. . . Elvis

. . .

Just this morning I realized that when Elvis sang "Won't you wear my ring around your neck?" he was talking about stringing the ring and then putting the string around your neck. All these decades I assumed he was talking some iron slave collar thing, which made the song hillbilly and spooky and cool. Instead it turns out just to've been part of the domestication process.

. . .

Since I don't give a flying bleep about electronic noodling, MPEG-3 audio searches have left me alone and palely loitering. And if I can get something on a CD, I'd rather buy the CD. But here's why I love the format:

  1. alt.binaries.sounds.mp3.1950s, where it's always worth checking out any post by a German called "spade." Lots of much-too-rare-to-buy vinyl is squeezed over the transom here, including such recent grabs as "I'm in Love with Elvis Presley" and Bob & Earl's R&B dance hit, "The Sissy" ("Put one hand on your face / The other on your hip"). Not to leave out alt.binaries.sounds.mp3.1960s's contribution of "See Emily Play" and alt.binaries.sounds.mp3.1970s's of my favorite Lou Reed album, Take No Prisoners.
  2. Preservation of cassette-only gems. I've lost so much to tape crises over the decades. The Mumps' 1976 single, "Muscle Men"... Graham Parker live on the radio and actually good... the Lou Reed album mentioned above. Now I can make non-degrading easily-backed-up copies of the absolutely essential and otherwise unavailable.
  3. A larger group of listeners can help out with Name That Tune.
    You see, back in 1980 or so, Philadelphia had an excellent oldies station -- shortlived of course, since oldies stations in those benighted times were unable to play the Eagles and James Taylor nonstop. Among the pearls strewn before me were two songs that I've asked about at every record store I've entered since: "Billy Goat" (artist unknown) and "Everybody Got Trouble" (artist unknown). Whenever I listen to the latter, I picture a line of R. Crumb style big-foot-shufflin' bulbous-finger-twirlin' morons dancing merrily off a cliff. Whenever I listen to the former, I picture pretty much the same thing you'll picture. Who? Where? And how can I buy them?

. . .

Things that scare me:I know that George Bishop is trying to reassure me but still, check out the odds that highway drivers on all sides of you believe they're going to heaven.

The only thing that saves us from holy civil war is that the American God is a Personal God, complete with "God Is My Friend" bumper stickers and 900 numbers, a God who cares about your personal bank account and your personal football team and not about anyone else's. It's easier for a Protestant to form a new church than to argue. That's why there's no Protestant Aquinas. And in America every household has its own monogrammed household god who's not even all that interested in the ancestors -- otherwise, why would it have let them get Alzheimers?

Just in case things get hot, though, it's nice that Bishop told us the defusing trick: Elvis sung "I believe for every drop of rain that falls, a flower grows" with full fervor, but if you'd asked, "Mr. Presley, are you sure that it's true that there's a one-to-one correspondence between the number of flowers and the number of individual raindrops?" he might have waffled.

. . .

I forget how I found the Art Fein site, but anyone this mean to Ann Powers is OK by me! Fein is kind of like a rockabilly version of Paul Williams: short on analysis but high on life and America and, of course, their offspring, Elvis.

Which puts me in mind of that old Elvisphage, Lester Bangs, who just got a new biography aimed at him. Since Bangs's own writing already covered everything of any possible interest that ever happened to him (plus a whole lot more), publishing a second collection seems like a better idea than having some other guy come in and paraphrase, but I guess that's not the way publishers think. Definitely the way that publishers do think is to have a Trouser Press editor write about Bangs's life, which is like Abe Rosenthal writing about I. F. Stone, or -- I was gonna say a zoo keeper writing about the monkeys, but sometimes those zoo keepers are pretty insightful.

. . .

42, cont.

Dr. Justine Larbalestier adds it up: "Plus that's how old Elvis was when he karked it. That'd have me thinking plenty."

. . .


"But things don't last forever
And somehow, baby,
They never really do.
They never really do."

Joey Ramone's is the first rock death since Lester Bangs to affect me personally, but the affect is happy-happy-happy. Not that I'm happy about Joey Ramone dying. It's just it makes me think about Joey Ramone, and thinking about Joey Ramone makes me happy. (And now maybe the solo album he's been talking about for twenty years will get released.) Anyway it would've been hard to maintain proper respect for mortality, since the two records I played after getting the news ended with "Why Is It Always This Way" ("Now she's lying in a bottle of formaldehyde") and "Every Time I Eat Vegetables It Makes Me Think of You."

The debut album was about sound and songwriting, the vocals merely a fantasy of strangled Liverpudlians. But when the boys left home, Joey's adenoids became true-blue all-American and I became a fan. ("Suzy Is a Headbanger" especially brings back those halcyon Kirksville days....) Later that year, I attended college and my first club show, where I was stationed directly in front of Joey. I remember feeling awed by the magnitude of his discomfort. The ensuing two days of tinnitus lent authority to "THE RAMONES ARE GOD" sign someone'd carried.

Unlike many of my compeers, I kept buying Ramones records after the Spector debacle, mostly 'cause Joey kept loping up the vocalese slopes (albeit sweaty and pale and looking like he was about to faint). At the pinnacle, he managed to cut the originals of both "Little Bit o' Soul" and "Time Has Come Today," which is more than Elvis or Smokey could say.

And through the years, as drummer after drummer was adopted by Ma Ramone and then disinherited, Joey's appeal proved bedrock. Shy, moody, with flowing locks, clammy girlish hands and generous hips, adorable and determined as a mangy abused mutant puppy, he was the ideal bubblegum heartthrob, an all-too-biological object of fascination that still managed to block any thought of physical contact.

A couple of weeks ago, "Space Ghost" re-ran a Ramones appearance. Johnny and CJ did the talking, but every time the camera showed Joey, obviously terrified and obviously delighted, like Daphne's geek brother escaping ravishment by turning into a blighted willow, my heart throbbed loud as ever.


Trivia: When Allan Arkush had Rock 'n' Roll High School's cast and crew spraypaint their choice of graffiti, Joey's contribution was "HELP ME!!!"

. . .

Movie Comment: Ghost World

"The reason why so many critics like Elvis Costello so much is because they all look like Elvis Costello." -- David Lee Roth interviewed by Dave DiMartino, Creem, 1980

. . .

The Gift of Fruitcake

Last week, Paul McEnery bemoaned to me the balkanized states of psychology in America: clinical psychologists ignoring research psychologists ignoring social psychologists when they could so profitably be building on each others' work....

As a layperson who likes snooping around half-understood academic journals, I've wondered about that myself.

For example, when reading a very widely noted report (Joan Freeman knows how to work those publicity machines!) that "emotional problems" and "mundane jobs" are more likely to come to intelligent children who are told they're gifted than to those "told nothing."

"Told nothing"? Enticingly vague, that....

Thus enticed toward a fuller summary, I find that Freeman's study "compared [after 27 years] the lives of pupils whose parents joined a society for gifted children with equally talented students whose parents were not members."

OK, then, what Freeman compared wasn't "children told all" vs. "children told nothing," but "parents who joined a society" vs. "parents who didn't join."

As Freeman herself acknowledges, high-IQ children are more likely to be singled out for special treatment if they already have behavior problems. Otherwise, they'll just be getting along quietly (and easily) in school. (It wasn't teaching myself to read that attracted my guardians' attention; it was acting like a horrid little monster in kindergarten. Only as part of trying to figure out how to calm me the fuck down did a counselor come up with the "gifted" label -- which may well mean that my sole "gift" was that of acting like a horrid little monster. "And what super powers do you have?") Right off, that skews the study to a "gifted" / "disturbed" correlation.

Then there's the question of what kind of parent would be most likely to join the society. Seems likely it would be someone worried about freakiness or about class mobility, either of which would up the tensions at home. As opposed to, like, all the smart-as-a-whip people I met later who came from families where big IQs weren't considered big deals: bohemian or genteelly academic or upper-middle-class or just amazing.

And it seems unlikely that society membership would be felt necessary if there was an obvious route already laid out for the kid -- something like the Bronx High School of Science or the Dalton School, where academic progress wouldn't require a misaligned age -- as opposed to having to decide between jumping grades in a regular old underfunded public school or staying stuck in a regular old underfunded public school.

Freeman's results may be secure as all get-out, then, but their only clear application is "don't think that joining a society for gifted children is going to be helpful for your child." They certainly don't support Freeman's extensive lists of recommendations, some of which seem benign -- don't assume the kid can make mature decisions -- but some of which seem less than realistic. (Despite the lasting inconveniences of that kindergarten badge, I'd have to insist that the most genuinely cheery times I had in school were due to the singling-out counselors and the few teachers not too exhausted to handle special-tracking -- though I still cringe remembering the agonizing opacity of fractions.)

Population studies work fine for spotting problems, but for spotting causes and treatments you can't beat lab work. Such as Mueller & Dweck's 1998 study showing that praise for intelligence or giftedness mimics learned helplessness, lowering both performance and motivation, whereas praise for effort or for the task itself increases performance and motivation.

