Digging for Fire (2015); dir. Joe Swanberg

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I’ve been iffy on Joe Swanberg’s stuff. I loved Digging for Fire. It also features a host of awesome indie-stars strolling in and out of the action: Ron Livingston, Rosemarie DeWitt, Melanie Lewensky, Sam Rockwell, Chris Messina, Orlando Bloom, Brie Larson, Mike Birbiglia, Judith Light, Sam Elliott – the list goes on and on. It’s really funny and entertaining – without sacrificing depth.

It reminded me of Woody Allen’s Manhattan Murder Mystery and that is praise indeed!

My review of Digging for Fire is now up at Rogerebert.com.

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Survivor’s Remorse, Season 2

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Season 2 of my cousin Mike’s show Survivor’s Remorse fast approaches. If you haven’t checked the show out yet, I highly recommend it. The first six episodes are available for free if you want to do some catch-up.

Here are a couple of great articles about Season 2.

Why It’s Time to Start Watching Survivor’s Remorse.

and

‘Survivor’s Remorse’ a slam dunk in season 2 opener. Opening quote:

“Survivor’s Remorse” is more than just another sports-related sitcom. For one thing, it’s as much a smart, character-driven drama as it is a comedy. For another, it’s one of the best written shows on TV.

Also:

The show was created by Mike O’Malley, whom many viewers probably know as the actor who played Kurt Hummel’s dad on “Glee.” But in his other life, he’s a prodigiously gifted TV writer, so much so that it’s worth paying attention to any show he’s created or written.

Happy!

When I was out in Los Angeles for the film-shoot, I hung out at the Survivor’s Remorse offices in West Hollywood. We had the first reading of my script in a spare conference room at those offices. I got to meet the writing staff (my talented brother Brendan is on the writing staff!) and the producers, and also the amazing guys who work the front desk. So nice. It was great to see Mike in his element. They were all insanely busy getting ready for Season 2, which they shot in the spring (in Atlanta). It’s so cool to see it all come together, to get these first words on the upcoming season, the sneak peeks, the rave reviews. Not that I’m surprised, but still: it’s thrilling.

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Sick-Bed iPod Shuffle

I had surgery on Saturday. My mother’s been here helping me. Hopefully my health problem is now solved. Fingers crossed, y’all, I’ve been living with this horrible situation since 2013. And I already had surgery for it in 2010. It didn’t “take.” So it’s been so annoying. I’m in recovery mode now, popping Oxy every 6 hours for the pain. Don’t worry, they only gave me a limited amount. Good thing, because I already adore the drug. LOVE. IT. Keep that shit away from me. Here’s some music that’s come up as I’ve laid around, glowing with the warmth of Oxy, in between re-watches of the Fast and the Furious franchise.

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Love Me Tender, 1956: “And Introducing Elvis Presley”

This article was originally published in Bright Wall/Dark Room‘s issue devoted to Hollywood musicals. I prefer to celebrate Elvis’ life rather than mourn his death. So here’s an essay about Elvis’ much-anticipated film debut in “Love Me Tender” in 1956.

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Love Me Tender: “And Introducing Elvis Presley”

And introducing Elvis Presley,” read the credits for Love Me Tender, Presley’s debut as an actor. Released in 1956, it would be the only time in his movie career that he didn’t get top billing.

Although there are only four songs in Love Me Tender, it has its place in the history of Hollywood musicals. It wasn’t a monster hit, although it made back its money in an astonishing three days. And while it was produced by the legendary Hal Wallis (known for films like Casablanca, Now Voyager, and Yankee Doodle Dandy), directed by Robert Webb, and cast full of old pros like Mildred Dunnock and Richard Egan, Love Me Tender will go down in history as the film that launched Elvis Presley into movies.

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Wallis had seen one of Elvis Presley’s appearances on the Dorsey Brothers Show, and before the performance was even over, he was making calls, trying to get Presley to come to Hollywood for a screen test. Wallis remembers his first impressions of Presley in his autobiography Starmaker:



“A test was necessary to determine if Elvis could act. I selected a scene for him to do with that very fine actor Frank Faylen. Elvis would play a young man just starting out in life and Faylen would play his father, holding him back. It was a difficult dramatic scene for an amateur. But I had to be sure.

When I ran the test I felt the same thrill I experienced when I first saw Errol Flynn on the screen. Elvis, in a very different, modern way, had exactly the same power, virility, and sex drive. The camera caressed him.”

