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.

Friday, March 12, 2010


According to John Tobler’s This Day In Rock (1993), it was on this day in 1965 that guitarist Eric Clapton left The Yardbirds, soon after the release of the “For Your Love” single. (Other sources indicate the date Clapton left was actually ten days earlier, on 3 March, but the date is of little consequence.) Legerdemain holds that even despite the commercial (that is, popular) success of “For Your Love,” Clapton left the group anyway, having played on the track with some grave hesitations (he objected to the use of the harpsichord and bongos). As the story commonly goes, dismayed by the band’s shift from rhythm & blues to pop, Clapton left The Yardbirds (a sort of symbolic protest) and joined John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers. What this means, in abstract terms, is that he sought out and found a new musical environment which allowed him to sound authentically black (the same problem is faced by African-American musicians as well)—authenticity being defined as a function of proximity to the blues.

Clapton’s presumed displeasure with the musical direction of The Yardbirds (“popularization”) conforms to the widespread perception that popularization is what is commonly understood as a “lowering” of musical quality. A useful illustration of this popularization-as-musical-degradation model can be found in Dick Hebdige’s Subculture: The Meaning of Style (1979). In this passage, Hebdige is writing about jazz, not the blues, but the point is the same:

As the music [jazz] fed into mainstream popular culture during the 20s and 30s, it tended to become bowdlerized, drained of surplus eroticism, and any hint of anger or recrimination blown along the “hot” lines was delicately refined into inoffensive night club sound. White swing represents the climax of this process: innocuous, generally unobtrusive, possessing a broad appeal. It was a laundered product which contained none of the subversive connotations of its original black sources. These suppressed meanings were, however, triumphantly reaffirmed in bebop, and by the mid-50s, a new, younger white audience began to see itself reflected darkly in the dangerous, uneven surfaces of contemporary avant-garde, despite the fact that the musicians responsible for the New York sound deliberately sought to restrict white identification by producing a jazz which was difficult to listen to and even more difficult to imitate. (46-47)

The argument seems convincing: authentic music (art) is, inevitably, colonized (“compromised”) by white interests for economic reasons. As Andrew Ross has observed, the commercialization of popular music reveals “a racist history of exploitation exclusively weighted to dominant white interests” (No Respect: Intellectuals and Popular Culture 68). Following this line of argument, Clapton’s motive for leaving The Yardbirds was not so much a rejection of pop (which he later embraced, as for instance with “Wonderful Tonight”) as it was yet another instance of white exploitation of black music, as was his later, “commercialized” version of The Wailers’ “I Shot the Sheriff” also an example of such exploitation. If this argument is seen by some as unconvincing, then so must be the common claim that Clapton left The Yardbirds because of the band’s “pop” direction. Obviously the "common-sense" argument has severe limitations.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

In The Pink

The BBC has reported Pink Floyd has initiated legal action against its record label EMI “over payment of online royalties and the marketing of their music.” Signed to EMI since 1967, the lawsuit concerns the manner in which payments for digital sales are calculated. Personally, however, I think that the ruling the band is seeking—whether EMI can extract individual tracks from the original albums and sell them individually—is far more interesting. For what is an album, if not organized around a concept? Album sales began to surpass singles decades ago, on the assumption that the album was organized around an abstraction, a concept, or, if you will, “mood.”

Mr. Howe [the band’s legal representative] said EMI contend that the sale of individual tracks from albums “only applies to the physical product and does not apply online.” He added that the practice “makes no commercial sense” and contravenes agreements signed by both parties.

I was also struck by a statement in the report that indicates, “Pink Floyd’s back catalogue is the most lucrative in pop music apart from that of The Beatles.” Intrigued, I searched for a website listing the top-selling albums of all-time, and found that the following titles form the “Top Ten” bestsellers. Pink Floyd’s THE WALL is in the Top 5, while DARK SIDE OF THE MOON is in the Top 25. Is the Pink Floyd catalog as lucrative as Led Zeppelin's? Zep has more titles overall in the Top 50 than Pink Floyd, so I'm wondering whether that observation is accurate.

