Thursday, August 30, 2007

I forgot to remember to write this post

It has been a while since Mr. Roach (justly) trumped Mr. Presley as a subject for this blog -- but, in addition to all of the other shit I've had going on lately, I've actually been listening to their music in pretty much equal measure in the days since. That, plus the fact that Kris Tiner managed to churn out two stellar posts on both of these fellas almost simultaneously, has inspired me to return to the idea of writing something short 'n snappy about Elvis, who (in my opinion) is a rather misunderstood figure in modern American music. So here we go (it's snappy, but, alas, it's not short):

As a kid, I never liked Elvis much. My brother and his pals were big fans, but I suspect their affection went as much to the "fat-Elvis-with-leis" period as anything else. I could appreciate the ridiculousness of that stuff, but could find little else to engage with.

It wasn't until college, when I started reading William Faulkner -- and, more broadly and erratically, other so-called "Southern Gothic" writers -- that I began to understand. (Yeah, I know, that doesn't really compete with KT's being hipped to Elvis through Wadada Leo Smith.) I refer you in particular to Faulkner's amazing series of novels about Yoknapatawpha County, a fictional place that I always saw as a metaphor for a dying southern culture -- about which one is tempted to say "good riddance," though in the Southern Gothic take it was a riddance without much possibility of redemption, and therefore, on balance, more sad and pathetic than vengeful. This stuff helped me understand that despite all the screaming girls (or, later, middle-aged ladies), there was something melancholy about Elvis's music. Or at least there was more to it than the be-happy-or-else aesthetic that would be imposed on rock-n-roll by Dick Clark and others. Whatever his intentions as an artist, Elvis' mid-fifties recordings for Sun (which I personally see as the high point of his career) seemed to hint at what Tenessee Williams had referred to as "an intuition of an underlying dreadfulness in modern experience."

Indeed, while there are at least three or four other early rockers who I think were far more deserving of the "King" title (KT mentions Bo Diddley -- my own top choice for that label would be Little Richard, though my personal favorite rocker is probably Chuck Berry), I would go so far as to say that nobody could compete with Elvis when it came to rock-n-roll as a vehicle for pathos. Not that Elvis was particularly introspective. But his music invited introspection, in part because he himself became such a potent symbol of what may be a peculiarly American kind of success (poor kid gets famous by providing one example of the wonderful possibilities of cultural intermixing) and failure (poor kid succumbs to a life of excess, and -- intentionally or not -- highlights the bum deal most of his black peers faced).

There is melancholy in the biography, of course. It is hard for anyone willing to look beyond the absurdity that marked Elvis' latter period to not suspect that there was always great unhappiness under the surface (as also seems to be the case with Elvis' cultural progeny, about whom I personally think we should all really just shut the fuck up already). By most accounts Elvis was a dirty, poor, awkward, painfully shy kid, from a demographic that in a pre-PC era would have been referred to as "white trash." Of course many (all?) of the first rock and rollers came from humble backgrounds, but Elvis was never quite able to obscure his origins (whether via a flamboyant persona or some other means); even standing in the oval office with Nixon he came across as a benighted "aw shucks" country kid who happened to be able to "sing good."

And then there is the music itself. Elvis didn't really know what he was looking for when he first walked into Sam Phillips' reception room; he just knew he was looking. (It is thus kind of poetic that he was driving trucks for a living at the time. And damn if the music that he and Phillips and the Scotty Moore / Bill Black rhythm section would end up producing wasn't perfectly suited for "the road" -- maybe even more so than that favored musical fare of the highway-loving beats.) One of the most salient features of the early sides was the famous Sun slapback reverb. Nowadays recording studios are built with an ear toward a clean, dry sound, but before one could add effects processing artificially, studios were prized for their built-in acoustic personality. Sun was one of the most characteristic of these -- through a combination of the building materials used in the room, its shape, and contemporary recording technology and techniques, some kind of alchemy was achieved. (Elvis was not the only beneficiary of this, as is obvious if you listen to the numerous other recordings that came out of Sun before it became museum -- including sides by Howlin' Wolf, Ike Turner, Johnny Cash, and a host of other not-too-shabbys. But with Presley the effect was to ramp up by a thousand percent the basic mournfulness of his vocal style, making him sound like some kind of hip wraith.)

