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Monthly Archives: June 2016

Back to Memphis.

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As I watch tonight’s YouTube viewing of choice, I’m watching a man whose life in the spotlight is about to fall away from him.

I’m also looking at his boss, Elvis Presley.

For context: This week marks the anniversary of the last week Elvis ever worked.

After the June 19 show in Omaha, the King stumbled for another week through the Midwest, playing shows in Lincoln, Rapid City, Sioux Falls, Des Moines, Madison, Cincinnati and, on the 26th, Indianapolis. (Two of those shows were filmed for a regrettable — and, as it turned out, posthumous — network TV special.)

After the June 26 show, Elvis went home to Graceland. He hadn’t held a recording session since the prior October, and he didn’t hold any more before his death in mid-August.

This, then, is the anniversary of the last week Elvis spent at his principal occupation — making music.

I’ll withhold most judgment on the quality of the music he was making at the time, except to say the June 19 Omaha concert is a less depressing experience when you can watch the film. I’ve had a recording for years, and it’s a hugely dispiriting listen. But the sight of Elvis’s porky smirk and the remnants of a gleam in his eye redeem things a little bit. Although he’s in dismal shape, he doesn’t look as bad as he sounds.

This week in ’77 also would have been the last week in the arena spotlight for Elvis’s longtime crony, Charlie Hodge.

Hodge, a diminutive Alabamian, had sung in a gospel quartet and picked a little guitar as a young man. He’d had the good fortune to meet Elvis backstage in 1955 and the even greater fortune to be stationed near Elvis in the Army, where he used their shared showbiz experience to strike up a friendship.

(Hodge’s Wiki entry, which appears to have been given a thorough scrubbing by the Charlie Hodge Appreciation Society, claims that Hodge appeared on network television before his famous future boss. Perhaps he did.)

When Elvis filmed his legendary 1968 comeback special, Hodge’s musical ability and place in Elvis’s inner circle landed him a spot in the show’s rowdy small-band jam sessions.

And when Elvis returned to live performing that year, Hodge was again at his side — fetching towels, bringing drinks, holding mics, strapping Elvis into his guitar, and singing backup and strumming unmic’d acoustic guitar when not otherwise needed.

Reportedly, the members of the Memphis Mafia spent much of their abundant free time coming up with reasons to be jealous of one another. Hodge was a particularly ripe target: Alone among Elvis’s entourage, he got to be on stage every night, in close proximity to the King, sharing the attention.

Watching the Omaha film, it’s difficult to tell just how much he enjoyed the privilege by the end.

His smile seems genuine enough at times … but then there are times when he reaches for the mic and Elvis won’t give it to him, or when Elvis pantomimes kicking him in the rear end, and the cruelty under the boys-will-be-boys routine seems to show itself.

(Peter Guralnick’s excellent biography of Elvis says that, about two weeks prior to the Omaha show, Elvis hit Hodge in the nose forcefully enough to draw blood during a discussion of cars Elvis had given to some of his lieutenants. It could be, then, that Hodge’s relationship with Elvis was more strained during these last shows than it had been previously.)

Elsewhere, Hodge can be seen standing apprehensively in the background while Elvis launches into flannel-tongued between-song monologues. Even after many nights of watching Elvis embarrass himself onstage, that couldn’t have been pleasant.

And then there’s the start of “And I Love You So,” where Hodge dispenses his usual supplies and retreats to the background. He wrings his hands briefly, pulls up his pants, and finally settles into a sort of subservient parade-rest posture, unable for the moment to escape the fact that he is 42 years old and makes his living handing out towels and water to a former friend he can now scarcely recognize.

I wonder if Hodge ever thought, at moments like that: “I could have been my own boss. I could have stayed in the Army and been an officer by now. I could have married the local Chevy dealer’s daughter and gone into the business. Instead I run like a squirrel around the stage of the Omaha Civic Auditorium, trying to stay two steps ahead of a guy who swears at me when the mic feeds back. But what else can I do with myself at this point?”

Whether he liked the setup or not, it had almost run its course on that night in Omaha. Less than two months later, Hodge would be trimming and coloring his boss’s sideburns in preparation for his funeral.

In addition to co-writing the obligatory book, Hodge spent some of his remaining years as an onstage gofer to Elvis tribute artists — doing the same things he did for Elvis, on much smaller stages, for performers who presumably treated him humanely and with respect, and in front of audiences who bought tickets as much to see him as to see the Elvis impersonator.

I suppose that passes for a happy ending, when you’ve gone that far down the road of professional subservience.

I still like to imagine Hodge clad in ’70s polyester, killing time during soundcheck in Springfield or Tuscaloosa or one of the other second-rank ports of call where Elvis played at the end, mulling the eternal question:

Is it better to be renowned for your fetching than to be anonymous for your bossing?

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Rear View: Attacking the Vatican.

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Uncle Meat is the new Astral Weeks.

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Uncle Meat includes more harpsichord than any post-Chuck Berry pop album you’ve ever heard. Its decks are positively awash in harpsichord. For you harpsichord freaks in the crowd, it is a sure-shot must-own.

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Uncle Meat, its fondness for 18th-century keyboard instruments aside, is also a record where a whole lot of stuff sounds disorientingly unlike what it’s supposed to. The skies are purple and the trees are blue in Uncle Meat’s alternate universe.

