Friday August 20, 2021
Louis Menand on Elvis, the Beatles, and Where the Hell Teenagers Came From
Elvis on the Dorsey Show. Radio didn't care about race, TV did.
I’ve been slogging through Louis Menand’s “The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War” for the past few months now, setting it down for another book, picking it up again when that book was finished, hoping it would get better or more interesting or more interesting to me. I liked the chapter on Orwell well enough, and the chapter on the sham of the beats, but once he got into the philosophers and the art world, well, I guess I put it down because I had trouble picking it up. Too much of it went over my head. But the other day I skipped a chapter to the one on music and “youth culture,” and … holy fuck. I wish I could buy people just this chapter.
I know a lot about Elvis and the Beatles, but not completely, and some of the angles Menand comes from are new. He doesn’t underline it, but each act presented its opposite face when performing. Privately, Elvis was polite and deferential, onstage he roared with rebellion. The Beatles flipped this script. Onstage, they were polite—bowing after each number—while in private and in press conferences, they were cheeky, rebellious, dismissive of authority. Press agent Derek Taylor talks about their fangs. Producer George Martin, the fifth Beatle, said they didn’t give a damn about anyone—that’s partly why he liked them. “They sang of love,” Menand writes; “they were loved by millions; ‘loveableness’ was the essence of their appeal. But they loved only one another.”
How the Beatles disarmed the press is well-known, and Menand calls one of the exchanges on Feb. 7, 1964, the day they arrived at JFK Airport and all hell broke loose, “sublime.” This one:
Q: What do you think of Beethoven?
Ringo: Great. Especially his poems.
Some of the Beatles’ wit can be credited to the social style of working-class Liverpool life. Ringo, for instance, who was by far the least educated Beatle (childhood illnesses had kept him out of school for long periods), did not acquire his drollness with the mohair suit Brian Epstein accoutered him in. It was his natural manner of deflecting insults. The question about Beethoven was a genteel insult, and it is telling that he, the Beatle least likely to know much about Beethoven, should have had the quickest retort, and a retort to which no follow-up is possible.
He adds: “If Elvis Presley had had a month to think about it, he couldn’t have come up with that line.”
But it’s in the pullback into how teenagers became a thing where this chapter completely jazzes me. Where did teenagers come from? Hadn’t they always been? Not really. So why did they become a thing? Because high school happened. In 1900, he informs us, only 10.2% of 14- to 17-year-old Americans were in school. By 1940, it was 73%, and it kept growing. And that emphasis on education was specific to America. I’ve never heard this 1966 quote of John Lennon’s but it’s telling: “America used to be the big youth place in everybody’s imagination. America had teen-agers and everywhere else just had people.”
Teenagers happened in part because the family farm stopped happening: “In 1900, 38 percent of employed Americans were farm workers; in 1950, 12 percent were. By 1960, it was a little over 6 percent.” Then college was added. There was all this time, and money, and what do you do with it?
Menand goes into the copyright and financial battles between the behemoths ASCAP (founded in 1914) and BMI (founded in 1939), and how after World War II the FCC set out to license new, independent radio stations to create media competition. They were everywhere, and radios were increasingly added to automobiles. Menand gives us the birth of things. In 1948, Columbia issued the first 33 1/3 LP. Eight months later, RCA introduced the 45 RPM single. Phonographs, particularly for singles, became more affordable. Portable transistor radios began selling in 1953. Jukeboxes went from holding 24 records, to 100, to 500.
Why Elvis? R&B was breaking through, for both white and Black performers, and they were all played on the radio. Radio was integrated. TV segregated them again. “Many sponsors avoided mixed-race television shows,” Menand writes, “since they were advertising on national networks and did not want to alienate white viewers in certain regions of the country.” Plus TV is a superficial medium and Elvis was young, sexy, sneering. America and the world went nuts. Read George W.S. Trow on Elvis ’56.
Why the Beatles? I remember Philip Norman talking up how they were a cheery media distraction after tawdry or tragic events—the Profumo scandal in Britain, the JFK assassination in the U.S.—but Menand goes to other places. The baby boomers were coming into teenagehood, the business machinery was in place, and all the great rockers had died (Buddy, Richie), been busted (Chuck, Jerry Lee), or gone Hollywood (Elvis). “When the Beatles arrived in New York, the pop charts had been dominated by singers like Bobby Vinton, Frankie Avalon, and Fabian—the ‘teen idols’—and groups like the Four Seasons. Presley had not had a No. 1 single since April 1962; he would not have another No. 1 in the United States until 1969.”
