“Wooden Heart”

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I watched the HBO documentary on Elvis Presley The Searcher last night (and I highly recommend it; here’s the trailer to whet your appetite).  I had read beforehand an article about Tom Petty’s contribution–a fine interview made all the more melancholy by Petty’s death last October, so I was even more intrigued than I would’ve been anyway.  Both parts covered Elvis’ career in a way that was both familiar and revelatory.  I already knew most of it, but it was such a joy to watch and listen to the interviews with his contemporaries and others analyzing the work itself instead of the garish personal details of his life.  Elvis the man wasn’t ignored, but his personal life was only covered in respect to how it affected him as an artist.  I came away with an even greater dislike of Tom Parker and the damage he did to Elvis’s career.  (Yeah, yeah.  Without Parker, Elvis might not have become an international superstar so quickly, but those godawful movies in the 60s and all the ways he stifled his recording & touring were just too fucking heinous for words.)  But I was also struck by, as I always am, by what an amazing performer and singer Elvis was.  Watching the old footage of him, even the 70s jumpsuit years, showed why he was so phenomenal.  It was kind of heartbreaking

Of course then the closing credits happened.  Tom Petty’s interview for the documentary came just a few months before his unexpected death last year, and as noted in the article I read, it was incredibly insightful and one of the final ones recorded.  As a fellow Southerner and artist, I think Petty got Elvis in a way others interviewed didn’t; he understood where Elvis came from far more intimately than a lot of scholars and critics ever could no matter how much research they might do.  But that was just kind of melancholy, like I said earlier.  What killed me, made me cry out loud, was the tacit dedication the filmmakers made to Petty over the closing credits.

“Wooden Heart” is from G.I. Blues, the first movie Elvis made after being discharged from the army in 1960.  The soundtrack was like that of most of the music from Elvis movies: mostly forgettable with a gem or two tucked in.  The version of “Wooden Heart” in the movie is pretty wooden, too, except for Presley’s irrepressible charisma.  But this gentle cover by Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers is so lovely and quiet; you can genuinely believe the plea for love and compassion he makes.  And I thought I had never heard it before.  When I finished sobbing and pulled myself together, I hit iTunes to see if I could download it.  It was available on the doc’s soundtrack, along with a whole lot of great Elvis and some other fabulous blues & rock used to tell the tale (and considering how many tracks there are, it’s kind of a bargain at $39.99 is you’re looking for a starter Elvis collection).  But looking around the web for more information and something for this post, I found out I already owned Petty’s cover of “Wooden Heart” and had most likely listened to it at some point.

Back in the 90s, Petty & the Heartbreakers released a damn good box set called Playback.  It’s six discs worth of some of the best music from one of the best acts ever in Rock & Roll.  The first three discs are all great tracks from the various albums up to that point; the second three are b-sides, rarities, and demos.  “Wooden Heart” was nestled in near the end of Disc 6 titled “Nobody’s Children” for the fact that these were tracks that were essentially orphaned–recorded but left off of any other albums for whatever reason.  I remember listening to the entire box set when I got it, although I’ve mostly neglected it since.  I don’t why I ignored or dismissed “Wooden Heart”; I guess I just wasn’t in the right head space for back then.  But now, after Petty’s death and watching the sad end of Elvis’ life and career, this song really hits home.  It’s nice to discover (or rediscover) treasure like this.

Hail to the King

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It’s been forty years since Elvis Presley shuffled off this mortal coil.  While he’d slipped into pop culture irrelevancy in the last few years of his career, the musical landscape was just as shaken by his death as it had been by the earthquake of his arrival in the 1950s.

But Elvis holds an odd relevancy today.  See, when he started out, Elvis explicitly tried to blend two different musical worlds: Black R&B and white Country & Western.  I know there have been a lot of critics who say he “stole” that music from the blacks, but considering that he was always friends with and surrounded by a vital African-American community in Memphis, then I think it might be a little harsh to say he willfully took from black artists for his own profit.  He used the music he loved and that influenced him to develop his own unique sound.  If people want to lay blame for the magnificent, brilliant black musicians that didn’t get the credit or reap the financial rewards of fame, then blame the music industry; they’re the ones who exploited people.  Elvis just made the sound he heard in his head and heart manifest.