Mueller & Dweck admitted their study's limits, but it ties usefully into other research, like Dykman's. And they also came up with plausible empathic explanations for the results: My attention having been drawn to myself, my goal becomes maintenance of my self-image by "succeeding at" the task, a starkly win-or-lose approach which hardly entices me to move forward: winning means I'm done, and losing means I lack the innate ability I thought I had. More fruitful is to define the goal as gradually improved competence, with setbacks expected and due to (surmountable) lack of effort or training.

(And, as a "To Be Continued" marker, their contrast of inward and outward attentiveness fits some central neuraesthetic speculations....)

. . .


... later he will tell the story, upstairs in Elvis's private "superstar" suite. Sammy has taken the night off from his own show at the Sands to party with his third wife, Altovise, a handsome black dancer who was once a member of Sammy's troupe, and with Donald Rumsfeld, President Nixon's aide and director of the Cost of Living Council, who is staying at the Davises' with his wife, Joyce.

Tonight is the finale of the Rumsfelds' Western swing that took them from the Republican National Convention in Miami to Los Angeles, to attend the Republican-sponsored party there for prominent entertainers, and then to Las Vegas, to lounge around Sammy's private pool and play a little tennis....

Outside the superstar suite, Sammy pauses in the corridor to do an impersonation of Elvis on stage, mimicking Elvis's catatonic stance and what Donald Rumsfeld calls his "weird" smile. The impersonation is successful; Joyce Rumsfeld takes him by the shoulders, shakes him playfully, asks, "What are we going to do with you, Sammy?"

"Well," he says, "you're stuck with me for the next four years."

- from "Sammy Davis, Jr., Has Bought the Bus" by James Conaway, The New York Times Magazine, 1974,
quoted in The Sammy Davis, Jr., Reader ed. Gerald Early

. . .

Two's Negation, Three's a Cloud
  or, Three Pints Defy a Plane

Open Letter (H) to the Happy Tutor

Ironist Nails Ran In

I may not agree with what I say, but I'll defend to my death my right to say it.

Open Letter (V) to Turbulent Velvet

Good reason for the popularity of communicable disease

A very amusing and well tailored and well crafted piece of writing becomes widely distributed? People derive pleasure from something and share it with their friends or with all and sundry, whichever they have easier access to? And you're creeped out by that? Maybe your creepometer's adjusted too sensitive. Or you can play it like that old guy what pretended horror at language period, there's always folks who'll pay for that show: "Gawldurn, I hate articulation too! This faggot's all right!"

I showed your rejection letter to everyone I seen since I seen it, and if I'm so viral, why ain't I rich?

Open Letter (C) to the Campus Community

To live outside the law you must be harmless

In the square, I've heard Replacements imitators and Platters and Piaf and Daniel Johnston imitators. In the subway, I've heard Howlin Wolf imitators and Joni Mitchell and Eddie Hazel imitators. Why is it in every campus everywhere I ever been all I hear are Bob Dylan imitators? Why never Elvis Presley imitators? Or James Brown imitators? I'm not requesting exactly. I just want to know why Bob Dylan and why won't they fuck off like he did?

Also, that girl who was yelling "We will not allow this war to happen!"? I'm not sure she really intends to keep her promise.

. . .

That dear "kat"

I worship Elvis as I worship my neighbor, but I would never join the Church of Elvis because you can't have a Church of Elvis without irony, and if you have irony why bother going to church?

I would, however, join the Church of Herriman if it existed, because it documents a miracle (look at "The Dingbat Family" and tell me a miracle didn't happen) and because it has beautiful icons and a convincing bible (albeit with some slumping in the middle stretch) but mostly because Herriman is the only prophet who's explained how evil might arise from a good primum mobile:

Because good loves evil.

Others have posited that God is sociopathic, true, but that's still a fur piece from being krazy.

  It commenced so simpil - and finished so intriggit.

. . .

Huey Freeman thinks profound thoughts ---king Elvis

"Hey, Copperhead, why you think they're so anxious to get us after each other."
- Dhalgren, Samuel R. Delany

Twice a year, one bunch gestures jocularly at Elvis Presley and another bunch quotes Public Enemy. Most of them, that seems to be the only time they do quote Public Enemy.

A subset throws in that "shine my shoes and buy my records" calumny, which I knew was absurd even before doing any research: not because Elvis ever took a stand against segregation, but because Elvis was always polite and polite boys don't talk like that. (This rumor-monger deserves special recognition for going on to credit Willie Mae Thornton with authorship of "Hound Dog" and to call Nat King Cole a "subservient negro.")

Chuck D makes perfect sense. Still, I'm like most. Elvis is a hero to me. Not someone to admire or emulate. Just a real American hero the same way Heracles was a real Greek hero: a larger-than-life pig-ignant touched-by-divinity guided-by-conmen figure strung up snug and poisoned in a tangle of tragedy and low farce.

Elvis didn't kill near as many people as Heracles, but like I say: polite.

. . .

Another denied but widely reported quote, attributed to Sam Phillips: "If I could find a white man who had a Negro sound and a Negro feel, I could make a million dollars." That's a softer breed of racism than the "shine my shoes" fantasy, and forks more pernicious paths: to a story of "pale imitation" and "taming," of ineffable theft (Prometheus stealing soul from the soulful) or downright plagiarism, or conversely a story of crude matter refined, or Aryan culture degraded.

Sam Phillips recorded blues and hillbilly alike; his bounds were geographical and financial rather than racial, and all you could really have deduced about the singer of Elvis Presley's first Sun records was that he was Southern and very eccentric. Presley's "Good Rockin' Tonight" sounds nothing at all like anything Wynonie Harris ever did, any more than his "Blue Moon of Kentucky" resembles anything Bill Monroe ever did. (Spike Jones, more like.) Harris is a grown-up who knows what he wants and knows how to get it; Presley rears and careens like a drunken colt. I defy anyone to listen to Arthur Crudup's recordings and derive Presley's bizarrely playful sincerity: Crudup delivers "So Glad You're Mine" knowing and sly; Presley sounds so glad he's living bipolar that what he changed his mind about must be suicide.

At RCA, his covers began to lift arrangements from the originals; still, I don't hear straight-out vocal mimicry till we reach the Oedipus at Colonus days of "Polk Salad Annie" and "Suspicious Minds," and by then Presley was cribbing mostly from Tom Jones.

But the "white guy singing like black guy" story is catchy, god help us all. I've even heard people accuse Presley of blatantly ripping off Otis Blackwell (whose own musical hero was Tex Ritter) -- Blackwell being a songwriter who was demoing his songs to Presley for Presley to sing.

The embrace-rebrand-and-secure routine has been enriching white individuals and stabilizing white racism a long while. Probably no need to go through the whole roll call; it extends at least as far back as James Fenimore Cooper and includes plenty of professional diluters: "King of Jazz" Paul Whiteman, for example, or Presley's leading contemporary rival, Pat Boone.

Presley didn't gentrify. He never played the Aeolian Hall or commissioned a concerto. If anything, he grew crasser with age. You could easily make the case that Presley was a less talented vocalist than Jackie Wilson, but to claim that he was smoother would be insane. Nor would he ever latch onto the minstrel show mannerisms of an exoticizer like Mick Jagger.

He's never been accepted by the White Negro clan, either, those stern adjudicators of hip like Nick "a Caucasian jerk is just a black guy corretto" Tosches, or Cassavetes geek Tom Charity (who attracted my attention by ending a Time Out movie review, "this boy Poitier is whiter than white"). Elvis simultaneously is too soft for them and tries too hard. On first listen, Lieber and Stoller found his "Hound Dog" "nervous," "frenetic," lacking a "real groove": "We just tended to think, who are these lame ofays moving in?" Only after meeting him were they won over by his fannish enthusiasm. (And it didn't take long after that for them to tire of his passivity.)

Here's a less widely reported quote. Its ambiguity isn't so catchy, and it's not flattering to anyone, including Phillips. "He reminded me of a black man in that way," says Phillips. "His insecurity."

. . .

"He's a goof! He's a mook!" - Canadian fan, 1957

"And he was a nice fellow, shy. His face was so pretty, so soft." - Fats Domino, 2002

Those who think rock is about the frenzied masturbatory rhythms of the teenage male prefer Little Richard; those who think it's about being an asshole redneck prefer Jerry Lee Lewis; those who think it's about white boys impersonating black men why the fuck should I care what they prefer, let 'em wait for Eric Clapton. Most experts of the time agree that the true King of Rock and Roll was Fats Domino, who maintained rhythm and groove alike with magisterial ease, who crossed race categories, who chicks dug, and who was (unlike some people I could mention, and although Billy Lewis sure tried) inimitable. (Elvis's "Blueberry Hill" is one of his weakest '50s recordings: stripped of hokum, he sounds shrunken, pale, pathetic, lost.)

The thing is -- this presumptuous and cumbersome thing is -- with all my denials and hedging, I do think there's a way Elvis Presley divides the world into before and after, a way in which he originates the "rock music" genre, and that in a way (and in the way) it connects to American racism. It's just not a straightforward way.

