At his best Elvis not only embodies but personalizes so much of what is good about this place: a delight in sex that is sometimes simple, sometimes complex, but always open; a love of roots and a respect for the past; a rejection of the past and a demand for novelty; the kind of racial harmony that for Elvis, a white man, means a profound affinity with the most subtle nuances of black culture combined with an equally profound understanding of his own whiteness; a burning desire to get rich, and to have fun; a natural affection for big cars, flashy clothes, for the symbols of status that give pleasure both as symbols, and on their own terms. Elvis has long since become one of those symbols himself.
Elvis has survived the contradictions of his career, perhaps because there is so much room and so much mystery in Herman Melville’s most telling comment on this country: “The Declaration of Independence makes a difference.” Elvis takes his strength from the liberating arrogance, pride, and the claim to be unique that grow out of a rich and commonplace understanding of what “democracy” and “equality” are all about: No man is better than I am. He takes his strength as well from the humility, the piety, and the open, self-effacing good humor that spring from the same source: I am better than no man. And so Elvis Presley’s career defines success in a democracy that can perhaps recognize itself best in its popular culture: no limits, success so grand and complete it is nearly impossible for him to perceive anything more worth striving for. But there is a horror to this utopia—and one might think that the great moments Elvis still finds are his refusal of all that he can have without struggling. Elvis proves then that the myth of supremacy for which his audience will settle cannot contain him; he is, these moments show, far greater than that.
So perhaps that old rhythm of the Sun records does play itself out, even now. Along with Robert Johnson, Elvis is the grandest figure in the story I have tried to tell, because he has gone to the greatest extremes: he has given us an America that is dead, and an unmatched version of an America that is full of life.
Here’s a fun one for you–Robert Ward on Redneck Rock circa 1976 for New Times Magazine:
The bus floated through the Nashville streets and stopped at the James Thompson Motor Inn. I got out and walked with Tommy (the Outlaw) and Coe’s old friend, Bobby.
“It’s on the fourth floor.”
We climbed the steps and walked down a long motel corridor. Looking over, I noticed it was a good 75 feet to the parking lot. At the door, Tommy waited for me.
“Come on in, writer.”
I felt frightened by his tone—soft, but mocking. I had assumed that there would be women, other musicians, and whiskey. But there was none of that. Instead, there were Outlaws, about 15 of them, sprawled around the room. I looked at their eyes, which were all trained right on my own. In the exact center of the group, like some ancient fertility god, David Allan Coe sprawled on a bed. On his lap was an ugly, trashed-out looking woman, who was laughing insanely.
Behind me the door snapped shut. “This here is the writer,” someone said in a steel-wire voice.
Everyone was totally silent.
“The writer who wrote that shit about David Allan not being an outlaw!” someone else said.
I felt my breath leaving me and tried to laugh it off. “Hey, c’mon, you guys. I didn’t write that stuff.”
A short, squat, powerful man, the same Outlaw I’d seen screaming at the Exit Inn, came toward me. “You wrote that shit, did you?”
He reached in his back pocket and pulled out a five-inch hunting knife.
“Hey, wait now,” I said.
[Photo Credit: George Tice, 1974]
Okay, so this is from the movie, but how you gonna complain about Cyd Charisse? Still, check out Terry Teachout’s review of The Library Of America’s 2-volume tribute to the golden age of the American musical:
What is America’s greatest contribution to the arts? Time was when many, perhaps most, people would have pointed to the Broadway musical as the likeliest candidate for admission to the pantheon. Theatergoers around the world have long rejoiced in the delights of the genre, including some whom one might well have thought too snobbish to admit its excellence. (Evelyn Waugh, who had next to no use for anything made in America, saw the London production of Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate a half-dozen times, pronouncing it, according to one biographer, “ingenious and admirable.”) But big-budget musical comedy has been in increasingly steep decline since the 1970s, and 10 long years have gone by since The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, the last homegrown musical to be wholeheartedly embraced by audiences and critics alike, made it to Broadway.
