Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Discovering The Sun Sessions: A True Story

This is an absolutely true story about how and when I discovered Elvis & The Sun Sessions. I hesitate to make a grandiose statement that this album changed my life, but it certainly has defined my musical tastes for most of my adulthood.

I’m not sure exactly what year, 80 or 81. I might have been a sophomore or junior. In college. I went to school in the rural southwestern region of New Jersey. It was Stockton college, maybe you’ve heard of it, must people have not, especially back then. I was a troubled teenager with a knack for getting into a lot of trouble and I was lucky to get into any school. I was basically ecstatic to get away from my parents and siblings and the hometown I had grown to despise, and had grown to despise me.

I loved Rock & Roll. I was a Dylan (Dylan, always Dylan) freak (still am) and in High School, it was the Grateful Dead, The Band, and Patti Smith. I also loved 50s rock. In 8th grade, my first “dance” was at this church-sponsored 50s revival dance. In the 70s there was a big 50s revival going on, sparked by Sha Na Na at Woodstock. Hell, even Phil Ochs caught the bug at Gunfight at Carnegie Hall, a record that I liked. Chuck Berry had that My Ding A Ling single, but everybody got this record with that song as well as the more respectable Chess Classics, which a lot of bands of that era covered anyway. There used to be things called cut-out bins in supermarkets, like Grandway, where I picked up a bunch of Byrds and others records—for 99 cents—and a two LP set by Howlin Wolf, all his Chess classics. I didn’t really know his name, but he had a bunch of songs done by the acts of that era. Truly revelatory. And, it had that 50s sound. I just always loved the way the instruments sounded in the recordings of that era.

One of the big Summer movies right before my Freshman year was The Buddy Holly Story. I loved that movie, as did my circle of friends. We saw it multiple times. We knew enough not to get the Gary Busey Soundtrack but the original Greatest Hits by Buddy Holly.

I was 20, finally away from my family, in a completely new environment than the suburbs in which I grew up. Meeting girls and talking about majors. I was majoring in Philosophy (with a minor in Economics and a concentration in writing, Jesus that sounds so silly now but it sounded impressive back then, around the keg or the bongs). My favorite records were: Street Legal, Marquee Moon, Give ‘Em Enough Rope, Rocket to Russia and Buddy Holly’s Greatest Hits. And, of course, I had at least 200 lps that had a lot of the 60s acts, Ochs, Jefferson Airplane, The Doors and assorted Punk/New Wave Acts. Buddy Holly was of course covered not just by the Grateful Dead, but by Blondie and the Knack.

My buddy Tony, with whom I attended many concerts during our dazed and confused high school days, went to New York University. This was basically just after the Punk Rock scene peaked, at least the New York birth had lost its luster, but some fun could still be had, like “smoke” and wander the streets, or up to museums like the Guggenheim, see Bands at nights, go to bookstores. Tony and I have been having a conversation that started when we were 13 and continues to this day.

I would take the two hour bus ride up, watch the pinelands and Jersey beach towns evolve into the Perth Amboy industrial north, glimpse the Statue of Liberty as the highway curved towards the Hudson and into a tunnel emerging into the grimy temple of the transitory, Port Authority Bus Terminal. Then, down to the subways, where I ascended into the Village, land of dreams—Piss Factory Bohemia Paradise.

For a semester or two, Tony had a had a part time job in the box office of this NYU sponsored theater company. I saw free plays, the first plays I had ever seen. My first theater experience. They were heavy stuff, like Oedipus at Colonous and Don Juan in Hell. I remember the names, although not the plays exactly. Tony would go to work, and I had to kill an hour or two walking around the Village. He always made sure I knew where I was going, where the theater was, since then and now, my sense of direction ranges from awful to nonexistent.

So, the night of the Oedipus play, I killed some time to this village record store—Bleeker Bobs. This was during the days of vinyl and only vinyl. . The store was filled with records, arranged like books in a library in addition to rows and rows of bins. The shelves on the walls were filled from floor to ceiling with LPs. The owner was on a ladder, putting away records or something. Everything had to be arranged systemically I guess.

They had a cut out bin, and I saw a record by Carl Perkins, Sun Sessions, for $2.99, which was about the only record I could afford at the time. I decided to buy it.

