Hit the Road, Jacques:
Jacques Barzun and The Lost Art Box
The Immortal Double A Side 45’s
by Kevin M. Harvey
I’ve been thinking about boxes. In fact, I’ve been thinking about boxes, decadence, Jacques Barzun, Elvis, Ronald Reagan, and how the great historian Barzun missed the last, perfect, subterranean art-boxes.
Let me step back a bit: In “From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the present, 500 years of Western Cultural Life,” Barzun takes us from
the Protestant Reformation to 1995, dissecting every corner of Western culture. (Perhaps it’s a good thing he stopped where he did.) His book is nothing less than an education in 800 pages. It is that remarkable. Recommended to me by someone who didn’t live to finish it, I read it slowly, daily, with care, stunned by Barzun’s achievement and more or less at home with his definition of decadence. I learned an enormous amount, retained much of it, and could easily read it anew every five years, my capabilities dulled by decadence.
But it’s here that I have to take a deep breath. If I agree with Mr. Barzun that what passes for American culture in 2010 is decadent,
am I aligning myself, however reluctantly, with the Christian Right?
Am I now on the side of the Republicans? Have I turned into a crank? Am I still who I think I am? So the question stares us in the face:
what makes a culture decadent, Jacques? And he tells us: a loss of
will, a failure of nerve. We accept absurdity and futility as givens.
The masterpieces of the past exert a pressure of paralyzing effect.
Everything has been done. Forget hitting the post-modernist wall, Barzun takes Modernism itself to its knees. Greek tragedy left us exhilarated; Death of a Salesman leaves us depressed. Joyce, perhaps. Beckett, having accepted absurdity and futility, probably not. We have perfected the FORM, the ART BOX, he tells us, be it music, play, novel, or film and yet for all of that perfection we leave the theater or close
the book depressed. We’ve unwrapped a lovely package only to find it empty. It is the curse of the age; so much so that Barzun has very little to say about anything created after World War 2. It is as if he wants to finish his tour of duty and go home. He glides over the last half century as if there were very little worth mentioning, hinting half-heartedly that perhaps something rich will yet begin. And yet, and yet, I can’t help thinking he missed something. Is there a value to the absurdity
of early MAD magazine that Barzun would never understand? A bravery to the early work of Elvis Presley that he missed? How about the beauty of Carl Barks and Bill Elder? Are these things too minor to matter? How do we judge the value of a perfect double A side 45?
You remember the 45: those records, those ART BOXES, that turned white when you played them with needles as large as arrowheads, a pile of quarters taped to the arm of the record player.
All right. We’ve just walked into Trader’s Joe’s and we’re barely past the flowers on the left side of the aisle when we notice that the radio station is tuned to one of those dream/hip stations that will follow
The Searchers singing "Someday We’re Going to Love Again" with the Beatles’ "What You’re Doing," both radio obscurities in their day, and having been ambushed , you are hit again by the truly hip, God-like self-assurance and belief in their own talent and beauty - because we should never forget how beautiful they were - of the Beatles. Oh, my god, they were wonderful, you think, and before you reach the hummus you realize that their work is embedded in our culture as deeply as Beethoven’s, if not deeper, and that it will never go away, and before you can turn your back on the humus, you begin to list their remarkable body of two-sided masterpieces.
Not anyone can make a wonderful record, an A-side that will live forever. Gene Chandler made "The Duke of Earl" and Del Shannon made "Runaway" and Troy Shondell made "This Time" and Kenny
Dino made "Your Ma Said You Cried in Your Sleep Last Night" and Bobby Vee sang "The Night Has a 1000 Eyes," an unrecognized David Lynchian piece of early 60’s paranoia. And the Rivieras made "California Sun," the greatest cheesy rock single ever - before the Beatles came along to blow them out of the water with the two-sided masterpiece "I Saw Her Standing There/I Want to Hold Your Hand,"
a track that one might never hear again in its original, breathless, joy. (They’d already wiped everyone out with "I’ll Get You" - a shocking, skeletal single, stripped to bass and pronouns, but much of the world was still asleep at the wheel.)
Rounding the vegetables and heading for the frozen foods aisle, the mind slides backwards to Elvis’ first two/sided masterpiece: "Don’t Be Cruel/Hound Dog." How did they end up on the same piece of plastic? "That’s All Right" was a sunburst and "Heartbreak Hotel" a subliminal black and white gothic movie shot, captured perfectly by the photo on the EP of Presley in collar up belted trench coat, but neither came with Art Box B sides. So somehow now in the 1956 someone at RCA has the chops to wed two defining tunes, both magnificent and complimentary, on the same record. And we have our first PERFECT art-box! It is wonderful and mind numbing - great songs would follow it, but two-sided Art Box perfection wouldn’t happen again for him until the release of "Little Sister" and "His Latest Flame." Coming after his flirtation with faux-Italian opera - every American singer from 1960 to 1962, if not Italian, would at least pretend to be Italian - SISTER and FLAME was Art/Box rock and roll and perfection, a work that said Elvis would be Elvis forever. It is worth stating here that most singles came with a glorious A side and a lesser, often markedly inferior, B side. In Elvis’ case the single was usually a mid/tempo rocker backed with an under/rated ballad; in the hands of lesser artists the 45 was a cheese- dog grab for glory backed with a throw away. So both Sister and Flame make the grade; they belong together in that mysterious way that makes them parts of a larger whole and both are mind movies that will play forever in the memory. Presley will make only one more perfect two-sided Art Box and here is where I will lose all but the most dedicated. "She’s Not You/Just Tell Her Jim Said Hello" was a high water mark, two beautiful, subtle songs that slipped under the (long term) radar and all but disappeared from the collective memory. (An argument could be made that he NEVER performed his best material, that it was too fine, too nuanced, to be set adrift in a stadium, but that’s another mind ramble.) But "She’s Not You" is a wonderful vocal - the song itself something of a reworking of Patsy Cline’s "She’s Got You" that never, ever, wears out, or offers itself up to the horror-parodies
of an Elvis impersonator; while JIM is all the proof needed that Elvis could act. How are we supposed to believe for an instant that this person, this razor cut Olympian, could ever be dumped by anyone, let alone walk the earth named Jim? He is ELVIS. He sings it; it weld’s itself unnoticed to the A/side, and we are left with his last perfect Art Box. So unassuming is it that the picture sleeve comes with a picture
of Elvis with BROWN hair. But trust me: it is art of the highest order.