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Aurora Rising

madame maries

(Pictured: Madam Marie was not at her Temple of Knowledge the day I visited the boardwalk in Asbury Park, New Jersey. Finally busted by the cops, probably, for telling fortunes better than they do.)

In October of 1975, Bruce Springsteen became a household word thanks to his simultaneous appearances on the covers of both Time and Newsweek. I remember hearing “Born to Run” a few times back then and thinking that I’d never heard anything that sounded quite so big. Darkness on the Edge of Town came out just before I went off to college in 1978, and one of the songs I played my first morning on the air in December was “Candy’s Room.” But neither one of those made me a fan.

At college, I met several fellow students who were Springsteen acolytes, but it wasn’t until The River came out in 1980 that I became a full-fledged devotee myself. It couldn’t have been out very long before I bought it—at the big grocery store near campus that had a couple of racks of records in the pharmacy department, if I’m recalling correctly. I can see me lying on the floor in our college apartment that first afternoon, listening closely while reading the liner notes and lyrics while my roomie wrote a paper at the dining room table. It remains my favorite Springsteen album today: “Hungry Heart,” “Cadillac Ranch,” “Point Blank,” “The River,” “Wreck on the Highway”—they’d all be on my Springsteen top 10.

Springsteen was an instant buy after that: Nebraska, Born in the USA, Live: 1975-1985, and Tunnel of Love, before other artists moved ahead of Bruce on the list of artists I would run to buy. In the mp3 era, I have added several other Springsteen albums and tons of bootlegs. He’s #14 on my most-played artist list at LastFM, so I’m listening to him more today than I ever did in the 80s and 90s. I saw him perform a couple of songs at a John Kerry rally in Madison in 2004, but a full concert remains the top item on my bucket list.

Forty years after “Born to Run,” instead of sitting in a New Jersey hotel room on a beautiful afternoon doing work I could get paid for, I struck out in search of some of Springsteen’s places. I was pleased to find an AM oldies station for the ride, one playing mostly 50s and 60s—the music that would have inspired him while he was living here.

The highway exit right outside the hotel has a sign for Freehold, the town where Springsteen grew up (although fanatics will quickly remind you he was born at a hospital in Long Branch, New Jersey). I did not go to Freehold looking for the Springsteen manse, or the high school where he skipped his graduation ceremony. It was enough to pass through and to have lunch at the Burger King.

From Freehold, I followed the signs (and the GPS) to Asbury Park, stopping for a while at the boardwalk and the beach, where city crews were cleaning up after the season and the surf was coming in hard. It’s easy to picture the Springsteen of legend there, the guy who painted a beautiful picture of what it’s like on the Fourth of July, and who blew the doors off the Stone Pony across the street.

From Asbury Park, I let the GPS guide me again. A highway exit for Colts Neck reminded me of the oft-told story that Nebraska was a set of demos released as is, back there in 1982. Not true, however; the demos were a home recording, just Bruce and his guitar, made while he was living in Colts Neck. The songs were recorded by the whole E Street Band, but everyone preferred the stark treatments of the demos (on a cassette that Springsteen carried in his shirt pocket for months), so he recut them, and that became Nebraska. (You can hear the original Alone at Colts Neck here.)

The afternoon waned, and it was time for me to be somewhere. As I left Springsteen’s traces behind, the oldies played on. As they do.

What We Will Remember

(Pictured: Pink Floyd, 1972.)

Earlier this year, Stephen Thompson of NPR Music tried answering the question, “Will we remember today’s pop stars in 50 years?” You should read the piece for yourself, although I can give you the short version: what we remember is what we keep hearing year after year after year, and so it’s guaranteed that some songs that have hit over the last couple of years will still be of interest to listeners in 2065.

Thompson says, “If you want a sense of whose music people remember, look no further than the artists who never actually have to go away.” He notes that Taylor Swift has been around for nearly a decade already, and Beyoncé scored her first hits at the end of the previous millennium. The pertinent list is far longer than that, of course: the first Four Seasons hit was in 1962, but Frankie Valli is still on the road. The Rolling Stones remain a going concern after 51 years. James Taylor and the Eagles are still filling halls and selling albums more than 40 years on. Just recently, Dave Davies of the Kinks talked about a possible reunion, more than half a century since “You Really Got Me.” The long afterlives of Pink Floyd and the Doors show no sign of waning, either.

One issue Thompson didn’t address is the change in the way we experience popular music now. In any given city, people aren’t getting all of their music from a small handful of mass-appeal radio stations anymore. Now they can choose from a contemporary hits station (CHR), rhythmic CHR, hip-hop, soft adult contemporary, rhythmic adult contemporary, modern rock, active rock, classic rock, plus Pandora, Spotify, Beats 1, YouTube, and other sources teenagers know and adults don’t. And so a particular song can become a big hit with a particular segment of the audience without making an impact elsewhere. My sense of the 70s and 80s is that the smaller number of outlets made the experience of a big hit song far more communal than it is today. Today, only a handful of songs break through into anything like truly mass consciousness (“Happy,” “Uptown Funk,” “Call Me Maybe”), where even people who don’t listen to much contemporary music can’t help but hear them.