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Elvis Presley, Hall Wallis, during the filming of “G.I. Blues”


The script for Love Me Tender had been bouncing around Hollywood for some time under the title The Reno Brothers. When Wallis signed Elvis to a contract, he began searching for a film that would be appropriate for Presley’s debut, and The Reno Brothers came up. Presley was completely green as an actor, and Wallis felt, rightly, that placing Elvis in the protection of an ensemble, where he wouldn’t have to carry the weight of the film, was the safest way to go.

In The Reno Brothers, three of the Reno brothers have gone off to fight in the Civil War, leaving the youngest, Clint, behind to take care of the farm. After robbing a payroll train (coincidentally, on the day the war ended), they return home. Vance, the oldest brother, is surprised to discover that his sweetheart, Cathy, believing Vance was dead, has married Clint. Family conflict ensues, including the growing threat of arrest due to the robbery (now seen as sheer banditry as opposed to a valid act of war).

The original script had no musical numbers in it at all, but once Wallis had decided it was the perfect vehicle for Elvis, they went about adding the songs, four in total, clustering them in the early sequences of the film: two songs sung at a family reunion on the porch, and two more sung at a local fair.

These four numbers are moments where Elvis is allowed to shine, to do his thing, albeit in a completely anachronistic context. In a documentary about Love Me Tender, Rolling Stone editor Steve Pond joked, “On the list of priorities when they were making [the film], musical authenticity was at the bottom of the list or not on the list at all.” The songs have a folk-hillbilly feel to them [humorously and sort of not: Elvis’ original band of Scotty Moore, Bill Black, and D.J. Fontana were deemed not hillbilly enough, and so studio musicians accompanied Elvis instead] so it’s at least in the realm of plausibility that Clint would sing such things in 1865. (At least he’s not singing, say, “I Got a Woman,” or “Hound Dog.”) During the reunion on the porch, Elvis sings, “We’re Gonna Move,” as his family laughs, feet tapping.

He jokingly gyrates and wiggles his leg, and it’s all a bit ridiculous, but it’s also fun and relaxed.

Immediately following comes “Love Me Tender,” featuring just Elvis and his guitar, creating a quiet, still moment that opens up the heart of the film, Vance and Cathy sadly considering what they have lost, Mother Reno (played by the great Mildred Dunnock) going off into her own troubled reveries. The song provides an interior experience, vast and emotional.

The performance of “Love Me Tender” also shows Elvis’ ease with simplicity, his ability to be in the moment, open and pure in motivation. Elvis loved ballads. His first recordings at Sun Studio in Memphis when he was still a teenager were ballads. During “Love Me Tender” he tries to make Debra Paget look up at him as he sings. He leans over towards her, his movement kind, sweet, effortlessly charming. What he accomplishes with Paget is something he was able to do even in gigantic concerts in front of thousands of people. In fact, Elvis would play this song – originally a Civil War-era ballad entitled “Aura Lee” – at every concert until the end of his life.

At the county fair, Clint performs two songs, “Let Me,” and “Poor Boy,” on a makeshift stage.

The songs are opportunities to see Elvis in “performance” mode. Girls in 1865-era dresses cluster around, squealing. Full-body shots reveal Elvis’s movements and behavior. His pompadour flaps along with a life of its own, and there’s a sheer joy in his energy, a pure happiness at providing happiness to others.

The hillbilly sound, with the accordion and the stamping feet, is part of the American wellspring from which he emerged originally, yet Elvis laid on top of it the insistent sexual beats of rhythm & blues, plus a and youthful freedom that helped turn American folk into what we now call rock ’n’ roll. “Let Me,” in particular, lets him show his humor. The sexy movements are there, and the girls squeal, but Elvis takes the edge off of them immediately, with laughter. His energy vibrates off the screen.

Elvis was a mercurial man, and each persona was an honest expression. His musical influences were vast: rhythm and blues, country and western, gospel quartets, and mainstream singers like Dean Martin. He mixed it all up: you can hear the rhythm and blues in his gospel songs, you can hear the gospel in some of his rock and roll songs, where he moans and testifies like an old-time preacher. He represented a blending of genres, something people find hard to parse, even today. In the four musical numbers in “Love Me Tender,” Elvis is given a chance to show us at least a couple of these personae, his different ways into songs: they introduce him and contextualize him.

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In 1956, Elvis was getting slammed with criticism for his sexuality and his “vulgar” movements. In “We’re Gonna Move,” we get the opportunity to witness the silliness of those criticisms. His sexuality comes off as something innocent, fun-loving, and unthreatening. (The girls in his audiences always understood this. It was the preachers and parents who flipped out.) When Elvis gyrates his left leg, moving across the porch floor, it’s startling and funny, and he knows it’s funny, and laughs to himself at his own audaciousness. He’s in on the joke. He always was.

