History, Mystery, Music and Pop…

Random thoughts on books and events.

Month: November, 2012

Elvis and the Band

1971: noone could quite believe it: not his father, not his now-unemployed band; not any of the hangers-on. Not Priscilla, who was quite relieved, really. But Elvis, sick of the exploitation, the mistrust, and, really, sick of not being in control, sacked Tom Parker. It was the Memphis sessions. Chips Moman had told him he was fat and lazy. A man had a choice. Accept it. Or change. The Colonel was comfortable and wanted Elvis comfortable to ensure his own continued comfort. So the break came.

Parker tried fighting; but as Elvis’s attorneys dug into Parker’s past, they found stories that Parker didn’t want told. Once they realised that 1) he didn’t have a US passport; 2) he didn’t have a US passport because he wasn’t eligible for one 3) he wasn’t eligible for one because he was illegal immigrant and 4) he was an illegal immigrant for allegedly terrible reasons, the case was theirs. A large, punitive settlement was put in place, but more importantly, the spell had broken. A nearly twenty year business and personal relationship was shattered permanently.

All Elvis wanted, really, was to sing great songs: not just songs for the charts, and really, not just crowd-pleasing rubbish. The music he grew up on, gospel; country; blues; folk: he had combined it and that’s what he wanted to sing. Some said (particularly the PR team Parker put together) that he had invented rock and roll. Elvis knew that this was nonsense. He had just taken his music, and with Scotty and Bill, mixed it all around somehow, and … changed the world. He had changed the world! Parker – how he hated the name now – had squandered it.

Elvis started, very quietly, looking for new management. So many crooks, so many wannabe Parkers. He found a secretary he could trust, and this woman – a Memphis girl – made some very discreet phonecalls. Eventually, the search was narrowed to two potentials: Allan Klein and Albert Grossman. A couple of private investigators, some lawyer searches and the deal was done. Klein was too dodgy, too mercenary. His dealings with the Rolling Stones, in which, through the rapier of a contract, had seen him get the Jagger/Richards catalogue, legally, had turned Elvis off. Grossman had issues, but he had managed one of Elvis’s favourite songwriters; one of his favourite young singers; and several other acts. He also seemed to like good, American music.

Once the cunning Grossman got wind of the contract of a lifetime, he went for it with all the skill and salesmanship he could muster. The first thing to go was the movies: Grossman agreed that Elvis needed to get back to his roots. He got Elvis back to basics: cut his hair, got him dressing more plainly. Now, to put a product out. Grossman knew an album and a tour was essential. Elvis considered calling the TCBs, but Grossman talked him out of it: it was time for a new Elvis – the TCBs could stay together, and tour. Grossman would even let them use Elvis in promotional material. But he had a better idea for Elvis and a band.

Elvis needed a very special group of musicians: and Grossman had them on his books. They’d started as the backing for Ronnie Hawkins, an Arkansas boy who’d gone to Canada and made good. They moved solo for a bit, when Bob Dylan picked them up. After Dylan had his motorbike accident – (how jealous Elvis was at the time: how he’d yearned to find some excuse to stop) – they all retreated to a house up in Woodstock in New York. Elvis had heard of “Music from Big Pink” and the second album, known as the Brown Album, but he’d not heard them. Grossman gave them to him and Elvis took them home.

He was blown away. Harmonies cascaded around each other. The keyboard swirled and whirled. The bass was melodic and solid. The drums; the drums. The piano reminded Elvis of his own playing. Elvis heard a guitarist every bit as good as James Burton and Scotty Moore and Hank Garland. But it was the voices that sold him. ‘Take a load off Fanny/Take a load for free/Take a load off Fanny/ and… and… and.. put the load right on right on me.’. How did you write a song like that? Or ‘Jawbone’? or ‘Unfaithful Servant’? or ‘King Harvest (has surely come).’ It was new, it was different, yet it was familiar. Elvis could smell the streets of Memphis; the sweat of the church his parents took him to as a boy; the dust of the seemingly endless roads between tiny gigs throughout the South West. The inside cover of the album had their families. A sprawling picture of wives, children, parents. This impressed Elvis. They hadn’t dropped out. They weren’t hippies. It was as if these boys – Canadians! – had somehow squeezed the sponge that was Elvis’s musical memory, and with the juice had delivered a pungent, rich and delicious musical cocktail.

The key to the albums was ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’. Elvis played it over and over. The voice: not the one which did ‘Unfaithful Servant’ (though it was warm, full, surprising and open) not the one singing ‘Whispering Pines’ (which was like an angel) but the one who took the lead in ‘The Weight’. It sounded like it was right from the South, and the words, meaningful by themselves, seemed to carry the whole history of the South. He rang Grossman.

Grossman knew the Hawks would consider Elvis. And the Band (as they were known) did not consider anyone. Eric Clapton was summarily rejected by the band with two keyboard players with the curt ‘we already have a guitarist’. John Simon, who had played tuba on ‘Rag Mama Rag’ and had produced the albums had been rejected. Elvis though was Elvis. Grossman was sure he could wrangle it.

It was a brief meeting, which turned into a long jam session, which turned into a new version of the Band. They didn’t need a lead singer: but Elvis was not just a lead singer – he was the ultimate lead singer. All of them had idolised him as kids… emotionally, this was bigger than Dylan. None of them had been folkies – not in the sense of not knowing traditional songs (which they all knew), but in the sense that they were rock and rollers. Elvis was their guide, their idol, their model.

Elvis took to Rick and Levon immediately. Garth seemed distant at first, but was full of life and fun, once he was drawn out, or drew himself out. Richard was … quieter, perhaps. A funny man, an outgoing man, but with a melancholy. Robbie was very shy, very quiet. He might have been rude, but Elvis doubted it. He apparently didn’t like performing, and was a shrewd businessman.

