Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Escalator To Transcendence: Elvis Presley: "Heartbreak Hotel" pt. 2

With this list of number two UK singles, there are a few that I call ‘oppositional’ singles; which is to say, they stand far away – in opposition – to the number one song. The number one song for “Heartbreak Hotel” is “I’ll Be Home” by Pat Boone – a song that I’m sure has its merits (I haven’t heard it yet) – but there is no way it is anything like Elvis, either in style or performance. Indeed, looking at the chart, it’s clear that there is everyone else…and then there’s Elvis. (I am also aware that his first try in the charts, “Blue Suede Shoes,” only made it to #9 – Carl Perkins’ original version got to #10, making their friendly contest a draw, which is about right.) So clearly there were those who preferred the good-boy sentiments of Boone in the UK (in the US it only got to #6, tellingly), but there were those clearly caught up in Elvis, without the benefit of seeing him on tv – just by mere photos of him, and hearing the song. The UK’s…oppositional…attitude towards Elvis (as opposed to the US’ reaction, which was to have him at #1 for a very long time indeed) could be due to lack of tv exposure – it is, from this distance, hard to know, but I would guess his roughness (the guitar with a twine strap; the sense that he is enjoying himself and likes to dance) might have caused more than a few English girls to uncontrollably scream as well.

In any case, Elvis has arrived. He has, so to speak, entered the MSBWT building and will be here for a good long time, though there will be times when he seems to be absent. I say seems because, like it or not, Elvis was a prototype, not to mention an inspiration, to just about everyone who wanted something a little bit more raw than the polished and likable and grown-up perfomers we have met so far. Elvis was all of twenty-one when he recorded this (to give some perspective, performers who are twenty-one as of this writing include Joss Stone, Kate Nash and Hilary Duff – with Rihanna coming around the bend) and his youth and style brought an undoubted wave of freshness to the scene. (Not long after him, Gene Vincent comes back to the chart, and Fats Domino and Chuck Berry and Little Richard also begin to chart.)

But to the song!

It is stark and dirty. The hotel in question is dark, illuminated only by the barest of lightbulbs and staffed by the most miserable and indeed funereal of attendants. And yet the song is not a lament. He is miserable and lonely (so lonely he could die: hello, Burt Bacharach, hello Morrissey) and yet he is not alone – how could he be? – and if she – the Other – becomes heartbroken, well, she knows where to go. Where to find him. They can be together in their misery…

…which isn’t really too miserable, as it sounds more like pouting, sexy misery, like an audible James Dean. Elvis was a good boy, but he looked and sounded bad. As if he wasn’t always what society or The Man wanted him to be, that his rebellion was in that he was always himself, twisting and jerking and Buh-Bay-Being for fun. How dare a man shake and show passion? How dare a man inhabit the song as he does, taking his loneliness and throwing it in the listeners’ faces? (He sounds as if he enjoys being miserable, even as he is miserable; hello, David Gedge and hello emo, for that matter.) The piano tinkles and the stand-up bass thumps, the guitar solo is stark and hardcore and not at all interested in being pretty. Elvis’ voice is handsome, as handsome as he is; and I cannot leave out the fact that he is from the South, the poor-grew-up-in-a-shack South that is an exotic plus for any UK listeners. Put plainly, everything here is different and confusing and there are no choirs or string sections or messages of genial consolation. The world is a dark, lonely and unhappy place, Elvis says; but everything else implies that this can be overcome, even mined for its own kind of gold.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Escalator To Transcendence: Elvis Presley: "Heartbreak Hotel" pt. 1

“Walk with me.” – Levi Stubbs, “Still Waters”

If you want to, come with me down my street. It’s not a long walk; you can see the destination just by looking east: the HMV Superstore on Yonge St. in Toronto. The walk takes us past the charmingly named World’s Biggest Bookstore (it’s a big place, but not the biggest) and to Yonge St., where we have to walk north a little to cross the street at Gould. Having crossed, and walked past the fashionable clothes shop and a Belgian waffle nook, the warm smell of maple syrup pouring out – we walk into HMV, the doors automatically opening…

The ground floor is almost all devoted to dvds; there are cds, of course, but they are stashed here and there, the new ones up front at the heads of aisles, and the chart cds and a few more ‘obscure’ new releases on the left-hand wall. The inevitable 2/20 and 2/25 cds are here, but not much else…

So we go up the escalator (yes there is an elevator, but you have to know where it is, in the back) up to where the cds actually are. Again there are aisles; and at the heads of the aisles, various new releases are displayed in a vaguely thematic way. The Rock/Pop section is right here. To the right, if you walk only a few meters, and down a step or two, is the Urban section, which goes from Gospel to R&B, Electronica to Reggae and World Music, with an island, so to speak, of Hip Hop right there in front of you as you walk in…

…if you turn around and go back to the Rock/Pop section and hang a left, you’ll walk around to the Heavy Metal/Industrial/Goth/Punk area, not far away from the magazine section; and around the corner are rock/pop dvds, but we aren’t interested in them and so go up another escalator to…

Face the classical room – not of interest to us today – and so we go into the right-hand door to find Easy Listening, Movie/Broadway/TV soundtracks/compilations, Francophone (music from Quebec & France)…and going around the corner there’s Blues, Jazz, Folk and Country, taking us back to the other side, right by the exit/entrance where there’s a water cooler, where we can have a little pause before deciding what, if anything, to buy.

The regular guy/gal who comes into the store is no doubt aware of the layout, but (depending on how narrow his/her tastes are) they may never go to certain areas, or even certain floors. Each large section has its own music, which you only hear if you are in said area (there is some overlapping of course, but not much) – and you may as well know that this was my usual route to wandering around almost every time I went in, especially if I felt like buying something but had no idea what it was I was going to get (an exhausting process, at times, thus the very necessary water cooler stop).