…That’s what makes the publication of American Musicals so timely. These two volumes contain the unabridged scripts of 16 “classic” shows written between 1927 and 1969, the period now usually regarded as the “golden age” of the Broadway musical. The table of contents is itself a capsule history of the genre at its peak: Show Boat (1927), As Thousands Cheer (1933), Pal Joey (1940), Oklahoma! (1943), On the Town (1944), Finian’s Rainbow (1947), Kiss Me, Kate (1948), South Pacific (1949), Guys and Dolls (1950), The Pajama Game (1954), My Fair Lady (1956), Gypsy (1959), A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962), Fiddler on the Roof (1964), Cabaret (1966), and 1776 (1969). Unlike their successors, these shows have retained their popularity. Twelve have returned to Broadway in the past decade, and two are playing there as I write. If there is a core musical-comedy repertory, this is it.
His own life offers a different take on the usual retelling of hip-hop’s origins. He did not grow up going to DJ Kool Herc’s fabled parties at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, or grooving to Afrika Bambaataa’s turntable wizardry at the Bronx River Houses. He found his style on Fordham Road, a fitting place for a high school art student who was into fashion.
“They had stores with all the clothes, the sneakers, the jewelry,” he said. “It was a good place to go and talk to girls. The whole pace was electric, and where there is electricity, there’s fun. And where there’s fun, that’s where kids want to be.”
In a way, Mr. Walters said, all the neighborhoods were the same: places where young people entranced by an emerging culture took their shots at fame. Some with cans of spray paint wound up in galleries. Others with dazzling footwork danced on the world’s stages. As for the young Mr. Walters, he became a storyteller, with hits like “Children’s Story” and “The Show” with Doug E. Fresh.
“Ricky thinks of himself as a storyteller and that’s apt,” said Bill Adler, a former executive at Def Jam Records, which released his recordings. “It was pioneering because he was so writerly, I call it rap lit. Ricky was conscious early on about the possibilities of rap.”
Knock ’em out the box, Rick.
The Orbison family moved to Wink in 1946, when Roy was ten years old, so his father, Orbie Lee, could find work in the oil fields. Though he did eventually get hired on as a rigger, the Orbisons were late to the oil boom party: Wink’s population peaked at around 6,000 in 1929; seventeen years later, when the Orbisons settled in, most of the wells had dried up and the town had shrunk to about 1,500 residents. “It was macho guys working in the oil field, and football, and oil and grease and sand and being a stud and being cool,” Orbison said later. “It was tough as could be, but no illusions, you know? No mysteries in Wink.”
Orbison wasn’t popular; later he said he felt “totally anonymous, even at home.” He started wearing glasses at age four. When he tried out for the Wink Kittens, the junior high version of the Wink Wildcats high school football team, the helmets didn’t have face guards, and his glasses kept falling off. He didn’t make the team.
Growing up is a lonely enterprise, even more so in a town that’s past its prime. Once he made his money, Orbison left for Tennessee, then Malibu. He wasn’t one to rhapsodize about his childhood very often, but once I visited his hometown, I couldn’t help but hear a telltale hint of Wink every time I listened to his songs: that sense of missing out, of having been passed by. An absence, a longing, a loneliness.
Brian Jones is to the Rolling Stones what Leon Trotsky was to the Russian Revolution: organizer, ideologist and victim of a power struggle. Jones founded the group, gave it its name and recruited the schoolboys Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, who then marginalized him, eventually expelling him from the band. Since his death in 1969, a month after he was forced out, Jones has largely been airbrushed from the group’s history.
Paul Trynka’s biography “Brian Jones: The Making of the Rolling Stones” challenges the standard version of events, focused on Mr. Jagger and Mr. Richards, in favor of something far more nuanced. Though Mr. Trynka sometimes overstates Jones’s long-term cultural impact, his is revisionist history of the best kind — scrupulously researched and cogently argued — and should be unfailingly interesting to any Stones fan.
Specifically, “Brian Jones” seems designed as a corrective to “Life,” Keith Richards’s 2010 memoir. Mr. Trynka, the author of biographies of David Bowie and Iggy Pop, and a former editor of the British music magazines Mojo and Guitar, has interviewed Mr. Richards several times over the years and obviously likes him, but also considers his memory of events highly unreliable.
[Photo Via: The Groovy Guru]
Few months ago I met a guy on the bus in the Bronx and we started chatting about photography. Turns out the guy–Gene Shaw–is a photographer and a mighty accomplished one at that (check out some of the movies he’s work on). He’s also a charming, approachable and engaging dude.
Shaw’s been taking Eric Clapton’s picture for more than 30 years and now has a book documenting that relationship–Journeyman: Eric Clapton–A Photographic Narrative.
