08 January 2015

Caught in a trap

If you’re looking for the real Elvis, you’ve come to the right place.

LAST TRAIN TO MEMPHIS: The Rise of Elvis Presley, by Peter Guralnick (Little, Brown).

elvis mourns momA photograph captures the teen idol on the steps of his newly bought mansion, hugging his father: both men are utterly bereft. Gladys Presley is dead. Vernon Presley has just lost his wife; Elvis, his mother.

What follows makes a heartbreaking con­clusion to Last Train to Memphis, the first volume of Peter Guralnick’s two-part bio­graphy of Elvis Presley. While fans keep a vigil at the gates of Graceland, in the kitchen, Elvis’s cousins and cronies get drunk. In the music room, Elvis sobs and keeps hugging and kissing his mother’s body in its silver casket. A doctor adminis­ters a sedative so Elvis can sleep before the funeral, for which Hollywood stars fly in from the coast. Elvis has to be helped into the church; he sobs as his mother’s favourite gospel group sings hymns. At the cemetery he leans over the coffin and cries out, “Goodbye, darling, goodbye.” Four friends drag him to his limo, where he declares, “Oh God, everything I have is gone.”

That night, he tells his childhood sweet­heart that his life is getting out of control. He is surrounded by new friends, they depend on him now, he can’t walk away. “I’m in too far to get out.” A few weeks later, Private Elvis Presley, serial number 53 310 761, is on a troopship to Germany. The rollercoaster ride of the past three years is over. Elvis is 23.

Guralnick is the leading historian of American roots music: blues, country, R&B and soul. Unlike many pop writers, who rely on hyperbole or ego, he writes with the sober eye of a musicologist and the ear of a true fan. As a consequence, his prose sings with authenticity. And his books – among them Lost Highway, Feel Like Going Home and Sweet Soul Music – have always been in print, unlike most pop books.

Elvis dances 1950sSince the late 1960s, Guralnick has been leading the battle to have Presley discussed as a serious artist. If a campaign was neces­sary then – when Presley was lost in his own genre of B-movies – now, it’s long overdue. Albert Goldman’s 1981 book Elvis was a ground-breaking necrography that dripped with malice; heavily marketed, it changed the world’s image of Presley to a sad joke with a cheeseburger in both hands.

Since then, the running joke that “Elvis is Alive” has only shifted the myth away from the music. And no one could have predicted last year’s marriage between Michael Jackson and Lisa-Marie Presley. That’s what happens when you start reading the tabloids. When it comes to Elvis, it’s best to keep a sense of humour and perspective -and return to the primary sources.

Guralnick has compiled his biography like a detective, interviewing first-hand observers and comparing their stories to sort out the accurate from the apocryphal. Contemporary news reports and previously published accounts are quoted when the par­ticipants are no longer available (ie, dead). Guralnick also consults archive tapes of Presley interviews and recording sessions, TV shows and concert film footage.

The closing scenes described above may sound melodramatic, but Guralnick’s fastidious research makes them utterly credible. The difference is in his attitude -he knows that what drives musicians is often not a quest for stardom, but a sense of vocation. The biography is not hagiography. He delivers the evidence, not a verdict, and avoids speculation, sensationalism and pop psychology.

Elvis and Col Tom ParkerGuralnick’s Presley is a complex character. At school he’s desperately shy, but wears flamboyant clothes. He speaks to no one, but explodes with energy when encouraged to sing. He loves gospel music, but also schmaltzy ballads and raunchy R&B. He lives by the Bible in public, but in private doesn’t turn away any women. He’s an odd mix of awk­ward humility and supreme self-confidence. Above: Elvis and the Colonel.

The story is familiar, but never before has it been told in such evocative detail (Guralnick fills in the facts behind Greil Marcus’s intellectual flights of fancy in Mystery Train). It takes off with Presley’s metamorphosis from misanthrope to musician. The moment in which Elvis, Scotty and Bill discover the sound – by countrifying “That’s All Right [Mama]” – is pure magic. Guralnick’s style is almost novelistic, but scrupulously sourced.

Certain themes recur: Presley’s awareness of his image (every outfit is lovingly described) and of every nuance of his perfor­mance – hiccup, hip shake or “affable sneer”. Meanwhile, dark clouds loom overhead: the growing Memphis mafia of hangers-on, the increasing crassness of Colonel Parker’s management hustle, the increasing mail from Presley’s draft board – while his mother sits at home drinking beer, missing her baby.