Why the British invasion? I found this info fascinating:
Britain had more art colleges per capita than any nation in the world. The establishment of a National Diploma in Design, in 1944, lowered the bar for entry—probably all [John] Lennon had to do was to submit to an interview and show a portfolio of his drawings—and this led to an academically permissive environment. … Every British act that had a lasting impact on popular music in the 1960s had at least one member who attended art college: the Rolling Stones (Keith Richards and Charlie Watts), the Who (Pete Townsend), Cream (Eric Clapton and the lyricist Pete Brown), Led Zeppelin (Jimmy Page), the Kinks (Ray Davies), the Jeff Beck Group (Jeff Beck and Ron Wood, later with the Stones), the Animals (Eric Burdon), and Donovan.
My interest waned when Menand tries to say something meaningful about Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone magazine. But the rest of the chapter fucking rocks.
The Beatles arrive, Feb. 7, 1964, filling a huge gap.
Sunday June 20, 2021
Love Is Just a Four-Letter Word
“You know, it was probably a stupid thing to do, not letting her play, but you can't be wise and in love at the same time, so I hope she sees the light sooner or later on that.”
-- Bob Dylan, talking about not letting Joan Baez go on stage with him during his disastrous 1966 tour of England, in Martin Scorsese's great 2006 documentary “No Direction Home,” which is currently steaming on Netflix. I've seen the doc three, four times, but tonight the highlighted just leapt out at me. This is around the time in the doc Joan Baez talks about stealing Dylan's song “Love Is Just a Four-Letter Word.” Later Dylan hears it and goes “Huh ... pretty good song,” and she has to tell him, “You wrote it, you dope.” All of that is part of the doc's idea that a young Dylan somehow tapped into our collective unconscious. Which certainly explains why he was so wise at ages 21, 22, 23.
Friday May 15, 2020
7th Avenue Comfort
This morning I heard Simon & Garfunkel's “The Boxer” and recalled an epiphany I had a few years back. This part:
Asking only workman's wages, I come lookin' for a job
But I get no offers
Just a come-on from the whores on 7th Avenue
I do declare, there were times when I was so lonesome
I took some comfort there
It's the “comfort there” line. Or simply the “there” there. As a kid/teen/young adult, I thought the singer was taking comfort from the come-ons themselves. As in: “Well, I may be lonely, but at least they seem to want me.” I thought it was an amusing line. As an adult, I see a more obvious meaning.
Seriously, sometimes I look back at myself and wonder how I got through life.
Thursday April 09, 2020
John Prine (1946-2020)
This was pre-Covid times. I was taking a walk in Seattle over to Volunteer Park—named for the men who volunteered to serve in the Spanish-American War—and I think I was just leaving the park when, on my iPod shuffle, John Prine's live version of “That's the Way the World Goes Round” came on, and I felt such joy. It's more than the song; it's the story he tells about the girl who mishears the words.
The words go:
That's the way that the world goes ‘round
You’re up one day, the next you‘re down
It’s a half an inch of water, you think you‘re gonna drown
That’s the way that the world goes ‘round
And instead of “half an inch of water” she hears “happy enchilada.” Right. “It’s a happy enchilada and you think you‘re gonna drown.” So that’s what she aks him to play: “That song of yours about the happy enchilada.”
He tells that story halfway through the song and then finishes it up by singing her words in the chorus. When he does, there's a woman in the audience who lets out a scream of pure happiness and humor and joy. And I felt that pure happiness and humor and joy walking back home from Discovery Park. And here's the thing: I always felt that joy when I listened to the song. The whole thing is so perfect. The screw-up fits the theme of the song. You write a humorous song about the minor mishaps of life and someone comes along and totally mishears the words and renders the whole thing meaningless. How can you not laugh? How can you not embrace it? It's the way the world goes ‘round.
So I was happy that day thinking about how much I loved this song and John Prine. And I was sadder than I expected two nights ago when John Prine died from complications from the Covid-19 virus. I expected it when I heard he contracted it. He was not in good health. But there was still a sudden deep empty sadness.
