Sad Elvis

In the busy entertainment district of Nashville, you see them.  Large caricatures of Elvis Presley in front of storefronts, just waiting for a boozy tourist to stop and snap a photo and post it on their Facebook page.  The microphone that he apparently was singing into is gone, but Elvis is still there, chained down around his waist so he can’t be taken away.

IMG_1035We’ve had controversies about young Elvis and old Elvis.  Rebel Elvis and Las Vegas Elvis.  Thin, leather-clad Elvis and fat, jumpsuit-wearing and karate-chopping Elvis.

This, I think, is a picture of sad Elvis.

I’ve never been a huge Elvis Presley fan, but anyone who loves rock ‘n roll has got to tip their hat to The King.  There’s no doubt the Elvis Presley changed the world and revolutionized America when he started to sing blues music and swing those hips.  He inspired the Beatles and lots of other acts and left an enormous imprint on American music and culture.  His death was pathetic, but there is no denying his vast and enduring influence.

Now, on the streets of Nashville, the King is reduced to a fiberglass photo opportunity, like Ronald McDonald or a T-Rex or Paul Bunyon.  It’s disturbing, and it’s wrong.  There’s something forlorn and almost despairing about it that a few brightly colored balloons tied to his wrist won’t hide.

Poor Elvis!

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A Permanent Governing Class

A few days ago John Dingell, 87, the longest-serving member of the House of Representatives, announced that he was retiring after the longest congressional career in history. Now sources are saying that his 60-year-old wife will run for his seat and is expected to be elected.

Dingell has served in Congress, representing the same district in southeastern Michigan, since 1955. That was one year after Elvis Presley released his first single and 11 Presidents ago. And here’s the kicker — Dingell succeeded his father as Congressman for the district. If his wife wins the seat, there will have been three Dingells in succession, over a period of seven different decades.

In my view, there’s just something weird and wrong about the same family holding the same congressional seat for such a long period of time. It smacks too much of a permanent governing class for my democratic tastes. I think members of the House and the Senate will be a lot more mindful of their constituents, and a lot less lordly in their behavior, if they actually have a meaningful risk of losing an election.

Isn’t there someone not named Dingell who could capably represent the district?

1957 Was A Pretty Lame Year

Today is my 54th birthday.  As I was driving home tonight I realized I know almost nothing about my birth year, so I did a bit of research.  The results were . . . unfortunate.

In fact, you probably could argue that 1957 was the lamest, most boring year of the entire American 20th century.  The two most significant events, so far as I can determine, were the launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union and the sending of federal troops to Arkansas to enforce a desegregation order — important events, to be sure, but not like the the crucial, game-changing events that occurred routinely during the Depression era, or the War Years, or the tumultuous ’60s and scandal-plagued ’70s.

In 1957 Jack Kerouac’s On The Road was published, and the word “beatnik” was coined, but for the most part America was enjoying the sleepy, optimistic, prosperous, seemingly unchanging 1950s.  The country was at peace.  Dwight Eisenhower was President, as he had been for years.  Elvis was popular, and so were TV quiz shows on the black-and-white RCA and Philco TVs that Americans were buying in increasing abundance.  The Academy Award winner for Best Picture was the unremarkable and unmemorable Around the World in 80 Days.

Culturally, perhaps the most interesting thing about 1957 was that it was the height of the Baby Boom, with more children born that year than any other during the post-war years.  I’m glad I made my own contribution in that regard, to give some character to a year that otherwise will never be more than a footnote in the history books.

Holiday Mix

Christmas is less than two weeks away and the signs of the approaching holiday are everywhere.  The Christmas decorations have been taken from the basement and put in their familiar locations.  This weekend we will get our tree, trim it with the ornaments we have collected over the years, and hang our stockings on the chimney with care.   At the office, Christmas cards are arriving and being displayed on doors, and people have started to add seasonal touches to their clothing.  Women get to wear festive sweaters and scarves; men make do with holiday ties and socks (of which I have a decent assortment).

And, of course, a big part of the holidays is the music.  As I’ve mentioned before, I love Christmas music, and it is well-represented on the Ipod in the Holiday Mix playlist, which is 293 songs and 15.8 hours long.  I like mixing up music and I’ve tried to do that with my Christmas music playlist — instrumental music with vocal, traditional carols with pop songs and James Brown, jazz-influenced treatments with the Salvation Army band, classically trained tenors with ’50s crooners and torch singers.  The first 20 songs on the Holiday Mix playlist are as follows:

