Scattered Thoughts

This is my favorite time of year, and Halloween my favorite holiday, but such weather as I love isn’t really conducive to sustained thought, so… this.

Albums, singles, and the death of the artist. Reader Fripbelow, mentions that the “units sold” metric for “best-selling bands” is, and always has been, based on LPs. Which might be important if one cares about these things, because Elvis — just to take the most obvious example — doesn’t have a “classic” album, since “albums” were very different in his day. Take a gander at Elvis’s official discography. By the end of 1958 — two years into his recording career — Elvis had released three studio albums, two soundtrack albums, one compilation album (Elvis’s Golden Records) and… holy guacamole… nineteen “extended play” albums, whatever those are. I don’t care enough to dig into the distinctions; the point is, though the official tally for “studio albums” (as Wiki counts them) ends up basically the same for Elvis and the Beatles (24 to 23, respectively), nobody’s going to be comparing Revolver (the Beatles’ 7th studio album) head-to-head with Elvis’s 7th, Pot Luck — much less Elvis’s roughly contemporary efforts (Elvis for Everyone! and How Great Thou Art).

There is also, of course, a vast difference between a solo act and a band, and that shades into the “artist vs. entertainer” distinction I’ve been trying to make. Elvis wrote some of his own songs, but Elvis was always an entertainer, not an artist. Indeed, if I had to guess, I’d venture that a big part of Elvis’s well-known drug problem stemmed from the fact that he knew himself to be a yesterday man, even as he was selling out giant concert halls and charting huge hits. Elvis had a single in the charts as late as 1977 (!!!), and a single-digit hit as late as 1972 (“Burning Love,” #2), but nobody would call Elvis a 70s act. He’s even less of a “Sixties” act, as that term is used in pop culture, though he had a #1 hit as late as 1969, the very year of Woodstock (“Suspicious Minds”).

The Beatles, though, were artists — at least in their own minds, and we indulged them, and look where that got us. I am not a musicologist, much less a psychologist, but I suspect a comparative study along these lines — artists vs. entertainers — would reveal a lot about the changing recent zeitgeist. Elvis is useful as a metric for straight numbers, but a much more fruitful comparison would be between the Beatles and the Beach Boys. Here again, I think some of Brian Wilson’s infamous drug issues stemmed from his desire to be taken seriously as an artist. Everyone acknowledges Wilson was a very innovative musician — he created an entire sound, which not even Lennon and McCartney can boast — but for all that he was still the boy wonder behind all those cars-surfing-and-girls tunes that seemed so silly even at the time. Throw in the group dynamic — you can argue about who the most talented Beatle was, but Mike Love was always the Beach Boys’ very distant second banana — and you’ve got… well, something way above my pay grade, but it’s fun to speculate. What would’ve happened if Brian Wilson had been mentioned in the same breath as Lennon and McCartney — which I think he always not-so-secretly wanted — instead of Jan and Dean?

Horror novels. Speaking of frustrated artistes sinking into pretentious self-parody, since it’s Halloween let’s talk about Stephen King. He’s a prominent example of Theodore Dalrymple’s assertion that most modern problems can be boiled down to people not knowing how to live. Here’s a man with enough money to do literally anything he wants. If he’s so hot and bothered about Donald Trump, for instance, he’s one of the few guys in America who can himself, personally, do what Trump did — bypass the whole political party schmear and run for President on his own resources. His obvious and well-documented personal shortcomings are in the same league as Trump’s — less infidelity, more drug use, but basically a wash — and, you know, since Trump is currently the President of the United States such things aren’t nearly the disqualifiers they once were. Nor is he any less “qualified,” since say what you will about the man, he’s obviously a savvy businessman.

And yet… when challenged to step into the arena back in 2018, he pussed out, like a typical Twitter jockey. Which, you know, is fine, you’d have to be a real manly man or a complete lunatic to run for President in this day and age, but the cognitive dissonance is rather striking. He does give away some cash, and let’s give him credit for that, but “sixth among Maine charities in terms of average annual giving” is kinda like being the sixth-drunkest guy at the local Oktoberfest — a nice distinction for what it is, I suppose, but not something you’d want on your business cards, let alone your tombstone.

But get a load of this: “In November 2011, the STK Foundation donated $70,000 in matched funding via his radio station to help pay the heating bills for families in need in his home town of Bangor, Maine, during the winter.” Now that’s what I’m talking about! If your ostentatious left-wing politics are good for what ails us as a nation, then back them up out of your own pocket (“matched funding,” eh? Again, credit where it’s due, he ponied up some cash, and I’m sure the recipients were grateful, but…).