Elvis armyLast Train to Memphis finally tells the story properly, with sensitivity and insight. It answers the simple questions, the ones that have been hardest to answer: why Elvis sang the way he did, and why his music affected the world so profoundly. And, crucially, what affect fame had on him. Guralnick has re-established the credibility of the early career. Now we can trust him with the vital question of the second volume: did Elvis die when he went into the army?

First published in the NZ Listener, 28 January 1995. If he is alive, Elvis is 80 today. I was going to link to his version of Dylan’s ‘Tomorrow’s a Long Time’ but this is a lot more fun …

02 December 2014

Bumper Christmas Retro Music Edition

1. Song Mining

Dylan by Elliott LandyI recently interviewed Greil Marcus about his book The History of Rock’n’Roll in Ten Songs (a link to the interview will follow). With the imminent release of The Complete Basement Tapes – six CDs, well over 100 songs that Dylan wrote while woodshedding with the Band in 1967 – I had to ask about them. I wondered whether – now that the sessions were finally seeing daylight – this would change the public’s fascination with them. Marcus’s response shows that his fascination with the Basement Tapes hasn’t dimmed since he wrote a whole book on the sessions, Invisible Republic, in 1997:

You know there’s a lot of material – there’s 30 something songs – that have never been heard before, that haven’t been bootlegged or leaked out, song by song, on Dylan’s own Bootleg Series. Certainly there’s stuff I never heard before. And what’s fascinating about it, in the context of the whole set – which I think is going to start this conversation all over again – is you know how down-to-earth and ordinary and ah, work-like a lot of the stuff is.

The [phrase] that leapt to mind when I was listening to the stuff that I hadn’t heard before was “song mining”. These people are digging into what look like songs but they aren’t really. And you just keep digging to see if you find something in there that will explain itself, that will say, ‘No! No! Go in this direction, not that direction’ Really digging in the ground, and finding a root, and grabbing onto that root and thinking, ‘Well this root must lead somewhere, and maybe you find where it leads and maybe you don’t. These are people mining for songs.

And I think that when people listen to all of this material – and its 140 tracks – they’re going to be fascinated by the way that fragments and cover versions of songs that weren’t that interesting to begin with, and experiments that really don’t go anywhere, surround these songs that seem like gifts from the Gods. It’s going to make the whole question of creation, of creativity and writing, and playing and improvising, even more mysterious than it already is.

In some ways the mystique of the Basement Tapes I think is going to be washed away – replaced by the spectre of a bunch of people getting together every day to fool around – in a clubhouse, in a kind of boy’s club.

On the other hand you can say, Well okay, but where did this stuff come from. My God: ‘Tears of Rage’, ‘I Shall Be Released’, ‘This Wheel’s on Fire’ … did some visitation come down and strike these people with lightning, and then go away and leave them to play with ordinary hands – as they weren’t doing for a few weeks?

I don’t know. But I love the way there is stuff here that is mediocre, that is second rate, and stuff that seems like junk – it sounds bad and it’s very hard to hear – and has flashes in it that are as strong and as disturbing as anything in the formal masterpieces that these sessions produced.

So I think you can tell by the way I’m answering that I don’t know. That I don’t know how to answer your question. That it’s as if you have to learn how to start listening to the stuff as if you’ve never heard it before. And see what story it tells.

2. His Back Pages

At last, a one-stop shop of Greil Marcus’s archives: articles, interviews and reviews, regularly updated. It was a very smart idea to compile a series of links to all the songs in his “Treasure Island” of essential discs Marcus added to Stranded, the 1979 anthology he edited in which music writers wrote about their “desert island disc”. (The essays by Lester Bangs on Astral Weeks, and M Marks on It’s Too Late to Stop Now are unsurpassed. Bangs’s masterpiece aside, one of the best reviews of Astral Weeks I ever heard was from an older woman who just said, “You breathe in, you breathe out, you breathe in, you breathe out.”)

3. Writer’s block

Of the six artists featured in Marcus’s 1975 classic Mystery Train (Harmonica Frank, Robert Johnson, the Band, Sly Stone, Randy Newman and Elvis Presley) only Newman’s career seems to have continue, rather than ended with pathos. Still, the exposure didn’t come without a cost to his productivity. In 1983 – I think in San Francisco’s BAM magazine – Newman said:

When I’m writing songs, the minutes are like hours – I sit there with nothing, just a big picture of Greil Marcus in my mind hanging over the piano as I think, ‘Ah, I don’t think this guy is gonna like this one, because I’m doing the same stuff he criticised me for before.