“Love Me Tender” is the only song among these that is remembered. Later films would provide some classic Elvis songs, like “Jailhouse Rock,” “Trouble,” “Viva Las Vegas,” and more. There were also some dreadful clinkers, mainly in the mid to late-60s, post-British invasion, when the songwriting world and the song-publishing world changed entirely, leaving Elvis (who didn’t write songs) out in the cold. Eventually, Elvis’s movies would become soundtrack-selling vehicles, in a loop of production and profit: The movies sold the soundtracks and the soundtracks sold the movies; everyone went home happy and a little bit richer.

Of course, Love Me Tender pre-dates all of this. It exists in the strange and interesting landscape before the “Elvis Formula Picture” settled in. The “Elvis Formula Picture” was stumbled upon, as it were, with Blue Hawaii, in 1961, an enormous success. Filled with great songs, an exotic location, and Elvis being chased by a bunch of girls, Blue Hawaii would be the model on which the Formula was based. In a decade when the studios were operating out of fear and panic, the structure crumbling around them, the Elvis Formula Picture was always a sure money-maker.

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Elvis’ next film after Love Me Tender was Loving You, a story tailored to him specifically: a rags-to-riches tale about a young guy in a small town who becomes a successful singer. After that, in Jailhouse Rock, he’d play a wild bad-boy who learns to sing and play the guitar while incarcerated. King Creole would follow, directed by the great Michael Curtiz, telling the story of a New Orleans kid who makes it big singing in a club on Bourbon Street. All three films were stories about show business and can be seen, in retrospect, as a frank attempt to deal with Elvis Presley’s persona and the mayhem he had unleashed.

Love Me Tender stands apart. Elvis doesn’t even show up until 20 minutes into it, and when he does, he is a small figure in the background, struggling with a plow in a field – hardly the introduction of a superstar.

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Playing Clint was a great role for Elvis: he got to be sweet and kind, but also scary and dangerous. As Clint transforms from sweet younger brother to murderous villain bent on revenge, Elvis moves from heartthrob to bad boy, from amateur to experienced actor. He was a sponge, soaking up what he learned on the movie set. He came prepared, knowing his lines, as well as everyone else’s.

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Mildred Dunnock told a famous story about filming a crucial moment when Clint goes to grab a gun and charge outside. Playing his mother, she cries out, “Put that gun down!” Clint ignores her and races outside.

But the first time they filmed the scene, when she commanded him to put the gun down, Elvis, a polite Southern boy who always did what his mother told him to do, obeyed. He put the gun down. They had to do another take.

While that moment is used as evidence of Elvis’ inexperience as an actor, Dunnock had another take:

“For the first time in the whole thing he had heard me, and he believed me. Before, he’d just been thinking what he was doing and how he was going to do it. I think it’s a funny story. I also think it’s a story about a beginner who had one of the essentials of acting, which is to believe.”



Elvis betrays some stiffness in the dramatic scenes, mainly in his hands which just hang there awkwardly and he has a tendency to hesitate before speaking (an amateurish sign of needing to “get yourself together” before any given moment). These “tells” would vanish by Loving You, filmed only a couple months later. Elvis was a fast learner. In Love Me Tender, under enormous pressure from all sides, with many people hoping he would fail, he was able to be honest and open onscreen. He does not push too hard, he does not try to “act.” He focuses on the other actors, not on himself. (Watch him in the background of group scenes. He is always listening. He’s playing the scene, not just waiting for his closeup.) He is a part of the family and it is a charming beginning for a guy who only three years before had been an usher at a movie theater in Memphis, dreaming of one day being in the movies like his idol James Dean.

Love Me Tender movie ad from November 28, 1956 Wichita Beacon.

Love Me Tender movie ad from November 28, 1956 Wichita Beacon.

Watching Love Me Tender now, it’s funny to imagine the teenage girls sitting in the theatre, breathlessly, waiting for Elvis to appear. Many people who saw Love Me Tender during its first run talk about the high-pitched screams that filled the theatre at the sight of Elvis’s name in the credits. The girls then sank into a restless silence during the scenes where he wasn’t involved, and then erupt into screams when he re-entered the action. Withholding Elvis from the prolonged opening scenes of the film was a deliberate choice, heightening the anticipation. Where is he? Has he appeared yet? 


