Thursday, January 7, 2010

And One More Time for Elvis, Little Richard, et al


2. Me:

Forgive me, anyone who bothers to read this, for I’m going to ramble, and with a healthy dose of nostalgia.

(BTW, I for one would be happy to have Wright do one of these on Bob Dylan and his suspicions about him with some Dylanophile contra.)

But I digress even before I begin. A lovely exchange this was on those parts of Elvis and his forbearers that I love. I have been to Graceland, his growing up house and his school in Memphis and his shotgun shack and church and school in Tupelo. I have been to Memphis at least half a dozen times in order to make that great triangular drive from Memphis to Clarksdale to Oxford and back to Memphis. Those trips and what I saw, experienced and learned have been amongst the joys of my life. Anyone who visits Sun can’t help but be amazed that such volumes of brilliant, resonant music came out of such a down home, small-seeming place.

It’s the essentially the Sun Elvis that I love. And Elvis’s forbearers I love include the great bluesmen that both preceded him and were his contemporaries such as, for one example, Arthur Crudup—That’s All right Mama for one-- and the brilliant R and B singers of his time like for example Junior Parker—for an instance Mystery Train. (He also loved the crooners like Bing Crosby and especially Dean Martin and first at Sun recorded for his mother’s birthday a Dean Martin tune—I forget which one.) I mention these two guys because Elvis made wonderful cover versions of both these songs that stand up to the originals.

Stamaty was right on about Elvis as an appropriator of black music and in vehemently rejecting the base canard that he misappropriated it. I think Wright’s theory of the resentment of his explosive commercial success doing covers of black music as an incubator of that intense lie sounds right to me.

An illuminating example of the perversity and twisted absurdity of this lie is Hound Dog as a prime example of this misappropriation. The charge is that Elvis ripped off Big Mama Thornton in covering it and exploiting black culture for his own profitable ends while Big Mama performed away in relative obscurity. Problem is that Hound Dog was written by Leiber and Stoller, two Jewish L.A. guys via Baltimore and Long Island who met in high school: so much for Elvis ripping off Black culture.

Anyway Big Mama had no problem with white artists doing her material and was thrilled with Janis Joplin’s version of Ball and Chain. There is a vital argument as to whose Hound Dog is better Elvis’s or Big Mama’s. Me, I swing both ways on the point.

There is a parallel between Elvis’s facilitation of the popularity of black R and B and rock and roll—not so much, or, rather, not really at all the Blues—and the Beatles’ rejuvenation of R and B and rock and roll from the post Elvis insipidity to which to had descended with the likes of Frankie Avalon, Fabian, Brian Hyland and their ersatz brethren, and the Stones’ rejuvenation of the Blues, which, because it is what it is, an enduring and profound art form, admittedly sank to certain levels of obscurity but never, never to insipidity.

Two final things:

Firstly, I’m completely with Stamaty when he speaks of artists in true pursuit of the inner meaning of their art and shunning the false allure of the crass and soul destroying temptations of celebrity detached from artistic accomplishment—a point rightfully made about Tiger Woods by Wright albeit in a different realm of human endeavor. That sentiment, I’d argue, is a truth of the Blues.

Secondly and finally, I am 63 born in 1946 and so came to Elvis as a 10 year old kid in the mid fifties in a similar way to how Stamaty did. He had the gift of his art by which to extend and give form to his exaltation. I, entirely ungifted, had to settle for the interior experience of sheer exaltation and with no means really to give expression to it. Last weekend in fact I was driving home and happened to catch a portion of an NPR interview with a poet and creative writing Prof. at FSU, David Kirby, who has just put out a book called Little Richard and the Birth of Rock and Roll. The interview so affected me that I found his FSU email address and wrote him the following note on my introduction to Elvis, Rock and Roll and eventually through Elvis to Little Richard.

“…Dear Mr. Kirby:

I had the unexpected pleasure of listening to you being interviewed on NPR this afternoon about your book on Little Richard.I had just worked out and was driving home in Toronto on an icy, blustery day--I clean up at home-- sweaty and tired and was flipping though the radio dial. God smiled on me the day I discovered I could get NPR up here in the Canadian hinterland. I came in at about the first third of your interview. I got so engrossed that I just kept driving around till the interview was over so as not to miss any more of it.

I laughed at loud at Richard describing himself as the “king and queen of Rock and Roll,” at him saying it’s “'bam boom' not 'Pat Boone'” and at the couplet, which I now can’t remember, about how the record companies keep the money, something about “I do the rockin’ and the slidin’ but they do the keepin' and the hidin’”.

Little Richard indirectly changed my world. I was born in 1946 and grew up for the second 6 years of my life in a place even colder than Toronto in the winter—Winnipeg, Manitoba. My family was late to getting a television and Elvis had exploded onto the public’s awareness and was performing on Ed Sullivan, which I kept hearing about but never saw. I must have been about 10, in 1956, when one Saturday morning, I heard Elvis singing Tutti Frutti on the radio. The urgency and drive of it just compelled me and I felt like had discovered some part of myself that made sense to me. And I remember saying to myself something like "This is my music!"

Elvis could put Tutti Frutti across the way the anodyne Pat Boone could not. And then after hearing Elvis I naturally got interested in it all, even as a little kid, and came to Little Richard. I thought he was crazy and weird and wonderful and brilliantly talented. I know some things about him, but I never knew he was crippled as you described it in the interview.

I liked very much your genial, home spun, Southern I'm guessing, manner. I liked your references to Greil Marcus's "old, weird America", a notion I've thought about from time to time--even though Greil Marcus is at times, too many I suppose, recondite to me. I liked your placing Little Richard in that tradition.

And I liked your talk about Tutti Frutti changing the world in part by help breaking down racial divides in the Jim Crow U.S. south in the fifties and beyond. And I liked especially your description of Little Richard as a gay, black cripple from Macon changing the world.

I'm going to hunt up your book and give it a go and now that I've been introduced to you, I'll check out your poetry too.

Thanks for making my afternoon.


Itzik Basman..”

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