I didn’t know Roger Ebert helped discover him. It was 1970, Ebert went to review a movie, but he left because his popcorn was too salty (really, Roger?) and went to a local bar for a beer. The bartender told him to check out the guy playing in the back room. He not only checked him out, he wrote about him for the Chicago Sun-Times:
“[Prine] appears on stage with such modesty he almost seems to be backing into the spotlight. He sings rather quietly, and his guitar work is good, but he doesn't show off. He starts slow. But after a song or two, even the drunks in the room begin to listen to his lyrics. And then he has you.”
Among the songs Ebert heard? “Sam Stone” and “Angel from Montgomery.”
Here's Prine on NPR in 2018:
“I never had an empty seat after that. I was still making my living as a mailman. And [after that review] I was singing three nights a week and two shows a night. And there was a line outside. And things just got better from then on.”
Kris Kristoferson helped, too, and took him to New York and had him open for him. Bonnie Raitt helped, too. She plucked “Angel from Montgomery” and sang it in 1974. The people who knew, knew. I was late to the party. I think I first started listening to him in the ‘90s? Bob Dylan writes the best story-songs I’ve ever heard but I doubt anyone ever told better stories before singing their songs than John Prine: Sabu. Oldest baby in the world. Sam Stone.
Before the live version of “Sam Stone,” about a Vietnam Vet who becomes an addict when he returns home from the war, Prine talks about how he and his friend had a day to kill in D.C., and this is what they saw:
- Lincoln Memorial
- Hot dog stand
- Kennedy's grave
- Vietnam Memorial
I love the addition of the hot dog stand. It's so true for D.C. You check out this, check out that, then suddenly it's 1 PM and damn you‘re hungry and hey there’s a hot dog stand. You eat on the Mall and continue.
I just like were they go. It's where I go. Jefferson Memorial, too, probably, and the new FDR, and Chinatown. I like looking at the statues around town. I mean, I‘ve done DC a zillion times, but those are my places, and I’m glad they‘re his places. At the same time, it makes me wonder where Republicans go when they go to DC. Lincoln was a Republican, sure, but everything he stood for they now repudiate; so where do they go? I’m kind of curious.
John and his friend also head to the Vietnam War Memorial, which is right by Lincoln on the Mall, and what he says about it is probably the most succinct thing I‘ve heard about the dark beauty of that Memorial. Worth listening to.
John Prine wrote songs like Walker Evans took photos: speaking for Americans and raising up their stories for all to hear. He will be missed.— Ron Wyden (@RonWyden) April 8, 2020
Some twinkle in the eye is gone from the world. But it’s also still here.
Sunday March 17, 2019
Trow on Elvis '56
Re-reading George W.S. Trow. Always worthwhile. In the beginning of “Pilgrim's Progress/Media Studies,” he's ragging on a $3.1 millon study on violence that doesn't take proper context into account. It also ignores what Trow calls “sequence” and what I tend to call “chronology.” He gives a great example of why it matters:
My next note says: “No sense of sequence.” In analyzing violence on television, it was all treated as though it had been ever with us, like sugar use, as if, naturally we‘ve always had sugar in coffee and tea, and how much are we using now, and what does it do to our energy level, and should we cut down on sugar?—like that. No sense of when sugar was invented, no sense of the sequence of it. And the note I made at this point is, “Like analyzing rock-and-roll on TV—a big subject—without looking at Elvis Presley’s appearance on the Dorsey Stage Show in 1956.”
Well, in 1956, in January, Elvis began to appear on television, and his first appearance was on a program called Stage Show with Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey. Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, who'd been a hit with teenagers twenty years before, were now fifty years old, and the show was corny, and it was corny precisely because we'd been through the experience of the Second World War, which was a very puritanical experience, a military experience, an experience of privation and seriousness. ... The Dorseys presented themselves as something from the hall of fame of popular culture. They had jugglers, they had tap dancers, it was just the standard stuff that adults had grown up on, and Elvis came into that, and anyone who wants to see the moment, and nearly everyone should see the moment, can watch a documentary called Elvis ‘56. Elvis came into it, and you know—I hope you know what Elvis was like when he was twenty-one years old, and he was twenty-one—and he wasn’t dressed like Liberace, he was dressed to kill, and he did kill. He killed Stage Show, and everything it represented, in a moment. This has to do with the quality of unexampled people in life, it has to do with the quality of talent, it has to do with the history of Dionysian energy. Of course, there would have been no point in counting everything that was happening in television in December 1955, because in January of 1956 a human avatar of unparalleled power named Elvis Presley was going to change the whole thing forever, and to leave that kind of truth out of a media discussion is simply to have a discussion—well, worthless is the word that comes to mind.