1956 was Elvis’ big crossover year. He’d been causing riots throughout the South during concerts as well as his explosive appearances on the Louisiana Hayride radio show, broadcast out of Shreveport. In 1956, his new manager, the carnival-barker-genius Colonel Tom Parker, started pushing Elvis into the national limelight and Elvis made a series of television appearances, on The Dorsey Brothers’ variety show, Milton Berle’s show, Steve Allen’s show, and, finally, momentously, throughout the fall of 1956 and into the winter of 1957, three appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, the mark of mainstream approval. America finally got a good look at him, and the results were cataclysmic. Girls screamed and cried and went bananas, and preachers teamed up with outraged op-ed columnists to descry his sexual menace from pulpits and newspapers across the land.

Gasping fans in theater packed to the footlights, cheering Elvis Presley as he sings.  (Photo by A. Y. Owen//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Gasping fans in theater packed to the footlights, cheering Elvis Presley as he sings. (Photo by A. Y. Owen//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Elvis’ film debut, hugely publicized, was part of the unstoppable spread of the phenomenon. In one year alone, the 21-year-old kid had conquered the various billboard charts in unprecedented ways (#1 hits on country, r&b AND pop charts?) as well as conquering radio and television (through the number of appearances, and how much he was paid for said appearances which made headlines). Movies were the next logical step.

Would the Elvis phenomenon be stopped in its tracks, or at least contained, once he appeared in movies? Would he be derailed by scandal, failure, or a lessening of interest? Many thought (hoped) Elvis was a fad, a phase, a flash-in-the-pan.

What 1956 represented, start to finish, and Love Me Tender helped solidify, was that Elvis would not be going anywhere anytime soon, that the explosion of his popularity was not just a lone firecracker in the sky, but a cataclysmic event more in line with the Big Bang, energy and movement and light roaring into the vast vacuum out there in the culture, an endless push that could not be stopped. Not even a 2-year stint in the Army (starting in 1958), where he disappeared from view entirely, could stop that Big Bang.

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Even without Elvis, Love Me Tender is a wonderful film, featuring strong performances from Mildred Dunnock, and especially Richard Egan, with his gloriously low and mellifluous voice. Ironically, Egan is the romantic lead of the film, something no actor playing opposite Elvis Presley would ever get to claim again. Elvis doesn’t even kiss Cathy in the film! His first onscreen kiss would come in the following film, Loving You.



The critical establishment has never truly acknowledged Elvis’s gifts as an actor, although his fans know the truth about how wonderful he was onscreen. He starred in 31 pictures in a little over 10 years, most of them box office hits, tied in to wildly popular soundtracks, and many of them featuring his wonderfully comedic and charming performances. He was a sui generis figure, difficult to classify, and impossible to replace.

Kurt Russell, who played Elvis Presley so memorably in John Carpenter’s 1981 film (and also kicked Elvis’s shin when he was a child-actor in a scene in the 1963 film It Happened at the World’s Fair), has said that he loves Elvis movies because Elvis is in them.

That may seem like a simplistic statement, but you can count on one hand the names of actors who have the same kind of appeal. 


Clint dies at the end of Love Me Tender. Elvis had had conversations with his girlfriend at the time, June Juanico, upset that he would die in his first movie. She reassured him that it would be awesome.

In initial test previews, the audiences rejected this decision, and the only solution the director came up with was to bring Elvis back from the dead, visually, superimposing a ghostly image of Presley singing “Love Me Tender” over the final moments of the film, showing the family grieving at the graveside.

Just before the screen goes black, Elvis smiles, a big, reassuring smile, as if to say: “It’s okay, folks, I’m still here.”

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Powerful Claws Threaten Us: Elvis Presley, 1968

One of my favorite Elvis performances. It’s one for the ages.

Elvis Presley performing “Trying To Get To You” during the informal sit-down session section of his 1968 comeback special. There’s a rough raw-ness to these sessions that are not only compelling but scary. The small space cannot contain him. At one point, he feels those limitations, and he starts to stand up. Girls scream in fright/excitement in the audience.

In this number in particular he appears to me to go a place both primal and consciously performative, as well as completely private. You figure out how one person can manage that. There is a sense of his own huge private world from where he performed, what he drew on, his huge need to express himself, to be, as Dave Marsh observed, an “unignorable man.” There is also an exhibitionistic sense of his own power. He is completely unselfconscious in terms of his presence in all of those worlds.

The truth is in the performance. It is about generosity, certainly, his willingness to give all of himself. That’s why we love live performers. That’s why we are drawn to them. He’s exposing everything. For him, for us.

