Sunday, February 27, 2005

Music Born with Elvis? Or Did It Die with Him?

The cover story of the March, 2005 issue of American Heritage magazine commemorates the seventieth anniversary of Elvis Presley's birth.

Of course, Elvis has been covered from so many angles, one would expect a new story to look for a new slant or two. Will Friedewald, jazz reviewer for the New York Sun, manages to do so. I have no quarrel with his first. But I have real reservations about the second one of his slants.

The first is that while Presley is undeniably important in the introduction and popularization of rock and roll, the bulk of his corpus represents more of a culmination of previous trends and elements of American popular music rather than the introduction of anything revolutionary. Writes Friedewalde:
He [Presley] comes out of a very clear tradition of great male singers of the great American songbook, especially Bing Crosby, Al Jolson, Billy Eckstine, Dean Martin, and, to an extent, Frank Sinatra--as well as the leading crooners of the idioms of the blues, like Louis Jordan, and of country, Eddie Arnold...He has almost nothing in common, vocally, with later rock stars.
I do agree with this. But, pardon my rudeness, I have to say simply, "Well, duh." (For observations like this, Friedewalde gets paid!)

innovator invents anything completely new. All are dependent on those who have gone before them. It's not for nothing that the wisest person who ever lived, Solomon, said that there's nothing new under the sun. (Even when that "sun" is Sun Records.) A superficial listen to Presley will lead the listener to a clear understanding of Presley's dependence on those who went before him and his place in the American tradition of crooning. He is a lot more like Bing Crosby than Jim Morrison.

I agree with this obvious "insight" from Friedwalde.

A second major slant of this piece riffs off of a hyperbolic quote from John Lennon. Opined Lennon, "before Elvis, there was nothing." Friedewalde makes much of this; I believe, without warrant.

Lennon loved to portray himself as a rock and roll bad boy and to buttress that fiction, a defamer of other musical traditions. The Beatles Anthology demonstrates what any listener to that band's music knows: That, like Presley, the group drew on a multiplicity of influences and fused them refreshingly. Even Bing Crosby, who Friedewalde and I both esteem, was among the influences on the Beatles, including Lennon, who once attributed the lyrical idea behind Please, Please Me to a Crosby song.

Lennon was also, to put it delicately, less than honest. Like generations of Liverpudlians, he wasn't one to let the truth get in the way of a good story.

He told interviewers that he and his fellow Beatles accepted their MBEs from the Queen after smoking grass in Buckingham Palace. The other three Beatles have laughed this off, seeing it as another episode in Lennon's catalog of prevarications and exagerrations.

Lennon was fond of picturing his Beatle collaborator Paul McCartney as an innocent balladeer, while playing himself as the raw rocker. He said this in spite of the fact that the Beatles' music presents a more complicated picture.

So, in presenting a tribute to Elvis, the man who even McCartney described as "the messiah" of music, Lennon said that there was no music before Elvis.

That's silly. But Friedewalde adds to the silliness when he comes to the end of his analysis of Presley's career and his assertion that the King belongs more to pop music before rock than to rock itself, when he writes:
John Lennon had it the wrong way around: After Elvis, there was nothing.
Nothing would include the Beatles, U2, Bruce Cockburn, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, the Eagles, the Supremes, Simon and Garfunkel, the Temptations, Switchfoot, Prince, Sting, and dozens of other popular musicians who, in many cases, have also managed to be great artists. (No matter what one may think of their messages or their lifestyles.)

Clearly, both before and after Elvis, there has been something when it comes to the popular music scene. And no matter how vacuous and vapid pop music may sometimes get, it's likely that there always will be.

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