PERMANENT RECORDS: ALMOST ALWAYS TRUE
Permanent Records is a year-long project. Each Friday (or thereabouts), I will post a new entry about one specific album, chosen due to its significance to myself as a fan. Though the list is numbered, a particular record's placement should not be considered a ranking. There will be 52 albums in all.
29. ELVIS PRESLEY - BLUE HAWAII MOTION PICTURE SOUNDTRACK (1961)
Personnell: Elvis Presley, with the Jordanaires & the Surfers (backing vocals); Hank Garland & Tiny Timbrell (guitars); Bernie Lewis (steel guitar); Bob Moore (bass); Floyd Cramer & Dudley Brooks (piano); D.J. Fontana, Bernie Mattinson, & Hal Blaine (drums); Boots Randolph (sax); George Field (harmonica); Fred Tavares & Alvino Rey (ukulele)
Surprisingly enough, we never listened to music in my house when I was growing up.
Part of the problem was that my mother had a puritanical hold on how we spent our time. A lot of popular entertainment was strictly forbidden. For instance, we never went to movies until I got old enough to be aware that other kids were experiencing things I was not and made myself a nuisance until my parents relented. When it came to records, she would play Jimmy Swaggart albums daily. His stuff was almost entirely what we owned. The only anomalies were one LP by the Four Seasons, and four by Elvis Presley.
This made listening to music a little subversive to me. It was also something that became associated with my father. He listened to the country and western station in the car. Somehow, that was his domain, and he got to break the rules in there. Interestingly enough, he also used to sneak me off to the college to watch movies. This was before I was even in school, so I guess times he was assigned to entertain me in the day. I have very vague memories of seeing some kung-fu flicks, as well as Animal House. We would sit in the very front row, which seems like a conspicuous position for the local pastor catching a matinee on the sly.
I remember driving in the car and imagining that the music we were hearing was being played right at that moment. I often had these visions that we would turn a corner and there would be the Statler Brothers harmonizing on somebody's lawn. Since records weren't commonplace in the Rich home, I guess it makes sense that I wasn't entirely clear on the concept of pre-recorded broadcasts. Funnily enough, in these fantasies, the performers were usually animated puppets in the style of the old Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer cartoon.
It's hard to say what music then became associated with for me. Was it movement? Freedom? Defying authority? My impulse is to write that I didn't really like the station my father listened to, but that wouldn't be true. Sure, later I would come to hate a lot of it, but then I would also come back around to liking some of it. (I had to rebel. The man said the Beatles ruined music!) Certainly, riding along with my father would have been the first time I heard Johnny Cash, sitting in the backseat, driving to wherever. It was my father who always knew the words, who always sang along. The car was never silent.
Eventually, I would inherit the Elvis records. Two of them were gospel albums, but the other two were early '60s rock-'n'-roll. I suppose at that point when I was rebelling and hating my old man's tunes, Elvis was the common ground. It was ludicrous to think I would not like Elvis. The King was always cool.
I still have those records. Blue Hawaii is almost more interesting to me as an artifact than for the music. It has its original interior sleeve, which is just an endless line of pictures of other Elvis records. It also has a hand-scrawled note on the front cover. In smudged red pen, it says, "To Scott, From Kent--Merry Christmas." I never met this Kent person. If memory serves, I was told he was a college roommate. This makes Blue Hawaii like some kind of time capsule out of my father's past. It's a sliver of his memory, my connection to the boy he was before I was born, whom I could never know. I can put the record on and imagine who he might have been in 1961.
The general mood of the record is light-hearted. It was a soundtrack for a musical-romantic-comedy, after all. A lot of the songs are goofy riffs on the tropical theme, like the rhythmic "Rock-A-Hula Baby" and the near rave-up "Slicin' Sand," a song about dancing on the beach. "Ito Eats" still cracks me. The tale of some hapless island boy, we are informed that "Ito eats like teeth are going out of style," Elvis attempting to deliver the line in an approximation of the lilt of a Hawaiian accent. "Almost Always True" is classic pop.