Marcus’s response? “You know, anybody who reads something I’ve written and comes back and tells me something about it that I didn’t know – that’s a valuable a reader as I can ever hope to have. And that’s happened with musicians and people who aren’t musicians. I really can't talk about other people’s reactions to my work, at least not positive reactions, it just comes off as self-congratulation. I’m lucky that I’ve been able to write, to find people to publish me, and to find people who read me. So that’s all I can say.”

4. Country gentlemen mystique

Speaking of the Band, I stumbled upon these 1969 reviews from the Village Voice of the Band live at the Fillmore, and of their second album. The writer, Johanna Schier, has a charming straightforward style, with a wry wit, a talent for an apt metaphor – and musical insights. (Though she describes Robbie Robertson on stage as “sweetly bashful”, she also hears Smokey Robinson in the chorus of ‘I Shall Be Released’). Schier soon befriended Janis Joplin, and with her future husband John Hall wrote ‘Holy Moon’, the b-side of ‘Me and Bobby McGee’. The pair then founded the group Orleans.

5. Ballad of a Teenage Queen

JLL1We have heard a lot from Jerry Lee Lewis over the years, especially about rock’n’roll and the Devil, but little from his child bride, Myra. At last, she breaks her silence. “They were looking for a place to stick the knife into rock & roll. And Jerry gave it to them—well, I did, I opened my mouth.”

6. Click track

From David Hepworth, a link to a batch of classic Motown hits with the vocals removed. I know, that seems criminal, but it is so illuminating to be able to concentrate on the Funk Brothers.

7. Down the avenue again

Van Morrison’s paranoia about YouTube seems to have dissipated. Three extraordinary, lengthy clips have recently been added to the site, without legal intervention thus far. The legendary It’s Too Late to Stop Now 1973 shows at London’s Rainbow were broadcast by TVNZ later in the 1970s on The Grunt Machine and talked about for years; a high-def version has been up for a while. Now, two other full-length concerts from the same period are online. At Winterland in February 1974, in B&W, the band is his usual combo from “Street Choir” period – also featured at the Rainbow, but lacking the string quartet. With a completely different – and integrated – band, but several of the same songs, he can be seen in full colour at the Orphanage, San Francisco in July 1974 (note the presence of Tom Donahue, the deep-throated influence on all FM rock jocks). Both feature Morrison’s ‘Caravan’ can-can schtick. Perhaps best of all is this 10-minute clip from the Fillmore East in September 1970, introduced by Bill Graham: maybe the earliest filmed version of his ‘Cyprus Avenue’ tease. As a taster to the Winterland gig, here he is covering Dylan’s ‘Just Like a Woman’.

8. Funky, funny and fun

More back pages: here is how the Victoria University of Wellington’s student newspaper Salient reviewed Abbey Road in 1969. Mike Bergin described the medley of songs on side two as “a mess”, whereas that was the only passage Nik Cohn liked in his New York Times review. But Bergin showed a lot of promise in this and other reviews; sadly, he died not long afterwards in a car accident.

9. Back to the Island

In July, Glenn Jowitt – one of New Zealand’s greatest photographers – died suddenly. He was mourned in Auckland by about 400 of his closest friends in a moving, multi-cultural ceremony. The NZ Herald asked me to write an obituary.

10. Take the Coltrane

A crucial influence on Glenn was the expatriate New York photographer Larence Shustak, who taught him at Ilam School of Fine Arts in Christchurch in the mid-1970s. Glenn was a dedicated music fan and an enthusiastic guitarist (in the 70s he even looked like his hero, Gram Parsons). A connection he had with Shustak that I never knew until researching for the obituary: in the 1950s Shustak took many compelling shots of New York jazz musicians.

11. A little bit frightening

Musical racism 101: ‘Kung Fu Fighting’, or how to express the whole of Asia in just nine notes. No, not the lyrics – which are bad enough – the influence of the arrangement has been even more pervasive, reports NPR.

11 November 2014

Close Encounters

Originally published in the NZ Listener in November 2010.

ROCK MUSICIANS AND photographers are natural-born partners: show-offs need an audience, and a Nikon lens loves a show-off. For some photographers, like Auckland’s Bruce Jarvis, the scent of the hunt has been a life-long quest. Shooting first as fans, many become professionals, and Jarvis’s tenacity at capturing live shows secured him access that today’s photographers can only envy.

Jarvis’s work is the backbone of a large-format book Live: Gigs that Rocked New Zealand, that portrays the flamboyant visitors in our midst. From the first international rock’n’roll tour – Johnny Cash and Gene Vincent, in 1959 – to Lady Gaga’s aerobic fashion-show earlier this year, the performers are freeze-framed at the peak of their careers. Some of the images – such as ZappaJarvis_thumb1Jarvis’s portraits of a satanic Frank Zappa, an exultant Bob Marley – belong in the rock photo hall of fame. But even more than the performers, it is the settings that resonate. In the background, a vanished New Zealand hovers like a vaguely remembered backdrop.