I‘ve been sick for the past few weeks, and today was sunny, so I walked over to Seattle University and read this in the sun by the fountain where dogs play. Made me want to watch “Elvis ’56” again. Also made me think that Elvis' much-praised comeback special in ‘68 was just a ’68 version of Stage Show with Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey. It was the show for '50s kids who were confused by civil rights, anti-war protesters and hippies.
Anyway pay attention to chronology. I think of this every time the news brings up the U.S.-Chinese trade war without mentioning its obvious Trumpian origins.
Friday October 19, 2018
Your Kids Will Always Be Embarrassed of You
“I was incredibly flattered. It was very cool. It was a little embarrassing at times. You know, carpool with the kids and the song comes on and my son's like... [imitates him shrinking back into his seat].”
Michelle Pfeiffer on being namechecked in the Mark Ronson/Bruno Mars hit, “Uptown Funk.”
Thursday August 16, 2018
Aretha Franklin (1942-2018)
How isolated was I as a kid in the ‘70s? How segregated are we as a society and a culture even though we had national meeting places like the three big networks back then? I saw “The Blues Brothers” in 1980, age 17, with some little knowledge of the world and music; and when Jake and Ellwood, on a mission from God, are putting together their band again, and recruit Matt “Guitar” Murphy at the diner, and his wife, a waitress, tries to stop him, singing “Think,” this was my thought halfway through that song:
Wow, that waitress sure can sing.
I’d heard Aretha's name, of course, I just didn't know what she looked like. Of the big-name singers from that movie, Aretha, James Brown, Ray Charles and Cab Calloway, I only knew Ray. This was my intro to the others. So at least it gave us that.
The Queen of Soul died this morning at the age of 76. Other remembrances here. The greatest remembrance of all is the music, which everyone is listening to this morning, and which lives on and on and on.
The other day, when news broke that Aretha was sick, my friend David, a good Southern boy, posted this clip from the 2013 documentary “Muscle Shoals” to social media. It's a reminder that even with all that talent, even with all that power, it didn't have to happen. It's not just talent and hard work. You need people who know what they're doing. And even if you have all that, sometimes you need the right piano riff.
Sunday July 01, 2018
Song of the Summer
I'm going to have to steal “While ol' Satan stands impressed.” That's evergreen shit these days.
Saturday May 19, 2018
Still Crazy After All These Years
Went with my friend Jim to the Paul Simon “Homeward Bound” concert at Key Arena last night. Not sure what else was going on, but Lower Queen Anne was packed. I met Jim at 6 PM outside Toulouse Petit, thinking we'd head into their first-come-first-serve Happy Hour pit; but we talked to a guy, next in line seemingly, who'd been waiting 20 minutes. Peso's was even worse. So we wound up across the street at the Tin Lizzie Lounge, a bar/restaurant associated with the Mediterranean Inn, which was also overwhelmed and/or understaffed. Orders never arrived; drinks took forever. But it was pleasant enough, and for whatever reason there were some astonishingly good-looking customers there. It felt a little like that secret club on “Seinfeld.” I felt like George, who somehow snuck in.
The show at Key Arena began just as we were taking our seats. Paul opened with “America,” and talked a a bit about the current state of America, without really naming names. His voice, at 76, started rusty but soon hit its stride. Can't hit the highs (no “You can call MEEEE ... AL”) but skated through the middles. He's also in astonishingly good shape. Dude's got guns. Did a lot of fluttery hand movements throughout—like his version of Elvis' latter-day karate poses. I wondered if the movements began as physical therapy. When you do one thing all your life, your body often rebels.