Elvis's own straightforwardness misleads us. As cultural critic Tuesday Weld says:

"... he didn't wear it on his sleeve. You didn't see that he was complicated. You saw great needs."

. . .

Given the combined unreliability of reporters and high school testing, I don't know how much credence to lend reports of a 70 IQ (five points under that other American hero, Forrest Gump). But Elvis's sense of inferiority might not have been just a matter of economic class, and his clinginess, malleability, and shy boastfulness might have had more to do with intellectual trauma than financial.

. . .

"Of commercial folk music, Presley is perhaps the most original singer since Jimmie Rodgers."
- jacket notes, Elvis's second LP, 1956

What makes something "folk culture" is the cultural distance assumed by the customer rather than the nature of the artist. The Lomaxes' field recordings cover a range of professional dedication from jump-ropers and reminiscing farmers through chant-leading prisoners and special-occasion bands to preachers and itinerant guitarists. Even among the lowest class of professional musicians, there's an ambiguous stretch from busker to beggar, epitomized for me by One-String Eddie Jones and Edward Hazelton: an overbearingly extroverted entertainer and a depressive mumbling introvert, equally insane, both documented in the same genre.

When record companies were forced to turn to the rabble for their artists, they naturally hung around the professional side of town -- vaudeville, bars, dance halls, and churches -- occasionally permitting a visit by a street singer or pick-up guitarist. No matter what their income or popularity, musicians who worked at being musicians are where commercial studios and Library of Congress sessions overlap.

That was natural because the record companies figured -- still figured, even after the process of turning "folk culture" into "pop culture" was well underway -- that recordings were of performances and that they should therefore be seeking out performers to record. Good artifacts in reproducible media are those that reproduce a good original artifact, right?

Sometimes, but not always.

What a recording captures is an event. Professional performances are just one way of generating recordable events.

For some reason, movie makers figured this out long before record makers did: the medium provides reproducibility; the performer doesn't have to provide anything but moments. Athletes, comics, models, cowboys, and other non-stage-actors can work brilliantly on screen, and, even before the giveth-and-taketh-away godsend of "the Method," film directors developed techniques to generate the appropriate magic: well-timed off-camera drama; improvisation with "business"; the celebrated advice, "I want your face to be a blank sheet of paper."

It's not surprising that Elvis Presley idolized Method stars like James Dean and Marlon Brando, or that Presley was the only film performer to ever deliver warm and persuasive naturalism from Clifford Odets's rigor-mortis lines.

. . .

- motto of Memphis Recording Service

In a capitalist democracy, ethnography eventually nets you Sam Phillips: an entrepreneurial native informant.

Phillips didn't believe "in recording people that had already made records," and so he produced blues because, of what he heard, blues was what wasn't being produced enough. Is that altruism or greed? Yes.

Phillips did believe in accident, improvisation, in each moment's ripening of some mysterious life-force that even more mysteriously could be packed, transported, and sold. He believed in a soul that could survive mechanical reproduction. "And anything that didn't sound spontaneous really was no good."

Return to the primal scene: A truck driver who, a year earlier, shyly and mendaciously paid to hear his own voice singing two ballads, is called in as part of the everlasting quest for the not-yet-known. He does a poor job, but Phillips senses an accident waiting to happen and waits with it. The truck driver starts goofing on a song. Phillips records.

The song was originally by a black musician, but that level of appropriation was old in Stephen Foster's day and had never really gone out of style. (Take Louis Prima. Take as much as you want, so long as you remember to take your Louis Jordan first.)

The song was then done by a truck driver who hoped someday to become a electrician, who had never performed music professionally, or even performed solo in public: an amateur with no experience and no ambition, who, Phillips thinks, would've otherwise wound up in a gospel quartet and never auditioned as a pop music singer.

What Phillips had created in his laboratory was nothing less than artificial life, or at least a formula for simulating lively music: enthusiastic cluelessness + opportunistic recording.

Folklorists and critics used idiot savant rhetoric about "direct expressions of the soul of a people" when talking about blues and hillbilly; the hard-working musicians they were speaking of wouldn't have looked at it that way. (Rufus Thomas may have been a goof, but he was no mook.) With Elvis, for the first time the cult of the amateur is led by the performer.

. . .

"Going with the flow has driven some people insane."
- pop outsider Professor Anonynomous

"Is this the way I used to fall off this log?"
- rockin' weblogger Fred Metascene

For Phillips, his experiment's success initiated a new business model. Rather than having to compete with larger labels such as Chess for rights to the blues and R&B artists he'd been recording, he could sign potentially more lucrative (since they didn't have to deal with segregation) teenage crackers cheap and exclusive. They were eager to follow Elvis's trail, and Phillips was eager to help them.

On the world outside Memphis, the most immediate effect was rockabilly: a collection of easily copied mannerisms that spread fast as Jimmie Rodgers's yodel and shriveled afore the crops came in.

More lasting, being easier to sell, was a transvaluation in which success became a matter of "being real" and "keeping it real," setting sincerity and spontaneity against skill and groove. And I'm comfortable calling that a "rock" attitude, even though its effects haven't been confined to a single recording genre or even a single medium. (Andy Kaufman imitated Presley in more ways than the obvious one.)

As intended, it's generated records of otherwise unattainable moments which, god knows, I idolize. But they remain by design and essence isolated: every hit its own one-hit wonder. Amateurism is a lottery of grace whose winnings are taxed to fund the lottery program.

Irresponsibility is a heavy responsibility, man. You can keep the spark in a stodgy old-fashioned marriage to your art just by occasionally greeting the muse at the door in a little leather G-string. But how to maintain l'amour fou? And why to? Exposed to air, infatuation turns fatuous.

The symptoms aren't hard to find: half-assed tourism (i.e., "experimentation"), flame-outs, desperation unto suicide, or lassitude unto retirement -- or even unto professionalism. (Unless you're a complete fucking nutcase.)

. . .

Hauled to the stars with enough rope to end three lifetimes, Presley trailblazed new methods of failure as he had new methods of success.

Although show biz had cast up amateur singers before, they had first achieved celebrity by other means. (Still plenty of Louis Prima over there, by the way.) Presley's Dean Martin fixation may seem unaccountable at first, but aside from the shared baritone and the movie acting, I think Dino supplied a model for anti-professional showmanship: a pretense of casual contempt for the artificiality of the situation, conveyed via goofed-on or forgotten lyrics and idiot patter.

In Elvis's adaptation, minus, of course, any genuine sense of security. Such insolent nonchalance was something a show-biz pro earned through a lifetime of hard work and hard heckling; it wasn't something to ape directly. Elvis Presley, like that later king Rupert Pupkin, applied himself to the aping as if it was the point of the work.

And, like Pupkin, he proved that the audience couldn't tell the difference. No wonder the Rat Pack despised him: his version of "cool," like his version of "Hound Dog," was "frenetic," "nervous," "lame," and very successful.

Quite a few rockers since have taken that stance toward public appearance, albeit with different influences (ranging from the Goons to Burl Ives) or with more open hostility (Johnny Thunders, now there was a showman!). Elvis was a studio creation, though, and it's on the studio that his influence really clung.

Lieber and Stoller again:

"The thing that really surprised us was we were used to working in the studio where we had to get four sides in three hours, and here were these guys who came in and, on studio time, they would take a break, they would have peanut butter sandwiches and orange pop and joke around -- we would sing other people's songs, do a gospel number just to loosen up, there was no clock. Frequently we'd have what we thought was a take, and he would say, 'No, let me do it again,' and he would just keep doing it. As long as he felt like doing it.... In many ways he was a perfectionist, and he could be very insecure, but in other ways he was very relaxed in the studio -- a strange combination."
It may have seemed strange in 1957, but it would get awfully familiar. The rats had taken over the lab.

Though he didn't live long enough for a full-out Dr. Jeckyll, Buddy Holly was tinkering with home recording even before the decade ended. Eminent later examples include the "what do you wanna do?" "I don't know; what do you wanna do?" songwriting of the Beatles post-1965*, Bruce Springsteen (who explicitly cited Elvis to justify his own extravagant quest for the absolutely perfect accident), and the post-punk Clash. Even basic training at a hit factory as strictly run as Motown couldn't guarantee immunity: witness the horrific ends visited on the very different spontaneities of self-expressing Marvin Gaye and dancing machine Michael Jackson. All forgetting that their favorite records were bashed out quick, first-to-fourth take, everyone in a room together....

Presley's attempts at re-enacting the fortunate chance began at Sun; he even dramatized the process in his first self-parody. There were more to come.

First the "real," drawn from the unprofessional. Then the professional simulation of the real. On the Memphis album, he managed the most remarkable artifact of his career: a self-portrait (in covers) of a hollow mask; the emperor stripping down to his clothes. After Memphis, the real had its revenge. Simulation became parody; parody became upstaged by the reality of its imperfections; reality constricted to frustration, embarrassment, and fear.

