Tag Archives: Elvis Presley

“Sing Hallelujah, Come On Get Happy!”: Performing Pop in the Worlds of David Lynch

In honor of David Lynch’s release on vinyl of his single “Good Day Today” (and our love of all things Lynch), Noise Narcs is posting on the music of, for, and about David Lynch this week. See our intro post (and claim of Lynch as a Philadelphian) here, and see the rest of the DLW posts here.

When thinking about the music in David Lynch’s works, the first element that comes to mind is, of course, Angelo Badalamenti’s composition. A close second is the director’s fondness for foregrounding his characters’ performances of classic, 1940s-1960s, pop.

“Twin Peaks”

Leland Palmer is the most conspicuous pop performer in the series. Actor Ray Wise’s manic performances of familiar and well-loved pop music brilliantly heightens the comedy and tragedy of Leland’s breakdown. An early and important example is his heart-wrenching dance with Laura’s photograph to the Glenn Miller Orchestra’s 1940 hit “Pennsylvania 6-5000.”

But for a more exuberant performance, we fast-forward to the first episode of the second season, when Leland’s hair turns white. He sings the 1943 novelty song “Mairzy Doats,” made famous by the Merry Macs.

Then later in the episode, at dinner with the Haywards, he makes a request — the Harold Arlen classic, composed in 1929, “Get Happy.” [Sinatra’s version of the tune, from his 1954 album Swing Easy!, is below.]

Blue Velvet

One of the most haunting and indelible performances in Blue Velvet takes place at the end of the scene where Frank (Dennis Hopper) and his entourage pick up beer (“Pabst Blue Ribbon!”) and stop by Ben’s house. This revealing scene, as sexually- and violently-charged as any in the film, culminates in a performance from Ben (Dean Stockwell) who lip-syncs the wonderful, and complex, 1963 Roy Orbison hit “In Dreams.” It’s utterly transfixing, for us and for Frank. Here’s the NSFW (unless you use headphones) scene. If you haven’t seen the movie in a while, watch the entire scene. Notice how Lynch foregrounds the sound effects of Frank popping in the cassette and Ben clicking on the light. “In Dreams” starts at 5:20.

This is another example, like Leland Palmer playing his “Pennsylvania 6-5000” record, where a character selects and plays their own recorded music. But in this case it’s Frank who starts and stops the recording, giving us another glimpse at the dynamic of his relationship with Ben.

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Noise Variations: Sneezing in Memphis, Tennessee

I’ve been thinking about Memphis all day. In light of MLK Day. In light of the excellent Joe Brouwer poem “Lines in Memphis, Tennessee.” In light of Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination on April 4, 1968 in Memphis. In light of his speech the day prior where he gloried in having lived through a previous stabbing and a little girl’s letter professing happiness that he didn’t sneeze when even a sneeze would have killed him. In light of King’s joy at having lived to having seen the sit-ins, the Bill, the marches, the mountaintop. In light of his refusal to fear, as he arrived in Memphis, the threats of “sick white brothers.” For he had seen the mountaintop. And was ready to face Memphis.

I’ve never been to Memphis. But I think of it often. Certainly, because of King. But also because it’s home to the greatest song ever written about a city. Or about fatherly love.

Chuck Berry’s “Memphis, Tennessee” (sometimes recorded just as “Memphis”) may not match King’s gravity or rhetoric, but it’s own small miracle. Against a jaunty jangled blues lick, Berry starts it off as a classic torch song for a distant love. Calling a long distance operator to try to get in touch with his baby. And as a torch song, it’s a near perfect example of the form. But then. Oh my. The reveal in the last stanza. And the song’s bottom drops out. And so does my stomach.

Last time I saw Marie she’s waving me good-bye
With hurry home drops on her cheek that trickled from her eye
Marie is only six years old, information please
Try to put me through to her in Memphis, Tennessee

And within twenty seconds, the song reverses itself. From erotic to paternal love. From staid to heart-wrenching. From a great song to one of the greatest songs ever recorded.

Chuck Berry, “Memphis, Tennessee”

Covers abound, with a surprising amount of good versions. And even the bad versions couldn’t wear away the brilliance of the song.

Faces: A subdued pedal guitar draws this version out. A fair version that fails to get that brevity being the soul of this song’s wit, but with a fun barnstorming ending. Rod Stewart’s vocals don’t suggest he has a particularly strong understanding of fatherly love. Sorry, Rod’s seven kids. Wait, what? He has another on the way at age 66?

Faces, “Memphis, Tennessee” [Buy]

Elvis Presley Look. It’s Elvis. Of course it’s excellent. But still a tad disappointing. Love the “jungle” era Duke Ellington drums that kick the song off.

Elvis Presley, “Memphis, Tennessee” [Buy]

The Monkees: A promising version that descends into disaster: an unfinished version. Love to hear the squeaky-clean band of Marge’s lunchbox swear at each other as they blow it.

