Friday, January 15, 2010

Remembering Elvis - 1

VOA music features in the first two weeks of 2010 focused on the 75th anniversary of Elvis Presley's birth on 8 January in Tupelo, Missisippi, as well as the deaths of two prominent singers, one of them known as the Argentinian Elvis.

But before proceeding to these stories in a subsequent entry, I'd like to share a brief musical reminiscence. (Note: many of the songs mentioned below may be found in various versions on YouTube.)

As a teenager growing up in Denver, Colorado, I used to listen evenings and weekends to the local popular music stations, which in 1955 had featured such #1 national hits (many of which I still have on much-loved and badly scratched 7-inch 45 rpm records, the dominant medium of the day for pop music) as Pat Boone's cover version of Fats Domino's "Aint That a Shame"; "Autumn Leaves", by Roger Williams in a piano and orchestral rendition of the 1945 French classic, with no vocals; the bucolic "Ballad Of Davy Crockett" by actor/vocalist Bill Hayes; "Hearts Of Stone" by the Fontane Sisters, in a cover of an earlier Rhythm and Blues (African American) hit; "Learnin' the Blues " by Frank Sinatra; "Let Me Go, Lover!" by Joan Weber; "Memories Are Made Of This" by Dean Martin; "Sixteen Tons" by "Tennessee" Ernie Ford; and "Unchained Melody" by Les Baxter and His Orchestra and Chorus.

The last, in fact, figured with particular prominence in my personal internal soundtrack, during one long, hot summer, as a dark ballad capturing the essence of my fierce and unrequited crush on one of my classmates, Janet Gilchrist (hello, Janet, wherever you are.) For there was something primal about the effect that many of these and other hits of the period had on the psyche, and the soul, of a young adolescent. Even sitting here in Bhopal, India, in an unheated and tube-light-illuminated room on a cold winter's night, the mere reading of the titles of some of these songs--"The Breeze and I" (sung by by Caterina Valente, and based on Ernesto Lecuona's "Andalucia"); "Earth Angel (Will You Be Mine?)" (by The Penguins, in a then rare instance of the first hit version of a mainstream song being recorded by a Rhythm and Blues, and hence African American--as opposed to white--artist or group); and of course "Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing" (by The Four Aces, and the theme song for a popular film of the same title), with its unforgettable "In the morning mist, two lovers kissed, and the world stood still . . . . "--opens up a yawning chasm of nostalgia for the early days when I was struggling to understand the confusing and sometimes heart-wrenching experience of young love, with the melodies and words still sounding, even churning, in my brain after 55 years.

But it was my first hearing of Elvis' "Heartbreak Hotel" that literally catapulted me into an utterly new musical world. I was cleaning out and sweeping the two-car garage in back of my Denver home one of my regular chores), when that song began to play on the small portable radio I'd plugged into a utlity socket. The song was like nothing I'd ever heard, and I must have stood, paralyzed after the first few seconds, broom in hand, listening, just listening, transfixed by sounds that seemed to come from another reality perhaps just around the corner, or perhaps from an entirely new universe of feelings as yet undiscovered. The ethnomusicologist in me now can analyze the musical elements--many from the African-American popular music of the day, but many from Elvis' own impenetrable soul and individuality--but as a lad, I was blessed with an experiential epiphany of experiencing "the other", that even today, shifts and reshapes itself like a spiritual and emotional apparition--both auditory and visual--in the very center of my being.

The subsequent appearance of "Rock Around The Clock" by Bill Haley and His Comets" was the only other song of the period that came close to shaking viscerally the foundations of my young reality, and this was due in large part to the appearance of the song as the theme song in the movie of the same title--a classic portrayal of teenage rebellion, in the stark idiom of black and white.

No, it was Elvis, and Heartbreak Hotel, that brought me, 13 years old, to the shores of the first of many oceans of wondrous new music.


Brian Q. Silver said...

V0aw0rldLance F. Gunderson commented "Remember Honey Love by Clyde McFadder and the original Drifters? My sister had that on 78 rpm back around 1954 or so. Touched my soul just like flamenco."

Gerald Grow said...

Like so many movements of my time, I was in it but not of it when it came to Elvis Presley.

When Elvis' songs swept my school years, I found the girls I longed for yearning instead for this character. Elvis came out of a subset of the rural South, a world I grew up in and was stretching hard to go past. So it puzzled me to find people in a more sophisticated world being drawn "back" to where Elvis mixed his brew.

I knew enough of that lower class rural white world to know that, in addition to the sinewy vitality, it also housed violence and smug crudeness and the defensive pride of the overworked poor. So I was not attracted by the vitality of Elvis' music, tempered as it was by what else I knew to live there.

I was saddened but not surprised by where his life ended up -- the awful self-punishment of people who get what they want. His dress, his mansion, like some of his music, seemed the not-that inversion of an unspoken lack -- not wealth, but poverty inverted. I wondered how much of the music was an inversion of something as well.

When his music appeared, it was that lack I thought I heard, amplified by my own adolescent drive not to be that myself.

I write this to note that, in the midst of any great social movement, there will be people like me at that time who live in the middle of the movement but have more conflicted relations to what is sweeping the culture along.

I did come to like Elvis' ballads and the boyish charm of his acting roles.

How strange that so much American culture has been shaped by the media presences of created personas, which have often overshadowed the living people next to us.

And how strange that music, even great music, does not require (or necessarily help) its creators to be whole human beings.

That would be asking too much of anyone. So we let the music play in parts of us as it will.

And it does.