Christmas Time Is Here (Instrumental) —    Vince Guaraldi,   A Charlie Brown Christmas
The Christmas Song —   Linda Ronstadt,  A Merry Little Christmas
Gruber: Stille Nacht (Silent Night) —    José Carreras, Christmas Favorites From The World’s Favorite Tenors
Sleigh Ride —    Leroy Anderson,  Season’s Greetings-Disc 1-20th Century Masters The Millennium Colleion
God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen —    Bing Crosby,  White Christmas
Jingle Bell Rock —   Bobby Helms, Season’s Greetings-Disc 2-20th Century Masters The Millennium Collection
O Come, O Come Emanuel —   Robert Shaw Chorale, A Festival Of Carols
The Holly & The Ivy —    Mediaeval Baebes, Mistletoe & Wine: A Seasonal Collection
Blue Christmas —    Elvis Presley, Billboard Greatest Christmas Hits
Go Tell It On The Mountain —   Mahalia Jackson,  Christmas With Mahalia Jackson
II – Redemption : Alma redemptoris —    Edward Higginbottom,  Nativitas
The Spirit Of Christmas —    Rosemary Clooney, Rosemary Clooney: White Christmas
What Child Is This? —    Oscar Peterson,  An Oscar Peterson Christmas
A Holly Jolly Christmas —    Burl Ives, Season’s Greetings-Disc 1-20th Century Masters The Millennium Collection
Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas —    The Carpenters, Christmas Portrait
O Holy Night (Cantique De Noel) —   Mormon Tabernacle Choir,  Christmas With The Mormon Tabernacle Choir
Let It Snow —   Dean Martin, Christmas With Ol’ Dino
Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker Suite, Op. 71A – Danses Caracteristiques: Marche —    Alberto Lizzio: London Festival Orchestra, Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker, Swan Lake (Ballet Suites)
Feliz Navidad —    José Feliciano,  Feliz Navidad
Please Come Home For Christmas —    James Brown,  Funky Christmas

American artists, British bands

Chuck Berry

Chuck Berry

There are eight Americans and two Brits in the top ten of Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 100 greatest artists of all time

Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash

(not a definitive list, but useful for illustrating my point). What’s strange is that all the Americans entries are individuals, while the British entries are for bands. Going down the list, it’s pretty much the same, with a few exceptions. Marvin Gaye, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison for the Americans, the Clash and the Who for the British.

Frank Sinatra

Frank Sinatra

Elvis

Elvis

It’s not a fluke. Anyone who’s listened to pop music from the past fifty years has probably noticed that America’s best contributions come in the forms of individuals, while British ones come in the form of bands. None of the “best American bands” we’ve discussed so far are as influential, in my opinion, as Elvis Presley or Michael Jackson. Many of America’s best bands have been dominated by a single member – Nirvana by Kurt Cobain, the Beach Boys by Brian Wilson, the Doors by Jim Morrison – while Britain’s best bands traditionally derive their brilliance from collaboration (or compromise) – the Beatles from Lennon and McCartney, the Rolling Stones from Jagger and Richards, etc.

Aretha Franklin

Aretha Franklin

Stevie Wonder

Stevie Wonder

The “American artists, British bands” rule applies too consistently to be dismissed as coincidence. Why is it this way?

Maybe it has something to do with America’s culture of individualism. The republican ideal of a man free to work to improve his own life has, perhaps, helped create the image of the American singer-songwriter

Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan

who blazes his own path through music. This explanation strikes me as too idealistic, however.

Bruce Springsteen

Bruce Springsteen

It could have something to do with America’s celebrity culture. Americans love creating personas for public figures. Maybe individual artists, with songs reflecting their own personality and values, resonate more with the American people. With more popularity, they are more likely to have successful careers that allow them more creativity. In fact, nearly all the great American musicians have personas like this. Sinatra was classy, Elvis wild but respectful, Springsteen working-class, Madonna sexual, etc. We even give them nicknames like “the Boss” and “the King.”

Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson

Prince

Prince

Another likely explanation is that, for whatever reason, America started a tradition of successful singer-songwriters that musicians imitated throughout the years. The great musicians whose pictures are in this post might have been following the model set by Chuck Berry and Little Richard, jazz greats like Miles Davis, or country legends like Woody Guthrie. In Britain, aspiring musicians would be more likely to follow the example of their country’s legends, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

Jay-Z

Jay-Z

In the past thirty years rap has dominated American popular music. More than any other genre, rap is all about individualism. I wonder if this is continuing the same tradition. After all, rappers do tend to have well-known personas (usually involving a huge ego).

Edited to add: Time to Vote for your choice for Best American Band!

Justin Timberlake

Justin Timberlake

Pool Music

We are down in the Bahamas visiting our good (and generous) friends Chuck and Laura Pisciotta. They are graciously hosting us at their lovely second home near Freeport, and we have had a wonderful time.

Yesterday we were sitting out by the pool on a bright sunny day and were listening to the trusty Ipod played over our portable speaker set-up. I chose my Orlando Ave. playlist, which features songs from the 1950s and early 1960s, up to the cusp of the British invasion. I have to say it is just about perfect pool music — the Four Seasons, the “girl groups” of the early 1960s, the Coasters, Connie Francis, and so on, with some Chuck Berry, Elvis, and Jerry Lee Lewis sprinkled in. The songs tend to be light and bouncy in tone and short in duration, and before you know it you are on to the next one. I never thought Dominique by the Singing Nun would appeal to Chuck’s musical tastes, but in that setting it did.