But there’s something going on here in particular that strikes me as quintessentially what Magic and Power is all about. It’s the kind of thing I miss so much these days when it comes to live performance: a sense that the performance is actually costing the performer something. Yes, there are those who still do it, but many rely on vocal pyrotechnics, which, while impressive, do not always equal the same type of cost. I’m not saying that Presley appears on the brink of some nervous breakdown here, he obviously doesn’t. I’m not talking about anything neurotic. I am talking about being private in public and the cost that that exacts on a performer, a cost he is more than willing to pay.

It’s difficult to do, especially for a star of Presley’s magnitude at this time. He had so much to lose. But that had always been his special brand of talent: bringing out into the light feelings/desires that many felt should have been left in the dark. You can hear the small audience start to scream spontaneously at certain points during this performance, and I can see why. It’s not a sex thing so much as it is a response to a kind of truthful assault, being in the presence of something so powerful and authentic that you almost want to draw away from it. It’s too much. Not only does it demand something of him, the performer, but it demands something of us. Will we be able to pay that cost? What is he asking of us?

Arthur Miller had this to say about Clark Gable (and stars, in general):

Great actor-personalities, I have come to think, are like trained bears in that they attract us with their discipline while their powerful claws threaten us; a great star implies he is his own person and can be mean and even dangerous, like a great leader.

I don’t feel particularly safe watching Elvis’ performance of “Trying to Get to You” and I’ve probably watched it hundreds of times. It’s a fun performance, everyone is whooping and hollering, Elvis cracks himself up at one point, but there is danger in that room as well.

Danger is part of live performing. Or at least it should be. Elvis Presley always had stage fright from the beginning of his career to the end. Not just because of all of the expectations of the fans, not just because he had so many lyrics to remember. Not because he had to live up to the legend. All of those things may have been factors in his stage fright, but he had stage fright from the first moment he sang in front of an audience long before he was famous, so there was clearly more going on there.

I imagine that it was also because: he knew where he was going to have to go and he knew that it would cost him to go there. He was willing to pay that price, there was no other way for him to get up there in front of people.

I mean, watch this performance. The various expressions on his face, the gearing-up moments, the smiles, the closed-eyes, the shaking of the guitar like he wants to throttle it or fuck it, the sweat. There are moments when the performance does have that exposed gorgeous sexual energy that he brings into the light: you’re watching a guy having a private moment with himself, but there is more going on, always more. I think these singular figures, figures like Presley, flat out have more to let out than other people do. Their potential is larger, the inner space is more vast, or perhaps it is just that his perception of what he needed to express was clearer, more fearless, than those of mere mortals. He understood it, he got it, and he got it early.

The 1968 comeback special represented a renewal of energy, an unleashing of force and spontaneity and personality that Elvis felt had been inhibited in his years in Hollywood. He hadn’t been before a live audience in almost 10 years. He had been highly visible on the drive-in screens of America, but the heat and sweat of a live audience had no longer been part of his life.

Here he steps out again, before a small audience, close enough to touch him, and it was instantly obvious that there had been no diminishing of power in his time away.

If anything, his power had grown. It had become even more ferocious, more urgent.

The claws are exposed. The powerful claws.

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Keith Richards on Elvis Presley: “It Was Almost As If I’d Been Waiting For It To Happen.”

From Keith Richards’ wonderful Life:

I think the first record I bought was Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally”. Fantastic record, even to this day. Good records just get better with age. But the one that really turned me on, like an explosion one night, listening to Radio Luxembourg on my little radio when I was supposed to be in bed and asleep, was “Heartbreak Hotel”. That was the stunner. I’d never heard it before, or anything like it. I’d never heard of Elvis before. It was almost as if I’d been waiting for it to happen. When I woke up the next day I was a different guy. Suddenly I was getting overwhelmed: Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran, Little Richard, Fats. Radio Luxembourg was notoriously difficult to keep on station. I had a little aerial and walked round the room, holding the radio up to my ear and twisting the aerial. Trying to keep it down because I’d wake Mum and Dad up. If I could get the signal right, I could take the radio under the blankets on the bed and keep the aerial outside and twist it there. I’m supposed to be asleep; I’m supposed to be going to school in the morning. Loads of ads for James Walker, the jewelers “in every high street,” and the Irish sweepstakes, with which Radio Lux had some deal. The signal was perfect for the ads, “and now we have Fats Domino, ‘Blueberry Hill,'” and shit, then it would fade.

