Monday, May 18, 2009

Communication Breakdown: reaboarding Jim Jarmusch's Mystery Train. By Alan Jacobson

In a scene from Coffee and Cigarettes (2004) that could be described as actors acting like they are actors acting like bad actors, Meg and Jack White give long-overdue recognition to Alfred Tesla, a man who felt there was electrical energy perpetually throbbing from the earth. Later in the film, Steve Coogan and Alfred Molina have difficulty meeting each others' needs and end up parting with as little reconciliation as the friends and family who never share a moment of joy in Jarmusch's appropriately stark and minimalist Stranger Than Paradise (1984).

Jim Jarmusch makes films that focus on the subtle nuances of communication. Whether an amusing moment of hurt feelings between hilariously oversensitive rock stars Iggy Pop and Tom Waits in Coffee and Cigarettes or Ghost Dog (1999) plugging a bullet into his master in a misunderstanding stemming from an ages-old tradition, the failure for human beings to connect and then spark and the consequences of this typical human failure to communicate is not only a running concern through one of America's best filmmakers' work, but it is his strong suit.

On the surface, each of the three vignettes of the richly complex Mystery Train (1989), Jarmusch's first foray into color, is connected in being about aliens making their way in Memphis, trying to reconcile their foreignness with perhaps the most mythically "American" city. Depth-adding motifs also occur visually and through repeated situations, scenes, and characters such as the crazed rock pioneer Screamin' Jay Hawkins' grumpy night manager and Cinque Lee's youthful bellboy.

But a closer read reveals more because with a work of art as at once compelling and obfuscated as this film, clues offer rare help in discerning meaning. Since it is a film taking place in and using as its mythical center Music City USA, the tunes provide a good jumping-off point. "Mystery Train" is a song about an unearthly yet commonplace vehicle that may just as easily give or take away. In just nine lines of lyrics: "that long black train got my baby and gone . . . it's bringin' my baby, 'cause she's mine all, all mine." "Blue Moon" haunts the film, brilliantly reiterating the theme of loss as well as the Elvis mythos. The broken-down elegance of Memphis resonates. Most powerfully, though, the train works as a heavy metaphor in Jarmusch's brilliant examination of connection, disconnection, communication, and the innate ability and need to focus on escape rather than the simple yet daunting task of discussion.

Mystery Train and the Far from Yokohama chapter of the trilogy begin, ironically, lacking the music one would expect.1 Train sounds against black establish this inexorable multiperson vehicle as the first and, as such, possibly most important character. After a short, pointless conversation, the Japanese tourists, Mitsuko (Youki Kordu) and Jun (Masatoshi Nagase), load their walkman, share headphones in a rare display of intimacy, and hit play, the titular tune's ghostly reverb oozing through the balance ofMystery Train.

The first vignette focuses on this fascinatingly mismatched couple. Mitsuko is over-expressive, unable to stay quiet and still. A tougher James Dean to her superCOOL babydoll, Glum Jun seems incapable of showing any emotions. One pregnant minute of the film focuses on a two-shot of their longest conversation and most passionate argument — Jun arguing "Carl Perkins" to Mitsuko's "Elvis." Jarmusch is renowned (and reviled) for his ability to take his time and extract the most from a situation. Here, the emphasis works twofold. The viewer finds the pair's mispronunciation of such entrenched icons amusing and cute. Later, after Jarmusch's razor script plainly establishes that no one seems to understand anyone, and as we watch Mitsuko struggle to be as nice and communicative to everyone as possible, we come to understand — or perhaps, feel — that this plain, seemingly pointless argument is actually emblematic of deeply entrenched (cross) cultural problems with communication.