A handful of individual works seem to have a chance to stick around (comparatively) forever. Every generation discovers “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and it will be a long time before Dark Side of the Moon fades into obscurity. I don’t know which individual hits by Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, or some staggeringly popular one-off might be equally long-lived. (“Happy”? “Uptown Funk”? “Call Me Maybe”?) Recent massive one-off smashes like “Somebody That I Used to Know” and this summer’s hit “Cheerleader” don’t seem to fit the bill, but who would have guessed in 1976 that “Bohemian Rhapsody” would endure for so long?

(Perhaps it’s just that I want you darn kids to get off my lawn, but to me, “Cheerleader” is the most over-praised record since . . . “Somebody That I Used to Know.” Both sound like they were written in about 10 minutes and recorded in 10 more; “Somebody That I Used to Know” doesn’t even sound like it’s finished. That audiences should go nuts over such flimsy stuff is nothing new. The odd thing is not that we sell our attention to the highest bidder, but that we sell it so cheaply.)

All of this is just my opinion. I could be wrong. What do you think makes music endure? Which artists and songs popular in the last 50 years are still going to matter 50 years from now? Which stars and songs of the last decade or so?

The Mirror

(Pictured: the King, 1968.)

Here’s the third and final part of something I wrote in 1997 after touring Graceland. As we walked through the house, I thought not just about Elvis the man but the multiple Elvises that made up his legendary career, and what they mean to us now.

We imagine a mansion as having thousands of square feet of living space, airy rooms, swimming pools, tennis courts, and scenes of grandeur. We expect to find that kind of mansion at Graceland, but what we actually find is different. It’s a lovely home, but small—almost too small for the legend we picture prowling the Jungle Room. Even the Meditation Garden, which we have seen on TV and expect to be large and lush, is small, awkwardly tucked away off a corner of the house, and near the front. Whenever Elvis relaxed there, alone with his thoughts, the traffic on the street that bears his name was only a few hundred yards away.

When we compare our expectations with the reality of Graceland, we gain a bit of insight into Elvis Presley’s character. If, as the Graceland story goes, Elvis wanted only to be rich enough to buy a nice house for his mother, he succeeded. If, as the story goes, Elvis remained at heart a country boy with a fondness for simple pleasures, the public face of Graceland seems to confirm it. While it is certainly true that the place conceals almost as much of the private Elvis as it reveals (and keeping the upper floor closed to the public makes this easier), what it reveals is surprising enough: Graceland’s hagiography may tell a story more truthful than fictional.

All four Elvises live on at Graceland. Graceland celebrates Rockin’ Elvis first and last, and just in time for the 20th anniversary of his passing, a brand-new collection of previously-unreleased demos and works-in-progress has just been released. It’s the latest in a collection of CD boxed sets released in recent years which have done more to restore Elvis’ reputation as an artist than anything since his death. (It is, of course, available in the gift shop).

Graceland is also a monument to Movie Elvis. In his early films, he was nothing short of beautiful—a realization which strikes both women and men even now. Then and later, movie viewers saw him as a giant presence in the dark and could not ignore him…

Graceland speaks of Fat Elvis in whispers, the Elvis with an insatiable appetite for prescription drugs, whose peculiarities were indulged and encouraged by his “friends,” whose livelihoods depended on pleasing him. These friends have chosen to remember him as a saint. But if that is untrue (and it surely is), the other extreme—Elvis as debauched monster—must be equally untrue. Graceland is of two minds about Fat Elvis—unable to deny the historical record, but unwilling to explore it in any detail.

Graceland does far more to perpetuate Dead Elvis than its keepers might wish to admit. While it attempts to hold the worst excesses of the Dead Elvis phenomenon in check—no velvet paintings are officially licensed by the Presley estate—700,000 visitors a year make Elvis wealthier dead than he ever was alive.

Finally, the biggest surprise about a visit to Graceland is how hard it is to leave. You may even go back a second time, just to look at those famous gates and up the hill at the mansion, to take one more picture.

And as you drive back down Elvis Presley Boulevard, you realize that Elvis is more than a rocker, an actor, a fat guy, a pet rock, a ghost on the fringes of popular culture. Elvis is an American type, a person we recognize as the embodiment of one or more of the things we are as a people—a mirror and ideal.