Buried midway through side 1, though, is my favorite Elvis song of all time: "Can't Help Falling in Love." You know how in Wild at Heart Sailor won't sing "Love Me Tender" to anyone but the woman he is marrying? That's how I feel about "Can't Help Falling in Love." It's an amazing song, naked in its avoidance of metaphor. Its message is simple: no matter what, you are the one for me. I defy all odds just to adore you. I've been obsessed with that song for years. I even like cover versions of it--Lick the Tins did the best one, as anyone who has seen Some Kind of Wonderful can attest--and Spiritualized the most notorious, having worked it into the title track of Ladies & Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space, only to have it rejected by the Presley estate. Now you can only find that version on bootlegs.
Naturally, I would have found "Can't Help Falling in Love" somewhere along the way of my musical journey. It's rather ubiquitous, as are any of the big Elvis songs. One can't really argue that it would have taken on the same meaning for me, though, had it not been for my hand-me-down Blue Hawaii. It's impossible to speculate. Once you've reached a signpost in the road, you can't retrace the map to make a guess of where else those markers could have been.
"Can't Help Falling in Love" embodies a romantic spirit I can't shake. It's always been a part of me, even when it was to my detriment. Is it possible that as a young man listening to his vinyl copy of Blue Hawaii in his dorm, putting the scratches on it that would later be the hisses and pops on my stereo speaker, it touched my father in the same way? Perhaps it was the source of the resolve that made him the sort of guy that got up and tried again no matter how many times love returned his kiss with a kick in the teeth. It's one of those things you never think to ask your parents, because let's be honest, that would be icky; yet, it could be there just the same.
Regardless, thanks Pop for passing your Elvis collection along. For all of you out there who think my books are sappy, and all of the girls who have had to run from me as if I were Pepe Le Pew, I'm more than willing to let this man shoulder the blame.
Happy Father's Day.
NOTABLE B-SIDE: In breaking with convention, I'm not picking the flipside to one of Elvis' singles off of Blue Hawaii; instead, I have dug up the first song I can remember my father telling me was his favorite. "He Stopped Loving Her Today" by George Jones.
It's a maudlin song sung by a classic screw-up. George Jones was a drunk who chased away his soul mate, and "He Stopped Loving Her Today" is about a man who lost his greatest romance. The pain in Jones' voice is raw and honest, probably because he felt it himself. Was he imagining Tammy Wynette when he recorded it? Possibly. I find it interesting now to hear the line about the love letters the "He" of the title obsesses over. Dated 1962, they were a year after Blue Hawaii. That seems significant to my ponderings above.
The narrative of "He Stopped Loving Her Today" is that Jones is singing about a friend who swore to never care for another woman after the love of his life walked out on him. The first line is, "He said, 'I'll love you till I die'," and the rest of the song is the fulfillment of that promise. It's sung as a eulogy. He did keep loving her, and he only quit when his heart gave out on him. It's funny, because as a kid--the song was released in 1980, so I was eight and my parents would be married for two more years--I thought it was the woman who died, and so there is a strange relief that she is finally gone. Perhaps I was lacing in the marital troubles that surrounded me that I didn't fully comprehend. Now it's obvious to me that it's the man who died, and it's a story of a romance that would not go away.
The production is mammoth. A simple slide guitar backs Jones up on the verses, but a string section kicks into full swell on the choruses, and Jones lifts his deep croon to match it. It's heartfelt and sad. How interesting to think this was my father's favorite song then. This mere weeks after writing my own little shadow play wondering where my romantic spirit comes from. If this is the sort of emotion that was placed on a pedestal for me to study at the mere age of eight, can there be any further wonder?
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Current Soundtrack: Blue Hawaii
Current Mood: nostalgic
[to leave comments, click on the time-stamp below, then scroll down on the new page] – All text (c) 2006 Jamie S. Rich