Jun quips that Memphis is simply Yokohama, lacking 60 percent of its buildings. Perhaps he has simply miscommunicated, but he'll take it back, the title of this vignette speaking to how perceptions change. As Jun squares up a nice angle of the velvet Elvis this fleabag hotel has used to cheaply redress as an "Elvis memorial," Mitsuko explains that he only takes photos of rooms and nothing outside. Jarmusch leaves it to the viewer to decide whether he understands the irony. Jun later remarks that she spends half her life in her dreams. Roy Orbison's Sun single exploration of a coolguy extraordinaire, "Domino," fades in the background and Elvis' chillingly expressive "Blue Moon" hyper-mystically drifts in. The spiritual power of music taking over, Mitsuko says "hold me," Jun complies, the camera squares up the couple, and we know that, at least for now, everything is okay between them.

Nicoletta Braschi

In episode two, A Ghost, Luisa (Nicoletta Braschi, right) is on layover due to complications with her husband's coffin. As a single woman with no relationship, utter freedom for better or worse, more happens to Luisa to make her a surrogate for the viewer than any other character in Mystery Train. Theaters being temples for the cowards of life, we can identify with her from the safety of the 14th row as she treads the sparse landscape of depressed Memphis, with its heavily symbolic abandoned gas stations; decrepit landmarks like the Stax studio, signified sadly by mere spray-painted boards; and lone cowboys passing her by. This is all filmed in viewer-involving profile, adding a perspective and feel of passing in a car, windows rolled up and air conditioner competing with the blasting Rufus Thomas (who has a cameo in the first vignette).

Invading the interiors of Memphisians proves equally fascinating and frustrating for Luisa. One thing Jim Jarmusch is never given enough credit for is his writing. A few years back, when Tarantino's stiff, unnatural, yet undeniably amusing and larger-than-life screenplays were hogging all the press, Jarmusch's little Mystery Train should have picked up at least 5 percent of that for a line such as this from a pushy news-vendor (Sy Richardson) trying to thrust a worker's paper on the bewildered Luisa: "You only need one leg to get around. Sure helps to have two."

Later, as she tries to devote a peaceful moment to a meal, a man accosts Luisa with a ridiculous story about why he has and is willing to sell her Elvis' comb. This is lyrical, shown again from that off-putting/involving profile, and told so well it earns the man $20 with the promise he'll leave her alone. He tries to follow her outside, but fades and withers, much in the same style of the great city.

Seeking refuge in that one and only hotel, Luisa agrees to take in the desperate Dee Dee (Elizabeth Bracco), listens to her endless tales of problems with her boyfriend (and a subsequently planned flight to relatives in Natchez, Mississippi), quaffs the same beautiful view of the train and bridge through the window we see in each vignette, and is also utterly transformed by the power of "Blue Moon." Elvis' ghost (Steve Jones) appears to offer silent guidance. We hear a gunshot, and the women part, having ironically shared nothing — despite their utter commonality in romantic loss.

Joe Strummer

The final part of the trilogy, Lost in Space, begins in Shades, a dive that appears in each story. The actively trouble-making Johnny (Joe Strummer, right) produces a gun. His friend Will Robinson (Rick Aviles) gathers Elizabeth's brother Charlie (Steve Buscemi) to help rein him in. Chekhov's rule of drama deems that the gun must be used and once it is, the trio flees on a seemingly eternal drive through the inky wasteland. The same lyrical shot of the train passing over the bridge reappears, but in this disturbing part of the story, an ugly, old pickup peels underneath to imply the similarity of time and place but difference in character — that which fills time and place.

The same gunshot we heard in A Ghost brings the bellboy to the room. An electric and highly memorable three-shot of Charlie, Will, and Johnny reacting to his reaction charge the story and add energy to the getaway, which seems to work out okay — the classic riding into the sunset image is turned on its ear as we see the cops headed in one direction while the truck heads in the other.

The train, meanwhile, has its own trajectory to fulfill. In an epilogue that further unites the film and truly drives Jarmusch's case home, Dee Dee asks perfect stranger Mitsuko if this is the train to Natchez. She replies with "ohhhh . . . matches!" Frustrated, Dee Dee ends up taking a seat directly behind the Japanese couple and a wide profile shot shows all three of them, granting the viewer plenty of time to chew on this cinematic illustration of how the women share so much in common — disappointing boyfriends, obsessive chattiness, yet a stark inability to effectively communicate when necessary. Varying shots of trains fill out the credit sequence and end the film, suggesting that this problem is universal, beautiful, mighty, complicated, old, possibly unstoppable, and most of all respected as a thing of deep human beauty by Jim Jarmusch.