Then, “Since my baby left me” – it was just the sound. It was the last trigger. That was the first rock and roll I heard. It was a totally different way of delivering a song, a totally different sound, stripped down, burnt, no bullshit, no violins and ladies’ choruses and schmaltz, totally different. It was bare, right to the roots that you had a feeling were there but hadn’t yet heard. I’ve got to take my hat off to Elvis for that. The silence is your canvas, that’s your frame, that’s what you work on; don’t try and deafen it out. That’s what “Heartbreak Hotel” did to me. It was the first time I’d heard something so stark. Then I had to go back to what this cat had done before. Luckily I caught his name. The Radio Luxembourg signal came back in. “That was Elvis Presley, with ‘Heartbreak Hotel.'” Shit!

That passage reminds me of George Harrison’s answer to the question: “What are your musical roots?” He said that he had no musical roots. The only “root” he could think of was hearing “Heartbreak Hotel” through an open window when he was a kid.

Another excerpt, this one about “the rhythm of the tracks”:

There’s something primordial in the way we react to pulses without even knowing it. We exist on a rhythm of seventy-two beats a minute. The train, apart from getting them from the Delta to Detroit, became very important to blues players because of the rhythm of the machine, the rhythm of the tracks, and then when you cross onto another track, the beat moves. It echoes something in the human body. So then when you have machinery involved, like trains, and drones, all of that is still built in as music inside us. The human body will feel rhythms even when there’s not one. Listen to “Mystery Train” by Elvis Presley. One of the great rock-and-roll tracks of all time, not a drum on it. It’s just a suggestion, because the body will provide the rhythm. Rhythm really only has to be suggested. Doesn’t have to be pronounced. This is where they got it wrong with “this rock” and “that rock”. It’s got nothing to do with rock. It’s to do with roll.

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He Shook It Like a Chorus Girl

37 years ago today, Elvis Presley died. Every time he performed, his “soul was at stake.”

And so we will always miss someone like that.

As Dave Marsh wrote in his Elvis book:

There is no explanation. And if one listens closely to songs like “Hurt” and “I Can Help” and “If I Can Dream” – if one listens clear back to “Mystery Train” and “Blue Moon” – that’s what is truly heard: A voice, high and thrilled in the early days, lower and perplexed in the final months, seeking answers where there are none, clarity where there is none, cause where is only effect.

Somewhere, out of all this, Elvis began to seem like a man who had reached some conclusions. And so he was made into a god and a king. He was neither – he was something more American and, I think, something more heroic. Elvis Presley was an explorer of vast new landscapes of dream and illusion. He was a man who refused to be told that the best of his dreams would not come true, who refused to be defined by anyone else’s conceptions.

This is the goal of democracy, the journey on which every prospective American hero sets out. That Elvis made so much of the journey on his own is reason enough to remember him with the honor and love we reserve for the bravest among us. Such men are the only maps we can trust.

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Saying Good-Bye to Elvis

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Graceland at sunset, 2013, on Elvis’ birthday. Taken by yours truly.

Where Were You When Elvis Died?
by Lester Bangs
The Village Voice, 29 August 1977

Where were you when Elvis died? What were you doing and what did it give you an excuse to do with the rest of your day? That’s what we’ll be talking about in the future when we remember this grand occasion. Like Pearl Harbor or JFK’s assassination, it boiled down to individual reminiscences, which is perhaps as it should be, because in spite of his greatness, etc., etc., Elvis had left us each alone as he was; I mean, he wasn’t exactly a Man of the People anymore, if you get my drift. If you don’t I will drift even further, away from Elvis into contemplation of why all our public heroes seem to reinforce our own solitude.

The ultimate sin of any performer is contempt for the audience. Those who indulge in it will ultimately reap the scorn of those they’ve dumped on, whether they live forever like Andy Paleface Warhol or die fashionably early like Lenny Bruce, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday. The two things that distinguish those deaths from Elvis’s (he and they having drug habits vaguely in common) were that all of them died on the outside looking in and none of them took their audience for granted. Which is why it’s just a little bit harder for me to see Elvis as a tragic figure; I see him as being more like the Pentagon, a giant armored institution nobody knows anything about except that its power is legendary.

Obviously we all liked Elvis better than the Pentagon, but look at what a paltry statement that is. In the end, Elvis’s scorn for his fans as manifested in “new” albums full of previously released material and one new song to make sure all us suckers would buy it was mirrored in the scorn we all secretly or not so secretly felt for a man who came closer to godhood than Carlos Castaneda until military conscription tamed and revealed him for the dumb lackey he always was in the first place. And ever since, for almost two decades now, we’ve been waiting for him to get wild again, fools that we are, and he probably knew better than any of us in his heart of hearts that it was never gonna happen again, his heart of hearts so obviously not being our collective heart of hearts, he being so obviously just some poor dumb Southern boy with a Big Daddy manager to screen the world for him and filter out anything which might erode his status as big strapping baby bringing home the bucks, and finally being sort of perversely celebrated at least by rock critics for his utter contempt for whoever cared about him.

