Elvis at 34

Elvis Presley died 34 years ago today. What better way to remember the King than to look back at his 34th year of life?

Elvis turned 34 in January of 1969. The once reigning King of popular music had become something of a pop cliche by the 60s, known best for his string of simple but pleasing feature films. In 1968, his now legendary “comeback special” (which aired in December on NBC) reminded the world that not only was the man an amazing talent, but that he still “had it.”

On the heels of his resurgence in popularity, Elvis took to the stage again for his first live performances in almost 8 years. In July, he opened at the International Hotel in Las Vegas for an extended stay, playing his first show to 2000 adoring fans who couldn’t have imagined the historic scope of the event they attended.

In that audience was a young baby named Tomás.

No! Just kidding. I wasn’t born yet. But when I entered this world three years later, the Elvis stage performances which began in those weeks of the summer 1969 had been honed and perfected. In terms of his stage presence, he was never better in his post-50s period than he was from 1969 to 1972. By that time, however, the excesses (food, drugs, and production design) regularly overcame the talent, as the King became little more than a cardboard cut-out of his once great image.

But we’ll always have 1969! Here’s the King in sound and (often) un-synched video from some of those 1969 shows.

Racism, Riots, and “Reality”

When a police officer shoots and kills a person of color, whether in the US or in Britain, most in so-called civil society wait until some sort of formal inquiry or investigation before passing judgment. This is a necessary thing to do from the perspective of any system of authority in a democratic society.

However, the people who plead for patience until “all the facts have been observed,” or who castigate others for “rushing to judgment” before such a process is concluded, and do so while demanding others share their level of faith in the investigatory process must also acknowledge that there are other ways of seeing the situation, other ways of feeling about it.

I don’t pretend to be an expert about what it happening in Britain right now, but I feel my understanding of the same sorts of dynamics in the US does offer me a particular perspective on the ways inequality creates undercurrents of tension and hopelessness which can explode in any “democracy” at particular moments.

While this moment is surely more complicated than few paragraphs of thought can capture, one of the fundamental forces at work is a subjective reality that is not part of the mainstream. This is a reality framed by experience after experience that says when a cop shoots a black man it means race is involved, it means power is using unregulated violence to keep others in check, it means injustice. In this reality whether or not the person of color did something wrong, came from a bad background, or has known connections to gangs is not as relevant as other factors.

Which side it right? The question is as meaningless as any answer you can devise. The significant thing for any society to grasp at a moment like this is that there are competing ways of knowing and understanding what is happening. One might consider for a moment which is worse: riots causing damage to person and property, all with no end in sight; or a reality framed by so much violence, anger, and abuse that mass violence to property feels like a solution.

In any real democracy, the answer to that question should be as obvious as any ever asked.

The Journey

In a matter of mere hours, for the very first time in our lives, my wife and I will be the parents of a kindergartener.

It seems like decades ago that my son was born. While I can remember life without children–vividly–that time feels long past. He feels like he’s been with us forever. I’ve watched him grow from this little baby into this amazing young kid, filled with energy, creativity, wondering, humor, and love. His entire life, a story contained within my memory.

Yet how much of our first five or six years of life do we count among the significant moments of our present selves? It’s so strange to me that all this time that we have spent as his parents is but a prologue to the story of his own life, as he writes it and reads it from a not too distant future.

Whatever he does, however he lives, it all takes on a new direction now. School will be the setting of the majority of his waking life for the next 13 years. It will seem like an eternity to him.

It will seem like a moment to me.

I love you mijo…

Gene McDaniels

I am saddened at the news of the passing of Gene McDaniels. One of the most eclectic, soulful, political, gentle, and passionate talents in modern jazz/soul music, McDaniels was 76.

You can read about his life and career here. I hope you do.

I came to know the work of McDaniels in the early 90s when he started to become a favorite source of sampling in the hip hop world. It wasn’t until almost a decade later, however, that I started to appreciate the full range of his talent. The deep soul of his music, complimented by the thoughtful and intelligent lyrics he penned, made him a rare gem in a world of superstars.

My favorite song of his has always been “Compared to What.” An investigation of racism and US hypocrisy, it was both an angry song rooted in the moment of the late 60s as well as a prescient warning. In the last year, McDaniels took to YouTube to speak to his fans through a series of videos featured on his own channel. Here’s Gene discussing “Compared to What”:

And here is Les McCann and Eddie Harris’ wonderful live performance of the song (as featured on the former’s albume Swiss Movement):

McDaniels had a deep conscience and used his art to speak out on our collective inhumanity to one another. His ability to critically address issues of race, gender, power, and class while still being meaningfully artistic in a golden age of soul music says a lot about the man and his scope.

Beginning in 1970, armed with the freedom that came with his success after a decade of busting his artistic hump, he created two of the most overtly political and smart albums of all time. The first, Outlaw was something new for the once-pop/soul singer some had once compared to Jackie Wilson. A fusion of urban sounds ranging from jazz to funk and rock, the album (his first on the Atlantic label) was a radical coming out party. It’s a hard album to summarize, but this track “Love Letter to America” is suggestive of the unique blend of styles it contained:

“Welfare City”, also from Outlaw, sounds almost like 1967 but contains more than a few of his purposeful hybridity.

His 1971 follow-up, Headless Heroes Of The Apocalypse is even bolder than Outlaws. The story of the aftermath of the album is now legend in music. Due to his overt radicalism, someone in the Nixon administration called to complain to Ahmet Ertegun and encourage him to fire McDaniels. Whether that was the cause or not I do not know, but it was McDaniels’ final release for the label.

Here’s “Jager the Dagger” from the 1971 album:

And here is one of my favorites of his from Headless, “Supermarket Blues”:

For all the controversy of his career, McDaniels possessed a beautiful voice, a gift which rivaled his artistry with lyrics and sound. Here he is in a performance from earlier this year, the one of the last videos uploaded to his YouTube channel.

Rest in peace brother…

MONDAY BLUES (08.01.11)

Back with bullet! The legendary Albert King performing “Blues Power” live and in color!  The song was part of his recorded concerts at the Fillmore Auditorium (San Francisco) in June 1968, concerts which generated three live albums–Live Wire/Blues Power, Wednesday Night in San Francisco, and Thursday Night in San Francisco.

This video is of a 1970 performance at the same music hall Fillmore East.