I have no idea where I was or what I was doing when Elvis died. He did not mean much to me. Nor did his music. In contrast, my location when the news about John Lennon's death is sharply etched in my memory. But Elvis, no. I understand in an abstract, theoretical way why he was important to the history of American music in the post-World War II period. But his heyday was just before my time. The Beatles, Dylan, Motown, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young shaped my Jersey teenage sensibilities prior to the mid-70s far more than Elvis did. Then came Springsteen. In the same year that I discovered Bruce, I left home and moved to the West Coast, where I was immersed in political music, jazz, and ultimately classical music.
This morning, I listened to the extended podcast version of Kirsty Young's interview with Bruce Springsteen on "Desert Island Discs." Springsteen has been on tour promoting his memoir. The DID interview was the third or fourth one that I've heard (my favorite: David Remnick's on the "New Yorker Radio Hour"). As I anticipated, Young asked questions or reframed familiar ones that elicited from the Boss newly thoughtful answers. Only once -- when he quoted T-Bone Burnett about rock and rollers and their fathers -- did his answers sound canned. On the whole, I heard the same sensitive, articulate, and intelligent man I'd heard in his other interviews.
At the end of the interview Springsteen referred to an obituary of Elvis Presley that the rock critic Lester Bangs wrote in 1977. Springsteen paraphrased, but not by much. He seemed to know it by heart, such was the impression it made on him. The last paragraph of Bangs' piece is worth quoting in full:
"If love truly is going out of fashion forever, which I do not believe, then along with our nurtured indifference to each other will be an even more contemptuous indifference to each others' objects of reverence. I thought it was Iggy Stooge, you thought it was Joni Mitchell or whoever else seemed to speak for your own private, entirely circumscribed situation's many pains and few ecstasies. We will continue to fragment in this manner, because solipsism holds all the cards at present; it is a king whose domain engulfs even Elvis's. But I can guarantee you one thing: we will never again agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis. So I won't bother saying good-bye to his corpse. I will say good-bye to you."
When Springsteen uttered that last line, I felt a clutch in my heart. That's a "gotcha" line for the ages. No one likes the idea of disunity. But, the more I thought about it, the more Bangs's meaning felt slightly bogus. He writes, "We will never again agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis." First of all, "we" did not all agree on Elvis and not merely because I was too young and missed the moment. Most African Americans probably would not have agreed with white Americans on Elvis. Many of them thought Elvis was cashing in on their music, which segregation and exploitation prevented them from doing. Evidently, Bangs was writing under the assumption, probably correctly, that his readers were white youth.
Without question, Elvis had a huge impact on mainstream (white) American culture. But surely his impact was as great as Louis Armstrong's was on white audiences in the late 1920s. When Armstrong died in 1971, few people, black or white, remembered or cared that decades earlier he had popularized -- meaning, opened up to white Americans -- the new indigenous American music. Without Armstrong, W.C. Handy, Buddy Bolden, Sidney Bechet, Scott Joplin, Robert Johnson, and Jelly Roll Morton, Elvis is unthinkable.
Fragmentation, then, is the norm. Black and white Americans have many times converged and diverged in their appreciation of music. We've said 'good-bye' to one another many times before the death of Elvis. Each time a "crossover" musical giant passes, the farewells begin as listening audiences release their neighbors' hands and go their separate ways until another generation draws them together again. It's nice when generations or different peoples converge on a musician, but it's wishful thinking to hope the music I love will speak in as strong emotional tones to someone from a completely different generation, background, or culture. Black and white Americans said 'so long, folks' when white baby boomers like me clung to Motown while black and brown kids moved on. The same has been happening in jazz for decades. When I attended the New Orleans Jazz Fest last year, I noticed a parting of the ways had already taken place. Most of those in attendance were white. On the big stages white musicians -- Van Morrison, Michael McDonald, Steely Dan -- performed. The majority of the smaller stages were held by lesser known black musicians playing for largely white audiences.
A similar process seems to be taking place in hip hop. The new Netflix multi-episode documentary, "Hip Hop Evolution," is a good education in the transformation of a genre from outsider to insider. I don't know who stands at the fulcrum of that transformation, but once again, like with Elvis, I've shown up late to the party. Thanks to the wonderful "Hamilton," it looks to me like people are already starting to collect their coats and head to the door. For the moment, though, since I've just stepped into the foyer as many of the guests are leaving, I'm happy to wave good-bye and catch the last songs on the record player. And so good-bye for now. I'll try to find you at the next party. That's just how it goes.