Real Life Rock (03/12/79)

The renegade daughter of the Carter Family has been gigging around the state recently, and her show at The Boarding House in San Francisco this January proved she has little in common with the current crop of young white female solo singers—Nic­olette Larson, Emmylou Harris, Valerie Carter. They lean toward the country music that could have been hers for the taking, all the while keeping a cool eye on the middle of the road. Carlene Carter means to rock.

At the same venue last August, Carter sang with Graham Par­ker’s superb band, The Rumour, who played on her surprising debut album, Carlene Carter. This time she worked with Clover, the Marin County outfit who backed Elvis Costello on My Aim Is True. Both bands are strong and loud, veterans where Carter is an upstart; both add roughness and force to Carter’s aggressive love songs, which are never arranged as if she’s afraid of being drowned out. But compared to the Clover show, the performance with The Rumour seemed tentative. There’s a lot more R &B in her voice now, and hardly a taste of country—just a few good Tennessee inflections when the feeling of a piece calls them out.

“This is where I turn my back on my heritage,” Carter announced as she kicked into “Ring of Fire”—written by her mother, June Carter Cash, and Merle Kilgore—and delivered a performance that sounded more like a big-city version of Bobby Fuller’s “I Fought the Law” than anything else. She followed it with “Easy From Now On,” a beautiful self-written tune that Emmylou Harris effortlessly dissolved in MOR treacle a year ago. Here, the song offered a vulnerability Harris perceived only as self-pity; and it too was hard, unflinching.

Carter is taking real risks. The music world may make room for hokey “punk” belters like Dyan Diamond, or even the occasional pure female rocker. (Cindy Bullens, whose hilarious, pugnaciously sexy “High School History” ought to become a radio classic, is one rare example.) But a woman as talented, pretty, and inclined to melody as Carter is going to come under enormous pressure to make more acceptable music, to surrender to a market already prepared to buy her as just one more nice romantic backed by everyone’s favorite Hollywood studio musicians. Carter has just settled in Los Angeles; the question is whether she can make the town listen to her instead of to what it thinks it ought to hear.

If Carlene Carter is an anomaly, what must the record business think of X-ray Spex, a seminal U.K. punk band led by Poly-Styrene, who is not only female, and mulatto, but wears braces? Their first album, Germfree Ad­olescents (EMI import—no U.S. release is planned) is a nervous explosion of freedom Poly doesn’t seem to expect to last, and a joyous attack on pop narcissism and teenage hopelessness. A lurching, kitschy, vaguely Oriental saxophone carries the sound; running through it all is a desperate sense of fun, perhaps summed up by two lines that combine the crudity of the fifties with the irony of the present: “If you’ve got the urge/Come on let’s submerge.” That’s about riding the Underground—among other things.


In the steps of last year’s Dead Man’s Curve, real life rock on television continued apace with Elvis, which aired on ABC February 11 and is surely due for periodic reruns in times to come. Directed by John (Halloween) Carpenter (who deserves endless credit for not closing with the fake epiphany of a freeze-frame), the film was less a shaped drama than a set of deeply felt, sustained impersonations, supported by a subtle concern for period detail that reminded me of Robert Altman’s touch in Thieves Like Us. When teenage Elvis gunned his famous truck through Memphis in 1953, the radio coughed up Rufus Thomas’s “Tiger Man,” a crucial Sun label hit from just the right moment.

As Buddy Holly, Gary Busey went for revelations; Kurt Rus­sell, likely understanding that with Elvis such things are both obvious and out of reach, played Presley down-to-earth. His Elvis made perfect sense—too much sense for an interpretation of a man who, not without thought, changed the world. Russell’s rough features perhaps brought out too much of Elvis’s thuggish side, but anyone smoother might have missed Presley’s resentment—and his desire.

The show passed over Elvis’s historic comeback, the TV special of late 1968. I’m convinced it produced his greatest music: the informal jams—nearly two hours’ worth—with Scotty Moore and D.J. Fontana, Elvis’s original guitarist and drummer, before the first audience to see the spirit in flesh in nearly a decade. Bits and pieces of these sessions have come out on RCA over the years; mature, scared and crackling with passion and humor, they have finally been issued in their entirety, uncut, as Elvis: The Burbank Sessions, Vol. 1—June 27, 1968 (Audifon).

The appearance of this epochal music, which reveals Presley as a bluesman, ought to be treated as an event. It has been ignored because it is a bootleg—domestic, though rather convincingly disguised as an official German LP—but the sound is perfect. Playing lead guitar most of the time, Elvis crashes through “That’s All Right,” “One Night,” “Trying to Get to You” and others, most more than once, reaching for the take that will say more than the song in question was ever meant to say. The two-record set is shot through with banter, false starts, and broken rhythms that magically reform into a statement of national purpose; it ranks with Robert Johnson’s King of the Delta Blues Singers, The Searchers or the Gettysburg Address.

The Burbank Sessions, Vol. 2—recorded two nights later, again with a live audience, but with a big band replacing the tiny combo—is of no such quality. The songs are all classics, and all are fatally compromised. “Hound Dog” is accompanied by a flute. Vol. 2‘s only value may be that it allows one to rehear an unbelievable moment from the TV special: Elvis hoisting his mike stand like a harpoon, thrusting it at the crowd and shouting—“Moby Dick!” I wonder if he ever understood that, as the great white whale of American culture, he was aiming at himself.

The other Elvis played the Berkeley Community Theater February 10 and 11, and on the first night left behind a crowd seething in anger, mainly because he played a very short set—about 45 minutes, though many people felt he’d barely broken the half-hour mark—and for the first time in four Bay Area appearances refused an encore. I thought the show had enough bite to make the issue of length beside the point, and, foolishly ignoring Costello’s well-known antipathy for the press’s, went backstage to tell him so. First I had to pass muster with Jake Riviera, Costello’s manager; after reviewing my intended comments, he apparently approved, and ushered me into a dressing room. “You won’t believe it, Elvis,” Riviera said, “but this time he’s only got one thing to say, not 8,000!” That was okay; no one had asked me up. Costello and I shook hands. I offered that I was glad to see him back in town; he groaned, sneered, and turned away. That was okay too, and I headed for the door. Just before I went through it, Riviera rushed up and grabbed me by the arm. “Listen,” he said in his best Soho goon’s voice, “if you quote me, I’ll kick your ass.” I was still wondering what he’d said that I’d possibly want to quote when I got back to my seat; by that time, people were jumping up and down on the balcony ledge to vent their fury.

Real Life Rock Top Ten

  1. Pere Ubu, Dub Housing (Chrysalis import)
  2. Boston, “A Man I’ll Never Be” and “Used to Bad News,” from Don’t Look Back (Epic)
  3. Cindy Bullens, Desire Wire (UA)
  4. Junior Thompson, “Raw Deal” and “Mama’s Little Baby,” from Gonna Rock and Roll Tonight (Collector import reissue)
  5. Irma Thomas, Soul Queen of New Orleans (Maison de Soul)
  6. Tracy Nelson (with Carlene Carter), “Friends of a Kind,” from Homemade Songs (Flying Fish)
  7. Johnny Thunders, “You Can’t Put Your Arms Round a Memory,” from So Alone (Real import)
  8. Mitch Ryder, How I Spent My Vacation (Seeds & Stems)
  9. Billy Hancock with the Tennessee Rock­ets, “I Can’t Be Satisfied” (Ripsaw)
  10. The Police, Outlandos d’Amour (A&M)

New West, March 12, 1979


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