Some of these sonic variations are low-tech — like bassist Roy Estrada’s prodigious dude-sounds-like-a-lady falsetto, or the unexpected cameo appearance of operatic soprano Nelcy Walker on “Dog Breath, In The Year Of The Plague.”

Others are the result of studio tomfoolery. Clarinets sound like trumpets. Voices sound like chipmunks. Electric organs sound like theremins. Unprocessed horns gibber like tropical birds. Something swings like a loose door in the wind on the ominous “We Can Shoot You,” and flickers and trills like a piccolo on “A Pound For a Brown On The Bus.”

(Speaking of things that depart from the norm, the fade at the end of “Pound For a Brown” isn’t quite as advertised either.)

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Uncle Meat is somewhere between a slap and a Bronx cheer, delivered simultaneously in five languages you do not speak.

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Uncle Meat is the last album the notoriously fastidious Frank Zappa recorded with average musicians.

The Zappa/Mothers narrative says that Zappa emerged from the California desert with a head full of doo-wop, R&B, Varese and Stravinsky. He brought with him an ex-bar band that could cover the first two influences in their sleep, then added hired guns more familiar with the latter two.

Uncle Meat, released in April 1969, was the last album the Mothers recorded with Zappa’s desert cohort — Ray Collins on vocals, Estrada on bass, Jimmy Carl Black on drums and Euclid James “Motorhead” Sherwood on saxophone — alongside the hired guns.

Zappa broke up the band later that year, and when he relaunched the Mothers in 1970, they were fully staffed by skilled players like George Duke and Aynsley Dunbar.

By the mid-’70s, Zappa’s lineups had acquired their now-legendary status — studio-quality players who could turn out 17/8 riffs in unison, when not executing their boss’s twisted idea of a stage show.

And yet, things were never quite the same without the bar-band contingent.

Maybe Zappa’s eternal ’50s steals sounded more convincing being delivered by guys for whom that style hadn’t always been an ironic joke.

Or maybe the presence of the dudes from the desert was the last thing grounding Zappa … once they were gone, he was free to disappear into a black hole of hemidemisemiquavers.

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 “You guys listen to the worst shit.”

-one of my oldest and dearest friends, upon walking into the room where my brand-new CD copy of Uncle Meat was playing for only the second or third time, circa 1989.

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 Uncle Meat, on a certain level, is one of the friendliest and most accessible records out there.

How so? Well, it’s full of people talking. And nothing’s warmer or more natural than the sound of people talking, right? Moreso even than singing.

Everywhere you go you hear people talking. It’s the most common and comforting sound there is. (Its absence, in contrast, can be highly discomfiting.)

Three of the album’s tracks are entirely spoken-word, while a fourth, the deathless “Ian Underwood Whips It Out,” begins with a lengthy monologue.

Elsewhere, spoken bits pop up at the beginnings and ends of songs. Best is the apparent interview segment at the end of “Electric Aunt Jemima,” which captures Zappa’s contrarian attitude more concisely than any other five seconds of audio.

Uncle Meat, along with the other early Zappa/Mothers albums, takes a sledgehammer to the notion that a “pop” album has to consist of 10 to 14 tracks of shined-up, conventionally orchestrated pop, presented in an uninterrupted row.

Instead, it argues, there’s a place for the people who conceived and performed the music to express themselves, without having to craft a song to do so.

(One could say the same for Having Fun With Elvis On Stage. If you want to make the argument, go right ahead. I’ll read it.)

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Uncle Meat reached No. 43 on the Billboard album chart.

This is not at all bad for a double album with a thoroughly unattractive cover, portraying some sort of baroque dental exam …

… an album on which jazz, pop, R&B, and modern classical music collide haphazardly and not always tunefully …

… an album with no hit single, and indeed no single at all, whose leadoff/title track sounds like a military march from behind the Iron Curtain until it dissipates into tape-wavery coughing noises.

For all his kvetching about America’s plastic culture, and his constant lampooning of people not hip enough to understand “real music,” Frank Zappa sold a bunch more LPs than he might have.

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Uncle Meat was very nearly the name I convinced my son to call my brother, when my son was a toddler and easily influenced.

My brother escaped, but it was a near thing.

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Uncle Meat in its CD form contains 40-plus minutes of dialogue from the unfinished movie of the same name, plus an early-’80s “bonus track” in which an Italian journalist (whose voice resembles a particularly stroked-out Zappa) boasts in Sicilian about the size of his John Thomas.

These are not part of the original album and around here we tend not to speak of them.

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Speaking of the Iron Curtain, as we were a few grafs ago, we know Vaclav Havel was a Zappa fan of many years’ standing, and Czechoslovakia’s foremost underground band named itself after a Zappa song.

Imagine, then, dubbed copies of Uncle Meat in the hands of the few brave Czech longhairs, back in the day.

Imagine the weirdness of Uncle Meat, amplified a few hundred times by geographical and cultural distance. Imagine what colorful images arose in the minds of the Plastic People as they contemplated what “The Legend of the Golden Arches” could possibly mean.

Imagine Uncle Meat not as a sprawling, self-important, impenetrable mess … but as an inspiration, and a rare cultural ray of daylight in a repressive sea of gray.

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Uncle Meat bent my mind like a five-cent coathanger when I was maybe 11 or 12 and starting to sort out my notions of what grown-up rock n’ roll music might be.

I have maybe been a little disappointed in everything else since.