Who’s up for some Elvis tonight? brendancalling put together what looks to be a fun playlist of Elvis to go along with tonight’s postcard thread. Here’s his playlist: Balloon Juice Elvis.
We get a bonus Elvis story, too, the length of which might be slipping into Tony Jay territory, though the idiots and assholes in the story are right here in the states!
POSTCARDS / WISCONSIN ELECTION April 4
This time around, postcards are one way we can make a difference.
Addresses are from Voces de la Frontera. If you want to write postcards, send email to WaterGirl at balloon-juice.com and let us know your nym, which campaign you want to write for and how many addresses you would like to start with.
You can start writing at any time. Details at the link.
Brendan’s Elvis Story
I have no shame about loving Elvis. He’s good rockin’ and was, despite his many flaws and addictions, a pretty decent guy. He always credited Black people with inventing rock-n-roll, publicly saying that Fats Domino was the real King of rock (I’d say it’s Chuck Berry, but I’m not Elvis).
However, I’m not interested in whatever arguments are to be made about the politics of Elvis (or Elvis’s politics): that’s what the comments section is for. Instead, I’d like to share a personal story: what those of us doing the music thing like to call a Gig From Hell—and yes, it involves Elvis.
After a few years of living in Nashville, I was finally sort of getting recognized by other musicians as at least a semi-competent colleague. Trading numbers with strangers was just something you did, because who knows when you’d get a good gig, and the callbacks were getting steadier. That’s probably how I got a call from a promoter I’d never met. He needed a bass player to back up an Elvis impersonator. The offer was $300—for me— for two 45-minute sets, plus a per diem, my own hotel room, and transport provided. Leave early on Saturday, get home early on Sunday, about a month to prepare. The catch was that there was no practice scheduled, and the band would have their first (and only) rehearsal during set up at the venue.
I’ve played rockabilly, country, and old rock-n-roll for a long time so I’m pretty familiar with Elvis; even with those red flags, I said yes (what can I say, I needed the money). “They’re consummate pros,” said the promoter, “and as long as you practice the songs at home, everything will go fine.” Later that day, the set list arrived: it was nearly 40 songs. How we were going to cram that many tunes into 90 minutes was a mystery to me, but I got down to work.
I’m pretty familiar with Elvis–oh Brendan, you poor sweet summer child. I soon realized I had perhaps bitten off more than I could chew. Although “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Hound Dog” and other classics were represented in the set, along with a few of his movie songs, the majority of the songs were from Elvis’s Vegas performances: “Hurt”; “Kentucky Rain”; “I Just Can’t Help Believin’”; “My Way”. These are not easy songs where you can just go on autopilot. These are highly arranged numbers, with multiple parts and tricky changes that demand precision. But “in for a penny, in for a pound”, and I like a good challenge. Luckily the promoter had sent an abundance and redundance (is that a word?) of charts: Nashville number system, chord charts, AND sheet music (which I haven’t been able to properly read for years).
Another problem was the timing. I had to spend a week in Canada without practice visiting my kid. When I got back, I was beginning to panic—I was behind the 8-ball and the gig was in 6 days. It’s no exaggeration to say that I barely left my house that week. I worked from home at the time—covering daytime cable TV for Raw Story, but that’s another tale entirely—so the minute I was off one clock, I was on the other, practicing these songs from 4:00 to 6:00 in the afternoon and then again from 8:00-11:00 at night. I practiced to the point where I began to actually LIKE “Kentucky Rain”, especially that brief measure of 3/4 that shows up once in the whole dang song. “The Wonder of You”? That became my JAM—I love that chord progression (the lyrics themselves are insipid). Same with “Hurt”. Say what you will about late-stage Elvis, his band does NOT mess around. Those guys are tighter than—well, I was going to make a reference to Mike Pence’s ass at a gay pride parade, but it just seemed inappropriate. Anyway, the bass lines are AMAZING and the beat is relentless. And speaking of the bass lines, some were so complicated I literally had to retrain myself to read staff notation so I could accurately replicate the more difficult parts [I have to admit I’m damned proud of this.]
By Friday, even though I still needed some of the charts, I was pretty much ready to go. We had received the itinerary earlier in the week, which called for a 5:00 AM van call, due to the six hour trip to the venue. Once there, we would set up immediately, and have our one rehearsal, which would cover everything.
That’s when the drummer called to discuss sharing the driving.
Now, to be honest, I don’t remember when the arrangement went from “transport provided” to “van provided for you to drive yourselves,” but that had already become fait accompli. Like I said, I should have noted the red flags. Anyway, after making introductions, he quickly offered a proposal.
“Here’s my thinking,” he said. “If we leave at 5:00, by the time we get there we’ll have to get to work right away setting up and we’ll be EXHAUSTED.”
“Instead, I’d like to suggest we leave at 3:00 AM,” he went on. “That way we can crash out at the hotel, take a shower, maybe eat something…”
I wasn’t too thrilled about getting up that early, but it DID make some sense. So I agreed, even though my girlfriend was landing in Nashville at 10:00 pm that night. Thinking that by the time we got home from the airport/unpacked/settled in, I’d be getting maybe 2-3 hours of sleep, I decided just to stay up all night. I remarked to the drummer that I’d been working really hard on the songs, and was excited to play.