Here’s why. America encourages dreamers, like the young Elvis, because we believe that anyone can become famous beyond his wildest imaginings, like Rockin’ Elvis and Movie Elvis did. We see in Movie Elvis’ 1968 abandonment of Hollywood and return to his rock and roll roots something of our own continuing desire to get back to the basic values we believe in most. We see in Fat Elvis our own predisposition for overindulgence and laziness, our own tendency to stray too far from what made us great in the first place. We see in his too-young death the price that can be paid for going down a bad path. Dead Elvis shows us something of ourselves as Americans too. We cannot escape our history, but no matter how fat, silly, decadent, and lost we may become at times, America’s greatness still endures, contradictions and all.

That’s a lot to put on the shoulders of our different Elvises. Still, it fits. If he were anything less, his legend would not endure and continue to grow. Every society needs a mythic figure—a mirror and ideal. Twenty years after his death, the greatest tribute we can pay to Elvis Presley might be that if he had not existed, it would have been necessary to invent him.

A Regular Guy in His Regular House

(Pictured: Graceland. It’s a nice place.)

Here’s the second part of a 1997 piece I wrote about Elvis after a visit to Graceland.

“Sure we’re going to Graceland,” you say. “Gonna have a fried peanut butter and banana sandwich in the Jungle Room.” You’re prepared for a pop-culture hoot primarily because of the cheesiness of Dead Elvis, and at the start of your tour, you see nothing to dissuade you from that notion.

Graceland is located on Elvis Presley Boulevard, a busy commercial street in Memphis. You park the car and buy your ticket: $10 to tour the mansion, $18.50 if you also want to see Elvis’ cars, airplanes, and an exhibit of his personal effects. You get a tape player and cassette, and hop on a tour bus for the ride to the mansion itself. The tour is narrated on tape to accommodate the dozen or so languages most visitors might understand. It makes for a rather weird effect—visitors walk silently, not speaking to one another, listening carefully on headphones.

The first rooms you see are the formal living and dining rooms. The living room is the kind you’d see at a maiden aunt’s house—plush furniture, white carpets, a big piano, a TV in the room—which is never used for living. The dining room is set as it would be for a typical dinner. On the tape, you hear Priscilla Presley waxing nostalgic about dinnertime at Graceland, when Elvis and his friends (at Graceland they’re always referred to as “friends,” where elsewhere they’re called “the entourage” or “hangers-on”) would engage in good-natured fun and eat wholesome, down-home cooking.

You move next into the kitchen. It’s large and functional, filled with 70s vintage appliances in avocado green and harvest gold, which were used until 1993 by Elvis’ elderly aunt, who lived upstairs at Graceland until her death. From there, it’s downstairs to the TV room, painted a loud blue-and-gold, with a bank of three TV sets and Elvis’ famous slogan and symbol, TCB, on the wall. TCB, and the lightning bolt logo which accompanies it, referred to “taking care of business in a flash.” As you are constantly reminded, it’s what Elvis and his friends did for one another, and for others.

Next it’s the pool room, walls covered entirely in fabric, dim lighting, the felt of the pool table displaying a tear where one of Elvis’ friends supposedly tried a trick shot that failed. The tour narration reminds you once again that Elvis was just a regular guy with regular friends who did regular things in his regular house.

From this point, you go back upstairs to the famous Jungle Room. You have always imagined this room was in a secluded part of the house behind an unmarked door, but it’s right on the other side of the kitchen, no more than ten steps from the foyer. It features a small indoor waterfall and rustic furniture that looks as if it were hewn directly from fallen trees. The room is carpeted, floor and ceiling, in an unforgettable multi-tone green shag. You want to linger here; this is where the Elvis of legend is easiest to picture. But you are hustled out the back door. (The upper floor of the house, including the bathroom in which Elvis died, is not part of the tour.)

From the Jungle Room on, there’s a sense of anti-climax. You see the office where Vernon Presley managed his son’s personal affairs, the pasture where Elvis kept his horses, and the “Hall of Gold,” a converted outbuilding filled with gold records, awards, and other memorabilia. You spend more time in this building than any other on the tour, until the parade of honors becomes mind-numbing. From there, you go to an indoor racquetball court which is being remodeled into another gold-record display and where, you are told, Elvis spent the last night of his life playing racquetball and later, singing gospel songs with his friends. And finally you go outside once again, to the Meditation Garden, where Elvis, his parents, and his grandmother are buried side-by-side. “Elvis loved the garden,” Priscilla says in your ear. “It was his place to relax and think.” Then it’s back on the bus. You turn in your tape machine and are disgorged in front of the souvenir shop.

A few minutes later, you sit on a bench writing the postcards you bought, with the famous photo of Elvis meeting Dick Nixon. You start thinking about the different Elvises and how they intertwine, and the conclusions you reach surprise you.

Said conclusions in the next installment.

The Four Elvises

(Pictured: the hearse bearing Elvis Presley’s body leaves Graceland, August 18, 1977.)