Some people reacted badly to Elvis.  Besides being kind of lewd in some people’s eyes, he was also committing the worst sin any white man from the South could commit: He liked black culture and black people.  He freely associated with them.  He sounded like them.  To these people, Elvis was some kind of traitor.  The people who thought this were what I like to call racists.  This was the early days of the Civil Rights Movement, and Jim Crow was still the rule of law throughout the South (and the rule of custom in so many other places).  Things were changing, and racists didn’t like it.  They didn’t like the idea that their pure white children might go to school with those nasty black folks.  They didn’t think they should have to serve or sell products to people they had decided were subhuman simply because the color of their skin was different.  The racists still held on to the notion that the South would “rise again,” a phrase I’m pretty sure is code for “reinstate slavery and destroy all those dirty n*****s once and for all.”  They were afraid that their “way of life” would be taken from them and they would be forced to treat black people equally.

So they fought back by beating sit-in participants.  By turning fire hoses and police dogs on Civil Rights marchers.  By lynching and shooting both black and white activists who committed sins like registering black citizens to vote.  They didn’t call themselves racist.  They didn’t even call themselves white supremacists for the most part.  They called themselves good, honest, hardworking, Christian Americans.  They really truly believed God was on their side.

Does any of this sound familiar?

It should.  Because it’s still going on today, some sixty-odd years after the Civil Rights Movement began in earnest and Elvis Aron Presley burst onto the scene.  What happened a few days ago in Virginia, before, during, and after a so-called “Unite the Right” rally was pretty much the same thing.  These neo-Nazis, these white pride adherents, these alt-right followers–whatever the fuck they’re calling themselves–were as sickening as the racists back then were.  They carried torches, for crying out loud!*  All they needed was a couple of white hoods and a giant cross to burn, and we would’ve gone back in time a few decades.  Lather, rinse, repeat.  And because of the Cheeto masquerading as president, these imbeciles think it’s okay to come back out of the woodwork and show their pathetic faces.  They think it’s okay to intimidate and beat counter protesters.  They think it’s okay (and it actually is okay in a lot of places) to carry assault weapons to a supposedly peaceful protest.  With all the racist, xenophobic rhetoric coming from the Cheeto, these racists think they can do whatever they want to anyone they think is an inferior because the idiot they voted for says it is.  He refuses to call them out largely because he agrees with them.  They are essentially his unpaid army of thugs.

Now I support the right to free speech.  That means I also support the right of these racist fucks to say what they want.  It’s a hard, bitter pill, but I will swallow it because they do have the right to speak their minds and express their opinions.  I hate what they have to say, but I will defend to the death their right to say it.  But they surrender any Constitutional right to free speech the second they start carrying weapons and torches.  They give up any and all First Amendment protections when they assault anyone who dares to disagree with them.  They deserve to be arrested and prosecuted when they do things like drive their cars into a crowd of pedestrians and counter protesters.  These so-called people, these useless piles of flesh and bones, are the living breathing definition of terrorism.  They always were, going back generations upon generations, and they should be treated as such.

Like the racists who resisted both Civil Rights and Elvis, these terrorist neo-Nazis are scared because they think they’re losing something when other groups, primarily the groups that they hate, gain something.  They see society changing and progressing, and they see it as an assault on their power.  It is.  And it isn’t going to stop.  As more and more marginalized people gain greater and greater rights, the social order these terrorists want to see will continue to die out.

I’ve gotten a bit farther away from Elvis than I thought I would, but I think that’s kind of a testament to his power.  He brought musical styles together and created something magical.  Today, no one even really thinks about how revolutionary his sound was.  Imagine what would happen if we could finally, FINALLY, stop dividing ourselves by the colors of our skins and unify.  Think of what we could accomplish if we actually stopped treating each other differently because we look or speak or pray or vote differently.  Then the real revolution would finally begin.

 

*Okay, they were tiki torches, but that would’ve only leant the scent of citronella to the cross burning.

“Memories”

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I’ve been too neglectful lately.  I kind of stopped posting on weekends, but didn’t say anything to y’all.  I think weekends will have irregular posts from now on; I’ll at least try to do reposts if I don’t have anything to say.  And I think Freaky Fridays will become an irregular feature, too.  As much weirdness as there is in the music world, I don’t notice or care about all of it.  (Yeah, I said it.  There’s music out there I just don’t care about.  Not everything makes it on to my radar.)