In his final signature numbers, there was no more reaching for ease or grace or goof. Instead, he bellowed against the closing of the light like a barfly Mario Lanza. A last ditch effort to prove he did have talent, this adulation could be justified....

What a mess.

* No coincidence that Elvis Presley's best LP and John Lennon's best LP are both spiritual autobiographies of (in Lester Bangs's phrase) "gauche and wretched majesty." No coincidence, for that matter, that rockers Bangs and Meltzer found it impossible to stretch the semi-documentary form of the blurt to book length. Or, probably, that I find it so difficult to wrangle any prose-shape longer than might fit comfortably into a conversation.

. . .

Elvis and his friends

John Carpenter's best rock-and-roll movie wasn't Elvis but Christine:

A weirdo loser becomes cool, but immediately progresses to such monstrously destructive super-coolness that his non-weirdo non-loser friends have to kill him.

Why didn't he do the smart thing and stop when he was cool?

Duh! Because he's a weirdo loser!

. . .

"Elvis was due the respect he had. No animosity. No sour grapes. Elvis was the man. The thing was that we didn't get what we deserved."
- Isaac Hayes

In a racist culture, any source of power will be redirected (as much as possible) to reinforcing racism; in corporate capitalism, any source of power will be redirected (as much as possible) to enrich corporate capitalists. That's not so much an indictment of the power source as a matter of where we live.

I know you knew that already, but it makes me feel safer to start from somewhere known. The Elvis-and-racism (which is to say rock-and-racism) relationship is complicated.

Given the peculiarly binary nature of American racism, for redirectors complexity may be the point: a fasces of tightly-bound contradictory half-truths is stronger than one logical consistency. From my extremely (I'd say "comically," but the joke's too familiar to be funny) limited vantage point, here's an attempt to break it down.

  1. Rewards

    In the USA, race and class are mutually stabilizing systems.

    • "See, we don't have a permanent class system: a poor white guy can become rich!"
    • "See, we're not racist: we have poor white guys!"
    • "See, I'm populist: I'm a bigot!" (which, despite a long proud heritage*, has moved underground in deference to the less treacherous "See, I'm populist: I'm a bible-thumper!")

    Through the twentieth century, it became easier to reach our nation's belay anchors of upward mobility: professional atheletics, show business, and organized crime. But the wage gap persists as the wages go up, and the income of one star's lifetime rarely reaches dynastic levels. No black gangster's son has grown up to become President before being shot.

    Racism changes the amplitude of the trajectory, not its shape. That's been as true of the post-WWII pop factory genres as it was of jazz or gospel.

    Rock's open amateurism merely added insult to insult.

  2. Influences

    Talk about cultural theft, whether boastful or accusatory, flatters the supposed thief and mocks the supposed victim. What's marketed as imitation is a cheap plastic mask: Someone wants to express something and, rather than go against their own stereotyped grain, they reach for another's stereotype to express it. And should the stereotyped have access to the marketplace, stereotypes are also the easiest thing for them to sell.

    A century ago, musicians, comics, cartoonists, and writers applied blackface to express simple-minded sentimentality, an inexhaustible craving for leisure, and malapropisms galore. (For a few happy decades, as Harper's Monthly gag pages and Edison ethnic recordings attest, artists and wits also had the option of going Irish.) The jazzbos at my college affected a weird kind of dignified petulance that I guess was the rich kid version of Miles Davis. Nowadays the in-demand roles are sullen thugs and motor-mouthed scam artists. I'm inclined to see these as transformations in the cultural marketplace rather than in The Souls of Black Folk.

    For mid-century folklorists, African-Americans were the home-bought-and-bred equivalent of Yeats's peasants and Tolstoy's serfs. Or they could have been, if it weren't for urban life and mass culture muddying their pure spirituality with pernicious opportunity**.

    Before rock-and-roll was about the mixing of race music and pop music, it was about the mixing of folk music (blues and hillbilly) and urban music (jump and R&B). Sam Phillips adored the fervent integrity of Howlin' Wolf. But unlike the Lomaxes he trusted its ability to survive exposure to outside influences and popular success. For later rockers (most blatantly in the UK), Sun and Chess records supported both a folklorist notion of the primitive as a sacred fount of soul, rhythm, and wisdom and an urban notion of the primitive as an uncontrollable display of sex, aggression, and drug use. Which is hard to beat for teenage appeal.

    Appealing or not, primitivism was a mistake Elvis Presley never made. He came from the same class as Sun's blues singers, and, unlike some of Phillips's other white protégés, he persistently and politely pointed out which aspects of his shtick colored people had been doing for years, making no show of mystification or even humility.

  3. Audiences

    Some rock performers and some rock critics may believe that enthusiastic emulation of their notion of blackness counts as successful mimicry, but anyone with a lick of sense can hear their failure and futility. (And what an obnoxious goal, anyway: "Messrs. Beck & Clapton, Exclusive Purveyors of Soul to Enoch Powell's England.")

    An odd result of this disjunction between intent and expression was that while one large group of American racists decried rock as miscegenation, another large (and eventually much larger) group of American racists latched onto it as their preferred music. Didn't take long for the Stars-and-Bars to start waving even among the performers -- I once heard a little rockabilly number about "I hate blues but I like to rock, I'm a country boy." As a country boy myself, I can testify that "Disco sucks" had more to do with racism than with homophobia. A later example is the reactionary Clash fan documented in Rude Boy: bashing the Pakis; down wiff the reggae.

    So they're assholes. The less dismissable problem if you like rock (which I do) is that willful ignorance seems a legitimate tactic of the game. OK, since my doctrinaire edges wore off, most of my pleasure in most recordings has come from the more oblique and professional sources of happy accident: the accidents of the particular performance, the accidents of historical, sociological, psychological, or pathological forces.... (In fact I'm already regretting having made the primal studio scene of this little critical fable Sam Phillips with Elvis Presley instead of Quincy Jones with Lesley Gore.) But if we seek spontaneous generation in the primal soup of cluelessness, then upping the cluelessness should be a winning formula. Every once in a while you get a first generation rip-off inept enough to do the job -- the Embarrassment's "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" was primo right out the gate -- but the distortions of the first covers of Richard Berry's "Louie Louie" can't begin to compare to the grungy high-contrast charm of the n-th generation reproductions, and the Rolling Stones doing an inept rip-off of a Chess artist was infinitely weaker than a garage band doing an inept rip-off of the Rolling Stones.

    In my even-more-callow-than-now years, undignified amateurism seemed a whites-only club. You don't call the Anti-Defamation League to find a Shylock for your community theater, and you didn't call Berry Gordy for out-of-control primitivism. African-American musicians put in their shuck-and-jive time*** in the '40s and early '50s, when they recorded the blues and jump that nursed rock-and-roll. Arthur Lee may have been as real as L.A. rockers get, but Jimi Hendrix was blatantly slumming. Thanks to the segregationist instincts of DJs and critics, it wasn't till I got real ancient that I started hearing the glorious garage funk produced in James Brown's fecund wake.

    As a young punk, it even took me a while to warm towards George Clinton and Bootsy Collins. It was manifestly true that there was no reason to listen to Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd or Frank Zappa with Parliament-Funkadelic around, but I never wanted to listen to those other guys anyway. And though Mother Funkenstein may have thought her boy was certifiable, anyone who could keep complex charts percolating for fifteen minutes was clinically sane by my lax standards.

Hip-hop, on the other hand, as a young punk I sucked up immediately.

In hip-hop, not only the vocals but the lyrics themselves strive toward spontaneity (real or faked). And sampling is the extreme expression of Sun's worship of the captured-and-then-bred soul-ripe moment: a way to turn recordings of even the most professional musicians into such moments, each taint of lively accident tracked, snatched, and replicated.... If one wanted to get crassly theoretical, one could say that rock was the larval stage of hip-hop.

So hip-hop doesn't need an Elvis. Just like everyone else, it's already had all the Elvis it needed.

* Most touchingly exhibited by the Confederate soldiers who died for the right to dream of someday becoming landed (and populated) aristocracy. And in return, "There was no distinction shown between slave owners and non-slave owners provided the latter class were upright honorable people..."
** Inexplicably (to me, anyway; please contact me with explanations if you got 'em), contemporary Hollywood persists in assigning "exotics" (including accented descendents of the African diaspora) a direct link to mystic forces. Why not go all out and remake The Santa Clause with Bernie Mac as a tourist mounted by Baron Samedi...?
*** Though it's best not to overstate the case. Faced with the unflappable authority of Louis Jordan, recalling what's offensive about "Ain't Nobody Here But Us Chickens" is like trying to picture Bugs Bunny as a real rabbit.

. . .

"Ouaii? ... O! Re! Come il King!"
"Che? ... Ah, si, si! Come i Kinks!"

- Florentine conversation, 1989

Less theoretically, the mention of hip-hop summons forth a name capable of jerking the choke-chain on any lengthy bullshit Elvis rap: James Brown.

James Brown! the very words are like a bell!