The week after Elvis Presley died, he did not get on the cover of People magazine. In fact, it wasn’t until three issues later, the one dated September 5, 1977, that his name was even mentioned, and even then, there was no picture on the cover. (That honor went to Dan Rather, and a story about the possibility he would be Walter Cronkite’s heir.) While this seems absurd to us now—and the magazine’s founding editor called it the biggest mistake the magazine ever made—it made sense then. Celebrity culture was not the all-consuming monster it is now; People in those days preferred to put women on its covers; Elvis was perceived (rightly or wrongly) as a regional star, more popular in the South than in the North.

When Elvis died, fans came from across the country, joining the throng of Memphis locals at Graceland, the church, the cemetery. Vendors sold memorabilia in the streets. Some TV coverage of Presley’s mourners took a mildly critical tone, but only because nobody had ever seen a display quite like it. Old-timers compared it to the death of movie star Rudolph Valentino in 1927. Here in 2015, it looks completely normal to us. Just as Elvis was a pioneer of rock ‘n’ roll, he pioneered the fan response to celebrity death.

In 1997, The Mrs. and I visited Graceland. Before we’d gotten back to the parking lot, I started composing the following piece in my head. When I got home, I sold it to the newspaper in the town where we lived. I’ve never posted it at this blog, so here it is. Because it’s really long, I’m splitting it into three parts. Part 1 is on the flip.

Continue reading →

How Do You Like Me Now?

(Pictured: country star Toby Keith, early in 2002. The flag-themed guitar and FDNY hat were no accidents.)

Time to piece together some leftovers from my draft file. I started and never finished a couple of country-themed posts, so here goes.

On the drunken, violent, disorderly crowds at large country music shows:

It’s been widely reported how the subject matter of mainstream country music has changed in recent years. Where country was once highly personal and grounded in universal experience, a significant percentage of its most popular songs trade on a handful of the same tropes, repeated over and over. Songs of love and loss are outnumbered by party anthems drenched in moonlight and moonshine. Cornfields, bonfires, trucks with tailgates down, and everywhere people drinking, dancing, and hooking up without conscience or consequences.

It’s hard not to draw a line from these songs to the behavior of some of the people who like them. After all, since the invention of the movies a century ago, Americans have learned how to behave from various forms of pop culture—but most of us also recognize that the world in which we actually live has different rules from the world pop culture portrays.

The best discussion of these two interlinked subjects—the behavior of crowds and the transformation of mainstream music—comes from Saving Country Music, a site that is harshly critical of mainstream country. But even accounting for that editorial viewpoint, “From Checklist to Bro-Country: the Subversion of Country Music” is an excellent analysis of how the changes in country over the last several years have been accomplished, and how those changes fuel the mayhem visited upon many country shows: the abuse of alcohol, disrespect for women and for property, and outright violence.

Another excerpt from a country music post that fell apart, about an artist who’s capable of better, in a couple of different ways:

Toby Keith came right out of the chute in 1993 with a #1 single, “Should Have Been a Cowboy,” and hit the country Top 10 with his next six singles. His best stretch started in 2000 when “How Do You Like Me Now?” hit #1. Twelve of his next 13 singles would reach #1. One of those was “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue.” Subtitled “The Angry American,” it was written in the wake of the September 11 attacks, went to #1 in 2002, and stands as one of the most awful artifacts of that terrible time. It’s a flag-waving, chest-beating, patriotic anthem that basically says “mess with America and we’ll kill you for sport.” (Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks famously called it “ignorant.”) In the post-9/11 climate, such sentiments didn’t hurt Keith’s career one bit, as he continued to rack up #1 hits. Another patriotic record, “American Soldier,” was one of them, in 2003. Keith was one of the most notable celebrity supporters of the Iraq War when it began, although by 2004 he was claiming to be a John Kerry supporter.

“American Soldier” was the followup single to “I Love This Bar,” another #1 hit that Keith uses as the name for a chain of restaurants he owns—a chain that makes him one of the highest paid musicians in America year after year. And the drinking songs have continued apace: “Get Drunk and Be Somebody,” “Get My Drink On,” and beginning in 2011, six out of his seven chart singles were drinking songs of one sort or another. In 2013 and again in 2014, he appeared on stage visibly drunk, causing fans to ask for their money back.

We get trapped in what we allow ourselves to become. Toby Keith became a right-wing patriotic totem and had to remain one even after his personal politics changed. And now it’s as if he’s become the official performer of the over-served.

There is nothing about “How Do You Like Me Now?” that isn’t insanely great: the setup and the story; the video; and one of the best fist-in-the-air singalong choruses you’ll ever hear, any genre, any artist, any decade, capped off by a taunting little guitar lick that’s perfect. Even if you don’t like country, you’ll like this.

I couldn’t make you love me
But I always dreamed about
Livin’ in your radio
How do you like me now?


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