Showing posts with label Dean Martin. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Dean Martin. Show all posts

Sunday, February 8, 2009

The Virtues of Misreading

In literature classes in our high schools and colleges, the preferred method of study is hermeneutically driven and formally conservative: it favors interpretation and encourages fidelity to the text—to established methods of (re)production through interpretation. There’s a perfectly defensible reason for this method: the acquisition of rereading skills, and the inculcation of the virtue of fidelity, leads to scholarship.

But as literary critic Harold Bloom has argued, creativity (as opposed to scholarly endeavor) must be understood not as a rereading, but as a misreading, of the inherited tradition. Applying Bloom’s insight to rock culture, those artists we perceive to be innovative and influential have actively misread the music that has come before. As Michael Jarrett writes:

Steering a course between repetition (redundancy) and incomprehensibility (entropy), he or she parlays an aberrant or perverse reading of the past into an authorized reading for the present. Elvis Presley’s “misreading” of Dean Martin (a conventionalized version of the saloon singer) offers a good example of this. (196)

Chris Spedding has an excellent article on exactly this idea, “Elvis & Dino,” in which he explores just how Elvis misread Dean Martin. Spedding recounts the anecdote told by Marion Keisker, the office manager of Sam Phillips’ Sun Records studio in Memphis:

. . . Marion Keisker . . . tells of a not entirely successful first audition Presley had with Phillips. According to Marion, Sam asked Elvis to run through some of his repertoire, which seemed to lean so heavily on Dean Martin stuff, she thought Elvis had decided “. . . if he was going to sound like anybody, it was going to be Dean Martin.”

Spedding argues that by looking at Elvis’s early career in this way, “we can see how many of those actions previously dismissed (or considered perverse when they could not be conveniently ignored) now fall into place. . . . Elvis was naturally fair-haired. He dyed his hair black. . . . Filmed later in Technicolor, Elvis’s obsidian do had that same almost blue-black sheen you can see in Dean Martin’s movies.” Comparing Martin’s [1955] hit, “Memories Are Made Of This,” with “the song that Elvis always claimed was his favorite cut, “Don’t Be Cruel,” a hit in the summer of the following year,” Spedding observes:

Now, apart from the fact that Elvis borrowed that descending-bass-run-followed-by-guitar-chord ending from the arrangement on Martin’s record, other common elements are that sexy, wobbly, almost hiccuping baritone vocal not yet identifiably “rock” until Elvis made it so and Martin’s novel use of a four-piece male gospel-type vocal group which we may assume helped inspire Elvis, steeped as he was in traditional gospel music, to introduce the Jordanaires on his cut, effectively integrating them into a unique blend with his own lead vocal, thus establishing another rock archetype. Another obvious nod in Martin’s direction, released when Elvis was well established as a pop mega-star in the summer of 1959, was Elvis’s “My Wish Came True,” which had an opening four-note motif identical to Martin’s “Return To Me,” (both titles having four syllables!) released in April 1958. Even the key is the same.

Thus, through his misreading of Dean Martin, Elvis created an individual style and helped both to popularize and to institutionalize rock ‘n’ roll. There are other examples of such perverse misreading contributing to the reinvention of rock, of course: the perversity of Dylan performing American folk with a rock band (“going electric,” Newport, 1965), for instance, or the Sex Pistols’ burlesque of 1960s and early 1970s American pop records (1976-77).