In the 1950s, Brown covered as wide a stylistic range as Presley with more authority; his Wynonie Harris and Roy Brown derivations gave jump the best vocals it ever got. Then in the 1960s, when Presley was just screwing around, Brown invented a whole new style. Then in the 1970s, when Presley was just screwing around, Brown invented a whole new style again. Brown was producer and writer, singer and performer, America's Beethoven and Nijinski combined. And, unlike any of those guys, he shared a movie credit with the Queen, Lesley Gore: Ski Party, whose dialog supplied what I hope to be my own last words before succumbing to hypothermia: "Why, you're not the ski patrol! You're James Brown and the Famous Flames!"

So why aren't we celebrating James Brown twice a year (birthday and parole date), and why isn't he getting two-volume fifteen-pound biographies, and why aren't tourists swamping the name of the place Augusta GA, and why don't blowhards like Greil Marcus and me blow harder his way?

My blowhard instinct tells me to return to the initial thesis: James Brown was the hardest working man in show business, professional dancer, professional musician, whereas Elvis Presley's version of "TCB" was more like a four-year-old visiting daddy's construction site -- "What's this lever do?", and so on.

Amateurism don't cover all the bases, though. Frank Sinatra was both professional and criminally obnoxious, and you didn't see him dragged off to prison in his late 50s.

Nah, I'm afraid the answer's plain racism.

Of course, if I decide to drop concerns of narrative and media attention and think in terms of actual achievement, I have to admit that I don't listen to Brown all that often or Presley all that often. As far as career accomplishment goes, and it's pretty far in these cases, I haven't attended Presley nearly as much over as extended a period as Smokey Robinson, or the Ramones, or Louis Jordan (another natural born movie star), or Van Morrison, or Thelonious Monk, or, for that matter, since period extension doesn't matter that much if you can put the greatest hits on repeat, Nellie Lutcher, or the Shangri-Las, or Slim and Slam, or Gene Pitney, or, give 'im credit, Rufus Thomas.

Take away even the supportive statistics-slanting narrative of a reasonably sized career, and I find that mostly my shell-like ear is dedicated to scooping up popular music's brine shrimp and sea monkeys. Like Sam Phillips must've realized somehow deep inside, the moment doesn't require that narrative: the sales crew is who wants the narrative.

Maybe that's why us old-timey hip-hop fans have been let down, over and over, when we thought the star who could sustain had finally appeared out of the east or the west, re-establishing that nice secure rock-and-roll career path so the musicians who gave us pleasure wouldn't have to be scrounging around at pension time. Who we got as a grand old master all these years later, post Flash and Run and Roxanne and Markie and Marley and L. L. and Scott and the JBs and Kool G. and Polo? Dr. Dre, huh? Fuck. Dr. Dre, that's it?

Elvis means something to me, but the meaning only requires occasional pinches to wake it up. So Elvis must mean something outside of just listening to music proper.

That would make him a figurehead. A person who's a symbol. In this case, a hillbilly cat screwed up by too much money.

Is that politics? Kind of.

That's the thing with kings, right? They're politics, they're apolitical; person, symbol; your enemy, and not even in the same game. You don't get to pick them, and it doesn't matter much what you think of them. They change things when they show up. They're what you're stuck with till they die. (And if you're a good patriotic American, you won't be all that quick to replace them.)

And amongst the royalty? Forgetting Smokey and Mr. Jordan and so on, who were just working hard, doing their thing? Compared to icy pricks like Sinatra and Bing Crosby? Yeah, Elvis is my king.

. . .

Return to Nevèrÿon in a Long Black Limousine

Dr. Justine Larbalestier reminisces:

I went back and had a look at the first entry and there's the one about your misunderstanding Elvis' "Won't you wear my ring around your neck" the exact same way I had misunderstood it. (Actually how else could you misunderstand it?) I remembered us discussing that misunderstanding. I always liked the next line: "To tell the world I'm yours, by heck" not just cause of the fab "neck" "heck" rhyme but because the slave collar around the neck was indicating ownership not *being* owned.

. . .

The 2003 Census of the American Soul
(source: Johnson Smith Company catalog)

(including farting clock)
Crazed conspiracy theories18
Dancing objects2
Farting objects25
Fat Elvis2
Flames pattern5
George W. Bush
(including farting George W. Bush)
Insulting motivational phrases2
Iraq wars2
Martial arts14
The Matrix2
Military tributes
(including dancing hamsters)
Mystic powers
("Unleash The Genius Within You")
(including farting NASCAR driver)
The Simpsons5
Star Trek3
"the trendy Stars/Stripes pattern"4

. . .

Movie comment: Bubba Ho-Tep

Bruce Campbell re-asserts his position as the Peculiar Man's Kurt Russell, but Ossie Davis could've worked a bit harder on that Massachussetts accent.

. . .

Elvis Dead at Budokan

The scope of our eugenics proposal has been reduced thanks to intervention by Ross Nelson:

I believe my first comment to the missus upon exiting that "film" was, "Was that a rich girl's movie, or what?" Leaving aside the complete and utter implausibility of Charlotte as Yale Philosophy major, I really can't imagine anyone who's not clinically depressed suffering from terminal ennui as much as she does, unless we assume (and we also assume this is true of Ms. Coppola), that Japanese luxury hotels and weeklong trips to other continents are so common as to be unworthy of any attention what so ever. I did like the whiskey ads, though.

I knew I had to see Bubba Ho-Tep when I heard the plot, though I didn't have high hopes. My low expectations were not really exceeded, though I thought there were some flashes of brilliance, mostly in the filming of the time-dilation and decrepitude of the home. I was reminded of a line of dialog in Urinetown when Officer Lockstock say, "Be careful, Little Sally, too much exposition can ruin a show." Not to mention repetitive voice-over narration. Still, this feels like a show that deserves a remake. One where the writers get a little more time and money.

Or a lot less time in the end product.

. . .

"peculiarly dull reading; yet, for some, the most interesting history there is, 114, 116"

It's a wonderful thing how our solitary pleasures and interests, left long unspoken for fear of boring our friends, offer through the web the solace of community. When I see in my stats searches such as today's "propaganda of durian fruit," "rose caylor," and "symptoms bipolar elvis presley," all the effort seems worthwhile.

Myself, I had no idea that any other folks sought out eccentric indexes. My own most recent catch, Sketches for the North American Review by Henry Adams as edited by Edward Chalfant (Archon Books, 1986), attracted my attention by the three line entry:

English, the. See also Historians, English
obviously mad, 100
twice conquered & held in subjection,

This turned out to be a model specimen, exhibiting such markings as the unpredictable alphabetization:

India, ancient. See History, a survey of
Ireland. See History, a survey of
(Meaning "History, a survey of,
ancient India," under "A" for "ancient"
rather than "I" for "India.")

And the redundant citation:

ancient India
evidence of women's losing original
rights to life & property, 93-94
inevitable inference that archaic rights
of women were liberal, 94

The discomfiting conjunction:

Harvard College
best school in U.S.; decidedly interest-
ing to small circle of readers, 5, 13
confused with railway or banking cor-
poration, 10

And the footnote irruptus:

1 Users of this entry are advised that Adams's writings show evidence of fairly consistent
accuracy, in combination with occasional apparent hesitation, doubt, or confusion in
the use of terms. The following terms may be differentiated, interchanged, or confused
on the indicated pages: ancient, 94, 123; still more ancient, 166; very ancient, 93; archaic,
89,92,94, 103, 114, 116, 124, 161-62, 167; early, 87, 112, 117; very early, 45; oldest, 93, 166;
original, 89, 93; pagan, 114; prehistoric, 86, 89; primeval, 179; typical, 92; & unde-
, 45.

And the covert thesis, here represented by the two-thirds of a column devoted to extracting every term of praise or demur from Adams's book reviews. (I can't help but anticipate the index of "Cinematic virtues" in the Collected Criticism of Peter Travers.)

Indeed, the whole sequence, from:

Adams family, hardly a family, 148


Yearning of unrest; almost despairing im-
patience, 55-56

is worth the connoisseur's while.

. . .

Visible Man

"... racial politics be temporarily damned ..."

"Ironically, the little sub-men of the great cities best express their own sense of helplessness by means of Negro music. While ostensibly setting about the freeing of the slaves, they became enslaved, and found in the wailing self-pity and crooning of the Negro the substitute for any life-style of their own. They destroyed or rejected the best things in the South and took the worst."
- Marshall McLuhan, "The Southern Quality"

In 1930s and 1940s Hollywood musicals, African-American performers would be brought on screen for one number and disappear afterwards, leaving the plotline untouched. Those scenes excised, the films could then be distributed in the South as artifacts of an all-white world. Most times the performers just weren't brought on screen at all, "histories of jazz" being restricted to innovators like Paul Whiteman, Bing Crosby, and Rudy Vallee.

Are such movies less racist than the movies in which African-American actors played comic servants? Or were they equally products of a racist culture, differing only in how easily they let later spectators ignore their context?