At the Beatles’ civic reception outside Auckland’s Town Hall in 1964 – how the councillors criticised Mayor Robbie for his generosity – one can glimpse the area now lost to Aotea Square. Out of sight are the 7000 fans who wagged school that morning. Instead, we spot the Market Hotel, one of many Edwardian corner pubs that are long since gone like the Vauxhall Velox seen cruising an almost empty street. Twenty years later, in the same area, a panoramic shot by Bryan Staff shows DD Smash’s drummer Peter Warren surveying a calm, peaceful crowd of thousands. The “Thank God It’s Friday” celebration to welcome the summer of 1984 will soon be renamed the Aotea Square riot.

The surprises often come from the unsung heroes who turn emotion into emulsion: the jobbing photographers rostered on for the day by a newspaper’s picture editor. At the Turnbull Library, saved from destruction, are gems from the files of deceased papers such as the Evening Post. These go beyond the requisite Maori welcome parties, the gimmick poses and the bland equivalents of rock stars kissing babies. Among the treasure are action shots of the Who, smashing their equipment on the Wellington’s Town Hall stage in 1968. Viv-Prince-from-natlib.govt.nz_thumbSomehow, the Pretty Things’ out-of-control drummer Viv Prince found time to sit for a formal portrait during the band’s notorious tour in 1965. He wears a woman’s leopard-skin hat, the coolest of rimless shades, chain bracelets of the style favoured by bodgies – and across his knuckles, a sticking plaster that testifies to his many scrapes while here.

As glamorous as some of the stars appear – the Temptations, stepping out in the 1970s’ finest flared suits; Roxy Music’s Bryan Ferry, elegant in herringbone tweed – it is the species Kiwi Rock Fan that makes these photos special. Invading the Rolling Stones’ stage in 1966 is an ecstatic fan, resplendent in homemade polka-dot mini skirt. Almost as gleeful are the navy-blue helmeted constables coming to Mick Jagger’s rescue.

Parked ostentatiously before the muslin-clad crowd waiting for Rod Stewart at Western Springs stadium in 1977 is a Ford Falcon emblazoned with Radio Hauraki’s logo. Beside it mooches a deejay in denim flares and manky long hair, while staff members or girlfriends attempt cool in satin jackets and bad posture. Their attitude: we are closer to the action than you.

StonesbyLloydGodman_thumb1The images also evoke the months of excitement that once came with the news that an overseas act was about to play “the Springs”. Long before the mammoth 1980s shows by David Bowie and ZZ Top, the Auckland speedway amphitheatre had hosted Little Richard, Elton John and Neil Diamond. For the first time we can see the Rolling Stones’ 1973 show in colour, thanks to a roll of film shot by Lloyd Godman. He didn’t need a flash – they played on a sunny afternoon – and it turns out that Jagger’s diamond-studded, low-cut, satin jumpsuit was turquoise.

Presented en masse, many of these shots have a “They walked this Earth” quality. They also answer the perennial question asked of visitors as they step off the plane: how do you find New Zealand? (It was apparently a wide-eyed Australian reporter who enquired “How many of you are there in your quartet, Mr Brubeck?”).

The Beatles look jubilant, although reports later came back that they described New Zealand as being like Britain, before the war. The Rolling Stones – specifically, Keith Richards – said of Invercargill it was “the arsehole of the World”. We remember these jibes, and almost more than the concerts we remember the interaction that these troubadours – grizzly or courteous – have with the locals.

Contrary to their surly reputation, in 1966 the Rolling Stones look cheerful, with their shirts off, enjoying the sun beside their Wellington motel swimming pool. The Guess Who play an apr├Ęs-gig jam at Tommy Adderley’s speakeasy Grandpa’s (sadly, no one was there to record the night in 1973 that Keith Richards turned up with a guitar and sundry other Rolling Stones).

Afterwards, when the litter has been cleared from the town halls and the paddocks that once hosted festivals, the anecdotes turn into urban legends. The Great Ngaruawahia Music Festival of 1973 is now remembered more for Corban Simpson’s nude performance than for headliners Black Sabbath headlining or the early appearance by Split Ends. Two years later, live on stage at the Te Rapa Racecourse, is Slade’s gormless Dave Hill; he is resplendent in an early mullet, a glitter-pasted forehead, a silver frock coat and platform boots. The promoter of this 1975 one-day festival – the cape-wearing Byron de Lacey – sounds almost mythological.

