Apocryhpa Now!: Fan Fiction, Vol. 2. – Made Up Records
A while back, I gave you my first foray into apocryphal and totally made up rock reporting otherwise known affectionately as “Fan Fiction,” with an excerpt from my “script” for my non-existent biopic, Hey, Who Moved My Fake Blood?: The Completely Untrue Story Of KISS. In another post, I told you about the wonderful world of fiction based on the concept of wrapping up the late Roy Orbison in cling film.
Today I make my second stab into fan fiction with something I call “The Record Reviews That Never Were.“ Oh and before we go any further, this piece assumes a world where many of the great departed artists of rock and roll had never died.
NEW RELEASES – APRIL 2010
By now, everyone is aware of the story of how 75-year old Elvis Presley, the long retired, and long recovering, rock ‘n’ roll legend, hooked up with producer Rick Rubin. Late last year, Presley’s Memphis AA sponsor (he still attends regular meetings ever since his celebrated 1977 brush with death when a fast-thinking Memphis paramedic saved his life) was telling the King about a record called 12 Songs, by Neil Diamond. Upon returning home after the meeting, Presley had his 22-year old assistant Lania download the album from the iTunes store. As Presley says in the short liner note to The Big Light, his first recording in over 30 years, he found that “for the first time in a long time, I was tempted to go to the music room and pick up my battered old acoustic guitar. I knew how that old guitar felt, it may have been scratched and beat up, but it still had some beautiful music in it. I was feelin’ it again.”
Reluctant to make “a big, showbiz thing,” Presley sought out Rubin to just “make a nice clean recording of me singin’ some of my favorite tunes.” Rubin would play a pivotal role in his artistic rebirth.
After Lania provided him with a few other recordings made by Rubin, including the Johnny Cash American Recording series, Presley summoned Rubin to his modest home in the Memphis suburbs (Presley, of course, famously sold his palatial “Graceland” in the mid-nineties to pay off back taxes, his former home has now been converted into a museum of sorts). By mid-November, the pair were camped out in Memphis Sound Studios to lay down the tracks.
The ten songs on The Big Light (plus a free extra tune if you buy it from iTunes) demonstrate that, while Presley has understandably lost some range and power over the years – being 75 and the lost years of drug abuse have taken their toll on the man – he has not lost the passion, the fire and – are you listening Hugh Hefner – the raw sexuality that, even now, smolders in the tracks.
Rubin hand-picked the songs from a list provided by Elvis himself. In the notes, he Presley says that while some of the titles, such as Cash’s version of “The Big Light”, written by another Elvis (Costello), regularly popped up on his iPod during workouts, others were more recent discoveries. The only “gimmick” to this simple, live sounding tracks appears to be the decision to employ big-name backing musicians, but given the stature of of the man and the quality of those sideman, all is forgiven as Rubin’s production presents Presley in a way he has rarely been heard before. The only question is, why didn’t he do this 30 years ago?
Presley’s gospel-tinged take on John Lennon’s “Imagine” features an obviously thrilled Lennon on a stark acoustic guitar with Allen Toussaint and Garth Hudson on piano and organ respectively, leaving tons of space around the cracked, world-weary lead vocal. I defy you not to shed a tear. It’s not all church though, and a straight ahead reading of Jeff Tweedy’s “Monday” brings to mind his old buddy Roy Orbison’s “Oh Pretty Woman,” while a rollicking “LearnTo Fly” features a simple backbeat by Jim Keltner, and the chiming Rickenbacker of the Heartbreaker’s Mike Campbell and Foo Fighter’s Dave Grohl, himself. Somehow, with all of Elvis’s well documented attempts at recovery over the years, this Dave Grohl song truly takes wing where the Foo’s original merely spoke of flight. One wonders if it was Rubin who suggested a song by the late Elliott Smith, but regardless of how he came to it, Presley brings an artists, and addicts, empathy to the depths of pain and misery in Smith’s “Baby Britain,” which features a lovely Chamberlin flute part by Jon Brion. We probably didn’t need another version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” but having said that, Presley’s version takes down the dark road of John Cale’s and Cohen’s original, as opposed to the histrionically emotive Jeff Buckley version. The most off-the-wall choice here is the Paddy McAloon (Prefab Sprout) tearjerker “When Love Breaks Down” which is as unexpected as closing with Neil Young’s “Rockin’ In The Free World” was predictable. It’s a reverential, sober occasion but not without a little self-deprecation and humor, as on the bonus track (available only on iTunes) the comedy number, “I Never Cared For Robert Goulet” written for him by Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie (Flight of The Conchords) who also appear on the song. It probably didn’t belong on the album, but it’s nice to see that while he might not be the King of Comedy, he’s still the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll.