Thursday, August 20, 2009

Leiber and Stoller (or) the Jerry and Mike Show

I wanted so much for this book to be more than it is. I thought it might be some kind of social commentary on the extraordinary events of their time. I thought it might be a doorway to the interior passageways of two collaborating minds that spawned such a stunning oeuvre. I thought it might be as much about everyone else, as it was about Elvis and Peggy. Hound Dog was a much quicker read than I wanted it to be. And yet, because it was so clearly not any of the above, I was almost relieved to finish.

When I was seven or eight years old, when I'd come home from the Saturday afternoon movies, Mom would ask, "How was the movie?" and I would start to give her a blow by blow description of what happened from start to finish. That's what this book is like. It's like a stone skipping across the chosen sequence of events selected a worthy of mention in this (here comes that word again) extraordinary collaboration. Every page left me wanting more.

The best parts for me:

the family contexts Jerry and Mike emerged from and their occasional connecting of their life story to the circumstances of their orgins;

the details of and insight into moments spent with Presley, the Coasters, and Peggy Lee, details that made these icons more human, more real for the additional understanding brought to their lives by events recounted;

their final efforts to figure it all out, name it, see themselves as R&B authors and R&R midwives, two white guys who composed black and negotiated multiple worlds (male, female, parent, lover, child, adult, Black, white, Jew, rich, poor, avant-guarde, low down and boogie woogie, creator and now, commentor) from multiple toeholds of social positioning.

It's a much more complicated history than they presented here. But maybe Hound Dog had to be written, to enable the deeper historical analysis to come later. Sooner than later, hopefully.

Having said this, Hound Dog was also a book I couldn't put down. I'm embarrassed to say it was just this year I discovered Leiber and Stoller were white! And I do go back a bit with them, not to the beginning, but I do remember the first time I heard Hound Dog, the Elvis version. I was driving back from a thunderstorm interrupted fishing trip on Oneida Lake with my Dad. It came on over the radio in our large-toothed DeSoto and I remember, even at the time I was amazed he didn't turn it off. But he didn't and I certainly have to give him that. It was only this year that I called up Big Momma Thorton's version from iTunes and listened transfixed to the original version. The difference between the two defines what is meant by the word 'profound'.

I remember being enraptured by Peggy Lee's Is That All There Is. I can hear her now as I write these words.

I still cherish my Coasters' Greatest Hits Album. As a teenager, I laughed and emulated Charlie Brown, I nodded my head and sang a long while I took out my papers and trash, I wondered what it meant to be a hog for anyone, much less "you, baby".

I grew into my young adult years with these guys. They helped me do the growing. I got that there was inequality in the world. The small black and white evening news images from Montgomery and Greenville and Selma took care of that. But absent television, somehow, my white boy high school semi-rural college town upstate New York listening positionality made me feel a tiny little bit that just listening was doing something about that inequality. Jerry and Mike were inviting me across the color line in a way I couldn't yet grasp, just like they couldn't quite grasp their own stunning contribution to the struggle so early on. Hell, all they wanted to do was make their kind of music and yes, all I wanted to do was listen, listen, listen. I somehow sensed that they were opening a new world to me that I had no access to in my day to day life, save my listening to the early works of Ray Charles in my early hs years, quitely, in my bedroom closet, on my little turquoise 45rpm record player my Mom had given me. It was only later on, as I looked back and saw where I was walking in relationship to all my fellow and sister travelers did I comprehend and appreciate the opportunity these songs afforded me. They made me happy. They invited me to sing along and dance. They beckoned me across the divides that still divide America.

And if this is a bit too intellectual, the music itself, its rhythms, its beat, its lyrical cadences, its outrageous humor, its dead on depiction of universal themes, had me doing the best boogie I could manage. And I have to say, those movements, even my movements, came from deep within, came out of me, not because others were doing it, but because I wanted to - it was there, waiting to be expressed in whatever strange and funny form it took. I didn't even look at myself in the mirror, I just shook and moved and danced my joy. I should do more of it today!

I have to say, I loved the image of the Coasters rolling around on the floor during their recording sessions. I also appreciate the fact that the wall of sound happened somewhere else with a guy who L&S were only too happy to move on out.

So despite my disappointment with the book, I have a huge amount to thank Messrs. Leiber and Stoller for. Their music and their affiliations lifted me out of my own settled context and tantalized me with another view of my world, one that was immediately entertaining, but with a little closer listening, troubling and challenging, and ultimately life affirming in so many ways.