Between them, there were 25 instruments. Elvis thought he’d play rhythm acoustic. Levon moved from drums to mandolin. Levon was from Arkansas, and the voice was explained. Just like that. Richard moved to drums from piano – Elvis thought he looked awkward but the beat was solid. Garth played keyboard, accordion, piano, sax. Robbie only played guitar, but the songs were superb and, ultimately, the guitar playing was sublime. Rick played bass, fiddle, guitar. All with no effort.

Over the evening, the deal was hammered out. Elvis would only get publishing for any songs he wrote. This was a significant change from Parker, who wouldn’t let Elvis record a song unless he got a credit.

The concert would have the original Band play for the first half, and then Elvis would sing the second half. Elvis made sure he didn’t fight hard for more concessions: he wanted this gig. He had more money than he could spend – this was about his soul, not his body. The final number was ‘Dixie’, sung by Levon, which segued into ‘American Trilogy’, sung by Elvis. It was magnificent. The music lifted them, and no audience would resist.

Elvis watched the interactions closely. For the first time since 1956, he felt right. He felt alive. And he felt he could change the world. Again.

Who I Am: Pete Townshend

Pete Townshend is one of the very few rock stars who can talk about making art without seeming ridiculous or pretentious. A highly literate and deeply intelligent man, Townshend’s compositions are among the most important of the rock genre, and the twentieth and twenty-first century. The Who, renowned for their destructive and energetic stage shows, set the template for many acts after, including Queen, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, The Sex Pistols. The Clash, Pearl Jam and Nirvana. Plus many others. Shaped by Townshend’s angry, funny, poignant and fun songs, and acerbic and loud guitar, led by the Wagnerian vocals of Roger Daltrey, and driven by the powerful rhythm section of John Entwhistle and Keith Moon, the Who were vital, important, and most of all, great.

Townshend asks the right question in this book. There are seemingly many Townshends: the arrogant, drunken, stoned rock star; the little boy starved for affection; the insecure artist; the family man; the alcoholic; the spiritual searcher, and follower of Meher Baba; and many others. Townshend tries to reconcile all of these. As other reviewers have said, Townshend is most critical of himself. A portrait of a damaged, yet vital man appears.

Townshend did not have a normal childhood. My reading of his childhood is of a man who has examined it many times, resolved some of it, but not really fully come to terms with it. There is an emotional distance. His parents’ troubled marriage (both are alcoholics, and that’s just the start) see him sent to his grandmother’s home. His grandmother is emotionally distant and (I think unintentionally) psychologically abusive. He does poorly at school, though makes some useful friends. Like many ne’er-do-wells of the time, (Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood), he goes to art school. He also learns harmonica, but soon realises the guitar is his instrument.

Art school turns his head around, and he eventually joins The Who, who become the High Numbers, who then become the Who again. Like nearly every rock biography, except Dylan’s Chronicles, there is not a lot of new information. What is new, though, is Townshend’s examination of his life. He has bled publicly for years, but this book it seems to me, is Townshend trying to distance himself, yet look closer. Townshend’s life was chaotic. Constant struggles with alcohol and drugs (was it Billy Connolly who once quipped that Pete Townshend was trying to quit God and get back to hard drugs?) leads to all kinds of personal problems. His first wife, Karen, comes across as a saint: Pete himself comes across as an arrogant, selfish drunk.

I found the chapters on his work with Faber fascinating. I had no idea he commissioned one of my favourite rock books: Charles Shaar Murray’s Crosstown Traffic. (I must check the acknowledgments again). He gained the respect of the literary elite in Britain – Ted Hughes, poet laureate, in particular. Yet he cannot get close to many, and his often self-destructive behaviour distances him from many.

As to the Who, he clearly is very proud – and with good reason. Distance has probably dimmed the grief he feels for the early death of Keith Moon: Townshend admits that Moon could be ‘a bit of a twat sometimes’. Roger Daltrey, sometimes friend, sometimes foe, comes across extremely well in Townshend’s eyes. The years have cemented a deep connection to the two, I suspect.

Keith Richards’ Life does not have the depth of analysis. Eric Clapton’s autobiography was light, and ultimately unrevealing. We are still waiting for McCartney’s, and Jagger’s memory and lack of enthusiasm for the project saw him return a large advance and along with it any chance of his view of things. Ray Davies’ is apparently excellent. Townshend tells us little about his times, but, with a bit of digging, plenty of his life. Whereas Richards plays up to his ‘rogue’ image, Townshend tries to explain his. Richards tends not to praise anyone. Townshend tends to seem more tolerant. (Townshend indeed gives the opposite view to Mick Jagger’s physical prowess to RIchards’ own description.)

So, who is Pete Townshend? As he states himself, most of his fans would claim to know him, but he ‘wasn’t quite real’. He also acknowledges (in a conversation he remembers with Eddie Vedder) that the public elect you to be a rock star, whether you want it or not. Townshend struggles with his public image and private man throughout the book. In his last chapter, he summarises himself, and quotes from the letter he wrote his eight-year-old self. He acknowledges his strengths and his weaknesses. I was most touched by this touching book by the appendix, in which he opens a fan letter from 1967. He concludes that although now he can recognise the love inherent in the letter, had he recognised it in 1967, his life would have been vastly different.

Fame, wealth, creativity and talent have come at a price to Pete Townshend. His rock star lifestyle has led him to make some bad choices. As a fan, I can’t claim to know the real Pete Townshend, but I can claim to have some insight with this book. He seems, at the end of the book, to be in a good place. I thank him for the Who, and I hope he can continue to find some peace and contentment. Most memoirs diminish the writer. This one enhances him, despite, or most likely because of, its tough and brutal approach on its subject.