His backing band was great, and he did a lot of favorites, but he mostly has favorites. Is there a more fun-filled all-American song than “Me & Julio Down by the School Yard”? It's nearly 50 years old now but feels contemporary, and I thought of the video versions I knew:
- Simon and Connie Hawkins playing 1-on-1 basketball in season 1, episode 2 of “Saturday Night Live,” which Simon hosted
- The “taking it out and chopping it up” montage in “Royal Tenenbaums”
- Simon on “Sesame Street” with the “Dance dance dance” girl
I also flashed back to an argument I had in junior high with my best friend Pete and his brother John. It was 1977, we were in their basement, and for some reason we argued over who was better—Paul Simon (me) or the Bee Gees (them). I wound up storming out and we didn't speak for months. I was that odd junior-high kid whose favorite musician was Dick Cavett's favorite musician.
What didn't he play that I wanted to hear? A few thoughts:
I also would‘ve liked to hear more from his first solo album, Paul Simon, or his second, There Goes Rhymin’ Simon, both of which feel underrated to me. But what are you going to do? There's so many.
Here's his set list for the night, 25 songs in all. A third encore is mentioned, but in truth, after the four songs of the second encore, he dismissed the band, stayed, and played the final two, including “The Sound of Silence,” with just himself and his guitar on stage. A fitting end: A poet and his one-man band.
Wednesday March 28, 2018
This Wrecks Me
Mark Harris posted this video on Twitter yesterday and I watched it once, was impressed, assumed it was a guy singing about a girl. Then I read that it's from the annual MisCast gala, in which Broadway performers sing a song for a part they wouldn't be cast for. I was like, “Why wouldn't he be cast for this? Oh, it's from ‘Waitress’? And it's the title role singing? Oh, about herself? She's singing to her younger self?”
Then I listened again. And lost it. Heartbreaking. And what a rendition from Jeremy Jordan.
Here are the lyrics from Sara Bareilles:
It's not simple to say
That most days I don't recognize me
That these shoes and this apron
That place and its patrons
Have taken more than I gave them
It's not easy to know
I'm not anything like I used be, although it's true
I was never attention's sweet center
I still remember that girlShe's imperfect, but she tries
She is good, but she lies
She is hard on herself
She is broken and won't ask for help
She is messy, but she's kind
She is lonely most of the time
She is all of this mixed up and baked in a beautiful pie
She is gone, but she used to be mine
It's not what I asked for
Sometimes life just slips in through a back door
And carves out a person and makes you believe it's all true
And now I‘ve got you
And you’re not what I asked for
If I'm honest, I know I would give it all back
For a chance to start over and rewrite an ending or two
For the girl that I knewWho‘ll be reckless, just enough
Who’ll get hurt, but who learns how to toughen up
When she's bruised and gets used by a man who can't love
And then she‘ll get stuck
And be scared of the life that’s inside her
Growing stronger each day ‘til it finally reminds her
To fight just a little, to bring back the fire in her eyes
That’s been gone, but used to be mine
Used to be mineShe is messy, but she's kind
She is lonely most of the time
She is all of this mixed up and baked in a beautiful pie
She is gone, but she used to be mine
It's the “mine” that really nails it. “She used to be me” would be ordinary. “Mine” puts it on another level. I think I've listened/watched 20 times now. Your turn.
Saturday December 09, 2017
'Man Shot, 1 West 72'
I should've posted this yesterday, on the ... which was it ... 37th anniversary. Almost as many years as he spent on Earth.
What an inspired way to write the column, telling of the lives of the cops who picked up the body and brought it Roosevelt Hospital in New York. Part of it is brutal reading: another body, but not another body, in the violent country he desperately wanted to live in, on the cusp of our most violent year. He didn't even get an ambulance? Just cops picking him up and carrying him into the backseat of their patrol car? And still alive. And still aware. “Are you John Lennon?” A nod and a groan. The intersection of these cops' lives with the man they brought in. And that brilliant last line that feels more relevant than ever:
And Jim Moran and Tony Palma, older now, cops in a world with no fun, stood in the emergency room as John Lennon, whose music they knew, whose music was known everywhere on earth, became another person who died after being shot with a gun on the streets of New York.
Rest in peace, John. Rest in peace, Jimmy Breslin, 52 when he wrote this, 88 when he died earlier this year.
Thursday July 13, 2017
Trump Protest Songs: Elvis Costello's ‘Sunday’s Best' (1979)
It's from 1979 but ain't exactly dated. It begins this way:
Times are tough for English babies
Send the army and the navy
Beat up strangers who talk funny
Take their greasy foreign money
And it ends this way:
Put them all in boots and khaki
Blame it all upon the darkies