Sunday, May 17, 2009

Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup

"Down in Tupelo I used to hear old Arthur Crudup bang his box the way I do now, and I said 'If I ever got to the place where I could feel all old Arthur felt, I'd be a music man like nobody ever saw."
Elvis Presley

Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup (also known as "Pop" Crudup) (August 24, 1905March 28, 1974) was a delta blues singer and guitarist. Born in Forest, Mississippi and living and working in throughout the South and Midwest as a migrant worker for a time, he and his family returned to Mississippi in 1926. He sang gospel, then began his career as a blues singer around Clarksdale, Mississippi. He visited Chicago as member of the Harmonizing Four in 1939 and stayed there to work as a solo musician, but barely made a living as a street singer. Record producer, Lester Melrose allegedly found him while he was living in a packing crate, introduced him to Tampa Red and signed him to a recording contract with RCA Victor's Bluebird label.

He recorded with RCA in the late 1940s and with Ace Records, Checker Records and Trumpet Records in the early 1950s and toured throughout the country, specifically black establishments in the South, with Sonny Boy Williamson II and Elmore James. He also recorded under the names Elmer James and Percy Lee Crudup. He was popular in the South with records such as "Mean Old 'Frisco Blues", "Who's Been Foolin' You" and "That's All Right".

He knew his Blues classics like "Rock Me Mama," "Mean Old Frisco," and "My Baby Left Me" were earning royalties because they were being performed by the likes of B.B.King, Big Mamma Thorton and Bobby "Blue" Bland and many other famous Blues performers."I was making everybody rich," Crudup complained, "and here I am poor!" Then in the summer of 1954 Elvis Presley released a version of Crudup's "That's All Right."

Crudup returned to bootlegging and working as an agricultural laborer, chiefly in Virginia, where he lived with his family including three sons and several of his own siblings. On the Eastern Shore of Virginia, while he lived in relative poverty as a field laborer, he occasionally sang and supplied moonshine to a number of drinking establishments, including one called the Dew Drop Inn.

Producer Bobby Robinson records Arthur for his Fire record label in 1962, Bob Koester records him for the Delmark label in 1967, and this gives the musician a new lease of life. With the advent of Rock & Roll, Crudup's songs were further popularized by Elton John, Rod Stewart, Johnny Winter, Paul Butterfield, Tina Turner, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Canned Heat and Creedence Clearwater Revival. The resurgence of his material offered Crudup some overdue recognition, but no royalties. In 1971 Crudup filed a lawsuit for royalties owing. A figure of $60,000 was agreed upon and a cheque drafted, but the publishers refused to sign. Crudup received nothing.

He plays festivals in the USA and travels to Britain in 1970 to play some concerts. He is billed as 'The Father of Rock'n'Roll', a title that bemuses him, in 1972 he tours in Australia.His last engagements were with Bonnie Raitt.

Arthur 'Big Boy' Crudup dies in Nassawadox, Virginia on 28 March 1974.

Elvis Presley, a huge Crudup's music fan, aware of the Bluesman situation, financed Arthur's "Big Boy" recording sessions at Fire Records until '67 when he moved to Delmark. Songs recorded during that time are mostly re recordings of classics like: "Rock Me Mama", "Mean Old Frisco Blues", "Ethae Mae" & "Dig My Self A Hole". Also rerecorded two of the songs that were made famous by Presley: "So Glad You Are Mine" and "That's All Right", these time in an upbeat style, more reminiscent of Elvis records than the original slow moan of "If I Get Lucky", from with Presley took inspiration for his first Sun Single.