Monkees, “Memphis, Tennessee” [Buy]

The Beatles: Neither this version, nor the Plastic Ono Band’s live take with Chuck Berry, are very good. But this version, live at the BBC, sure beats the crap out of the one for their Decca audition tape, which makes me doubt they had even heard the song before recording it. (The Stones also did a version. It sucks. Keith Richards solo demo is slightly better.)

The Beatles, “Memphis” [Buy]

Foggy Mountain Boys: Surprisingly, one of the better covers is the Foggy Mountain Boys’ bluegrass version. Keeps the tenderness, amplifies the song’s teasing jokiness.

Sandy Bull: The best cover, however, is a complete shocker. Ignoring Shakespeare’s advice about brevity, Bull stretches the song into an endless, perfect groove. Who knew this song could accommodate psychfolk so perfectly?

Sandy Bull, “Memphis, Tennessee”

The worst cover: This video of Hank Williams Jr. where he trades off every instrument. Like an asshole. He’s so busy playing all the instruments that he forgets to do the last verse. You know. The verse with the reveal. The most important verse. The worst. I hope his father called long distance (from the grave) to tell him what a crime against music he committed with this song. And everything else he’s done since.

Other covers of note: For some reason, as far as I can tell, Nina Simone didn’t cover this song. Why? “Memphis in June” is such a tease. Del Shannon has a solid straight-up version. The Statler Brothers do it country gospel style. The Silicon Teens come close to ruining this song with their cheesy new wave. Faron Young does a decent honkey tonk. The Ventures do a decent surf rock. John Cale does a sneering version that doesn’t really have a reason to exit.

And finally, one last note: this Fair article detailing King’s final years, when he railed against poverty, is very much worth a read.

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Hot Tub Rock Show: Material Lives

This week, Noise Narcs answers the age-old question: What five bands would you travel back in time to see in their prime? To see other responses, jump in the hot tub.

I have to admit that I’ve not been keen on making this retro-fit bucket list and have been dragging my feet a little, largely because I am not obsessed with live performances, for the very reasons that have likely influenced all of our lists: shows these days are largely stripped down, more about selling merch, and involve bands getting on stage and sounding exactly like themselves. I keep trying, but it’s a rare case when a show in Madison or Milwaukee that should be uproarious (Of Montreal, for instance) is outfitted with a crowd that’s not totally footloose.

There are times when sitting in a seat and passively listening is good, like when I’m in the dentist’s office and rocked out on nitrous oxide. Or when the music calls for it, as was the case when I saw Sigur Ros, whose purpose seems to be to call for the type of reminiscence that only happens when you’re glued to one spot. Otherwise, you might fall down.

But there’s also something to venue fit. A number of years ago, we lost our indie darling venue, the Catacombs coffee house, when the church that housed it decided that the young kids who ran it were not “evangelical” enough. Turns out that “evangelical” meant “We want to rent this space to Subway and make $$$.” We lost the $3 daily organic, local lunches the coffee house provided and also the space where I first saw Stars, Smog, and Ida. The only other performer who of late got outfitted with just the right spot was Joanna Newsom, who played in our student union’s Great Hall, a remarkable room, one that provided the quiet echo her music demands.

So when I think about what shows I’d like to have seen, I’m not thinking about technical skill; I’m thinking about the energy of a particular moment in time, a time when people were hearing something new or thinking they were, experiencing the transformative power of a crowd, or witnessing an artist on the verge of popular or underground stardom. And I’m thinking about the sensory aspect of place. Or so I am telling myself in order to make this list cohere.

1. Elvis. Despite people’s claims that Elvis simply rearticulated the musical forms and body movements he learned from the blues musicians whom he learned his trade from, Elvis still popularized rock-n-roll and transformed the musical landscape of his time. If you ask your parents or grandparents what it was like seeing Elvis in the 50s, they’ll likely tell you how shocking it was to see a man move his hips the way he did and sound like he did. Katherine Hepburn once said, “I don’t know what starpower is, but whatever it is, baby I’ve got it.” And she is so right that it’s hard to fault her hubris. When you are faced with a performer with starpower, charisma that is beyond anything knowable or traceable, it is something else. I felt this when seeing Phoenix’s Thomas Mars perform live the year of the band’s debut album’s release. I must admit that every time I see Elvis’ face, I turn into a melty teenager. He had the looks, but he had that indefinable something else. And that’s why I understand both the police force presence in the below vid, but also the sentiments of the woman who storms the stage, which he seems to find amusing.

2. Björk, circa early 1990s. Björk is one of our genius vocalists and performers, a person who bends her chords in unimaginable ways. I knew a girl whose father took her on a trip to Iceland and then, mid-plane, surprised her with Björk concert tickets. I wanted to trade parents. I accidentally saw Björk perform with the Sugarcubes in the late 80s, when my cousin and I stayed out later than we were supposed to at New York’s Jones Beach (at least that’s where my memory is telling me this took place) and happened upon their concert. And believably, Björk was just as audible from the parking lot. Still, the Sugarcubes do not equal Björk, and Björk’s recent albums do not equal what her debut, Post, and Homogenic were.

Björk, “The Modern Things (Live)”

See the rest of Material Lives’ picks after the jump…

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