Monday, August 17, 2009

Dead Elvis

Elvis Presley died 32 years ago yesterday (August 16). Preoccupied as it was with selling Woodstock this past weekend, the mass media failed to commemorate Elvis’s death with similar aplomb. Indeed, so far as I know, there was no mention of the fact that while the Woodstock festival as going on, precisely at the same time, Elvis was at the International Hotel in Las Vegas in the midst of doing four weeks of sold out shows, making some of the finest music of his career. (His successful return to the stage is the subject of an excellent new book by Ken Sharp, pictured at the left.) By the end of October 1969, “Suspicious Minds” would reach No. 1 in the charts, the culmination of Elvis’s so-called “comeback” after eight years of making largely mediocre films—25 of them since he was discharged from the Army in 1960. He made 27 films 1960-69, but The Trouble With Girls would not be released until September 1969, and Change of Habit, his final dramatic feature film, would not be released until November.

For those who care, Elvis Presley shall always be a daunting hermeneutic enigma. The Woodstock festival and Elvis are similar in that they have both become collective representations, but the fact is, the Woodstock festival simply doesn’t hold the same daunting, elusive mystery as Elvis does. In his book, Dead Elvis: A Chronicle of a Cultural Obsession, Greil Marcus calls the invention of dead Elvis, “a great common art project, the work of scores of people operating independently of each other, linked only by their determination to solve the same problem: who was he, and why do I still care?” Because dead Elvis is a collective representation, it both legitimizes and subverts “Elvis” the man. Perhaps the whole issue is irrelevant, except that Marcus can’t get past the vast amount of cultural expenditure invested in constructing dead Elvis. Nor can I. But a great deal of cultural production has gone into the invention of “Woodstock” as well, and the event, too, has been both legitimized, and subverted, the past four decades. The difference between the two cultural emblems, though, is that dead Elvis is largely perceived as an exemplar of tastelessness (inauthenticity), while Woodstock is perceived as a genuine expression of cultural yearning (authenticity), of a generation’s “innocence.” What are the reasons for these distinct cultural perceptions?

The reasons underlying these perceptions are astutely explored in an essay by Linda Ray Pratt, “Elvis, or the Ironies of a Southern Identity,” which can be found in Kevin Quain, Ed., The Elvis Reader (St. Martin's Press, 1992). In one of the best pieces ever written about Elvis, Dr. Pratt, writing as a Southerner herself, discusses Elvis with the kind of understanding and empathy that those outside the culture often lack. She makes so many acute insights that it is impossible to list them all here, but here are a few insights that may help explain why Elvis is held in such contempt by so many. Writing about Elvis in the context of Southern culture, she says:

C. Vann Woodward has said that the South's experience is atypical of the American experience, that where the rest of America has known innocence, success, affluence, and an abstract and disconnected sense of place, the South has know guilt, poverty, failure, and a concrete sense of roots and place.... These myths collide in Elvis. His American success story was always acted out within its Southern limitations. No matter how successful Elvis became in terms of fame and money, he remained fundamentally disreputable in the minds of many Americans. Elvis had rooms full of gold records earned by million-copy sales, but his best rock and roll records were not formally honored by the people who control, if not the public taste, the rewarding of public taste.... His movies made millions but could not be defended on artistic grounds. The New York Times view of his fans was “the men favoring leisure suits and sideburns, the women beehive hairdos, purple eyelids and tight stretch pants”.... (96-97)

Observing that Elvis “remained an outsider in the American culture that adopted his music,” she goes on to say:

Although he was the world's most popular entertainer, to like Elvis a lot was suspect, a lapse of taste.... The inability of Elvis to transcend his lack of reputability despite a history-making success story confirms the Southern sense that the world outside thinks Southerners are freaks, illiterates . . . sexual perverts, lynchers. I cannot call this sense a Southern “paranoia” because ten years outside the South has all too often confirmed the frequency with which non-Southerners express such views. Not even the presidency would free LBJ and Jimmy Carter from the ridicule.... And Elvis was truly different, in all those tacky Southern ways one is supposed to rise above with money and sophistication. (97)

Regarding the deification of the dead Elvis, she observes:

The apotheosis of Elvis demands . . . perfection because his death confirmed the tragic frailty, the violence, the intellectual poverty, the extravagance of emotion, the loneliness, the suffering, the sense of loss. Almost everything about his death, including the enterprising cousin who sold the casket pictures to National Enquirer, dismays, but nothing can detract from Elvis himself.... Greil Marcus wrote in his book Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock 'n' Roll Music that Elvis created a beautiful illusion, a fantasy that shut nothing out. The opposite was true. The fascination was the reality always showing through the illusion--the illusion of wealth and the psyche of poverty; the illusion of success and the pinch of ridicule; the illusion of invincibility and the tragedy of frailty; the illusion of complete control and the reality of inner chaos.... Elvis had all the freedom the world can offer and could escape nothing. (103)

Her final, acute insight is painfully true: by saying that Elvis could escape nothing, she means escape the Southern mythology, both what he inherited as a Southerner by birth, and what someone from the South is perceived to be by non-Southerners. The contempt for his Southern cracker origins may have been why he was never allowed to be the great actor he could have been. Even Jimmy Carter as president couldn’t escape the stigma of being from the South: the mass media was brutal on him, his brother Billy, and even his daughter Amy.