An Auckland school teacher friend says that every year – for nearly four decades – some 15-year-old aspiring guitar heroes in his class ask him the same question. “Sir, have you heard the Led Zeppelin song Stairway to Heaven?” Yes, he replies. “In fact, I heard them play it live at Western Springs in 1972 – before many of us had heard it on record.”

Really?” they gasp. “Led Zeppelin played ... here?”


The Viv Prince shot is from the Alexander Turnbull Library’s collection of Evening Post negatives. The reference number is EP/1965/3179.

07 April 2014

Firebird Suite

stravinsky nz1
When Stravinsky visited New Zealand in 1961, Tom Shanahan had something better than a front row seat. As a member of the NZ Symphony Orchestra, and a photographer, he wasn’t looking at Stravinsky’s back when he conducted the orchestra, but his face. Shanahan was sitting with the musicians, ready to play his trombone. Luckily he took his camera along as well, and took some much used photographs of the Russian composer at work in the Wellington Town Hall.

Music in NZ 1Shanahan was a very keen photographer, who captured many images of New Zealand’s cultural history over several decades. One photograph – of musicians taken from above – was used on the cover of the first issue of William Dart’s Music in New Zealand (left). But he also took thousands of others that weren’t about music, including a set covering the Springbok tour in 1981.

Now, many of those images and negatives have been lost due to the fire – suspected as arson – at the Kilbirnie self-storage unit on Saturday. They were about to be given to the Turnbull Library for safe-keeping and use by future historians; now they are just one of many sad stories left behind by the fire, which ripped through one floor of storage units, and damaged those on another with smoke and water.

stravinsky nz2There have been many pros and cons with the National Library and Turnbull’s shift to the digital age. The increased availability of its photograph collection at an affordable price is one of the best elements; the loss of the accessible books on the ground floor – most now need to be ordered from storage – is one of the most difficult to comprehend.

Last year the New Zealand branch of Fairfax sent millions of images to Arizona to be digitised by a private company. They will hold the originals, and digital copies will be able to be used worldwide. These images have been assembled from the newspapers that Fairfax has bought over the years, and are often the only tangible assets when the papers have later been closed down. The National Library was unable to reach Fairfax’s price. Luckily, before the desperation of media owners in the digital age, the newspaper company INL gave many of its images from the Evening Post and Dominion to the Turnbull before INL was bought by Fairfax. These photos can now be used at an affordable price, usually $20.

I worry about what’s happening to New Zealand’s other big archive of photos, that of the NZ Herald, Listener and many other publications, since they were bought by Bauer. Already these images had become difficult to access by historians, and at unaffordable prices. For example, in 2010 it cost $80 an hour to research a photo, and then $100 for the use of that photo in a book.

This has major implications for New Zealand historians: images of our culture are priced off the market. Authors pay for the images they use in a book, not publishers. So when an author is getting, say, $5 royalty on a $50 book, it will take 20 sales just to cover the cost of that single photo. What happens? The photo archives stay idle, unloved and badly treated by their proprietors.
It remains to be seen what the cost of accessing and reprinting a photo from Arizona will be.

Luckily a vast resource of historic images is being released on the net through social media. Their owners are only too happy to share the images, and some replicate those the publishing conglomerates are sitting on. (It’s understandable the companies protecting their copyrights, where legitimate, but often photos are given to them to use, but not returned; in some cases they were originally paid for by the taxpayer). But there is  nothing as safe as a public archive with its own programme of digitising to a high standard. And where the cost of usage isn’t prohibitive.

Both photos are by Tom Shanahan. The top image is from the NZ International Arts Festival website, the third image is from the NZSO’s website. It shows Stravinsky meeting members of the NZSO, among them the violinist and Holocaust survivor Clare Galambos Winter, on the right – the subject of an excellent biography by Sarah Gaitanos.
The NZSO website shares this anecdote by former principal clarinettist Alan Gold:
“When Stravinsky was here, conducting the end of part of Firebird, where the big chords are, he changed it, which was fine, we did it, and about 18 months later, we had another conductor doing the whole of Firebird, and when we got to the end of it, we played these chords short. The conductor, almost in despair, threw his baton down on his podium. “My God,” he said, “What are you doing that for? What jerk ever told you to play the thing like that?” And old Vince [Aspey – NZSO Concertmaster at the time] he just sat there and said, “Oh, it was some old Russian bugger called Igor, I think!”