The polite applause flutters away, leaving just the steady chug of the bass and, playing hopscotch with the beat, clap-clap-clap, clap clap … clap-clap-clap, clap clap …
A twanging guitar shuffles up the fretboard, back down, and then wiggles out of sight. In a heavy Southern drawl, The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll spaketh.
“Some of y’all never been down South too much,” he says. “Some of y’all never n’byah down South t’myah …”
He snorts, softly but directly into the microphone — brrshhh — and I imagine the sweat on his handsome, tan, pill-fucked face framed by a mane of black hair, and the galactic luminance of his light blue sequined jumpsuit, and the diamond-encrusted gold rings on his bloated fingers as he continues.“I wanna tell you a little story so you’ll understand what I’m talking about.”
He stops, gathering his faculties as if about to explain astrophysics to a first grader. He clicks his tongue and begins.
“Down there we have a plant that grows out in the woods, in the fields. And it looks something like a turnip green.”
A dramatic pause.
“Ehhh-verybody calls it polk salad.”
I turn up the volume. Elvis and his drummer are about to do a call-and-response bit, and I don’t want my son to miss it.
“Now that’s polk!”
I look over my shoulder at Little Man in his car seat. He’s still staring out the window. I turn my head around repeatedly and smile at him, hoping to penetrate his obliviousness with my yellow grin, but all I get is the side of his fluffy, curly black head, his eyes locked on the boring suburban landscape: an office park, a Ford dealership, a blocky Wells Fargo building whose stepped brown-glass façade is oddly futuristic and Western at the same time, a corporate retail clump (Home Depot, Whataburger, NTB, Jack in the Box, Starbucks, Chevron, Valero), an All Storage, an apartment complex. I turn down the volume. A dash.
In the Dark Ages, music lovers forced themselves to listen to a lot of crap … Now we just skip, skip, skip until something familiar comes along.
A female backup singer yelps, “Yewww!” The King, clearly inspired, replies, “Lordhavemercy” — brusquely as if it’s one word, as if he’s filled with The Holy Spirit — but he doesn’t mean any of it. Not one syllable. He’s mocking it. He is ridiculous, and he knows it, and even in all of his glorious Elvisosity, his backup singers know it, and the audience at Madison Square Garden, where on June 10 in 1972 this version of “Polk Salad Annie” was recorded, knows it.
But he is Elvis. And he is quick. As the fans and musicians are still trying to wipe the grins off their faces, he’s already back in character.
“Used to know a girl down there,” he says. “And she’d go out in the evenin’s. And. Pick her a mess of it. Carry it home and cook it for supper. ‘Cause that’s about all they had to eat.”
Elvis defers to the percolating music, strongly suggesting something, but it’s not clear what. What the hell, exactly, is “polk salad”?
” But” — his voice low and coy — “they did alright.”
I turn to my son and smile. Is he listening? He has to be listening.
” Dowwn in Louiiisiana,” Elvis starts. “Where the alligators grow so mean / Lived a little girl that I swear to the world / Made the alligators look tame.”
Blam!“Polk Salad Annie,” The King grunts, sounding only a little bored, to his credit. In response, the horns — a hiccuping burp followed by a bright, short, staccato riff — are big and bold, clearly trying to make up for the singer’s flagrant boredom. The next lyric, “Gators got your granny,” is as lackluster as the first, but it’s followed by two intense, frightening blasts of air: ” Shhhewww! Shhhewww!“I look back at LM.
“This is the way to school,” my son declares.
“He’s doing his Elvis thing!” I gush, completely ignoring him. “He’s punching the air, like …” and I pretend that with one hand I’m holding a microphone and with the other I’m smashing a pie in someone’s face. Twice. Shhhewww! Shhhewww!
I realize I’m going about 80. The speed limit is 65. I put my hands back on the wheel and stomp the brake pedal halfway to the floor. Taking LM to school — between 7:45 and 8:15 AM Mondays through Fridays — I’ll sometimes count half a dozen flatfoots, lights flashing, pulling over speeders. I slow down despite the locomotive force barreling through my veins.
In popular music, the gulf between the mainstream and underground has never been wider.