I’m not (just) trying to needle the guy. For one thing, that’s pointless, since buddy, if you’re reading something on a blog with twenty readers and feel compelled to respond, you’ve got some major issues, and I’ll delete this immediately if you promise to go get yourself some help. The point is, you can’t read any of King’s later work without being hit with the man’s overwhelming, obsessive need for a legacy. The older he gets, and thus the further into Boomer narcissism he descends, the more obvious it becomes that he got a bad grade in one of his creative writing classes in college back in The Sixties ™ and never got over it. This man wanted to be the next John Cheever, and that’s fine, but still can’t accept, after all these years, that he’s gotten rich past the dreams of avarice being the next Edgar Allan Poe. He wants littérateur on his tombstone, and he ain’t gonna get it, so he takes it out on Republicans on Twitter.

See what I mean? If you want a legacy, buddy — if you want to be remembered as a Pillar of Your Community — you’ve got the money to do literally any goddamn thing you want. Peyton Manning has less money than you, and he was worried that he’d only be remembered as a Hall of Fame football player with a strong argument for being the greatest QB of all time, so he built a hospital. You could build a homeless shelter in every big city in America, Steve, to help out all the victims of Trump’s heartless whatever. You, personally, could build a factory and give away top of the line surgical masks to every person in the country if you’re so worried about Trump screwing the coronavirus pooch. Hell, you’re the creative one, homie, you figure out how best to put your vast riches to use. Do that, and watch how fast you go from “bitter old crank” to happy and fulfilled.

If you’re an entertainer, then entertain. Appreciate it for what it is — a rare gift that God only hands out to a selected few. I’d be thrilled to have “popular novelist” on my tombstone, and if the worst my fans could say about me was “he’s no great artist,” well, I’d die content. If I could use my talent to improve lives, either directly or via my shitloads of cash, then I’d die a happy man indeed. Appreciate what you have, buddy – it can all be taken away so fast.

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22 thoughts on “Scattered Thoughts

  1. Publius

    I come round this the other way. I never gave a shit about Elvis, reckoning him some kind of Product, an epiphenomenon of an era long-dead by the time I drew breath. When I wanted to hear that early-rock roar, I went with Berry, Little Richard, Eddie Cochrane, etc, guys who you could get and dig without having to know much about them. Elvis always seemd like some wierd alien mystery.

    Then I actually started listening to him, and honestly, I’ll put “Suspicious Minds” over most of Abbey Road any ol’day. That song, corny as it is, has no double-dealing or irony in it. Elvis did what he always does, put his guts into the song. The Beatles were just fucking around and hating each other.

    The better comparison isnt’ between Elvis past his Prime and the Beatles in their heyday, but Elvis Past his Prime with what the Fab Four did after they broke up. The King wins that contest, hands down.

    1. Severian Post author

      I know next to nothing about the man, but that just feels right. I suspect Elvis was baffled for most of his career – he was a huge selling, mega-popular act, AND a dinosaur, simultaneously. An interesting contrast with, say, Sinatra, who had some huge hits in the mid 1960s ( “Summer Wind” and “My Way”). Despite the big hits though, I think Sinatra knew he appealed to the oldies crowd, since he’d been in the business since the 1930s. Elvis was still huge after only a decade, but obsolete nonetheless.

      I think he realized towards the end what he was – hence the enormous success of fat Vegas Elvis — but was too far gone habits wise to break out. Tragic.

      As for the post break up Beatles… it seems Ringo was the only one who really got it, and not coincidentally seemed like the only decent, adjusted human being in the group.

  2. WOPR

    The one attempt at being an serious artist was “In the Ghetto.” I believe it came from the nun movie he was in.

    King is simply odd. I haven’t tried reading much of his work. At one point I tried reading “The Dark Tower” series of books. How does anyone think that series is good, I don’t know?

    1. Severian Post author

      This comment got spammed somehow – I have no idea why. Sorry about that!!!

      In the Ghetto was definitely a weird song, unlike anything else in Elvis’s ouvre (since we’re talking about serious art). I may be wrong, it was before my time personally and not my specialty professionally, but I get the impression that Elvis wasn’t at all political — there was that weird thing where he wanted Richard Nixon to make him an FBI agent, but I’m pretty sure he was just brain-fried at that point, not striving for political relevance. No idea what he was trying to accomplish with “In the Ghetto,” but it worked out for him, apparently.