Elvis' melancholy was also infused with (you knew I was going here, right?) understated humor -- a facet frequently overlooked, but brilliantly captured by Jim Jarmusch in the film Mystery Train (featuring lengthy, hilarious performances by Screamin Jay Hawkins and Joe Strummer). In fact, what really hooked me in to the Elvis story was when I learned how "That's All Right" -- the first single -- was created. Elvis had been moping around Sun -- whose recording services were available to anybody for a modest fee -- for months. His original goal had been to record some maudlin ballads for his mother. A lot of trial and (even more) error ensued as he attempted to make his next steps; although Sam Phillips and receptionist Marion Keisker (who I have always suspected was an under-recognized player in the Sun story) were both confident that Elvis had talent, none of the initial recordings really clicked. Then, during a break in one particularly frustrating session, something happened, according to guitarist Scotty Moore:

...we were taking a break, I don't know, we were having Cokes and coffee, and all of a sudden Elvis started singing a song, jumping around and just acting the fool, and then Bill picked up his bass and he started acting the fool, too, and, you know, I started playing with 'em. Sam, I think, had the door to the control booth open -- I don't know, he was either editing some tape or doing something -- and he stuck his head out and said, 'What are you doing?' And we said 'We don't know.' 'Well, back up,' he said, 'try to find a place to start, and do it again.'

This, incidentally, is one of the best examples I know of creativity set loose by a willingness to stop trying... so... damned... hard. If I ever have to teach a class on composition (not that I think that would be a terribly good idea), day one would be spent impressing upon students the somewhat counterintuitive idea that sometimes the mind just needs to drift, daydream, wallow in aimlessness before it can actually get anything done. In this case, after hours of comparatively regimented work, a sudden descent into goofery produced something amazing, almost by accident (it is worth pointing out that, at least according to Moore's story, the musicians were hardly aware of the beauty of what they were creating -- such awareness was Sam Phillips' special talent).

Like a lot of other good music, the Elvis Sun recordings -- in addition to the aforementioned "That's Alright," my favorites are "Good Rockin' Tonight," "Blue Moon of Kentucky," "Mystery Train," and "Blue Moon"... but of course there are numerous others -- sound more complex than they are. I can remember, for instance, initially wondering what the hell the drummer was doing to make everything groove so nicely -- and of course, there was no drummer. (The percussive effect seems to be coming from the bass and / or Elvis' acoustic guitar -- though as far as I know Elvis never strung a dollar bill through the strings of his instrument, which is purportedly how Johnny Cash got his guitar to sound like a drum.)

Pity that it was mostly downhill from here.

* * * * *

Twelve years ago (right about this time of the year, actually) I had a chance to visit Memphis and Sun for the first time as part of the cross-country car trip that finally landed me in LA. Something about moving west has made me, on the whole, a bit less of a romantic -- but there was one very hot night during which I was actually able to sit on the hood of my car in front of the momentarily-empty, barely-refurbished Sam Phillips studio, with its little neon sign. I spent a good forty minutes there, just staring at the sky while absorbing the energy of that place. It was a good feeling, but rather bitter too.


Kris Tiner said...

Nice! Thanks for following up. As usual, your post totally puts mine to shame (why do I keep provoking you...?).

I especially like the observations about "creativity set loose by a willingness to stop trying... so... damned... hard." Seems like that was the guiding aesthetic at Sun. Have you heard the Million Dollar Quartet recordings? Not that they yielded anything very earth-shattering, but it's maybe a rare glimpse of the creative process behind some of those early sessions.

Andrew Durkin said...

Thanks much, although you're way too kind...

Yes! I have yet to meet a Sun recording I don't like, and that all-star session is no exception.

There's a little bit of that behind-the-scenes flavor in the alternate takes featured on the RCA comp of Sun Presley stuff. (Incidentally, said comp is where I nabbed that Scotty Moore quote from, as I probably should have noted in my post. The liners were penned by Peter Guralnick.)