If I Get Lucky: The Music of Arthut "Big Bog" Crudup Vol.1

Track List:
Im in The Mood
My Mama Don't Allow Me
Look On Yonder Wall
She's Got No Hair
Never No More
Too Much Competition
I'm Gonna Dig My Self A Hole
My Baby Left Me
Shout Sister Shout
That's All Right
So Glad You Are Mine
Etha Mae
Greyhound Bus
She's Gone
Rock Me Mama
Mean Old Frisco Blues
If I Get Lucky
Cool Disposition
Give Me A 32-20
Black Pony Blues
Dirt Road Blues
Death Valley Blues


Friday, May 15, 2009

How Did Elvis Get Turned Into a Racist. By Peter Guralnick.

One of the songs Elvis Presley liked to perform in the 70s was Joe South's Walk a Mile in My Shoes, its message clearly spelled out in the title.

Sometimes he would preface it with the 1951 Hank Williams recitation Men With Broken Hearts, which may well have been South's original inspiration. You've never walked in that man's shoes/Or saw things through his eyes/Or stood and watched with helpless hands/While the heart inside you dies. For Elvis these two songs were as much about social justice as empathy and understanding: Help your brother along the road, the Hank Williams number concluded, No matter where you start/For the God that made you made them, too/These men with broken hearts.

In Elvis's case, this simple lesson was not just a matter of paying lip service to an abstract principle. It was what he believed, it was what his music had stood for from the start: the breakdown of barriers, both musical and racial. This is not, unfortunately, how it is always perceived 30 years after his death, the anniversary of which is on Thursday. When the singer Mary J. Blige expressed her reservations about performing one of his signature songs, she only gave voice to a view common in the African-American community. I prayed about it, she said, because I know Elvis was a racist.

And yet, as the legendary Billboard editor Paul Ackerman, a devotee of English Romantic poetry as well as rock and roll, never tired of pointing out, the music represented not just an amalgam of America's folk traditions (blues, gospel, country) but a bold restatement of an egalitarian ideal. In one aspect of America's cultural life, Ackerman wrote in 1958, integration has already taken place.

It was due to rock and roll, he emphasized, that groundbreaking artists like Big Joe Turner, Ray Charles, Chuck Berry and Little Richard, who would only recently have been confined to the race market, had acquired a broad-based pop following, while the music itself blossomed neither as a regional nor a racial phenomenon but as a joyful new synthesis rich with Negro and hillbilly lore.

No one could have embraced Paul Ackerman's formulation more forcefully (or more fully) than Elvis Presley.

Asked to characterize his singing style when he first presented himself for an audition at the Sun recording studio in Memphis, Elvis said that he sang all kinds of music, I don't sound like nobody. This, as it turned out, was far more than the bravado of an 18-year-old who had never sung in public before. It was in fact as succinct a definition as one might get of the democratic vision that fueled his music, a vision that denied distinctions of race, of class, of category, that embraced every kind of music equally, from the highest up to the lowest down.

It was, of course, in his embrace of black music that Elvis came in for his fiercest criticism. On one day alone, Ackerman wrote, he received calls from two Nashville music executives demanding in the strongest possible terms that Billboard stop listing Elvis's records on the best-selling country chart because he played black music. He was simply seen as too low class, or perhaps just too no-class, in his refusal to deny recognition to a segment of society that had been rendered invisible by the cultural mainstream.

Down in Tupelo, Mississippi, Elvis told a white reporter for The Charlotte Observer in 1956, he used to listen to Arthur Crudup, the blues singer who originated That's All Right, Elvis's first record. Crudup, he said, used to bang his box the way I do now, and I said if I ever got to the place where I could feel all old Arthur felt, I'd be a music man like nobody ever saw.

It was statements like these that caused Elvis to be seen as something of a hero in the black community in those early years. In Memphis the two African-American newspapers, The Memphis World and The Tri-State Defender, hailed him as a race man, not just for his music but also for his indifference to the usual social distinctions. In the summer of 1956, The World reported, the rock 'n' roll phenomenon cracked Memphis's segregation laws, by attending the Memphis Fairgrounds amusement park during what is designated as colored night.