      Regarding the other King, The Dark Tower is a terrible place to start, since even people who really liked his earlier work (like me) think it’s odd, not to say pretty fucking stupid. The really ironic thing about King is, his technique is very influential, and while no *real* artiste will ever credit him for it, you can see his fingerprints all over pretty much all but the most determinedly avante-garde writing in the past few decades. (There’s an entire species of MFA wank, “magic realism,” which is basically just Stephen King’s signature technique with the pretension cranked up to 11. He really will get a chapter in the lit crit books someday — maybe even a whole book — but not for any one of his books, but for his work as a whole. He knows it, too, and that’s why he’s the bitter old crank he is today.

      That said, his early stuff was lots of fun. They’re all eerily plausible B movies in novel form. Probably the best example (though far from his best book) is The Tommyknockers, which he’s admitted he doesn’t really remember writing, so coked- and boozed-out was he at the time. But he says he remembered setting out to do basically that — to write an old B-grade monster movie from the late 1950s — and that’s what he did, almost totally on autopilot. That’s his wheelhouse, that’s the kind of story he should be telling, and that kind of thing is what made him his zillions. It’s the “eerily plausible” thing, and when he was on, nobody did it better. If you want to give his stuff another shot, pick almost anything written before 1990.

      1. WOPR

        Probably because I used the G word which is associated with joggers.

        I’ve enjoyed some of King’s stuff. The Stand is good. A lot of his short stories were great. The 90’s were a good time for King. They were pumping out a mini-series every year or so based on his books. For the most part, they were good. His books work better as miniseries anyways.

  3. MBlanc46

    I’m with Frip on Little Richard, Eddie Cochran, and Chuck Berry*. I’d add Jerry Lee Lewis to the list. But Presley was something. He had charisma. From what I know abstractly about feminine psychology, I understand why young females were swooning over him. And he could put a song over. His covers (“That’s All Right”, “Hound Dog”**) brought some money to the black musicians who first cut them. Musicologist Adam Gussow*** maintains that “Heartbreak Hotel” is the ultimate rock-and-roll (although I don’t imagine “rock”) song. That Elvis died in 1958. Every cohort has to have its own teen idols (maybe they don’t anymore, but they did through my youth), so he was going to become yesterday’s man at some point (as did the Beatles and Dylan). Doing teen movies then becoming a Las Vegas show lounge act was probably a very good career path for him. But for a few years, he was King of the Mountain, and no one else was even close.

    * Leonard Chess, who produced some of Berry’s early stuff, maintained that Berry, not Presley, was the King of Rock and Roll. That’s not without reason.

    ** Her version of “Hound Dog”, with a tail-end-kicking studio band, is at least an order of magnitude better than Presley’s.

    *** Gussow in his youth played in a blues duet, Satan and Adam, with an old black guy (Satan). Saw them at the Chicago Blues Festival one year. Then Gussow got himself a doctorate in musicology and joined the professoriate. I was involved in the editorial production of his tenure book, in which he discusses “Heartbreak Hotel”. Worth a read.

    PS Extended play records were 45 sized records that usually had two cuts on each side.

    1. Severian Post author

      Good to know re: EPs. I appreciate it.

      That’s the other tragic thing about Elvis (among all the other tragic things about Elvis): Since he was really the first rock’n’roll musician to have a “career,” he had to make all the mistakes for everyone else. [Not disputing that Little Richard, Chuck Berry, etc. had careers, but as black musicians in the Jim Crow era they had definite ceilings that Elvis didn’t]. I should sit down sometime and watch his televised “comeback special.” Did he run through all his old hits, and if so, how did he do them? Did he play, say, “Hound Dog” as a lounge act? (And how much of what we think of as “lounge act” is attributable to Vegas Elvis?).

      Again, I know next to nothing about the man, but my strong impression is that Elvis knew himself to be an entertainer, and if he hadn’t been too far sunk into decadence by the time of his comeback he’d probably still be around, doing that “elder statesman / too cool for this era” thing Frank Sinatra did so well in the 80s and 90s.

