a band, not his work as a solo artist. For in Big Star, as The Replacements song, “Alex Chilton,” puts it, Chilton became an “invisible man who can sing in a visible voice.”

Monday, March 15, 2010


Finally having begun reading the essays in Kevin M. Flanagan’s important edition, Ken Russell: Re-Viewing England’s Last Mannerist (Scarecrow Press, 2009), it occurred to me that I had forgotten all about mentioning the interview he conducted with Becky and me about our Donald Cammell book, Donald Cammell: A Life on the Wild Side (2006). The interview was published several months ago in the e-journal Kevin co-edits, The Modest Proposal: A Journal of Books, Opinion, and Comment. I’ll have more to say about his recent book on Ken Russell at a later date, but at any rate, the latest edition of the fine e-journal Kevin co-edits, The Modest Proposal, is available here.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Altered Chords

The sequence in Jailhouse Rock (1957) showing a dirty, sweaty Elvis Presley (playing Vince Everett) in the prison coal yard is the closest the actor ever got to blackface. The practice had largely disappeared by 1952 (that year’s twenty-fifth anniversary remake of The Jazz Singer, starring Danny Thomas, did not include it, surprising given the fact that Al Jolson often used it early on in his career). But according to Krin Gabbard, in Black Magic (2004), Marlon Brando had appropriated black masculinity for his performances in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and in The Wild One (1953). Gabbard observes, “…the makers of The Wild One seemed . . . willing to create a part for Brando that drew upon African American experience. In Wild One, Johnny/Brando does after all ride with the “Black Rebels Motorcycle Club,” and when Johnny and his gang arrive in the small town of Carbondale, “their contempt for its bourgeois culture is entirely consistent with early 1950s bebop ideology and its opaque white Negro jive talk” (45). Curiously, when Johnny/Brando opts to play a jukebox, it plays “the big band arrangements that Leith Stevens wrote for the film” (45).

Brando reportedly had wanted popular cool jazz trumpeter-composer Shorty Rogers to write the music used on the soundtrack for The Wild One, and indeed, the music Rogers wrote for the film was later issued on the RCA Victor label, performed by Shorty Rogers and His Giants. Besides Rogers, the cool jazz style was associated with the Brubeck Quartet and the MJQ, as well as (for a time) Miles Davis and the orchestrations of Gil Evans, but it never displaced bop as the main style of post-war jazz in America. Coded as “white,” it was modern, cerebral, and arranged, and by the mid-50s, was associated with a white, college-educated audience. For by the time The Wild One was released, late in 1953, the Brubeck Quartet had already released Jazz at the College of the Pacific (1953) and Jazz at Oberlin (1953), and was about to release Jazz Goes to College (1954). Hence, in Jailhouse Rock (filmed late April through June 1957, released later that year), a crucial scene takes place in the home of a jazz-loving college professor. Perhaps borrowing a story element from The Man With the Golden Arm (1955), Elvis/Vince has been released from prison with the hope of starting over as a musician. He purchases a guitar and seeks out the “Club La Florita,” where he happens to meet Peggy Van Alden (Judy Tyler) during the performance of a burlesque number (pictured). The two strike up a friendship based on a mutual interest in music, and Peggy eventually invites Elvis/Vince to the home of her parents, where her aforementioned college professor father is having a party. Fortunately, the dialogue of the scene has been recorded by Krin Gabbard in his important work on jazz and the American cinema, Jammin’ at the Margins (1996). Soon after Peggy’s and Vince’s arrival, the conversation turns to jazz music and a jazz figure named “Stubby Ritemeyer,” a fictional musician whom Gabbard believes is based on Shorty Rogers.

“I think Stubby’s gone overboard with those altered chords,” says one of the pompous guests. “I agree,” says another, “I think Brubeck and Desmond have gone just as far with dissonance as I care to go.” “Oh, nonsense,” says a man, “have you heard Lennie Tristano’s latest recording? He reached outer space.” A young woman adds, “Some day they’ll make the cycle and go back to pure old Dixieland.” A well-dressed, older woman says, “I say atonality is just a passing phase in jazz music.” Turning to Presley, she asks, “What do you think, Mr. Everett?” He answers, “Lady, I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about,” and storms out of the house. Followed and scolded by Peggy, Everett protests that he was being forced into a corner by a stupid question from “some old broad” (124-25).

As I mentioned earlier, given the release of albums such as Jazz at Oberlin and Jazz Goes to College, Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond would have been strongly associated with the (white) educated college crowd by the time of Jailhouse Rock. I suspect the “latest recording” by Lennie Tristano referred to by one of the party-goers is probably the now legendary Lennie Tristano, released on Atlantic in 1956, while the most recent releases by Shorty Rogers and His Giants were Martians Come Back! and Way Up There, both released in 1956 on Atlantic as well. Interestingly, RCA Victor—Elvis’s label since late in 1955—had made the corporate decision to issue what at the time were referred to “modern jazz records” in the fall of 1953, beginning with two 10” records, Cool and Crazy (LPM 3138) and Shorty Rogers and His Giants (LPM 3137). Early in 1957, just a few months before Jailhouse Rock began filming, RCA issued The Big Shorty Rogers Express (LPM 1350), an LP-sized reissue of 1953’s Cool and Crazy with four additional tracks. Hence the model for the fictional “Stubby Ritemeyer,” as well as Elvis himself, both would have had albums available the same year (1957) on the RCA label. Of course, the actual identity of these records hardly matters, since the more important point, as Gabbard observes, is that in Jailhouse Rock “bop-inflected cool jazz has become emblematic of bourgeois superficiality” (126). If, as Michael Jarrett has observed, the coding of cool jazz is white, or, as he calls it, “soul inverted” (Sound Tracks 24), then Elvis’s rejection of it in this film suggests he was far more comfortable, like his idol Marlon Brando, with acting out black male sexuality, even if that desire occasionally elicited in him the behavior more strongly associated with children and adolescents, as well as the demonstration of more “manly” pursuits like collecting expensive automobiles.