Worth thinking about for your holiday shopping list.
Q: Let’s start with the shop. It was your father’s shop, but it wasn’t a record store until you got involved in it, right?
MG: … My father’s store was on Third Avenue between 41st and 42nd streets at that time. He had a radio and electrical store, a supply shop. Originally he was a hardware man, and when electrical stuff came in, he took that in. Then at the end of World War I, my Uncle Sid, my mother’s younger brother, talked him into putting in radio parts and stuff like that, and they opened their radio department.
Later, a store became available between Lex and Third Avenue on the downtown side of the street, at 144 East 42nd Street, a little nine-foot store. Sid talked my dad into opening a radio shop exclusively on 42nd Street, to be nearer to Grand Central and get the flow of traffic when people walked to the Third and Second Avenue El. They had elevated trains in those years, although the Lexington Avenue was below ground.
Radio was coming in by ’26 and ’27, especially ham radios. Everybody built their own sets in those years. You bought kits, or you bought parts. You got these radio magazines and learned how to put together a crystal set or a one-tube set. And we sold batteries and aerial wire and all that kind of stuff.
I, of course, went with Sid to the 42nd Street store, and would wait on customers. Acetone speakers came out . . . Cone speakers were invented in those years, where you would get, like a wooden frame and you would stretch airplane cloth that they used on the wings of the airplanes in 1918, like the Wright Brothers and all. You stretched it over this square frame. They had magnetic coil and stuff with a stylus coming out of it, and a gimmick for putting the hole in the cloth, and then tightening on with a thumb screw, and pulling it back. Then you bought this stuff that kids used to sniff later, the glue, and you poured it on the cloth and it would shrink and become taut, and you would have a cone. Now they’re made out of paper, but then you did it with this airplane cloth. And we sold all those kits and everything. It had a better sound the little magnetic thing, like a more sensitive earphone in your telephone. Those were the first loudspeakers with a cone on them, a cone diaphragm.
This is a few weeks old but check out Nick Paumgarten’s long New Yorker profile of the piano man:
Billy Joel sat smoking a cigarillo on a patio overlooking Oyster Bay. He had chosen the seating area under a trellis in front of the house, his house, a brick Tudor colossus set on a rise on the southeastern tip of a peninsula called Centre Island, on Long Island’s North Shore. It was a brilliant cloudless September afternoon. Beethoven on Sonos, cicadas in the trees, pugs at his feet. Out on the water, an oyster dredge circled the seeding beds while baymen raked clams in the flats. Joel surveyed the rising tide. Sixty-five. Semi-retirement. Weeks of idleness, of puttering around his motorcycle shop and futzing with lobster boats, of books and dogs and meals, were about to give way to a microburst of work. His next concert, his first in more than a month, was scheduled to begin in five hours, at Madison Square Garden, and he appeared to be composing himself.
“Actually, I composed myself a long time ago,” he said. He told a joke that involved Mozart erasing something in a mausoleum; the punch line was “I’m decomposing.” He knocked off an ash. Whenever anyone asks him about his pre-show routine, he says, “I walk from the dressing room to the stage. That’s my routine.” Joel has a knack for delivering his own recycled quips and explanations as though they were fresh, a talent related, one would think, to that of singing well-worn hits with sincere-seeming gusto. He often says that the hardest part isn’t turning it on but turning it off: “One minute, I’m Mussolini, up onstage in front of twenty thousand screaming people. And then, a few minutes later, I’m just another schmuck stuck in traffic on the highway.” It’s true: the transition is abrupt, and it has bedevilled rock stars since the advent of the backbeat. But this schmuck is usually looking down on the highway from an altitude of a thousand feet. He commutes to and from his shows by helicopter.
Joel was wearing a black T-shirt tucked into black jeans, black Vans, and an Indian Motorcycle ball cap. The back of his head, where hair might be, was freshly shorn, and his features, which in dark or obscure moods can appear mottled and knotted, were at rest, projecting benevolent bemusement. To prepare for the flight, he’d put on a necklace of good-luck medallions—pendants of various saints. The atavism of Long Island is peculiar. Though Jewish, and an atheist, he had, as a boy in a predominantly Catholic part of Hicksville, attended Mass, and even tried confession. His mother took him and his sister to Protestant services at a local church; he was baptized there. Still, a girl across the street said he’d grow horns, and a neighborhood kid named Vinny told him, “Yo, Joel, you killed Jesus. I’m gonna beat your ass.” Vinny did, repeatedly. Joel took up boxing to defend himself. The nose still shows it.