I would like to think that if I was with a certain elderly gentleman – the subject I will write about more directly in my next posting – that he would happily tag along with me, if of course he was alive. Elvis was a musical omnivore; in as much as he grew up immersing himself in whatever he could either hear in person or on the radio. Nothing wasn’t of some interest, from Dean Martin to gospel, folk to blues, country to Sinatra. It was all of a piece to him – it was, quite simply, music. The idea of a ‘monoculture’ would not have made much sense to him, simply because ‘polyculture’ was where he was at. (As the woman in the 70s commercial used to say loudly – “Abundanza!”) He might even agree with me that even this Superstore didn’t have enough; as exhausting as it can be, you really cannot have enough music if you really love it. My childhood and Elvis’ were vastly different, to say the least, but I grew up in a household were music wasn’t just background but foreground – a profound, if invisible, expression of life itself.

Certainly, you cannot forget that music is a business in a place so full of sales and specials and deluxe this-and-thats, but music has a freeing quality and any barriers you find in it (besides those of geography and time itself) are artificial and worth tearing down or ignoring altogether. Elvis’ casual disregard for these barriers wasn’t his alone – many other musicans had it before him, primarily in jazz – but in the static world of the UK charts of 1956, it was new.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

It Came From The Basement: Lonnie Donegan: "Lost John/Stewball"

If the previous entry had a woman at its centre – sitting late at night by herself, listening to a record – then here we have a different venue and a different attitude. At momentous times like this, it’s good to look at the surroundings and see what is up.

The charts look like they are not just at a crossroads, but are at a place where two rivers meet. It is dangerous, I feel, to say that the one river is more ‘natural’ or ‘spontaneous’ than the other; there is only so much credit I can give for ‘authenticity’ or ‘purist’ qualities, these being at the very heart of music which may well be good, but which lacks a vital something – you might call it punctum – once it exhausts whatever innate qualities it has.

That is why the transatlanticism (thank you, whoever coined that word) of 50s music matters so much. Already on this blog there have been many US as well as UK artists; any idea that Americans suddenly ‘invaded’ the UK charts with rock ‘n’ roll must be put aside. As an American myself, I find it strange to read the story of Lonnie Donegan reviving a fairly casual and homey music – skiffle – and being so successful; but it is often in the strange that something new can happen. Much has been made of Donegan’s being from the UK and making simple, direct and easily playable music as being a cornerstone of what is to come; but staying in the here and now (June 1956), a great deal is happening, and “Lost John/Stewball” (songs about a prisoner and a racehorse) has gone up the charts, amidst movie themes, instrumentals and a song improbably called “Rock and Roll Waltz” – a clear indicator that this new thing is at least worth a dance, even if said dance is all wrong. (Just as “Rock Around The Clock” is described as a ‘foxtrot’ to those unable to jive and swing.) Lonnie’s woebegone narratives, delivered with a voice like cheery 5th grade teacher who wants the whole class to join in (and thus, they do) are not aimed at those who know dances, or have aspirations to sing with full orchestras. It is fairly clear that the teenager (that now no-longer mythical creature, if s/he ever was) is starting to buy singles and hang out in clubs like The Two Is and others where skiffle is played. Acoustic guitars are bought; bands are formed; but this has yet to happen. Lonnie Donegan has his foot in the door and a young man – even younger than Lonnie – is about to rip the door down altogether.

(Let me now also pause and note that Donegan is from Glasgow, Brewer is American, and how nice it s to have them together, just as Marcello and I will soon be together in London.)

Friday, December 12, 2008

The Teardrop Explodes: Teresa Brewer: "A Tear Fell"

The scene is set: the young woman is still in her party dress (something with tulle and and a big skirt, in a color between drab and vibrant) and is sitting in a chair, slumped a little, looking into space. She has recently been unceremoniously dumped by a man she thought was ‘the one’ and has in fact been out to see who he was with at the dance, in a move somewhere between masochism and vain bravery. She stood there watching him, crying large teardrops, teardrops that fell on the floor and that he danced on, as he swirled with his new girl, fixated on her and oblivious to the woman he has left behind.

The room the young woman is sitting in is so vividly colorful and yet she is so grey and lost; but the melodrama she is in is real, hyperreal. Brewer sings in a way that sounds like a crane carefully walking along, placing one leg in front of the other just so; she has her dignity, even as she sings about what a fool she is, even as the huge tears explode from her eyes, for her ex-boyfriend to dance over…

…the young woman may as well be in a cartoon; or should I say, a collage – not unlike the one Richard Hamilton made in ’56 entitled Just What Is It that Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing? (I will not go so far to say that Brewer makes Bryan Ferry possible…but Original Pop songs such as this are not that far from “Don’t Stop The Dance” – the wetness there being from ‘stormy weather’ and not crying. That said, the super-sexualized figures Hamilton shows are va-va-vooming all over the place, with the big bang, so to speak, just around the corner.)

The young woman in the chair may well believe that she has to snag the right man or else; but also probably believes that the man is always right, in the end. (In her 50s memoir Manhattan, when I was young, Mary Cantwell eventually marries a man because he gives her an ultimatium – get married or break up – and instead of seeing this as a forecast of what’s to come, she gives in.) Our heroine doesn’t fight her fate but is a sad witness, full of the ingrained stoicism the average listener, but who is the average listener? And do they all experience being dumped this way?

(I should note that “A Tear Fell” was written in 1956 and immediately covered by all kinds of singers, in the UK and the US. I doubt if anyone’s version sounds so noble and precise as Brewer’s, complete with a harp glissando every time her tear falls; the young woman in the party dress as sad angel.)