That same year, Elvis also attended the otherwise segregated WDIA Goodwill Revue, an annual charity show put on by the radio station that called itself the Mother Station of the Negroes. In the aftermath of the event, a number of Negro newspapers printed photographs of Elvis with both Rufus Thomas and B.B. King. Thanks, man, for all the early lessons you gave me, were the words The Tri-State Defender reported he said to Mr. King.

When he returned to the revue the following December, a stylish shot of him talking shop with Little Junior Parker and Bobby "Blue" Bland appeared in Memphis's mainstream afternoon paper, The Press-Scimitar, accompanied by a short feature that made Elvis's feelings abundantly clear. It was the real thing, he said, summing up both performance and audience response. Right from the heart.

Just how committed he was to a view that insisted not just on musical accomplishment but fundamental humanity can be deduced from his reaction to the earliest appearance of an ugly rumor that has persisted in one form or another to this day. Elvis Presley, it was said increasingly within the African-American community, had declared, either at a personal appearance in Boston or on Edward R. Murrow's "Person to Person" television program, "The only thing Negroes can do for me is buy my records and shine my shoes."

That he had never appeared in Boston or on Murrow's program did nothing to abate the rumor, and so in June 1957, long after he had stopped talking to the mainstream press, he addressed the issue and an audience that scarcely figured in his sales demographic in an interview for the black weekly Jet.

Anyone who knew him, he told reporter Louie Robinson, would immediately recognize that he could never have uttered those words. Amid testimonials from black people who did know him, he described his attendance as a teenager at the church of celebrated black gospel composer, the Rev. W. Herbert Brewster, whose songs had been recorded by Mahalia Jackson and Clara Ward and whose stand on civil rights was well known in the community. (Elvis's version of "Peace in the Valley," said Dr. Brewster later, was "one of the best gospel recordings I've ever heard.")

The interview's underlying point was the same as the underlying point of his music: far from asserting any superiority, he was merely doing his best to find a place in a musical continuum that included breathtaking talents like Ray Charles, Roy Hamilton, the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi and Howlin' Wolf on the one hand, Hank Williams, Bill Monroe and the Statesmen Quartet on the other. "Let's face it," he said of his rhythm and blues influences, "nobody can sing that kind of music like colored people. I can't sing it like Fats Domino can. I know that."

And as for prejudice, the article concluded, "To Elvis people are people, regardless of race, color or creed."

So why didn't the rumor die? Why did it continue to find common acceptance up to, and past, the point that Chuck D of Public Enemy could declare in 1990, "Elvis was a hero to most... straight-up racist that sucker was, simple and plain."

Chuck D has long since repudiated that view for a more nuanced one of cultural history, but the reason for the rumor's durability, the unassailable logic behind its common acceptance within the black community rests quite simply on the social inequities that have persisted to this day, the fact that we live in a society that is no more perfectly democratic today than it was 50 years ago. As Chuck D perceptively observes, what does it mean, within this context, for Elvis to be hailed as "king," if Elvis's enthronement obscures the striving, the aspirations and achievements of so many others who provided him with inspiration.

Elvis would have been the first to agree. When a reporter referred to him as the "king of rock 'n' roll" at the press conference following his 1969 Las Vegas opening, he rejected the title, as he always did, calling attention to the presence in the room of his friend Fats Domino, one of my influences from way back. The larger point, of course, was that no one should be called king; surely the music, the American musical tradition that Elvis so strongly embraced, could stand on its own by now, after crossing all borders of race, class and even nationality.

"The lack of prejudice on the part of Elvis Presley," said Sam Phillips, the Sun Records founder who discovered him, "had to be one of the biggest things that ever happened. It was almost subversive, sneaking around through the music, but we hit things a little bit, don't you think?"

Or, as Jake Hess, the incomparable lead singer for the Statesmen Quartet and one of Elvis's lifelong influences, pointed out: "Elvis was one of those artists, when he sang a song, he just seemed to live every word of it. There's other people that have a voice that's maybe as great or greater than Presley's, but he had that certain something that everybody searches for all during their lifetime."

