Friday, November 13, 2009
Nowhere Land (Part One)
Over the next four days, I'm going to be running a four-part excerpt from my book Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles' Utopian Dream. These installments will give, for those interested in taking the course at the LIFE Institute at Ryerson in January, an idea of the theme of the lectures. For everyone else, hopefully it might raise interest in your reading the whole book.
When rock 'n' roll first began its promise was pretty basic. The music told us that good times lay ahead. And with that primary assurance, a captivating pact was struck with listeners: The world was going to be a different place than it was today. As early as 1954, Bill Haley proposed a simple pledge when he said we'd find our freedom by putting our glad rags on and rocking around the clock. The song did more, though, than just rock around the clock. Youth riots broke out in movie houses after it was featured in the opening credits of The Blackboard Jungle (1955), an otherwise cautionary story about juvenile delinquency. In the same year as Bill Haley, The Penguins, a quietly graceful doo-wop group with ultimately only one hit up their sleeve, promised us a world of feasible pleasures when they asked us in "Earth Angel": Will you be mine? In answer, people danced with their hips moving just a little bit closer to their partners'. When Elvis Presley first decided to shake his hips on national television, nations of eager teenagers were given permission to do likewise -- and shake them they did.
But for the 15-year-old John Lennon, from Liverpool, England, there was something more to the promise rock offered than just putting your glad rags on and wiggling your hips. Lennon was looking for a way out of his frustrated life in his indigent seaport town. Often he found himself dreaming of being in a plane, flying over Liverpool, escaping altogether. Other times, he was on a giant horse, galloping unfettered, until his own fears detained him and he ended up home feeling frustrated and defeated. One night, though, in May 1956, Lennon discovered a way out, a possible means of escape, when he caught something extraordinary on Radio Luxembourg, which played all the American rock, blues and R&B music that the BBC didn't allow. Lennon was listening to "The Jack Johnson Show" when he first heard the voice of Elvis Presley singing "Heartbreak Hotel."
Lennon had first heard of Presley through his friend Don Beatty, who had shown him Elvis's photo in a copy of New Musical Express, and told him how great a song "Heartbreak Hotel" was. Lennon had only heard Bill Haley's songs to that point. He would even remember his mother Julia dancing to Haley, but the music did nothing for him. As for "Heartbreak Hotel," the title alone came across as phony and corny to the demanding Lennon. But the great benefit of radio then, now lost to generations used to strictly formatted playlists or Ipods, was that on occasion it offered you the serendipity of discovery. There was always the chance you'd hear something you expected to find or perhaps might never find again. That's how Lennon finally encountered "Heartbreak Hotel" and he knew he had to own that record. "When I first heard 'Heartbreak Hotel' I could hardly make out what was being said," Lennon recalled. "It was just the experience of hearing it and having my hair stand on end. We'd never heard American voices singing like that." And more than Elvis's voice, which to Lennon sounded like Frankie Laine, Johnny Ray and Tennessee Ernie Ford rolled into one; he realized all at once that nothing existed for him but rock 'n' roll. From that day onwards, he thought of little else. Besides containing a sound that encompassed him, it spoke to him of freedom, sex and youthful rebellion. "Heartbreak Hotel" also opened up something else to Lennon. But he wasn't sure what it was exactly.
After Elvis launched his meteoric career at Sun Records in Memphis a couple of years earlier, in 1954, with his startling and still unmatched performances of "That's All Right" and "Mystery Train," "Heartbreak Hotel" became Presley's debut single for RCA Records. The origins of the song began with a steel guitarist from Georgia named Tommy Durden, who had been playing country music in Florida since the forties. In 1955, Durden met Glenn Reeves, a Jacksonville DJ and singer, who promptly introduced him to Mae Axton, a schoolteacher, also an eager publicist for local country music performers. Durden told Axton a story about a man who committed suicide and left a note that said, "I walk a lonely street." In trying to imagine why the man in the story walked to the end of that lonely street, they decided to write a song about where he might have ended up had he not killed himself. That place with no known address became Heartbreak Hotel. Axton went to the annual DJ convention in Nashville in November 1955 and pitched the song to Elvis, who was enticed to record it when he was given a share of the writer's credit. Jack Strapp, who owned Tree Music (and sponsored the convention), purchased the tune and Elvis recorded it in his first RCA session.
Despite the popularity of "Heartbreak Hotel," which would get to Number One on April 21, 1956, it is not one of Elvis's best sides. He puts so much melodramatic affectation into his performance of this torch ballad that it inadvertently comes across as a parody of the blues. But maybe what Lennon heard in the song was what Leonard Marnham, the English post office technician stationed in Berlin, hears in Ian McEwen's 1990 novel, The Innocent. Bored with his routine life, Marnham turns on the radio one night and, like Lennon, suddenly finds "Heartbreak Hotel." McEwen describes Marnham's reaction to the song this way:
It spoke only of loneliness and irresolvable despair. Its melody was all stealth, its gloom comically overstated. He loved it all, the forlorn, sidewalk tread of the bass, the harsh guitar, the sparse tinkle of a barroom piano...The song's self-pity should have been hilarious. Instead it made Leonard feel worldly, tragic, bigger somehow.
No question that the song tells an alluring tale capable of pulling you out of your ordinary life. It's about a man who is abandoned by his girl, as Lennon himself was by his own mother when he was five. He has found a new place to abide, right down Lonely Street, there at Heartbreak Hotel. But the hotel gives the singer no comfort; it's a phantom residence. The singer is alone, and so destitute he wishes he could die. The idea of this metaphorical hotel of the heart, this "new place to dwell," spoke deeply to the young Lennon, who would hear his own loneliness and desolation in the song. But also out of that pain, he would hear his own possible, brighter future. By traveling in his mind to Heartbreak Hotel, John Lennon started to imagine a place beyond it. There's a place in this sound, he thought, to find one's salvation. Of course there is. There's a place, don't you know that it's so?
Excerpt from the book Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles' Utopian Dream (Praeger, 2009).
Posted by Critics at Large at 12:35 PM