December 15, 2009

Fondling Elvis’ favorite piano

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Interspersed with plenty of modern musical goodness, one of the coolest things I got to do in Nashville this weekend was visit Studio B, where everyone from Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers, to Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner, to Johnny Cash and Elvis have recorded songs (here’s a good article on it). It’s a small, nondescript building of few rooms and mostly tan decor, with checkered linoleum floors. It feels largely untouched by time, and my imagination ran a bit wild walking around in there.

The tour ends up in the main studio space, which we could go into because it wasn’t in use this past Saturday, as it often is (My Morning Jacket just recorded a song for the Shel Silverstein tribute album there). The focal point your eye lands on is the Steinway piano that Elvis used during his many recording sessions there, and apparently loved so much he tried to buy it several times to no avail.

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I felt little tingles all over, when I sat there at his piano and touched the worn keys. I’m not much for musical idol worship but this felt incredible. You could practically sense him there in that room. The piano has never left that studio, so it must be the one he’s playing here on these outtakes:

Love Me Tonight (takes 3 & 4, 5/26/63)
Something Blue (takes 3 & 4, 3/18/62)
I Feel That I’ve Known You Forever (take 1, 3/19/62)
Anything That’s Part of You (takes 4 & 5, 10/15/61)
**what a gorgeous song

Towards the end of the tour, the guide leaned over and asked me if I played piano (why did I never learn, for this moment?!) and I replied no, but that my friend Bethany did. He called her over to Elvis’ bench, and she managed to eke out a gorgeous little Coldplay rendition on short notice, with trembling hands.

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“Are You Lonesome Tonight” was also recorded in this same room, at 4am in the morning. According to our guide, Elvis requested all the lights be turned off for the recording (and towards the end of the song, if you listen with good headphones, you can hear a quiet thump as Elvis bumps his head on the microphone since it was too dark to see). I was telling Bethany afterwards that I completely connect with how a song of such longing was actually recorded during those “longing hours,” and not artificially manufactured at 9:30am on a Tuesday, if that makes any sense.

He told the story of the session, and then turned off all the lights in the studio and cued the song up on the PA. It was downright eerie and wonderful as it came coaxingly out of the speakers. I kept thinking of the time I saw that Jeff Buckley documentary at the fan tribute at Noe Valley Ministry in San Francisco, and how that line of Cohen’s resonated: “Well baby I’ve been here, I’ve seen this room and I’ve walked this floor…”

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August 15, 2007

Memorable Moment in Music: “Ladies & gentlemen, Elvis has left the building”

[last picture ever taken of Elvis, 12:28am, Aug 16, 1977]

Tomorrow marks thirty years since the memorable (and sad) moment in music when Elvis Presley was found dead in his Graceland bathroom at the age of 42, the day before he was to start a new tour. For years he had been sadly deteriorating from the fresh faced, doe-eyed, swivel-hipped innocent of the Fifties, all enlisting for the Army and being photographed in his tightie-whiteys; so average, so loveable.

In recent years his music was swirling to new heights of camp (albeit, camp that I absolutely adore – “I’m just a hunk-a hunk of burning love?” That opening drumbeat? “The flames are now lickin’ my body?” Fantastic):

(pretty sure that’s like an early music video; studio cut, live images)

By 1977, Elvis was in really bad shape, and that ferocious swagger and cocky snarl you see above in the glitz and glimmer was all but gone. It was a feat just to get him through every show, propped up on bloated legs by a combination of amphetamines, barbiturates, and sequined bell-bottoms. Guralnick writes in his 2000 book Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley, “There was no longer any pretense of keeping up appearances… The idea was simply to get Elvis out onstage and keep him upright for the hour he was scheduled to perform.” His final concert would be the night of June 26, 1977 in Indianapolis.