To do justice to that gift, to do justice to the spirit of the music, we have to extend ourselves sometimes beyond the narrow confines of our own experience, we have to challenge ourselves to embrace the democratic principle of the music itself, which may in the end be its most precious gift.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

1954-1955: Elvis at Sun Records

Great article on Elvis Sun Recordings: click right here!

Another article about Elvis during this period: click here!

Many believe Rock & Roll was born on July 5th, 1954, at Sun Studios in Memphis. Elvis Presley, guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black were horsing around with "That's All Right," a tune by bluesman Arthur Crudup, when producer Sam Phillips stopped them and asked, "What are you doing?" "Se don't know," they said. Phillips told them to "back up and do it again." The A side of Presley's first single (backed with a version of Bill Monroe's "Blue Moon of Kentucky"), "That's All Right" was issued by Sun, on July 19th. It may or may not be the first rock & roll record. But the man who would be King was officially on wax. Bridging black and white, country and blues, his sound was playful and revolutionary. As Presley biographer Peter Guralnick observed, "This is the most improbable story of all: In a tiny Memphis studio, in 1954 and 1955, Sam Phillips and Elvis Presley created rock & roll." Presley released four more singles on Sun -- including definitive reinventions of Wynonie Harris' "Good Rockin' Tonight" and Junior Parker's "Mystery Train" - before moving on to immortality at RCA. It took more than twenty years for Presley's Sun output to be properly collected on this '76 LP -- which has since been superseded by Sunrise, a double-CD chronicle of the King's beginnings at Sun, released in 1999.

From Rolling Stone Mag

Track List:

"That's All Right"<+span>
"Blue Moon of Kentucky"
"Good Rockin' Tonight"
"I Don't Care If The Sun Don't Shine"
"Milkcow Blues Boogie"
"You're a Heartbreaker"
"Baby Let#s Play House"
"I´m Left, You're Right, She's Gonne"
"Mystery Train"
" Forgot to Remember to Forget"
"Tryin' to Get to You"
"Blue Moon"
"Just Because"
"I´ll Never Let You Go (Little Darlin')"
8span class="Apple-style-span" style="font-family: 'trebuchet ms';">"Blue Moon" [Alternate Take]
"My Baby's Gonne"
"Mystery Train" [Unedited Master]
"When It Rains, It Really Pours" [Outtake]
"I Love You Because"

CD 2
"My Happiness" [Demo]
"That's When Your Heartaches Begin" [Demo]
"I´ll Never Stan In Your Way" [Demo]
"It Wouldn't Be The Same Without You" [Demo]
"I Love You Because" [Outtake]
"Harbor Lights" [Outtake]
"That's All Right" [Alternate Take]
"Blue Moon of Kentucky" [Outtake]
Intro "KWKH on Air"
"That´s All Right" [Live]
"Blue Moon of Kentucky" [live]
"I'll Never Let You Go (Little Darlin')" [Outtake]
"Blue Moon" [Alternate Take]
"I Don't Care If The Sun Don't Shine" [Atlernate Take]
Radio Spot
"Shake, Rattle & Roll" [Radio Performance]
"Fool, Fool, Fool" [Radio Performance]
"Maybellene" [Live]
"I Got a Woman" [Live]
"My Baby´s Gone" [Alternate Take]
Radio Interview with Elvis, Scotty and Bill
"Baby Let's Play House" [Live]
"Good Rockin' Tonight" [Live]
"Tweedle Dee" [Live]

Elvis Presley: Vocals & Rhythm Guitar (Piano on "Trying to Get To You").
Scotty Moore: Lead Guitar.
Bill Black: Bass.
Jimmie Lot: Drums on "Im Left, Your'e Right, She's Gonne".
Johnny Bernero: Drums on "I Forgot to Remember to Forget Her".

Recorded at Sun Studios, Memphis Tennessee.