      I think also that rock’n’rollers’ pretensions to art are defense mechanisms. You know you can’t do your wildman act on stage anymore — arthritic knees can’t handle it, and besides, you know it’s ridiculous. The Last Psychiatrist had a throwaway observation somewhere about why elderly rock stars always come off creepy. Even though they are, authentically, rock stars, it still seems false, because they’re playing a character — “Mick Jagger,” circa 1999, wasn’t a real man; he was a leathery old actor playing “Mick Jagger,” circa 1968… who was, in turn, a caricature of a real man, one Michael Philip Jagger, who self-consciously crafted the “Mick Jagger” persona over a period of years. A copy of a copy of a copy, even though it was the same guy playing the same role the whole time. (See also: those crappy new “Star Wars” movies, in which 2015 Harrison Ford plays 1976 Harrison Ford playing Han Solo… poorly).

      If you haven’t seen it, I can’t recommend enough the 2004 documentary Some Kind of Monster, about Metallica. I don’t much like their music, but it’s one of the most fascinating things I’ve ever seen. Here are guys who make music exclusively for pimply 18 year old outcasts who live in trailer parks. They’re so good at it that they’re multi-mega-gazillionaires… which means they live the multi-mega-gazillionaire lifestyle, which they can only sustain by pretending to be pimply 18 year old outcasts living in trailer parks, even though they’re in their late 40s and one of them has an art collection worth many, many millions and etc. They’re mega-rich and super-famous, and they’re miserable, because that’s how they paid the bills and they’ve been doing it for so long they have no idea how to be even rough approximations of human beings. They’re “rock stars” through and through.

  4. Codex

    Two suburb novelists who were deservedly popular and (despite the genre) managed to appeal to both men and women, upper and lower class readers; were cut off in their prime by the machinations of The LitRAHchur people. Georgette Hayer and Mary Stewart were convinced to quit writing “fluff” and devote their time to serious, respectable fiction. When I think of the quality stories we do not have because of these envious parasites, I start hoping for a special hell.

    By contrast, Dick Francis died wealthy, happy, and creating enjoyable stories by thoughtfully ignoring them. i>Long Shot, if I am remembering arght, has his rebuttal.

    On that note, A good book to read (or re-read) this time of year, is John C. Wright’s Book of Feasts and Seasons.

    1. Southern Belle

      I have enjoyed reading the “fluff” of Stewart and Heyer. Weaving stories of their calibre took talent and they certainly had it. And to me they were very interesting ladies as well.

  5. Rangifer

    Music entertainment (for entertainments’ sake) is dead. Now they’re all artists with a cause. Weird Al got mentioned in a previous post and he (along with the likes of They Might Be Giants) is a holdout of a long gone Dr. Demento entertainment show which that never got cancelled. The show goes on, just not so many guests these days… It’s like that in other areas- WWE with Hulk Hogan & Rowdy Roddy Piper, Elvira Mistress of the Dark, Monster Car shows, heck, even Boy Scouts. Growing up as a kid in the 70s & 80s was awesome. A good time for the sake of a good time. You might learn something (or not), walk away with bruises or road rash and be a bit poorer, but you still had a great time. Now everything has some subversive message, some cause, something you’re supposed to be for (or against) and it’s not the simple enjoyment to be had back then.

    On building a legacy, I don’t understand why current multi-billionaires don’t pick their favorite charity/cause and go all in. Comparatively, they aren’t as rich as the Gettys, Rockerfellers or Carnegies of the previous century, but all those previous rich guys picked an area they liked and invested like hell. Andrew Carnegie hired Pinkertons to be his heavies in strikes, leveraged politics for steel tariffs in his favor and was a skinflint Scotsman thru and thru, yet he built, staffed and entirely furnished over 3000 local public libraries in the US and funded a University. Rockefeller was the same- a bastard in business but gave away almost $1 Billion in his lifetime. Instead, we’re stuck with Soros, Gates, Bezos and Zuckerberg. You’d think they’d at least spend a bit to the benefit of the public to clean up their names. Gates used to do it (Gates Foundation school grants) but then just like a good technologist, he off-shored the whole thing and left the USA. Not even Cicero’s honor is enough to induce them into giving to the benefit of the folks who made them wealthy.

  6. contrariandutchman

    For triple irony points consider that all the frustrated wannabe artistes might have gotten their dearest wish if only they had fully concentrated on doing their entertainment thing (writing, music) and done it do the top of their ability. Most are not without talent. You just cant set out to make art deliberately, you do something and if youdo it very well may end up with art.

    1. Severian Post author

      Speaking of art, Amsterdam’s Reijksmuseum (spelling from memory) is among the best I’ve seen. I ended up stranded in Amsterdam for a few days theory through a comedy of errors. I hadn’t planned on anything more than switching planes, but got grounded for a few days. What time i didn’t spend just walking around I was in the museums. No idea what it’s like now, but a lovely place 20 years ago. A very lucky accident.