America fattened on racism like England fattened on colonialism, and all products of the Southern states raised themselves, directly or indirectly, with the assistance of a permanent underclass: notoriously nowadays, conflicted idealist Thomas Jefferson, but equally the blandly unconcerned Andrew Jackson; Joel Chandler Harris, of course, but also James Branch Cabell; Jerry Lee Lewis no more than Johnny Mercer.

Slander may provide a consoling origin myth for our discomfort with hillbilly cats, but the discomfort came first and cut across political lines: Elvis Presley's untoward rise to wealth raised miscegenation fears at the time; as blatant evidence of where we still live it can still bother liberals now.

His debts and allegiances were all over him like red beans on rice. But does that make Presley more beholden to racism than Pink Floyd, Yo La Tengo, Guided By Voices, or, for that small matter, myself? He surely sent more royalties to black songwriters than any of those other fellas have.

. . .

That's All, Folks!

Apparently, while I've been focusing on issues such as Elvis and the irrelevance of academic prose, Howard Dean has been declared unelectable due to his use of an overly directional microphone. Juliet Clark: "They interview Dean and his wife and they sound perfectly reasonable, and then the anchor comes on and says, 'But his campaign just can't seem to escape the memory of that scream because we're about to show it again!'" So unlike the demure behavior of our own dear Texas queen.... Just imagine the gleaming array of cutlery being polished for John Kerry!

This is why it's best to control both intelligence gathering and mass media. The rule is "Repeat." That rule again: "Repeat." You need a repetitive medium for that. Intelligence gathering is just gravy.

It's an old gag. Moustached phrenologist Bugs or Daffy feels (squeegy-squeegy) Elmer's head, and —"No bumps? We make some!"

That's how it works. How to break it is a tougher problem. As I recall, Termite Terrace usually resolved things with a big explosion and everyone waking up in Hell.

. . .

Addendum: No Single Reason in the World

Readers inquire:

God the Ambivalent hises up his tartan petticoats, hauls out his schlong, and pisses on the beach every once in a while, to search for buried treasure. Hence these bluffs and cliffs, out of which the rockin' bones prick. (See, for instance, "Rockin' bones, rockin' bones, rock rock rock it" by The Rockin' Bones; or don't.) I think I was trying to talk about evolution, was it?
Do the pseudopodium form at different parts of the amoebae body?

Usually, yes.

My recent series on the origin of evolutionary sociology nattered on mercilessly; I, like you, would welcome a change of subject. But self-publication must go where self-indulgence directs, and, you know, other folks are still talking about it, and I recently had my attention drawn to a phenomenon I wished I'd included, and, oh dear, oh well, I apologize to you and to my best intentions.

To recap a bit: When a respected compeer questioned the evolutionary value of homosexuality, I answered "Who needs one?" Sex as aggression, sex as social duty, and sex as friendly gesture are all fully capable of baby-making, and homosexual lust doesn't interfere with them. Heterosexual lust, as usually defined, is therefore not necessary for reproduction. Just look at the Hapsburgs.

But there's another common trait that's 100% effective at eliminating baby-making: infertility.

The human Y chromosome consists of decaying debris. Its presence triggers maleness, but its contents are mostly ignored. And they mostly have to be. Senile and solipsistic, the Y genes don't take part in recombination, and so there's no way for their basic structures to be reinforced over time. Genetic rot and drop-offs are common.

Among the few bodily traits blueprinted in the Y are some which help bring spermatozoa fully to term, so to speak, pampering the little dears till they grow up to be big and strong like daddy's. When chromosome rot strikes out that genetic mapping, the eventual result is someone who's indisputably male but almost always infertile, with few and immobile sperm.

How many offspring will an infertile man's genes selfishly acquire? None considerably less than the average number of offspring among my gay and lesbian acquaintances. That's about as little support from natural selection as possible.

And yet a significant percentage of men are infertile. Why is this permitted?

If you want to, you can try to work out some convoluted untestable Rube Dawkins explanation of how it might actually benefit the species.

I have a simpler, and thus preferable, answer. It's permitted because natural selection and genetic reproduction are too dumb and too hamstrung by earlier choices to be able to prevent it. Too many changes would need to be coordinated. Oh, maybe if we're left to breed undisturbed (with a pinch of radiation) for another hundred million years or so, a row of cherries will line up. How likely is that?

Admittedly, this is reductio ad absurdum. But I believe that most interesting aspects of human behavior are closer to that reductio ad absurdum than to the bill of Darwin's finch.

I can't prove my belief. I don't even want to prove my belief. I do want evolutionary psychologists and evolutionary sociologists to disprove my belief before they leech funding and publicity from legitimate science. Wild speculation from iffy evidence can be a beautiful thing in a creative writing department.


Infertile man is not permit, no. He is weeded out and all genes of him are not spread unto next generation. But think now, is his infertility controlled by his genes? Or is it function of his use of saran wrap for lunchbox, inhalation of rubbish fume from factory, imbibation of excess of absinthe or what have you. There is always environment factors to be consider. Best weeshes, Ricardo Dorkanvilla
Different type of infertility. They're all good.
okay smart guy, why do men have tits? huh? huh?
Men have tits to make Iggy Stooge possible.
why isn't elvis god?

Hoo boy. Why isn't the sky blue? Doesn't a bear shit in the woods? What am I, the IM question answerer?

That particular blasphemy wasn't mine.

I'm glad to hear it.

More topically, a long, playful message from professional speculator Paul McEnery unexpectedly reinforced my dominant thesis when I found the negative reviews of Steve Jones's innocuous works splitting between snubbed creationists and snubbed evolutionary psychologists and when I found Steve Jones espousing my dominant thesis.

Try checking out recent research on the evolution of the Y-chromosome, particularly Nature. 2003 Jun 19;423(6942):873-6. The Y-chromosome is actually able to stave off deterioration through a process of gene conversion, which is basically a form of self-recombination. A dandy evolutionary strategy if there ever was one...

The research reported in that issue was what started me off again, actually. It's great science: painstaking data collection; ingenious pattern-tracing; reasonable contextualizing with plenty of mystery left to entice wonderful stuff.... What I instead tried to apply above for entertainment purposes only were techniques of crummy science as I see them popularly applied: an assumption that for every phenomenon there must be an "evolutionary" justification conveniently tucked just up the explainer's ass.

. . .

Now, gods, stand up for bastards

... the number of authors must have been immense in a time when the writer was his own editor, the poet his own reciter, the dramatist his own actor. In a certain sense, the printing press was a hindrance to the practice of letters. It exercised a selectivity and cast contempt on writing that had not succeeded in being printed. This situation still obtains [1900], but is attenuated by the low cost of mechanical typography. The invention that threatens us now a home printing apparatus would multiply by three or four times the number of new books, and we would find ourselves in the situation of the Middle Ages: everyone who is the least literate and others, as is the case today would venture his lucubration which he would pass out to his friends before offering it to the public.
- Remy de Gourmont (via xvarenah)

I don't have many guilty pleasures, because when I find one I rationalize the guilt away. (Benefit of being a critic, I think. Perhaps that's why the criticism-writing gene has survived despite its negative effect on sexual attractiveness?)

Guilty guilts are harder to resolve. Or, more precisely, guilty shames, if we understand guilt as a private emotion and shame as a social one. Our pain is intensified when our shame is unjustifiable. Twisted by contrary winds, we sin against the light, Peter being the canonical example four times over.

I'm as content with online self-publishing as I've been with anything short of Old Overholt. But contentment is private and vanity is social, and vanity takes charge when, for example, I've just been introduced to someone at a party. I can't just talk about what I do; no, I feel an impulse to insist, with a great show of 't'weren't-nothin'ness, that I have been printed on real paper, and I could be printed again, I've been invited to, if I could only bring myself to write what editors would print and not feel so ill afterwards that is, if I was capable of doing what I'm not doing then I might do what I don't want to do except that I still wouldn't want to.

"This is what I would be if I was the sort of person I think you'd like to meet. Let's talk about that person, shall we?" The misogynous libertarian feels compelled to mention the existence of an ex-wife; the layabout assures us she once quit a marketing job; the straights reminisce about the time they dropped acid. Attempts at legitimizing our authority merely reinforce the legitimacy of the institutions we insist we're more than.

Publishing figured out the scam decades ago. Commodify a self-image for your labor force, make it your major product, and you'll be fighting off wannabe indentured servants with a stick. Higher education has it down now, too. Anyone who's not willing to work long hours at a demeaning job in dreadful conditions for almost no money is, by definition, a loser. In shows like American Laughingstock and Rich Narcissist with Too Much Time on His Hands Eye for the Working Person, TV has joined the act.

The goal is brand loyalty to the company store; brand identification is the method. It works, both coming and going. The Catholic lapsed remains a Jesuit. Everyday Stockholm syndrome: My prison, right or wrong.

So although I wish thewonderchicken well, I doubt I'll go to the launch party. I don't want to pretend to search for my papers again, much less pretend to want to peddle them. Maybe I'll stay home and read instead. Maybe pick up a bottle of Old Overholt first.