And Elvis was perverse; only a true pervert could put out something like “Having Fun with Elvis On Stage”, that album released three or so years back which consisted entirely of between-song onstage patter so redundant it would make both Willy Burroughs and Gert Stein blush. Elvis was into marketing boredom when Andy Warhol was still doing shoe ads, but Elvis’s sin was his failure to realize that his fans were not perverse – they loved him without qualification, no matter what he dumped on them they loyally lapped it up, and that’s why I feel a hell of a lot sorrier for all those poor jerks than for Elvis himself. I mean, who’s left they can stand all night in the rain for? Nobody, and the true tragedy is the tragedy of an entire generation which refuses to give up its adolescence even as it feels its menopausal paunch begin to blossom and its hair recede over the horizon – along with Elvis and everything else they once thought they believed in. Will they care in five years what he’s been doing for the last twenty?

Sure, Elvis’s death is a relatively minor ironic variant on the future-shock mazurka, and perhaps the most significant thing about Elvis’s exit is that the entire history of the seventies has been retreads and brutal demystification; three of Elvis’s ex-bodyguards recently got together with this hacker from the New York Post and whipped up a book which dosed us with all the dirt we’d yearned for for so long. Elvis was the last of our sacred cows to be publicly mutilated; everybody knows Keith Richard likes his junk, but when Elvis went onstage in a stupor nobody breathed a hint of “Quaalude….” In a way, this was both good and bad, good because Elvis wasn’t encouraging other people to think it was cool to be a walking Physicians’ Desk Reference, bad because Elvis stood for that Nixonian Secrecy-as-Virtue which was passed off as the essence of Americanism for a few years there. In a sense he could be seen not only as a phenomenon that exploded in the fifties to help shape the psychic jailbreak of the sixties but ultimately as a perfect cultural expression of what the Nixon years were all about. Not that he prospered more then, but that his passion for the privacy of potentates allowed him to get away with almost literal murder, certainly with the symbolic rape of his fans, meaning that we might all do better to think about waving good-bye with one upraised finger.

I got the news of Elvis’s death while drinking beer with a friend and fellow music journalist on his fire escape on 21st Street in Chelsea. Chelsea is a good neighborhood; in spite of the fact that the insane woman who lives upstairs keeps him awake all night every night with her rants at no one, my friend stays there because he likes the sense of community within diversity in that neighborhood: old-time card-carrying Communists live in his building alongside people of every persuasion popularly lumped as “ethnic.” When we heard about Elvis we knew a wake was in order, so I went out to the deli for a case of beer. As I left the building I passed some Latin guys hanging out by the front door. “Heard the news? Elvis is dead!” I told them. They looked at me with contemptuous indifference. So What. Maybe if I had told them Donna Summer was dead I might have gotten a reaction; I do recall walking in this neighborhood wearing a T-shirt that said “Disco Sucks” with a vast unamused muttering in my wake, which only goes to show that not for everyone was Elvis the still-reigning King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, in fact not for everyone is rock ‘n’ roll the still-reigning music. By now, each citizen has found his own little obsessive corner to blast his brain in: as the sixties were supremely narcissistic, solipsism’s what the seventies have been about, and nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the world of “pop” music. And Elvis may have been the greatest solipsist of all.

I asked for two six-packs at the deli and told the guy behind the counter the news. He looked fifty years old, greying, big belly, life still in his eyes, and he said: “Shit, that’s too bad. I guess our only hope now is if the Beatles get back together.”

Fifty years old.

I told him I thought that would be the biggest anticlimax in history and that the best thing the Stones could do now would be to break up and spare us all further embarrassments.

He laughed, and gave me directions to a meat market down the street. There I asked the counterman the same question I had been asking everyone. He was in his fifties too, and he said, “You know what? I don’t care that bastard’s dead. I took my wife to see him in Vegas in ’73, we paid fourteen dollars a ticket, and he came out and sang for twenty minutes. Then he fell down. Then he stood up and sang a couple more songs, then he fell down again. Finally he said, ‘well, shit, I might as well sing sitting as standing.’ So he squatted on the stage and asked the band what song they wanted to do next, but before they could answer he was complaining about the lights. ‘They’re too bright,’ he says. ‘They hurt my eyes. Put ’em out or I don’t sing a note.’ So they do. So me and my wife are sitting in total blackness listening to this guy sing songs we knew and loved, and I ain’t just talking about his old goddam songs, but he totally butchered all of ’em. Fuck him. I’m not saying I’m glad he’s dead, but I know one thing: I got taken when I went to see Elvis Presley.”

