Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Jailhouse Rock

Jailhouse Rock
seen on TV @ TCM

First of all, let it be known that I do respect Elvis Presley as a musician. He made some awesome records that genuinely rock, and that still hold up today. He was a bit of an iconoclast, he certainly embodied the spirit of what we now call rock music as something dangerous and sexy (though I don't think he was that great looking), and yes, I'll even go so far as to say that he does deserve a place in rock history as one of the earliest, if not the first, superstars.

But the "king" of rock? Elvis?

Fuck that.

I grew up with rock history, okay? My father was a total music nerd. He would buy records, cassettes, and 8-tracks through those Readers Digest mail-order deals, and he would get music by what we call rhythm & blues or soul singers: everybody from Motown and Atlantic, doo wop singers, rockabilly, country, a little classic gospel, I mean, he had it all. And even though I grew up on Top 40 Radio from the 70s and 80s, my father's music often filled the house.

In high school, I did a report for some class on music history. I wanted to borrow some of my father's records to sample in class, and he generously let me borrow some. He also recommended I read a book: The Death of Rhythm and Blues by Nelson George, a book which traces the roots of black popular music in America. I discovered that what we now call "rock music" began with R&B - black music - long before Elvis came on the scene.

All Elvis did was take from R&B and gospel and make it his own, and while he was good, he gets way, way, WAY too much credit for somehow kick-starting the rock revolution from ignorant people who don't know (or perhaps, don't care) how Elvis became Elvis. I used to resent him for it, but now that I'm older, I find I don't anymore. Not as much. If it hadn't been him, it would've been someone else.

Unfortunately, history tends to repeat itself. From Elvis to Pat Boone to the Osmonds to Vanilla Ice to Eminem to Miley Cyrus - and many more in between, I'm sure - there have always been, and there will probably always be, white musicians who appropriate black music and/or styles for their own and often end up making way more money off of it than the original black musicians. Regardless of quality, it's this imbalance that's the real problem, one I've attempted to redress on my own in recent years by learning more about the pre-Elvis days and listening to more music from that period.

I fully acknowledge that much of the music I grew up with owes a debt to these pioneers, something I took for granted as a kid even though, like I said, I heard this kinda music more than most kids my age. I can't change the way I feel about the music of my generation, but I like to think I'm at the very least, a little less ignorant. I hope. And if anyone truly deserves the title "king of rock," I nominate Chuck Berry. (Or perhaps, Run DMC.)

All that said, what do we make of Elvis the "actor"? I wasn't gonna watch Jailhouse Rock at first, but then I realized I had never actually seen the movie, and besides, it's been awhile since I wrote about a musical, so why not. I thought the whole movie was gonna be set in jail. I didn't think the story was gonna be so... I dunno... obvious. Elvis the rising rock star in a movie about the rise of a rock star. Ooh, how original. I watched this with my mother, and even she, who is no Pauline Kael by any stretch, noticed in one scene how Elvis wasn't looking directly at whoever it was he was talking to. She said his eyes were lowered. I didn't catch it, but I'm sure it was true.

I was greatly amused at the scene in which Elvis' character discovers the record label's star attraction took his song and recorded it himself, without crediting Elvis. I can't believe no one noticed the irony. Actually, no, I can believe it. It was a different time.

TCM showed Jailhouse Rock in widescreen, and I had to explain the widescreen process to my mother who, of course, thought the picture was cut off by the black bars. Reminded me of my video store days. At one point, I actually drew a diagram illustrating the difference between widescreen and pan-and-scan and kept it near the counter for whenever it needed to be explained to a customer. As you might imagine, it got quite a bit of usage.

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