Regarding the author photo above, a reader writes:
In the big picture I think the most valuable thing I've done in the working world my entire life has been to build and maintain sanitary sewer systems, but I never expected to see a reference to this job's "romantic history."
the relationship between the definition of pseudopodium and the meaning of the name?
more on elvis please

Doesn't this entry count?

I think I'm a reasonably avid weblog reader. Of that list of that weblogging book, I recognized ONE. One which I didn't like that much. This admission is shameful. Wait, is Creeley or Yusef Komunyakaa editing this Best? But I heard the Billy Collins Best is the best Best of them all!

Shame, yes, but not on you. (For what it's worth, I follow four of the selected sites, and recognized a fifth which nowadays holds drafts of National Public Radio pieces; at least two of the other winners appear on that author's very Eggerisch group site. One McSweeney's Junior, extra cheese, hold the production value.)

We might easily theorize that a "Best of Weblogs" book would be a terrible idea (except for the easy money), but, even after experiencing newspapers' Best-Weblog lists, the things themselves come as a shock. Still, easy money is easy money, and the dot-com cows are long since dry or mad. So long as the authors keep their original publications online, no real harm's been done.

Grand-dad crow. Jack and Jack again. Or if Scotch Glenlivet, or -fiddich in a Pinch.But I really do believe the goal is immersion in the mediated. Get them all used to 24/7 camera on. And then some still-building group-mind will suck our souls into its mechanical belly and the thwarted God of all our history will be born and die in the same awkward sad unnecessary moment.
Why not just call it False Feet and be done with it? -- Renfrew Q. Hobblewort

The Thomas Nashe influence dies hard. Leave plain English to the genuine aristocrats; we upstarts need all the inkhorn we can reach.

sometimes all I want is to hear music I've never heard before. Is that too much to ask?

If you haven't found a copyright owner and paid them their asking price, yes, it is, yes.

Authorial firelight. That circle of what we were, gathered in. The spark of genius just as profound to make the young worried mother laugh and forget as to garner the adulation of ink-stained wretches by the busload. The man who could pretend to be a bear so well the children screamed, and then resolved it with a quick-change. The hand sliding down his face as the mask dropped away to reveal... That guy!

. . .

A B. S. Johnson Christmas

From Nicholas Nagsheaded:

What I think of st Nikelass

I think that st. Nik is very santely and nice but. He should not call us notty he is a notty fat git himself and needs a triming bad, his head is like a sheering contest and a old rabbi fomf. St Nikel ass has very shinie red beak from boozing. All the cloath are like a cirkus tent and red like he thinx he is Elvis. He starts laffing like a big ho nancy when he put the littlest boys on his lap because he pervs and is morbid obees. He is the fattest sante in the church and wiggle like jelly if we take the micke out of you that is all about you NOTTY FAT OLD PERV NIT.

Also I want a swichblade and led pipe and swade boots size 7 but NOT RED.


Also I want a swichblade to, brand new or if it is cleand may b.

. . .

The Real McKee

It's true that "authenticity" generally signals snobbery, racism, or willful ignorance up ahead. That it drags the Elmer Fuddish hunter into holes they wot not of. That it marks the hoarder and attracts the forger. And that I've built dudgeons high agin it. Why attempt to judge the Bushes by the authenticity of their bark when the poison of their fruit's so evident?

But I feel Jiminy Heartworm stir. Despite (and through) my open distaste with the term, haven't I, in my own ways, profited from it? When I starved, haven't I played it up to cadge a meal? or get the loan of a book? or of an ear? When I lack even a (birth) certificate of authenticity?

And the double-edged crutches my own criticism leans on terms like "organic", or "grace", or "attentive", or (borrowing from the young Louis Zukofsky and the young Sal Mineo) "sincere" if I was forced to systematize them, if I reaped occasional rewards by dropping them in the nickel slots of academia or reviews or NPR, would they be any better than "authentic"? Truly?

Well, maybe a bit, if they address the workings of the song between us rather than denigrating-through-idealizing the singer.

Leave the art's conscience to the art. The only "authenticity" that should concern critics is their own.


True masks speaking through real veils

AKMA has a follow-up thread.

Ray Davis adds:

I won my first programming job over (probably) more qualified and (certainly) better groomed candidates because (the boss told me later) I'd "looked more like a programmer."

That's one reason I support affirmative action. Maybe I'm wrong, but it seems unlikely that a similarly sullen, ill-prepared, shabbily dressed black kid would have "looked more like a programmer."

. . .

Emily Dickinson : The Poet as Selflorist, 3

Wallace recorded the same four ballads about ship wrecks from a traditional ballad singer, Bobby McMillon, during two sessions held 5 months apart.... At the level of exact words recalled, there were 29 word substitutions preserving meaning; 4 changes in prepositions, pronouns, or articles that had only a slight effect on the meaning, and 2 changes in verb tense. There were 7 cases of words present in one version, but absent in the other. These cases, which had little effect on the meaning, were a, and, as she, just, only, said, and sweet. There were also four pairs of lines that differed in a way that changed the meaning. For these, the first session's alternatives are shown in brackets and the second session's alternatives are shown in parentheses.

There was another ship [and it sailed upon the sea] (in the North Amerikee)
And it went by the name of the Turkish Revelee

She had not sailed far over the [deep] (main)
[Till a large ship she chanced to meet] (She spied three ships a sailing from Spain)

Her boat [against the rock she run] (she run against the rock)
[Crying alas I am undone] (I thought my soul her heart is broke)

Go and dig my grave [don't cry don't weep] (both wide and deep)
Place [marble] (a stone) at my head and feet

- David C. Rubin, Memory in Oral Traditions
To fill a Gap
Insert the Thing that Caused it
Block it up
With Other and 'twill yawn the more
You cannot [Solder an Abyss] (Plug a Sepulchre)
With Air
- Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson's fascicles make tidy manuscript pamphlets, ready to post to your local small press, save for one idiosyncrasy. (Not counting spelling and dashes —) Small crosses are inserted in some lines. At the bottom of the page, matching crosses prefix variant words or phrases.

Early critical orthodoxy took them as eccentric attempts at revision. Even given, though, that Dickinson had no training as a proofreader, plus-signs and footnotes seem vague. Were the additions second-thoughts-best-thoughts? Or contemplated changes for a second edition, but still carrying less weight than the consummated originals? What about the doubled or tripled second thoughts? What's their weight class?

Over time and a lot of heat, more scholars have shifted to admitting that Dickinson's priorities are undecidable.

Scholarly explanations, however and, my apologies, I realize this is a matter of taste have tended to the vaporous:

As Marta Werner puts it, "Writing at the far end of the nineteenth century, Emily Dickinson refused the limitations of a print existence and, in doing so, effectively altered the ways in which we read (receive) her encodings". ... as Sharon Cameron puts it, "variants indicate the desire for limit and the difficulty of enforcing is impossible to say where the text ends because variants extend the text's identity in ways that make it seem potentially limitless".
- Michele Ierardi, "Translating Emily: Digitally Re-Presenting Fascicle 16"

Let's get real. When we have some tune rattling around in our head or in our mouths, it rattles in slightly different ways now and then and later. In oral transmission, the changes might not be noticed, or some might be remembered as potential improvements and latched onto, and no one knows the diff. In manuscript transmission among (for example) the aristocratic poets of Tudor or Stuart England, the "same" poem or joke or rumor might be scribbled out to different recipients in slightly different ways.

In print culture, there's more of a tendency to think in terms of revising towards a final unique artifact which says all worth saying. Variants become competitive decisions. Should I stick with the paisley tie, or does the dark blue deliver the right message? Even believers in some external voice, like Yeats or Spicer, in their different ways treated the Muse as a problem of tuning the dial just right, filtering the static, bleaching out the bones of that amplified signal, any signal like other bards, trying to capture that perfect final take.

Then there's the approach associated with folklorists, jazz fans, and Deadheads. Each take its own thing. Comfortable with a message carried across a range of frequencies.

The poet's job is to listen hard and write it down. But the editorial aspect of that job could just as easily involve collating equally viable variants as arranging a showdown to the death. Who knows, maybe even more easily. To meet the question of lyric method in literate culture, Dickinson may have become oral poet and transcribing collector in one: her letters performances; her fascicles a record of possible performances.

Which drops me square in the middle of the Dickinson editorial wars.

As much as I respect Susan Howe and Jerome McGann, my eyes and ears tell me that not all Dickinson's edge-of-the-page breaks need to be reproduced and that Dickinson's genius doesn't lie in calligraphy. On the other hand, publication of a singular reading edition seems impossible to justify. Even though we only ever read one version at any one time, what we read needs a chance to vary, either dynamically (as in Ierardi's digital edition) or through Dickinson's own end-note approach. We're talking about only an extra line or two for a subset of lyrics; it doesn't have to be a choice between Franklin's three volume hardback monster (including all posthumously imposed variants) or Franklin's one volume of guessed-at "final versions" in a guessed-at "chronological order". The editor's soul shares every soul's privilege to - from an ample nation - choose one, then close the Valves of her attention - like stone. But the editor's Emily Dickinson, and my Emily Dickinson? Hang it all, the Trustees of Amherst College, there can be but the many Emily Dickinsons.