There was a rumble in the distance. “That’s my guy,” Joel said. “He’s early.” A helicopter zipped in over the oystermen and landed down by the water, at the hem of a great sloping lawn, where Joel had converted the property’s tennis court to a helipad. He’d recently had to resurface it, after Hurricane Sandy. Joel often attempts to inoculate himself with self-mockery. “Oh, my helipad got flooded,” he says, with the lockjaw of Thurston Howell III.
Now, if that’s not the best book title of the year I don’t know what is.
[Photo Credit: George Clinton]
Offering: Live at Temple University offers further evidence of the catastrophe of the last phase of John Coltrane’s work. “Last” rather than “late” because he became ill and died too suddenly (on July 17, 1967), too early, to have properly entered a late period. He was forty. In any other field of activity that would be a desperately short life. Only in jazz could it be considered broadly in line with actuarial norms. So there’s no late phase in the accepted sense of Beethoven having arrived at a late style, only a sudden ceasing of the unceasing torrent of sound.
The interest of recordings from this final phase—in which Coltrane’s playing became increasingly frenzied and the accompaniment more abstracted—lies partly in what they preserve and partly in any hints they contain as to where Trane might have headed next. Given the composition titles from the last studio duets recorded with drummer Rashied Ali in February 1967—“Mars,” “Venus,” “Jupiter,” “Saturn”—and released posthumously on Interstellar Space, the question might reasonably be asked, where was there left to go?
This latest discovery—more exactly recovery since parts of the concert have circulated as poorly produced bootlegs—in the ongoing archaeological dig of Trane’s work was recorded in Philadelphia, on November 11, 1966. There’s a degree of irony about the date, Armistice Day, with its traditional Minute’s Silence, given the shrieking, screaming, and wildness—the ferocious anti-silence—of the music. Three of the concert’s six songs—“Crescent,” “Leo,” and “My Favorite Things”—are over twenty minutes each. Only the title track, a short and devastated ballad, offers respite from the extended wailing and overblowing.
[Photo Via: Photomusik]
At the end of the hall on the ground floor of a tenement on New York’s West 63rd Street, behind a rickety door, in three small rooms littered with cardboard cartons, catsup bottles, half-empty suitcases, Japanese dolls in glass boxes, soup dishes stacked on a piano, team irons, clothes hanging from nails in the fiberboard walls, shopping bags and children’s toys, lives Thelonious Sphere Monk.
There he has lived all but seven of the 43 years of his life, first with his mother, his brother and his sister, and then with his wife and two children, entangled in a domestic clutter wholly inappropriate to his reputation as the weird and enigmatic genius of modern jazz.
Among all the jazz musicians of his generation, none was reported “further out” than Monk. Tales of his strangeness drifted through the stale and noisy air of every jazz joint. The hipsters, taking his name for an obscure joke, called him “The Mad Monk” or “The High Priest of Bop.” They made much of his clumsy dances, his fondness for silly hats, hit gift for cryptic and whimsical statement. (In response to the question “Why do you play such strange chords, Mr. Monk?” he once told a disc jockey, “Those easy chords are hard to find nowadays.”) It was always assumed that he could be found in some dark back room, a remote, if not imaginary, figure, like the Pied Piper of Hamelin.
But all the while, oblivious to the smell of boiling cabbage in the corridor, he has remained on West 63rd Street, a sentimental man with kind eyes and a full beard, playing his blunt and angular jazz on the grand piano in his kitchen.
Now suddenly, after 20 years of neglect, the critics are beginning to suspect that Monk may be the dominant jazz musician of his time. His conception of rhythm and harmony has influenced the playing of such dissimilar musicians as Dizzy Gillespie, Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins. Several of his tunes, among them Around About Midnight, Off Minor, and Epistrophy, have become jazz standards. His use of dissonance is analyzed in composition courses at the Julliard School of Music. Recently published articles assign him a niche in the development of jazz comparable to those of Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington.
And yet, notwithstanding his new fame, the old rumors persist. Ask anybody who does not know him well, and he will say, “Yeah, man, that Monk, he’s a funny cat, man, he’s something else.”
[Picture by William Claxton]