But this song seemed appropriate today.  There are so many people remembering the loved ones they’ve lost to war, for one thing.  Patriotic music isn’t really my thing, but remembering people is.  (I’ve had Dad on my mind a lot, although no more than usual, honestly.)  And I spent a little time going through some of my knickknacks and doodads that I’ve had put away since I re-did the house last summer.  I was dusting and sorting some things, trying to gauge what kind of shelves or displays I’ll need for my bedroom.  (New furniture is a ways off yet, but I wanted to know how much I’ll need to plan/save for).

It was nice to see those thing again.  A couple of music boxes that my aunt gave to me during my teenage years.  Dolls my grandparents brought back from international trips.  A glass rose I bought from a stand on my college campus.  Teddy bears, and a few pictures.  And a whole passel of Disney figurines.  They don’t seem to make them anymore, although I find them once in a while when I visit Disneyland/California Adventure.  Small, glazed porcelain figures of various characters.  Starting sometime in my teens, I’d get at least a couple every time I went (they generally weren’t very expensive).  There’s a lot of memories wrapped up in all that porcelain and glass  Things that make me smile.  Some things I don’t remember how I got, it’s been so long.  Things I think I’ve had my whole life.

That’s what memorial day is about.  Remembering the people and emotions behind the official photographs and war memorials.  Remembering the toys and baby shoes as well as the medals and flags.  I think the media and people get so wrapped up in being patriotic that they forget the people.  The things they once held and loved aren’t the same, but at least they’re tangible reminders of the person behind the patriotic rhetoric.

I suppose the same could be said for the people killed yesterday by yet another psychopath with legally owned guns.  (And boy, oh boy, was this one out of his ever lovin’ mind.)  There will be public memorials and endless interviews with friends and family, but the real memories will be left in the things these young people cherished.  And in the hearts of their loved ones.

Freaky Friday: “Elvis is Everywhere”

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I’m a little off today.  The contractors stayed late working on the laundry room (and apparently went on a heroic quest for the new back door).  But if there’s anything that can pick me up, it’s the thought that Elvis really is everywhere.

I’m sure the conspiracy theories and tabloid stories began within just a few days of Elvis Presley’s death.  If Americans love anything more than Elvis, it’s a good conspiracy theory.  Elvis didn’t die; he was abducted by aliens.  Or he grew a beard and became a long-haul trucker.  The denial of his passing was just the way some people dealt with losing their idol.  It’s almost a secular version of Jesus’ death and resurrection (appropriate since Easter is almost here).

Now that I’m thinking about it, that seems to be what most conspiracy theories are about: denial.  Holocaust deniers.  9/11 truthers.  Kennedy assassination hobbyists.  Civil War re-enactors who rig it so the South wins.  Fanfiction “fix-it” stories (which might explain what’s been wrong with Agents of SHIELD all season).  If they deny something traumatic or unpleasant happens, if they find “evidence” that something else happened instead, then the thing they’re denying didn’t really happen.  Or at least it didn’t happen the way everyone else says it did.  You can see it happening in real time with Malaysian Airlines 370.  Those people demanding answers and proof that the plane crashed into the ocean are trying to find a way to cope.  (Of course, to be fair, there is something really hinky about the whole thing.)

We all want life to be easy, for there to be answers to all of our questions.  My biggest question right now is how I got from Mojo Nixon to conspiracy theories, but hey, let’s just roll with it.  As a Buddhist, I do believe that in some sense, Elvis never really left the building.  No one is ever really gone; they’re just on another plane of existence.  Their energy is still part of the universe.  But that doesn’t answer all the questions, and it doesn’t make actual life any easier knowing that.  I’ll still have to get up and deal with bills and dishes tomorrow.  Chop wood and carry water.

But at least I know that I’ve got a little Elvis in me.

Repost: “Elvis Presley Blues”

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Reposted only because I think this song needs to be heard.  I don’t really love this post.  I was striving for something unnameable in this song, a sense of history and ghosts.  I don’t think I quite got there, but I still don’t know how to articulate what I hear.

Gillian Welch is remarkable.  She writes songs that sound a hundred years old and sings songs that are a hundred years old like they’re brand new.  It’s like she exists in some kind of chronological vacuum, some kind of endless now.  It’s more than just the Buddhist concept of living in the now.  It seems as if time has stopped where she is, but keeps going forward.  With her regular collaborator, David Rawlings, Welch mines a deep musical history for the bits of gold left behind and melds them into music that feels timeless.