So whether it be Rune
Or whether it be [none] (din)
Is of within.

The "Tune is in the Tree —"
The Skeptic showeth me
"No Sir! In Thee!"
- Emily Dickinson


If he could only find that sound, that ultimate Joe Meek effect, he could wrap up his mortal session--finally get it down, with all the clarity of shattering glass.

. . .

The Sacred and Profane Masochism Tango

What can you possibly do with more love? Smokey Robinson lost in ecstatic contemplation of his hundred lifetimes:

"Live it down.... Wear it down.... Tear it down...."

Elvis Presley's lascivious staccato:

"Punch it. Kick it. You can never win. You know you can't lick it."


From the great Elvis LP, "South of the Border".
Add another one - Bop It Extreme 2 - Bop it! Spin it! Twist it! Pull it!

. . .

They Only Come Out at Twilight

"'Aristocracies of Thought': Social Class in the Early Folklore of Yeats and Hyde"
by Lawrence P. Morris, Irish Studies Review 18.3 (2010) 299-313

Me & Nu: Childhood at Coole by Anne Gregory, 1970

I spent much of my thirties fruitlessly attempting to write fiction, and one barren stake-in-the-ground concerned a folklorist (a smeared overdub of Douglas Hyde, William Butler Yeats, Alan Lomax, and Frederick Usher Jr.) who was fed an Americanized version of "The Demon Lover" without recognizing it as a murderous attack on himself.

Later the American side of that impulse found happier expression in "---king Elvis," but the Celtic side lay dormant. And I'm grateful now it did, since any effort of my own would have been made redundant by Lawrence Morris's fine essay.

Tracing sources and comparing more rigorous compilations, Morris demonstrates how Hyde and Yeats slanted and adulterated their selections to flatter their own precarious postures. Then, switching to speculative fiction, from Yeats's prize Dream that Has No Moral he extracts a moral pointed directly at (and below eye-level of) Yeats and Lady Gregory.

Morris naturally has no reason to mention American parallels. But you can imagine my delight when Lady Gregory's granddaughter began her memoir with:

"... And Brer Rabbit he lay low and said nuffin'..."

Grandma put down "Uncle Remus" in her lap, and laughed and laughed, tears poured down her face, and she dabbed at them with her pocket handkerchief.

Gregory's little book mashes Eloise into The Story of Babar. Insufferably spoiled brats Anne and Nu run riot upstairs, downstairs, and through the estate; Coole's owners and guests speak with impeccable diction while its staff and tenants say things like:

"Dat's right Miss Anne, keep him going sthrong. Ye're a great girl, God bless you."

The combination destabilizes in episodes from the War of Independence and the Civil War:

"Ah," he said, "Ye shouldn't have been there at all, Miss Anne, 'twas no place for ye. 'Twas De Valera speaking to some of his lads, and sure, they knew well they'd be better off on Coole land than outside. Well they know her Ladyship wouldn't let them be took on Coole land."

And attains Michael-O'Donoghue-worthy queasiness after Anne's mother is the sole survivor of an IRA kidnapping.

We told her that one of the men had said, "Tell Her Ladyship that we wouldn't hurt a hair of anyone in Her Ladyship's family," and we were rather horrified because we thought she was crying, but she said she had a cold coming and it always made her nose and eyes run very fast, so we were quite happy about the whole thing.

But I confess my favorite pages are those which indulge in that sport beloved by all ages, classes, and political parties, Yeats-mocking:

He wore a signet ring with an enormous stone in it on his little finger, and Nu and I used to giggle like mad, and say he expected everyone to kiss it, like the Pope. She and I used to copy his habit of running his fingers through the great lock of hair that fell forward over his forehead, and then hold out our hand with the imaginary ring, saying: "This ring is a holy ring; it has been in touch with my holy halo."
Some time after this W. B. Yeats wrote a poem for me alone, and again I wasn't entirely pleased to start with. I felt it was very doggerelly and not as romantic as I would have liked. [...] Years later Yeats broadcast some of his works on one of the first radio programmes from Belfast. He announced the next poem, saying it was dedicated to the granddaughter of his old friend Lady Gregory and that she had "hair like a cornfield in the sun." This time I was thrilled, and "Yellow Hair" sounded really rather splendid. I had a couple of boy friends staying and they were very impressed too.

Next morning there was an envelope by my plate, in it was a poem "To Anne G. ...after WBY."

I was thrilled. Boy friend coming up to scratch at last, I thought. What Bliss! I opened the envelope, took out the poem and read:

If I was alone on an island,
And only Anne with me there,
I'd make myself cushions and bolsters,
By stuffing her skin with her hair.

. . .

Salon of the Living Dead

I'd had a fairly full career as a painter, but I couldn't accept this new stuff. That was the problem. Months would go on, and I couldn't accept it. In the house are hanging some few things I kept, some of these pure abstract things they looked very good. And then in the studio I would do these things, the guys in cars and all that. While I was in the studio, they were done with convictions. That's what I meant. I did them, then I'd come in the house to eat and whatnot, and I'd look at these beautiful things from the past and I'd think, "The hell with that stuff in the studio, that's terrible! I can't really stomach it." I'd get sick, I'd stay up all night. Then I'd run back in the studio, and then the things in the house looked terrible. These three beautiful lines which are so satisfying. So, you can fill between the lines. There was one point in the middle of this stuff, I wanted to roll them all up and hide it, not show it. I mean, you have no idea. They were so worn with pushpin marks. Up would go the pure things. Big sigh of relief. "Whew, I can live there." Come in the next day "I can't stand that, it's got to be dirt." Down they'd come. Up would come the drawing with cars, this stuff, books, shoes, everything, ahh! The only way I could get over that torture, as I was telling Close, was one night, solo drinking, I thought, "There's got to be a solution to this." So, I thought, "Okay, I'm dead. I died." And that idea stuck to me. It started like a playful game, but it became sort of serious. What if I had died? I'm in the history books. What would I paint if I came back?
Philip Guston: Collected Writings, Lectures, and Conversations,
ed. Clark Coolidge

And yes, it's true, they don't look like weekend canvases by Bud Fisher or E. C. Segar. They look like the gifts Bub would carefully, carefully paint for his proud Aunt Alicia.

And since Guston's most passionate and long-lived infatuation was with Piero della Francesca, I'm naturally reminded of the Sansepolcro Resurrection, the most effective religious art I've ever experienced, removing all doubt about the credibility of a slain-and-back-again condemned-and-judging God-and-Human, since the thing's fucking standing right there in front of me. (In my notebook in 1994 I added, "Eyes that go both ways. Him and Elvis look good in pink.")

For us non-deities, though, death puts a real strain on relationships.

And of course my very old and dear friend, Morty Feldman, I'd been telling him about this stuff when I'd come into New York, but he didn't want to come up to see it. Then finally he came up, and he was, I think, pretty upset. So, you lose friends. But I think Baudelaire said, "Second to the pleasure of surprising yourself is the aristocratic pleasure of surprising your friends." And I think I wanted my close friend Feldman to say, "You mean that's you?" He was close to my work for twenty years. And I wanted to feel as if I was saying to him, "You think you know me? You don't know me." It's curious.

. . .

Still Another "True Life" M. K. Brown Romance

I only once saw Mary Kay Brown in the flesh, in a panel discussion/interview at where was it? SFAI? SFMOMA? CCAC? anyway, at some venue with a very odd notion of the comics community. The panel consisted of maybe four of MAD magazine's Usual Gang of Idiots, and Brown.

I remember the guys as old fussbudgets who treated Brown like she was a biker gang. I remember Brown as instantly likable, assured, and unassuming. What I wish I could remember more clearly was her answer to a question about how her obvious traditional-realism studio chops had gone so very, very awry. It might have been as direct as "What drugs were you on?"

As I poorly remember, she partly credited ex-husband B. Kliban's advice to skip preliminary sketches from life, and instead draw loosely from memory and follow the line. If she didn't say exactly that, she said something I remembered as that thereafter.

How to Appear Normal - Lesson #1 Keep Your Hands Busy

This would have been in the early 1990s, not long after Twisted Sisters introduced me to Brown's 1980s work.

In the 1970s, she was Sun-Records Elvis, a force of nature, "no man could tame her," finding direction everywhere she happened to bound and footing wherever she happened to land.

She never became fat-Vegas Elvis, but she RCA-ified into something more controlled, more readable. She contextualized her lava-lamp illuminations in a couple of very welcome How-to-Read-M.-K.-Brown primers, "White Girl Dreams" and "I Can't Work Today." Otherwise, faces and figures were snatched from the fondue and set along Mort-Drucker-ish lines. Sets and costumes were borrowed from the New Yorker warehouse. She rubber-stamped White Girl. Gags stayed odd.


Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.