It is widely accepted as fact that over the years many people have claimed to have been at Woodstock although they actually were not, as if being there is a badge of honor, symbolic cultural capital like having received a wartime medal of valor. One wonders whether Woodstock would still have its aura had it been held in Mississippi or Alabama. I suspect not, for “Woodstock” has had the fortune of being attached to no place (it wasn’t actually in Woodstock, it was on a farm), while in contrast, Elvis has never escaped the widespread stigma of being from the South.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Woodstock In The Year 2525

It should be rather obvious that this weekend’s 40th anniversary of Woodstock is producing a torrent of recollections about the event, on the assumption there’s something worth remembering, or that hasn’t been remembered before. For the fact is, we all know what there is to know: that it was a financial flop, that there were heavy rainstorms, overcrowding, overdoses, and lots of very hungry people, etc., etc. What it’s really about, of course, is merchandising—Woodstock has been sold for 40 years now—and has become one of the most heavily mythologized events of the 1960s. The event has come to “represent” the Sixties, even though it occurred in August 1969, at the end of the decade, yet more evidence that in the popular imagination what is referred to as “The Sixties” is primarily composed of events that took place from 1968 on.

Assuming that somehow “The Sixties” can be understood exclusively by the events defining youth culture at the time, what was the No. 1 hit on the Top 40 charts the weekend of Woodstock? Was it a song by The Beatles? The Jackson 5? Jimi Hendrix? Janis Joplin? Actually it was by none of these artists or groups. The No. 1 hit in the country the weekend of Woodstock, according to Joel Whitburn’s Top 1000 Singles 1955-1990, was Zager & Evans’ “In The Year 2525 (Exordium & Terminus),” and had been at that spot since July 12. In other words, assuming popular music “reflected” the times like a mirror, what preoccupied most people was the annihilation of the human race, not nude bathing and port-o-potties. (Let’s face it, if there were indeed 300,000 people on Max Yasgur’s 600 acre farm for seventy-two hours or so, there was a whole lotta excrement goin’ on.) And what song finally knocked “In The Year 2525” out of the No. 1 spot? The Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women.” How does that song “reflect” the times? Neither Zager & Evans nor the Rolling Stones were at Woodstock, at least not as performers. Neither was the group that knocked the Rolling Stones and “Honky Tonk Women” out of Number 1: The Archies, with “Sugar, Sugar.” And by then we’re almost into 1970, and images of crazed hippies (Manson et al.) replaced images of mud-and-rain-drenched hippies in the mass media.

History has impressed upon us by now virtually all the names of the 32 acts at Woodstock, but do we know the names of the acts that were invited but declined the offer to perform? According to digitaldreamdoor, the acts were as follows; this list is more revealing of the times than the bands who actually did perform.

The Beatles – They couldn’t come together
Led Zeppelin – Better paying gig
Bob Dylan – Didn’t like hippies
The Byrds – Turned it down because of a fracas during a performance earlier that year
Tommy James & the Shondells – Apparently misinformed about the size of the event
Jethro Tull – It was no big deal
The Moody Blues – Unknown; perhaps still searching for the lost chord
Mind Garage – Thought it was no big deal, and anyway had a better paying gig

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Virtue of Forgettable Records

The French film critic André Bazin was able to find a moment of redeeming value in an otherwise forgettable movie. For him, a mediocre film always had a moment of real beauty. He was the Will Rogers of movie critics, for it was Will Rogers who is claimed to have said, “I never met a man I didn’t like.” Bazin was like that with movies. Bazin’s attitude about movie going was remarkably similar to that of the Surrealist Man Ray, who wrote, “The worst films I’ve ever seen, the ones that send me to sleep, contain ten or fifteen valid minutes. The best films I’ve ever seen only contain ten or fifteen valid minutes” (qtd. in Paul Hammond, Ed., The Shadow and Its Shadow, p. 84). Man Ray also had the habit of watching movies through his fingers, so that he could see only isolated parts of the screen. Actually, I perfectly understand the impulse behind Man Ray’s habit. For many years I had a movie-going habit that my friends found very annoying: I would never arrive at the movie theater on time, that is to say, before the movie started. I was always late, deliberately, meaning I would miss the first few minutes. I preferred watching movies this way because it always seemed to make the movie more provocative and interesting. After all, watching a movie isn’t all about the narrative, and besides, since movies are a mass art (e.g., Hollywood), they are simply variations on familiar forms. Hollywood isn’t interested in redefining the way people watch movies; on the contrary, its success largely depends upon deep-rooted viewing habits. Habits don’t develop simply because of compulsive behavior; they are learned and reinforced. Example: people go the movie theater early to avoid lines and to get the best seats. Consequently, they sit through the opening credits and endure the dreary opening minutes. After several iterations of this pattern, it becomes a habit.