“Me too,” he said. “Although I had some difficulty with the charts.”
“Yeah, some of them weren’t in the right key or didn’t match up with the recording,” I agreed. “But I was able to get everything straight.”
“My main problem was I didn’t understand some of the terms,” the drummer said. “Like, what’s a ‘coda’? I had to look that up on Google. Eventually I just gave up.” He sighed. “I figure I’ll just play a beat, and lay out on the hard parts. ‘When in doubt, lay out’, right?” Meanwhile, I was sitting on the other side of the phone wide-eyed and jaw-dropped. He doesn’t know what a coda is? I thought, as I mentally began running through the charts. [A coda, for those of you who aren’t trained musicians, is a concluding section that’s distinct from the rest of the song—a good example is Duane Allman’s guitar theme at the end of Clapton’s “Layla.” It’s not an obscure term by any means. Certainly not to someone the promoter had described as “a consummate pro.”]
“Um… have you checked out some of these songs?” I asked him. “I… I don’t know if laying out will work.”
“Aw, we’ll figure it out, no worries. Anyway, see you at 3:00!”
There was no time to nap. I spent the rest of the day practicing, running to the local big-box store tto pick up a binder and sheet protectors for the charts, obtaining a music stand from a friend, packing. I shot by the airport to get my girl, dropped by the old Prince’s Hot Chicken off of Dickerson Pike for a late night nosh, and headed to the meet up. By this time, I should mention, it was raining.
Outside the house was some guy I didn’t recognize, looking more than a little irritated. I don’t think he ever gave me his name. “Are you the bass player? The van should be here in a minute,” he said. “But I need you to come into my house, because I have some… concerns.” He sounded exactly like the oncologist telling my family my mom wasn’t going to make it.
So I went in, and we sat down. That’s when the unnamed musician—a keyboard/guitar player, if I’m remembering this right— told me that he too was concerned about the drummer, but that the more pressing concern was the van. “The hood doesn’t open and there’s no spare tire,” he said. “And not only that, there are no registration papers. So if something happens… we’re kinda screwed.” By this time it was past 3:00 and said van had not yet arrived. “I’ve been trying to call the promoter all night, but he’s not answering his phone,” he added, scowling.
Just then we heard the van pull into the driveway. I stepped outside, and looked in the back window: there, like a pile of garbage, was a whole mess of equipment. Drum cases, a mixing board, cables, speakers, all in disarray, thrown in there indiscriminately. The drummer kindly pointed out the obvious, that we’d have to pull everything out and reload it to get in the keyboards and my bass equipment. There was no room on the remaining bench seat either, so no one was going to catch a few Z’s en route. And now it was 3:30.
The keyboard/guitar player, meanwhile, had finally reached the promoter and they were arguing intensely about the van. “I don’t want to drive down in this, it’s unacceptable,” I could hear him saying. “What if we get pulled over? What if there’s a breakdown? Yes I know— Yes but— No, I don’t want to —”
I leaned against the van. Looked at my phone: 3:45 AM. Looked at the massive pile of heavy equipment that would have to be removed and repacked, in the rain.
I’d been awake for nearly 24 hours.
The drummer didn’t know what a coda was.
The angry keyboard guy was arguing with the promoter over the unregistered potential deathtrap we were supposed to use for a 12 hour round trip. When we’d been promised a driver.
The rain grew steadier. No rehearsal. No sleep. I thought about the countless hours I’d spent learning these cheesy Vegas showstoppers, re-learning staff notation, and rewriting incorrect charts. All that work.
“Kentucky Rain” began playing maddeningly through my head. Kentucky rain keeps pouring doooooooown/ and up ahead’s another tooooooooown that I’ll go walking through/with the rain in my shoes…
And in fact, I HAD just stepped in a puddle, and now my right foot was soaking wet and cold.
I am not one to back out on a gig, but I had seen enough. Without saying a word, I got in my truck, gave my sleeping girlfriend a quick peck on the cheek and said “to Hell with this, we’re going home.”
And that’s just what we did.
And with that, let’s have some Elvis. Let’s have some cool young Elvis, some movie Elvis, some bloated Vegas Elvis, some bands that influenced Elvis, some cool bands influenced by Elvis, and my favorite Elvis of all—his recently re-mastered Stax recordings. We’ll hear some jump blues from the likes of Wynonie Harris and Roy Brown, get a taste of the original rockers The Treniers, discover some bands like the Cramps, Andrea and Mud, and J.D. McPherson, and of course lots of the poor kid from Tupelo. I made a point in this setlist of duplicating some tunes: for example, I’m not going to play Elvis’s version of “Hound Dog” without playing Big Mama Thornton’s version first—that’s where he got it from, after all, and she deserves her credit. Same with “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” and others. I grouped the “Elvis covers/influenced by Elvis” bands together. I’m in one of those videos (won’t tell you which) but please do check out the Royal Hounds and Andrea and Mud.
But we’ll start with a little Gillian Welch and David Rawlings before we go for that deep dive. Hope y’all enjoy.