I got taken too the one time I saw Elvis, but in a totally different way. It was the autumn of 1971, and two tickets to an Elvis show turned up at the offices of Creem magazine, where I was then employed. It was decided that those staff members who had never had the privilege of witnessing Elvis should get the tickets, which was how me and art director Charlie Auringer ended up in nearly the front row of the biggest arena in Detroit. Earlier Charlie had said, “Do you realize how much we could get if we sold these fucking things?” I didn’t, but how precious they were became totally clear the instant Elvis sauntered onto the stage. He was the only male performer I have ever seen to whom I responded sexually; it wasn’t real arousal, rather an erection of the heart, when I looked at him I went mad with desire and envy and worship and self-projection. I mean, Mick Jagger, whom I saw as far back as 1964 and twice in ’65, never even came close.

There was Elvis, dressed up in this ridiculous white suit which looked like some studded Arthurian castle, and he was too fat, and the buckle on his belt was as big as your head except that your head is not made of solid gold, and any lesser man would have been the spittin’ image of a Neil Diamond damfool in such a getup, but on Elvis it fit. What didn’t? No matter how lousy his records ever got, no matter how intently he pursued mediocrity, there was still some hint, some flash left over from the days when…well, I wasn’t there, so I won’t presume to comment. But I will say this: Elvis Presley was the man who brought overt blatant vulgar sexual frenzy to the popular arts in America (and thereby to the nation itself, since putting “popular arts” and “America” in the same sentence seems almost redundant). It has been said that he was the first white to sing like a black person, which is untrue in terms of hard facts but totally true in terms of cultural impact. But what’s more crucial is that when Elvis started wiggling his hips and Ed Sullivan refused to show it, the entire country went into a paroxysm of sexual frustration leading to abiding discontent which culminated in the explosion of psychedelic-militant folklore which was the sixties.

I mean, don’t tell me about Lenny Bruce, man – Lenny Bruce said dirty words in public and obtained a kind of consensual martyrdom. Plus which Lenny Bruce was hip, too goddam hip if you ask me, which was his undoing, whereas Elvis was not hip at all, Elvis was a goddam truck driver who worshipped his mother and would never say shit or fuck around her, and Elvis alerted America to the fact that it had a groin with imperatives that had been stifled. Lenny Bruce demonstrated how far you could push a society as repressed as ours and how much you could get away with, but Elvis kicked “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window” out the window and replaced it with “Let’s fuck.” The rest of us are still reeling from the impact. Sexual chaos reigns currently, but out of chaos may flow true understanding and harmony, and either way Elvis almost singlehandedly opened the floodgates. That night in Detroit, a night I will never forget, he had but to ever so slightly move one shoulder muscle, not even a shrug, and the girls in the gallery hit by its ray screamed, fainted, howled in heat. Literally, every time this man moved any part of his body the slightest centimeter, tens or tens of thousands of people went berserk. Not Sinatra, not Jagger, not the Beatles, nobody you can come up with ever elicited such hysteria among so many. And this after a decade and a half of crappy records, of making a point of not trying.

If love truly is going out of fashion forever, which I do not believe, then along with our nurtured indifference to each other will be an even more contemptuous indifference to each others’ objects of reverence. I thought it was Iggy Stooge, you thought it was Joni Mitchell or whoever else seemed to speak for your own private, entirely circumscribed situation’s many pains and few ecstasies. We will continue to fragment in this manner, because solipsism holds all the cards at present; it is a king whose domain engulfs even Elvis’s. But I can guarantee you one thing: we will never again agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis. So I won’t bother saying good-bye to his corpse. I will say good-bye to you.

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Tom at the Farm (2015); dir. Xavier Dolan

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Love him or hate him (and the camps are pretty divided), Xavier Dolan is a phenom. His latest, Tom at the Farm, doesn’t quite work though, although there are some weird undercurrents I liked. Also it looks fantastic.

My review of Tom at the Farm is now up at Rogerebert.com.

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10,000 Saints (2015)

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A coming-of-age drama set in 1988 East Village NYC. I really liked it.

My review of 10,000 Saints is now up at Rogerebert.com.

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