The last recording Elvis made was a vocal overdub on “He’ll Have To Go” done on October 31st, 1976 in the “Jungle Room” at his home at Graceland. The last song Elvis performed in private was a rendition of “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain,” done on his piano in Graceland hours before his death. [ref]

The morning of August 16th, his fiance Ginger Alden found Elvis dead in his Graceland bathroom with fourteen drugs detectable in his system, ten in “significant quantity.” According to the medical examiner, Elvis had stumbled or crawled several feet before dying. What a sad ending to such an amazing, epic life that gave us some of my favorite music ever. No one can cast a bigger cultural shadow than The King. Through a combination of musical virtuosity, that irreplaceable voice, and something in the DNA of our culture – the fabric of my musical knowledge – he was without equal. Elvis is just Elvis.


Market Square Arena, Indianapolis, IN
June 26, 1977 – Final concert [
2001 Space Odyssey theme (opening) / C.C. Rider
I Got A Woman/Amen
Love Me
You Gave Me A Mountain
Jailhouse Rock
O Sole Mio/It’s Now Or Never
Little Sister
Teddy Bear/Don’t Be Cruel
Release Me
I Can’t Stop Loving You
Bridge Over Troubled Water
Introduction of band members
Early Morning Rain
What’d I Say
Johnny B. Goode
Larry London drum solo
Jerry Sheff bass solo
Tony Brown piano solo
I Really Don’t Want To Know
Bobby Ogdin Electric Clavinet Solo
Jazzing in Vegas
Hound Dog
Can’t Help Falling In Love
Closing vamp / “Elvis has left the building”


I found myself at bit melancholy at watching a few more videos of the Elvis from the Seventies, starting with when he actually looked kinda hot in that white jumpsuit (ha! never thought I’d say that):



Some extras because I absolutely love this song and never tire of it:
Always On My Mind – Ryan Adams & The Cardinals
[bonus track, Jacksonville City Nights. 99% sure this is a duet with Norah Jones]
Always On My Mind (live on NPR) – Iron & Wine/Calexico


“Ladies and gentlemen, Elvis has left the building.”

March 15, 2007

Mystery Train, next stop Memphis

If you have the patience to watch and enjoy as a rich noir-influenced story unfolds with diverse characters, three loosely interrelated plots, and an absolutely top-notch soundtrack, then Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train is one you should definitely dig up at the rental place.

I never saw this when it came out in 1989 because although I have always liked this kind of music, I was preoccupied with NKOTB at the time and probably wouldn’t have been allowed to see it anyways because there are boobies. I was more about the Hangin’ Tough Live Concert video than moody atmospheric musical travelogues through rock history’s footprints. But now that I have grown, man alive did I enjoy this one.

Jim Jarmusch (Broken Flowers, Coffee & Cigarettes, Year of the Horse) clearly loves music, and there is nary a city in America where music is more firmly enmeshed in the pulse of the community than Memphis, Tennessee. It’s a story that takes its sweet time unravelling, with long pauses to breathe. The cinematography is vignette driven, almost like a series of postcards with lingering shots of the city of Memphis — the dirty, gritty, ambling back alleys and monuments to Elvis and references to Graceland.

And Elvis is indeed everywhere (even if our young Japanese protagonist keeps insisting that Carl Perkins was better); inescapable and as much of a living character in the film as anyone else. The black velvet portrait over the bed of the skeevy motel even pictures the gentle doe-eyed Elvis who smiles down on the rapid-fire consummation (okay, it’s the 11th time) of young teenage love.

The film starts with that teenage Japanese couple pulling into the train station for a firsthand pilgrimage of American rock and roll history. He sports a pompadour and the ever-present cigarette behind the ear, while she rocks the combat boots, a leather jacket, and a bright enthusiasm for anything related to American rock and roll. They don’t really know where they’re going, on several levels, but that’s okay with them.

After their story is mostly told (but left unfinished), the night rewinds and we meet a young Italian widow also in town to bring home the body of her husband to Rome. Played by the lovely Nicoletta Braschi (La Vita è Bella), hers is a wide-eyed and gentle respite between the other two tales. It was during her story that I found myself unable to resist belting out a bit of Marc Cohn: “Saw the ghost of Elvis down on Union Avenue. . .” even though most days I could do without that song. Rare the film that melds American rock history with the sonorous sounds of the Italian language, and I loved that segment.