For in fact most movies are dull and mediocre. Remember Sturgeon’s Law: “Ninety percent of everything is crap.” The typical record album is very much like one of Bazin’s movies: dull and mediocre, with merely a few remarkable minutes. The upside to this situation, though, is that these two or three valid minutes are very much worth hearing. No doubt this realization prompted Mitch Miller to invent the type of album known as “greatest hits,” even though he himself is responsible for making some of the most boring music ever put to record. In the days of the hegemony of vinyl records, I always found that I preferred one side of the record to the other, a listening habit not encouraged by the digital storage medium (I suppose the digital equivalent of preferring one side to the other is the “playlist,” allowing the programmer to skip or omit altogether the crappy stuff). For instance, I always preferred side two of the Beatles’ Abbey Road to side one (although I’d play side one on occasion primarily just so I could listen to “Octopus’s Garden”), while I vastly preferred side one of the James Gang’s Rides Again. I think side two of Van Morrison’s Into the Music is the greatest single side of music he ever recorded, and I much prefer the second side of Led Zeppelin III. So in honor of André Bazin, I’ve compiled a list of mediocre and largely forgettable albums that contain an utterly remarkable few minutes. It’s the proverbial drop in the bucket.

Aerosmith, Toys in the Attic
Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Déjà Vu
The Doors, Strange Days
The Eagles, Greatest Hits
Grateful Dead, Anthem of the Sun
Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin III
The Steve Miller Band, Greatest Hits 1974-78
The Moody Blues, On the Threshold of a Dream
The Mothers of Invention, Burnt Weeny Sandwich
Traffic, The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys
Yes, Fragile
Warren Zevon, Excitable Boy

Monday, August 10, 2009

Cult Records

Like any avant-garde movement, rock ‘n’ roll became “popular” because it found a glamorous figure that attracted the interest and attention of outsiders—Elvis Presley. The so-called “rock revolution” of the 1960s did much the same thing, acquiring a key group of figures—a band—around which it could organize and define itself—The Beatles. Most importantly, The Beatles happened to be musically prolific, but also charming, clever, and witty—that is to say, articulate. While not as charming, clever, or witty as The Beatles, the Rolling Stones had what it needed the most, a star, in this case Mick Jagger, an individual provocative and garrulous enough to overcome the band’s basic inarticulateness. Bob Dylan was articulate, too, but he also, as the documentary Dont Look Back (1967) demonstrated, had an additional ingredient—he gave the impression of being a true rebel.

The spectacular careers of the Beatles and of Bob Dylan, among others, serve as illustrations of the effectiveness of thinking not in terms of the single but in terms of the album. The musical failure of Elvis during much of the 60s was the result of mismanagement, of handlers who didn’t really understand the youth of the day and who thought pop songs were novelty tunes for teenagers—singles—around which the films of the 60s were built (“Viva Las Vegas,” “Do the Clam”). The Beatles and Bob Dylan, in contrast, refocused their energies on the long-term, on having a career. And what is a career but a narrative that charts an artistic evolution? Their energies were focused on development, on “growth,” not simply on the individual album.

While so-called “cult” albums have the reputations they do in part because of the manner of their consumption—in the form of the strong attachments and mild obsessions to which they give rise—a cult album is also the sign of a figure or band whose career failed, meaning there is no narrative that can be written that can make sense of the album’s creation. The aura of mystery that surrounds the band and its members is largely due to the lack of any coherent narrative that can explain the band’s artistic development: the album emerges as if “from nowhere,” with no clear antecedent and with no comparable album released afterward. Those albums that have become cult failed to find an audience upon their release; this initial commercial reception is crucial to laying the groundwork for its later recognition as a classic, based on a fundamental myth of rock culture—first established by The Velvet Underground & Nico album, 1967)—that initial neglect guarantees greatness.

11 Cult Albums, 1967—1998:
Tim Buckley – Starsailor
Nick Drake – Bryter Layter
Francoise Hardy – La Question
Penelope Houston – Birdboys
Love – Forever Changes
The Modern Lovers – The Original Modern Lovers
Neutral Milk Hotel – In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
Skip Spence – Oar
The United States of America – The United States of America
The Unknowns – The Unknowns
The Velvet Underground – The Velvet Underground & Nico

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.