This day in music (July 1st, 2017), sixty-one years ago, Elvis Presley recorded "Hound Dog." That song blew the top of my head off. I was nine. I connected immediately with that music. The intensity, the attitude, the elation, the rebellion. This guy took it to the edge. At age nine, I didn’t know what ‘it’ was. I sensed it. I grasped it on a visceral level. I knew what this music meant. I knew what it was capable of doing. And for that reason, my parents hated it. But since the guy was on Ed Sullivan performing between a guy spinning plates and a guy talking to his hand he must be ok. So I got to watch. I was mesmerized. Riveted. This was the best thing since Davy Crockett. I wanted more. But I would have to wait another seven years.
Presley’s next big hit was “Love Me Tender,” which was a huge disappointment. I hated it. After the electrifying lift I got out of “Hound Dog,” “Love Me Tender” was a capitulation. It was tame. It was goopy. It was dead-on-arrival. Colonel Parker knew what he was doing. He wanted to rope in as many people as possible. Another “Hound Dog” would’ve alienated Presley from a huge segment of the population. A nice safe song like “Love Me Tender” was saying “look, he’s one of us, he’s not a threat, he’s cuddly as a teddy bear.”
Presley would be singing “let me be your teddy bear” in June, 1957. It’s got a perky, upbeat rhythm and a simple melody line, and even though a clear sexuality is there, a tiny millimeter beneath the surface, it’s still largely a concession to commercial acceptability.
My parents weren’t outwardly racist. But they wouldn’t let me listen to the rhythm ‘n blues selections on the jukebox. I wonder what they had imagined. Did they think that music was going to inspire me with a sense of unbridled joy and intensity? That as soon as my ball-sack lowered I would be impregnating dozens of teenage girls before I was 15? Well, they were partly right. If I’d been allowed to listen to Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, and Elmore James at home, I would’ve accessed some powerful emotions that otherwise lay buried until 1963, the year “Be My Baby” and “Just One Look” came out. Rock ‘n roll, that monster from the swampy, primordial deeps of the human soul, had come out swinging and swaying in sexual ecstasies again. Delirium and fun were back on the map.
I had wrongly assumed that “Hound Dog,” which was originally recorded by Big Mama Thornton in August, 1952, and released in late February, 1953, had come out of the sad, misty Mississippi delta and was authentically black. It’s not. It was written by two Jewish guys, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. I still don’t know what to make of that.
Where do songs come from? Where in the world did Willie Dixon’s “Insane Asylum” come from? That’s one mysterious song. The emotion is so intense. It’s a song of tragic import, but he takes it so far into the realm of melodrama it almost seems to have a comedic sense underlying it. It would be laughable if it weren’t so compelling. When Koko Taylor begins singing, “when your love has ceased to be,” I get shivers. Her voice cuts through me and nearly brings me to tears. The emotion is so real, so gripping. It would open the cruelest heart to tenderness.
Though maybe not Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority leader from Kentucky with his health “kill as many people as possible” care bill.
Neil Young’s mysterious, apocalyptic “After the Gold Rush” was inspired by a screenplay written by Dean Stockwell after Stockwell made a trip to Peru to be in Dennis Hopper’s film The Last Movie.
“Cinnamon Girl,” “Down by the River” and “Cowgirl in the Sand” were all written in one day while Young was stricken with a fever from the flu.
It’s 11:27 a.m. July 2nd and I’m listening to Tommy James and the Shondells sing “Crimson and Clover.” The song takes me back to 1968. The song was released in December of that year but I don’t remember hearing it. I have specific references for some songs. I was on the freeway, the 405 to Renton, when I first heard “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and went crazy with joy. “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” inspired by Keith Richards’s gardener, was rock ‘n roll gold. I drew a raw savage power from that song. Every time I heard it I felt like a berserker arriving on the shores of Normandy, landing on the back of a flame-throwing dragon. And to think the song evolved out of an off-handed remark he made to Mick Jagger about Jack Dyer, Richards’s gardener sloshing past the window one morning. “What’s that,” said Jagger. “Jack, jumpin Jack,” Richards answered.
I connect with much sillier “Crimson and Clover” more now than I did when it came out in December, 1968. Why? I have no idea. Maybe it’s pure nostalgia. “Crimson and Clover” has a trashy, psychedelic vibe that is hard to describe. Its effects are corny, the music is so-so, the lyrics are lame. But somehow it works. I have to say that Joan Jet’s cover in 1982 really sold it to me, especially when she gives out that “yeah,” hot as a knife blade heated over a fire, and follows it up with the huskily uttered “I want to do everything,” which is one of the sexiest things I’ve heard in music since the disappearance of Janis Joplin.
’68 was a good year for music. Steppenwolf, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, Laura Nyro, Aretha Franklin, Joani Mitchell, Iron Butterfly, Fairport Convention, Otis Redding, Taj Mahal, Big Brother and the Holding Company, The Chambers Brothers and James Brown all came out with killer albums.
I have strong memories of “Gimme Some Lovin’” by the Spencer Davis Group in the winter of ’68, and the Beatles White Album, which seemed to decorate that entire year with glass onions and guns. In 1968 it seemed like Tommy James was trying to connect with the hippie market (which had, indeed, been coopted and become a market by then) though he struck me more as a working class greaser than a hippie from upper suburbia.
One of my favorite songs now is “Always Alright” by Alabama Shakes which I first heard in the movie Silver Linings Playbook. I like the way it splashes around and bounces and delivers an off-handed “I don’t give a fuck” feeling. It’s masterfully sung by Brittany Howard, whose voice is like a wildcat, hot and supple and quick to surprise.
I haven’t heard one dud by Alabama Shakes yet.
Another song I’m wild about is “Bloodhounds on my Trail” by The Black Angels, a neo-psychedelic rock band from Austin, Texas. It drives through me like a John Deere tractor. I suspect the title, at least, is a reference to Robert Johnson’s “Hellhound on my Trail.”
And so we’ve come full circle, from hound dog to bloodhound, bloodhound to hellhound, and crimson and clover in between.