I get in line, which was one person long, behind a Japanese fellow. There was a guy behind the counter, and the owner of the store was in the back of the store. The Japanese guy in broken English is having an argument with the guy behind the counter and the guy behind the counter is shouting at the owner of the store, who is on a ladder arranging records on the top shelf. The owner shouted back. He was angry about something or another.

I’m just standing there, some shy dopey kid from New Jersey hoping I remember how to get from the store to the NYU theater. The Japanese guy, who is struggling with the language, is bickering with the guy behind the counter, who in turns yells to the owner way in the back of the store. The owner is standing on one of the top rungs, near the ceiling, and shouts a long spew of vulgarities. The clerk screams back at the owner, the Japanese guy screams at the clerk. Nobody else but those three screaming men and me are in the store. They are all getting really angry. The only time I had seen such anger, a fist fight ensued.

Eventually, the Japanese guy throws up his hands, leaves the records he was going to purchase on the counter, and storms out. The owner is still shouting from the back, although after the door shuts he calms down. The counter guy is shaking his head, upset. I put my $2.99 Carl Perkins cut-out on the counter and he looks at it, rings it up, says you’re really going to like this, and then puts the two records the Japanese guy was going to buy into the bag and winks at me, charging me only $2.99. I’d like to believe I was cool enough not to say a thing, but the reality was that I wasn’t sure what I was seeing, the wink, the other records in the bag. Half a block away, I looked at the records, and the receipt., which was still $2.99. The two other records? Elvis Sun Sessions and Elvis Golden Hits.

Now, at the time, which was only a few years after the death of the King, I only knew Elvis from those really crappy movies that used to play on the 4:30 Movie. I remember thinking these are worse than Gidget things. I knew nothing of his work. I may have had an inclanation towards 50s Rock & Roll, but Elvis? Wasn’t he friends with my childhood Moloch, Nixon?

I went to the play, it was this small basement, off-Broadway space. I remember having this great conversation with this NYU professor, a heavy set fellow who just engaged me in conversation. I knew nothing of Sophocles, but I was reading Plato. It was just one of those conversations one has at that age, one that you never forget. Then I watched the play, which was really hip, but don’t ask me for a synopsis. I liked it a lot though.

After the play Tony and I bought some beers and we went back to his tiny closet of an apartment to ‘smoke’ and listen to records. I told him of course about what happened, it was incredible. He says, “Well, since you got two records, you have to give me one.”

And I agreed, of course, that was the thing to do, something called Karma. He’s a buddy and if it wasn’t for him, I would not have been at Bleeker Bobs at that specific time when a sales clerk needed to get back at his boss. I decided to keep the Sun Sessions, since it had Mystery Train and I always loved the Band’s version on Moondog Matinee. Tony still had the LP when he lived in NYC, I’m not sure if made the trip to L.A.

I took Sun Sessions cause it had Mystery Train on it and I liked the Band’s version. I don’t remember listening to the records with Tony. At the time, I lived with two other guys, Dean and Drew, a drummer and guitarist in this house in Port Republic, New Jersey, deep in the pine barrens. We had a punk rock band we called The Urgency. I played rhythm guitar because I never could progress beyond making chords with my left fingers and strumming away with my right hand.

As I pry into my mind to peer into my recollections, I’m sitting around listening to the Sun Sessions with Dean and Drew for the first time, for all of us. We immediately play it twice. I listened to it again and again for days, days. It soon became one of my favorite records. By the end of the 80s, I’m a diehard Elvis fan—of his music—I had some greatest hits and other cassettes. In the 90s, I picked up all the box sets of CDS, even most
recently the Gospel Collection. I love all of Elvis, but the Sun Sessions, that’s a personal touch stone. Every time I listen to them, I’m fascinated again.

I can still see me and the college buddies, sitting in that living room, paint peeling in gashes off the wall, battered, flea-infested furniture, upholstery stained with bong water and beer, and hearing Milk Cow Boogie, the faux beginning and Elvis saying, hold on fellas, let’s get real gone for a change and then they kick in. The Beatles ruled our childhoods, classic rock our High School years until the liberation of Punk. The Sun Sessions linked these various streams, crystallized them, made them not as disparate and contradictory that the times and the marketing departments of the record companies and radio stations wanted us to believe. Another realization was the sheer awesomeness that is and always will be the music of Elvis—this was the same drugged-out fatso who made shitty movies? It was just so astounding. The innuendo or dare I say, symbolism, of the Milk Cow song, or Baby, Let’s Play House, with Elvis repeating the first syllable of Baby in an endless stream that was certainly as part of the mania of lust the song infers.