      1. contrariandutchman

        It would be Rijksmuseum /mr picy off

        The architecture of the inner city and the museum have changed little, although the museums increasingly do have obligatory nods to wonderful diversity in descriptions etc. The city as a whole has arguably become less pleasant with a mix of too many drunken tourists and increased diversity.

        1. Severian Post author

          I figured as much, though it saddens me to have it confirmed. I’m glad I don’t read Dutch — the sure knowledge that there are books out there with titles like All the Flemish Masters were Negroes: A Marxist Approach makes me want to shoot someone….

          They fuck up everything, don’t they?

  7. EdDaviesUSA

    Another great post Sev. Speaking of Elvis, I read Peter Guralnick’s two volume bio of the King – “Last Train to Memphis” which covers his life from birth until the army, and “Careless Love” which takes you to the sad end, this summer. Highly recommended. I’d always been Elvis-curious, and wouldn’t say I was a fan, but walked away from these books with a greater appreciation for the man and his talent. But you’re completely right – Elvis saw himself as an entertainer, and while he admired the artistic freedom of Dylan, The Beatles and Stones, never wanted to move in that direction – he was perfectly happy making his films (at least in the beginning, until the decent songs dried up, and the movies began repeating themselves) – until that route dried up and he was forced to reinvent himself as a performer beginning with the ’68 comeback special.

    1. Severian Post author

      I always suspected Elvis would’ve killed it as a vaudeville act… which sounds like an insult, I realize, but I don’t mean it that way. The touring vaudeville show and the tv “variety hour” were great, and I wish we still had them. “Vaudevillian,” like “professional athlete,” used to be a well-paid but slightly disreputable business. I’d love for professional “entertainers” to be regarded like morticians — a valuable service, and I’m glad that those who do it have a high degree of skill, but…. why would anyone ever want to do it, except that it’s vital and very well compensated? (Again, no insult intended to morticians).

  8. Frip

    On Garth selling so many more LP’s than any other legacy artist except the Beatles. It may be stating the obvious—but he was popular in the 90s when every consumer was a rock consumer. I’m going to be sloppy with the decades here…but pre-boomer households had one record buyer…the teen. The rest of the family was anti rock. “Don’t bring this degeneracy into this HOME!” By 1990, you had 3 gens per family buying the same album. Teen, mom, and grandma. 13, 28, and 46 all bought the same Garth Brooks album.

    Thank you. Captain Obvious has left the building. Night night.

    1. Severian Post author

      Makes sense. It’s also an artifact of technology for those three record buyers — CD was just coming into its own as a format, and the quality upgrade is so significant that it made sense to re-purchase the best of your record collection in the new format. I bet every act with an established following saw a spike in their record sales circa 1990, when CD players really became portable / affordable.

      [I lived in a dorm with nothing but broke-ass scholarship kids. When we started, one kid had a CD player. Four years later, we all did, with album collections to match].

  9. Southern Belle

    On Elvis: what other entertainer can boast so many impersonators? You might be a redneck if your family has at least one! We had a five year old and he was actually quite good for his age–had the lip curl thing nailed. I also know a grown-up one who is a sprinkler guy by day but when night falls…a real teddy bear.

    1. Severian Post author

      I have insisted for years that I will only get married if an Elvis impersonator performs the ceremony. Which, you know, explains a LOT.

  10. ganderson

    I have some scattered thoughts:

    Great conversation all. I developed an appreciation for Elvis later in life- he had a great feel for his material, and either he or his handlers picked great tunes. And I love the point about him being a star and a dinosaur at the same time.

    I heard an interview one time with Jerry Garcia- he was asked about the Monkees-

    Q: What do you think of the Monkees?
    GARCIA: What am I supposed to think of them? [Laughs.] I mean, what do you want me to say?

    Q: Well, I mean, why should they get to be Number One?
    GARCIA: I don’t know. Maybe because their records are really pretty good. They should be good, because they have the best L.A. studio musicans and the best arrangers…

    I think old Jerry probably fancied himself an artist, but appreciated an entertainer. He also used to do “That’s All Right, Mama” and “Mystery Train” with his own band.

  11. ganderson

    And… I have a soft spot for King – I’m told that I look like him, and was once asked for my autograph at DTW. I liked The Stand and the Shining a lot, but never felt he could end a story. Wish he’d shaddup about politics, though.

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