The song arrives at a pitched swirl of clarion calls and triple fills. But almost as quickly it quiets down. Just a simple drumbeat and a tambourine. The backup singers begin grooving, “Chicka-bom chicka-bom / Chicka-bom-bom- bom-bom-bom-bom …” Elvis riffs on their scat in counterpoint: “Chang-chang a-ching-chang / Chang-chang a-ching-chang-a-linga-linga / Chang-chang a-ching-chang …”
The chanting gets louder, heavier, The King’s voice louder and heavier, and the music begins to quake, threatening to go completely off the tracks.
“Chang-chang a-ching-chang-a-linga!” Elvis rattles, his voice quivering, greasy, possessed. “Chang-chang a-ching-chang-a-linga-linga!”
And then, in mid-phrase, it disappears — “Chang-ch- …” — as if he’s dropped the microphone. Or swallowed it. The horns go off like sirens. The drums tumble and splash, crash and roll. The backup singers’ bubbly sibilance soldiers on like a last-minute prayer.
My son probably thinks Elvis has left the building, but I know better. I’ve seen just about every video of every Elvis performance from the 1970s and late ’60s, and I know that right now, while The King’s voice is gone, his body is onstage doing all sorts of things — punches, chest heaves, kicks, lunges, karate chops — and I cannot stop smiling. Showmanship. His way was, well, unique. But it was showmanship.
[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u4csFnpZXek expand=1]
Classical, disco, jazz, ’50s pop and R&B, Elvis — only the best music for our son. I’m not saying The King is Shostakovich, but his hip-swivelin’ rockabilly/gospel is better — more sonically dynamic, more organic, more genuine — than what passes for pop music today.
“Puh-lease,” you scoff. “You’re just another grumpy old man claiming music was better when he was a kid. Which is exactly what your parents did and what their parents did before them. So just sit down, put Matlock back on, and be quiet.”
“Grumpy” and “old” may be accurate, but I am not without the facts, ma’am. In popular music, the gulf between the mainstream and underground has never been wider. On one side, you mostly have smart, non-referential, non-formulaic music you’ve got to dig for, generated by artists who would be giddy to draw 250 people to a club in B.F., Iowa, on a Tuesday night. On the other: mostly the same song repackaged ad infinitum and played on every major commercial radio station (and dropped into scores of Hollywood blockbusters), written by small bureaucracies and performed by vocally interchangeable clotheshorses (and their backup dancers) in S.R.O. stadiums and arenas. From “Rock Around the Clock” to “I’m a Believer,” “Get Down Tonight” to “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” even from “What a Girl Wants” and ” Butterfly” to “Hey, Ya!” and “Headstrong,” writers of primarily booty-shakin’ (or head-bangin’) music — including some of The King’s songsmiths — have tried to be different, original, sui generis. Now pop writers are terrified of wavering ever so slightly from The Formula. That’s not me talkin’. That’s science.
[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WySgNm8qH-I expand=1]
I started listening to Elvis on a goof. I’d had enough of the hair metal and gangsta rap dominating my tween and teen years (circa the 1980s). I wanted something different, something unexpected, something that was going to help my endlessly peacocking self stand out. Because girls, duh! Elvis Presley was the most different music I could find that, on first listen, did not offend me too terribly. (C&W probably would have been the most different, but yuck.)
I didn’t get turned onto Elvis by anyone, certainly not my Zeppelin/Public-Enemy/Judas-Priest-loving friends or my Genesis/Police/Elton-John-loving big bros and sis. It was HBO. This Is Elvis and Elvis: That’s the Way It Is seemed to play on a loop on Channel 66, especially on lazy summer afternoons, when a mere glimpse at the tube could lead to half a day’s worth of couch-locked, glazed-eyed indolence.
In the Dark Ages, music lovers forced themselves to listen to a lot of crap. In the ’70s, ’80s, and most of ’90s, buying an album was risky. What if the only track you end up liking is only the one you heard on the radio or MTV? What if you’ve just wasted $11.50 on a slab of vinyl or cassette tape which could have been spent on a few hours of Dig-Dug or a dozen triple-scoops of chocolate chip ice cream? Or a bottle of Night Train? You beat back the potential embarrassment and disappointment by listening to your purchase endlessly. Maybe, just maybe, a riff or, if you were lucky, an entire song would stick with you. Unlike some of my friends, I never had the heart to return the sucky albums I’d bought. I never could psych myself up enough to walk back into Jim’s Records & Tapes or Oasis, walk up to the adult at the counter, and while avoiding eye contact with him or her, claim that the record I’d just bought from here is scratched and may I please have my money back? (I’m still angry at my 12-year-old self for The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect, I Robot, and Subject: Aldo Nova, in that order.)