The moment of “Elvis Presley Blues” is the moment where one man changes the world.  But the acknowledgement here is that is wasn’t just the moment when Elvis walked onstage and “shook it like a chorus girl,”  but all the moments when everything stood still, and the world shifted to accommodate a new reality.  The moment Elvis appeared, the moment he died.  The moment when John Henry beat the steam drill (a legend, sure, but one that says a lot about America).  At the end of the verses, when Welch and Rawlings’ voices blend and build, there is desperation.  There is something big at stake here, but it’s hard to say what.  Elvis’ unique musical combination of white and black–rock and roll–becomes not just a style, but a matter of life and death: “He shook it like a holy roller, baby, with his soul at stake.”

Greil Marcus believes that there is more to rock music than just music.  He believes that Rock & Roll matters, that it carries with it the weight of American culture and history.  So do I.  And so does Welch, if “Elvis Presley Blues” is anything to go by.  Elvis himself is an example of this.  He was a white man influenced by the black musicians he lived around and was friends with; radio stations wouldn’t play him at the beginning because he sounded black.  He changed the face of American culture with a blending of race that was ahead of its time.  There are many African-Americans, some scholars, that believe Elvis stole black music and exploited it for his gain.  But I have trouble seeing how he stole something he lived with every day.  The music industry and Colonel Tom Parker did exploit the sound (and the man) for their own gain, but Elvis believed.  This song carries the weight of American race relations within a fable about the single biggest rock star, ever.  The America that comes into view when you hear “Elvis Presley Blues” is the Invisible Republic that Marcus wrote about so masterfully, an America that exists just beneath the surface of strip malls and mega churches.  An America that is filled with wonder and mystery and myth.  An American where time has stopped and Elvis is forever entering the building.

Happy Birthday Elvis!

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Elvis Presley would’ve been 78 today (or he is 78, if you believe some of the crazy theories out there).  In spite of the way he was used and exploited by Colonel Tom Parker, the music and movie industries, and countless other “suits” out there, he managed to remain a charismatic and powerful performer.  Even in the white jumpsuit years, his talents obviously in decline, he could command the stage like no other.

The comeback special from 1968 showcased his talent and charm, reminding us all why we fell in love with him in the first place.  It wasn’t just his physical beauty, or his ability to sing.  There was some indefinable magic to Elvis.  Watch this whole thing if you have the time.  You’ll see a still young man who’d been imprisoned by his image and fame for over a decade reclaiming a little piece of himself.  You’ll also see one of the iconic performers of Rock & Roll give one of his most iconic performances.  (Special thanks to motzendorfer for posting this to YouTube.)

Happy Birthday, Elvis, wherever you are.

Note: Today is also the incomparable David Bowie’s 66th birthday, so best wishes to him.  Dangerous Minds posted today that Bowie is releasing his first new album in a decade.  Here’s hoping it’s as fascinating as the rest of his music.

“That’s Alright Mama”

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Had my tests this morning; everything seemed to go okay.  If I don’t get a phone call in the next couple of days, I should be good to go.  Now that I’ve had all my fun booby squishing and squashing for the day, it’s time to move forward.  Or backward, as the case may be.  Time is just a bunch of timey-wimey. . . stuff, after all.

Today’s the 35th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death.  I remember the way the whole world just seemed to stop with the news of his passing.  People were stunned.  There was non-stop coverage on TV.  I was eight, and we’d just moved into a new house.  Star Wars was well on its way to world domination.  And Elvis was gone.  It’s a little difficult for us to imagine today how Earth-shattering that news was.  I can’t imagine a single musician today that would merit the same kind of attention.  Maybe Paul McCartney or Bob Dylan.  But that’s about it.

It’s also a little difficult for us to understand today just how much he changed the world.  John Lennon once said that before Elvis, there was nothing.  That pretty much sums it up.  Oh, sure, Rock & Roll existed, but Elvis was like the big bang of popular music.  Even Bob Dylan, who became famous as a folkie, Woody Guthrie-wannabe, first picked up a guitar because he wanted to be Elvis.  He was one of the most important entertainers and cultural icons of the 20th Century.  To honor him today, I want to go back to the song that launched him with Sun Records.  I can’t think of a better way to remember him.