A FAN’S NOTES
Oh My Boy
The origin of the universe aside, we know that no single event or person creates our reality. Our world’s state is always the result of collusions and collisions. So Elvis is not the inventor of rock ‘n’ roll although he remains the Genesis avatar of this Americana fusion. Hell, we don’t even know for sure how Elvis actually described his voice to the curious Sun Studio receptionist. ‘I don’t sing like nobody.’ Or maybe, ‘I don’t sound like nobody.’ Either statement is gospel truth but only one may be accurate.
Late in the evening of July 5th, 1954 or perhaps in the early morning hours of July 6th, Elvis Presley cut Big Boy Crudup’s ‘That’s All Right’ at Sun. Elvis died for our sins August 16th, 1977. Consider those two Cold War dates from Memphis parenthesis and contemplate what lies between them and remember that this period of time spans less than a generation. Once you get past the rock operas and the concept albums, and other musical tangents, you realize the circle was unbroken. There’s not a whole lot of difference between an Elvis Sun side and a Ramones track.
Legendary swamp creature Tony Joe White (‘Polk Salad Annie,’ ‘Rainy Night in Georgia’) was in town for Edmonton’s annual folk music festival. Tom Murray, the Edmonton Journal’s music writer, asked him this question during a discussion: I always wondered just how much guitar Elvis knew? Tony Joe White’s reply (remember Elvis had a hit with ‘Polk Salad Annie’): He pretty well knew a few chords, and would strum one or two, but he didn’t have no licks. He didn’t have to. When you could do what he did, you wouldn’t need to do nothin’ else.
When Elvis died, my perspective as a 17-year-old was that he didn’t matter. After all, this was a fat man who played to the blue-rinse set. His 60s movies were impossible to sit through and their soundtracks were dire affairs although ‘Jailhouse Rock’ had intriguing hints of magic. Once I twigged that the cover art of the Clash’s ‘London Calling’ was a homage to Presley’s first RCA release, pink and green type over a raw black and white photo, Elvis became a bit more credible. Something important had to lie beyond the schlock, the shtick, the kitsch and the cheesy live albums.
I’ve always imagined the arts as a form of time travel as nothing stays contemporary for very long. With Elvis, you must eventually arrive at the beginning. The tracks he waxed at Sun before his contract was sold to RCA. The Memphis Eureka! moments tumble forth fast and furious. You try to imagine those songs, ‘Mystery Train’ or ‘Baby, Let’s Play House,’ in their time; no average white kid had ever heard anything like them before. For me, it was strange yet fitting to finally meet the King through the Clash.