Now we just skip, skip, skip until something familiar comes along. And then we give it a thumbs up. Clinical? Yes. Impersonal? Sure. But as much as I’m disappointed that most pop music sounds the same today, I’m kind of glad kids don’t have to suffer through horrible albums anymore. That was brutal. Aloha from Hawaii had me from the get-go. It was the only Elvis cassette at Jim’s with songs I recognized from the documentaries (but, sadly, with no “Patch It Up,” “Mystery Train/Tiger Man,” or “Polk Salad Annie”). Note: The owner, good ol’ Jim Whatshisname, specialized in punk, jazz, and avant-garde musics. I’m surprised he had any Elvis at all, but I guess he knew he should have some. Pittsburgh’s Little Italy, where I grew up, was full of old dagos who, while perhaps disapproving of semi-countrified vocal theatrics, were extraordinarily appreciative of sparkling jewelry, garish Cadillacs, and obnoxious clothing.
“See See Rider,” “You Gave Me a Mountain,” “I’ll Remember You,” “Long Tall Sally/Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” and “American Trilogy” still live on in my iTunes library, and I don’t skip them all the time when they come on, and from listening to the album constantly when I was in high school I realized that horn sections aren’t as dumb as I’d thought. Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, Earth Wind & Fire, Blood Sweat & Tears, and vintage Chicago not only led me deeper into the pop and jazz canons but still move the needle.
Aloha also turned me on to the man himself. As in-depth as the documentaries are, courtesy of lots of behind-the-scenes footage, neither ever really hints at the Elvis from most of his live albums — and, yes, I had gone out and exchanged most of my meager income from my jobs busing tables at Lombardozzi’s and working a paper stand for nearly every Elvis live album I could find after being won over by the first, Aloha. The King joked about his weight (“I hope this suit don’t tear up, bay-baay!”), cracked wise (“If you think I’m nervous, you’re right”), and ad-libbed his way through forgotten lyrics (“If you won’t come back to me / Well, then, the heck with you”). His self-deprecating sense of humor spoke to my burgeoning inner ironist.
The King’s hip-swivelin’ rockabilly/gospel is better — more sonically dynamic, more organic, more genuine — than what passes for pop music today.
It also made me realize how messed up being famous could be and how being famous was not what life was about, a pretty strong reality check for a middle-class kid who, like most middle-class kids his age, had a ton of smoke blown up his ass by his parents, teachers, coaches, clergy members, and TV. Elvis had everything — everything — and look at what happened to him.
Developing Little Man’s taste buds is a huge part of our mission to create a progressive-minded individual. My wife and I have never spoken to our son like a child. Why would we let him listen to Luke Bryan? Or Beyonce? Or “1D,” whatever the heck that is? Or Taylor Swift or Drake? Or any other contemporary Formula follower? We might as well let him drink a Big Gulp or eat a Big Mac. Or drive our car.
The better taste you have — in music, art, food, even people — the better off you will be. Good music “improves our ability to be intelligent,” says Don Campbell, a classical musician and author. And by “good music,” you can be damn sure he doesn’t mean this steaming pile of basura or this mound of gratuitously pandering fakery.
Once again: science.
The horns and rattling drums subside as we exit onto I-30.
“Look!” I cry, pointing out the passenger-side window at Moritz Kia, where there’s always a massive inflatable character on the roof. Sometimes it’s a red rectangle emblazoned with “Red Tag Sale.” Other times it’s a red, white, and blue bald eagle. Today it is Elvis circa the early/mid ’70s: black pompadour and mutton chops, black sunglasses, white sequined jumpsuit, holding a microphone
“It’s Elvis!” I boom. “That’s who’s singing! Elvis! Hi, Elvis!” I look back at my son, who may or may not have acknowledged me.
Little Man meets my stare, his anthracite eyes burning with curiosity. And intelligence. He looks back out the window and says, “Where’s Sam Cooke?”
My work here is done. *mic drop*
Anthony Mariani is Editor of the Fort Worth Weekly.