Finally the triple-action view of the evening is wrapped up with a glance into the activities of three wayward punks (one of which is, oh, Joe Strummer, another a very young Steve Buscemi) and their drunken crimes. Although concrete connections between the three parallel storylines become apparent throughout the course of the night, the tales never directly intersect. Characters who know each other find themselves down the hall from one another, hearing the same sound, but never knowing of the intersection. Ultimately, it’s just a glimpse, and the film feels unfinished — but agreeably so.

For the music nerd, the film does journey through several immortalized locations, including a fast-talking tour of Sun Studios and some of the last footage ever shot of the original legendary Stax Records (by the way, if you like that soul sound, check out the Stax 50th Anniversary box set just released this week).

The melancholy soundtrack throughout is of the finest quality and simply cannot be beat for the atmosphere it creates, reminding me of the David Lynch scoring in Blue Velvet. Most of the tunes used in the soundtrack were actually recorded at Sun Studios back in the heyday, and the film resurrects them in almost-eerie fashion.

PS — the richly honeyed voice on the radio with the 2am intro to ‘Blue Moon’ in each of the three vignettes is none other than Tom Waits. Come on.

Mystery Train – Elvis Presley
Mystery Train – Junior Parker
Blue Moon – Elvis Presley
Domino – Roy Orbison
Soul Finger – The Bar-Kays
Pain In My Heart – Otis Redding
The Memphis Train – Rufus Thomas
(I was so excited when Joe Strummer’s character selects this last tune on the bar jukebox — I just “found” it recently on the What It Is! compilation, and it has been an essential and beloved addition to my favorite new mix CD. Great song – and watch for the cameo in the Memphis train station by ole’ Rufus himself).

An absolute must-see, a very cool movie.

January 8, 2006

Happy birthday Elvis Aaron Presley

Anyone else feel like a peanut-butter-nana sandwich?

Hard to believe, but today Elvis would have been 71. I know this because he is listed as my friend on facebook (oddly enough, Elvis Aaron Presley is Staff at Texas Arlington), and his birthday popped up on my reminder screen.

To celebrate the special day, I dove into an enormous number of Elvis covers from which to make my blog selection (you know I love covers, come on). When I started examining my musical collection and trolling for new covers, it was amazing, really, how basically everyone feels that it is necessary to cover an Elvis tune. Here are a few of my favorites.

Can’t Help Falling In Love,” Pearl Jam (takes an old standard and throws in a little rockin’ punk good time. From their 8/15/00 show in Memphis.)

Suspicious Minds,” Pete Yorn (Still makes me smile because it was the first song I got to publicly sing in front of a lovely bunch of people. Thanks Otters!)

Can’t Help Falling in Love,” Eels (simple, elegant, heartfelt. Amazing)

Love Me Tender,” Bruce Springsteen (ok, Bruce, if you insist)

Stranger In My Own Hometown,” Elvis himself
This is just plain rockin’. One of my favorite fat Elvis tunes ever.

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Bio Pic Name: Heather Browne
Location: Colorado, originally by way of California
Giving context to the torrent since 2005.

"I love the relationship that anyone has with music: because there's something in us that is beyond the reach of words, something that eludes and defies our best attempts to spit it out. It's the best part of us, probably, the richest and strangest part..."
—Nick Hornby, Songbook
"Music has always been a matter of energy to me, a question of Fuel. Sentimental people call it Inspiration, but what they really mean is Fuel."
—Hunter S. Thompson

Mp3s are for sampling purposes, kinda like when they give you the cheese cube at Costco, knowing that you'll often go home with having bought the whole 7 lb. spiced Brie log. They are left up for a limited time. If you LIKE the music, go and support these artists, buy their schwag, go to their concerts, purchase their CDs/records and tell all your friends. Rock on.

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