I’ve never come around to appreciating the flicks, but then and there I began to understand Elvis, the kind of Artist he was, and the weird, overpowering falsehood of celebrity. I’ve come to believe, that He Is The King, and what that really means.

Theories abound as to what was the first Rock & Roll song. Most are good theories. I’m no musicologist, but I do have my own opinion. Elvis Sun Sessions are the first Rock & Roll, that’s my historical analysis. Elvis, with Scotty Moore and Bill Black were essentially country musicians, albeit ones with big ears who were well aware of, and motivated to become adept at, the “race” music of the time, Gospel, R&B and Blues. When they play, Good Rockin Tonight, the two rivers of American Music, cross and this gave birth to Rock & Roll—the melding of Country and Jump music. Sun Sessions, by all accounts, where a loose affair, with Phillips basically pressing the record button. Research shows this to be apocryphal mythmaking, but there has to be a kernel of truth to it because it sounds so spontaneous, an accident that everybody immediately clued into and rode it for all it was worth. You hear these guys discovering something—and no matter how many times you hear the Sun Sessions, or how many decades have passed since the recordings were made—you still hear their making that discovery. Take a listen to Mystery Train and keep an ear out for the bridge in the middle of the song. Kicking everything into gear is Elvis, strumming powerful rhythm guitar, lifting the tempo by the necessary increment that transforms the moment into timeless musical ecstasy. Only a few seconds long, the guitar by Elvis here is one the best examples of rhythm guitar in Rock & Roll ever burned into wax. As Johnny Cash pointed out in one of his autobiographies, what makes the Sun Sessions better than anything RCA released is the guitar playing by Elvis.

The discovery that was made in that Memphis studio, I as a listener experienced as well, and I believe all listeners do (or will or should). The listener is beholding the unfolding nativity of Rock & Roll, a moment so powerful it has persists in numerous incarnations to our current era.

I’ve read at least a dozen books on Elvis—even prepared a book proposal once with Tony (he’s a lawyer) about an aspect of Elvis that never quite got off the ground, but took a lot of research, research that I gladly conducted—and as mentioned, I have listened to just about everything. He could never quite replicate the Sun Sessions, although components of the recordings—like that powerful velvet voice—were actually presented in better contexts later in the career. As much as being a great, landmark recording of Rock & Roll, the Sun Sessions are also a document of the first discovery of that genre. When I heard it way back then, that discovery, so beguiling and uncanny, was part of my own discovery. I knew nothing about the Sun Sessions or their significance. The discovery the listener makes is the same discovery Elvis is making.

The Sun Sessions belong to what I consider the deepest records. Now, there are many landmark recordings, many watershed moments, but they are not always the deep, by which I mean that they transcend music and are comparable to the great literature of masters such as Melville, Rimbaud, Blake, Huysman, Faulkner, Raymond Carver, Flannery O’Connor, Whitman, to name a few. In other words, comparable to Shakespeare and with Shakespeare, can stand next to Scripture. These are recordings to go Deep into the soul of humanity, speak about and to the human condition, Other recordings in this category, include but are not limited to, Horses, Blood on the Tracks, In The Wee Small Hours, What’s Goin On, Darkness on the Edge of Town, Love Supreme, The Hissing of Summer Lawns (and everything by Howlin Wolf and most everything by Muddy Waters!)

Please note: These are not just landmark recordings, or a best of list. These are records that transcend music. I would have included several other Dylan recordings, but didn’t want to cloud the issue further. Feel free to ad which ever one you like, you will not be wrong.

Anyway, the Sun Sessions belongs on this list. And, I GOT IT FREE! My love of 50s music spread to R&B, Rockabilly, Country and Jazz. The only causality of this story was Carl Perkins. I liked the record, like his music, but I never really picked up anything else or bought a CD version. I do not blame Carl, but the Elvis Sun Sessions—and the way I got it—how could Carl ever match up?

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