Top Ten Best Selling Rock Albums (as of January 2008):
Michael Jackson, THRILLER
Pink Floyd, THE WALL
Garth Brooks, DOUBLE LIVE
Shania Twain, COME ON OVER
The Beatles, THE BEATLES
Fleetwood Mac, RUMOURS

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Deprivation And Chickenshit

Popular music remained, of course, the standard material of radio broadcast during the Second World War. The crucial difference, however, was that the kind of song selected for broadcast was supposed to contribute to “morale,” that is to say, serve a propagandistic function. Outside of those that were explicitly jingoistic, such as “Remember Pearl Harbor March,” the typical song was about the need for personal sacrifice (sexual denial, the need for repression). The point-of-view of some were explicitly female,

They’re Either Too Young Or Too Old
He Wears A Pair of Silver Wings

but in most, not surprisingly, the POV was male:

I’ve Got a Girl in Kalamazoo
Don’t Get Around Much Anymore
You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To

Pleas for fidelity included songs such as

Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree (With Anyone Else But Me)
Paper Doll
Somebody Else Is Taking My Place

Desires for the unattainable (things that must be sacrificed) were expressed in dream (and wish) songs:

Thanks for the Dream
I Had the Craziest Dream
A Soldier Dreams of You Tonight
I Dream Of You
I’ll Buy That Dream
My Dreams Are Gettin’ Better All the Time
(I’m Dreaming Of A) White Christmas
Don’t Believe Everything You Dream (from Around the World, 1943)

Paul Fussell claims (in the chapter, “With One Voice,” in Wartime), “personal deprivation and hope for improvement were the themes that the troops, menaced by chickenshit and fear, responded to” (186). He says the soldiers often wept when they heard “We’ll Meet Again,” recorded in 1942 by Vera Lynn (nicknamed “The Forces’ Sweetheart”):

We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when
But I know we’ll meet again some sunny day;
Keep smiling through, just like you always do,
Till the blue skies drive the dark clouds away

Fussell devotes an entire chapter to the wartime semantics of chickenshit (“Chickenshit, An Anatomy”):

Chickenshit refers to behavior that makes military life worse than it need be: petty harassment of the weak by the strong; open scrimmage for power and authority and prestige . . . insistence on the letter rather than the spirit of ordinances. Chickenshit is so called—instead of horse- or bull- or elephant shit—because it is small-minded and ignoble and takes the trivial seriously. Chickenshit can be recognized instantly because it never has anything to do with winning the war.

One wonders whether the wartime films made for purposes of “morale” were considered a form of chickenshit by the common soldier. Trivial and unimaginative, they scrupulously avoided the actual conditions of the war—a “white-wash”—and had all the faux sincerity of the everyday social banality, “Have A Nice Day.”

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Death Without Publicity

During the Second World War, the war publicity machine widely trumpeted the names of Allied military commanders. In its putative morale-building effort, the contemporary equivalent of ad-men glorified, for instance, British General Montgomery and, of course, American General Eisenhower. Even lesser-unit commanders could be celebrated, such as U. S. Army General Anthony McAuliffe, who was commander of the defending 101st Airborne during the Battle of the Bulge. His reply to a German proposal to surrender, “Nuts!,” became one of the legendary moments of American courage and recalcitrance—“guts”—during the war. Among generals, an eagerness for publicity, as Paul Fussell notes in Wartime, led to the development of “publicity hounds,” the most egregious of which were probably Generals Mark Clark, in Italy, and MacArthur (pictured), in the Pacific, the latter having a huge publicity organization. “Of Clark, David Hunt has said that 'his reading of Clausewitz’s famous dictum was that war was the pursuit of publicity by other means'” (161).

At the level of the common soldier (as opposed to that of the war’s “upper tier,” its commanders), credit “became a crucial concept” (Paul Fussell, Wartime 155). “That all-important home-town audience the troops never forgot,” argues Fussell, because for the soldiers, “ultimate value is assigned by the distant, credulous” hometown crowd—what people were saying back home (155). Curious, then, that in the Kay Kyser wartime film, Around the World (released November 1943), the name of the Marcy McGuire character’s father, killed on a transport ship before he ever actually was able to step onto the battlefield, is never given. Obviously, his proper name, unlike a General’s (the General’s name more significant by virtue of his having to shoulder the heavy demands and responsibilities of power), is not important. The proverbial “unknown soldier,” her dead father becomes an emblem of sacrifice, the sacrifice necessary for all Americans during wartime. Informed of her father’s death (perpetrated by cowards, as the ship was torpedoed), she is asked to put on a stiff upper lip, to buck up, in effect, to sublimate the loss. She is told that her father did, in fact, fight in the war, he just wasn’t able to fight for very long. His death was as valuable to the war effort as any other, since war by its very definition demands a sacrifice by everyone. Names are not important.

These are not idle ruminations, without application to our own time, for as Paul Fussell observes, “The postwar power of 'the media' to determine what shall be embraced as reality is in large part due to the success of the morale culture in wartime. It represents, indeed, its continuation. Today, nothing—neither church, university, library, gallery, philanthropy, foundation, or corporation—no matter how actually worthy and blameless, can thrive unless bolstered by a persuasive professional public-relations operation, supervised by the later avatars of the PR colonels and captains so indispensable to the maintenance of high morale and thus to the conduct of the Second World War” (164).