In this post, part-time OHMA student Bud Kliment reviews Elvis Presley: The Searcher, David Bowie: A Life, and David Bowie Is.
The interview has long been a primary source for popular music history. In 1938, Alan Lomax’s recordings of jazzman Jelly Roll Morton talking and playing piano at the Library of Congress helped to establish musicians’ recollections as an early oral history genre. Other first-hand accounts by musicians (in such collections as Hear Me Talkin’ to You by Nat Shapiro and Nat Hentoff) established the original history of jazz. They provided a living connection to a disappearing musical past that we know today because their accounts augmented and contextualized the music they made on records.
The development and success of rock and roll only deepened music’s reliance on the interview. In the 1960s and 70s, when pop music, like film, grew in cultural importance, publications such as Rolling Stone, Crawdaddy and Creem were established, devoted primarily to music-based journalism. Interviews with musicians traced rock’s development in real time, prompted by each new album release or tour. As performers grew in popularity and influence, their statements were elevated, scrutinized, interpreted. Rolling Stone offered its readers the lengthy and nominally definitive “Rolling Stone Interview” of essential music-makers.
With its heightened significance, the rock interview became a charged situation. On the one hand, musicians were assumed to be authentic, honest in their responses and observations. (“Very little bull,” claimed the introduction to an anthology of Rolling Stone interviews.) Yet while rock interviews might reflect intelligent opinions and candor, they were nevertheless motivated by the demands of the marketplace, and other promotional concerns.
That legions of fans sought their opinions on a range of matters was hardly lost on the musicians themselves. With reporters and audiences so engaged, rock musicians could use the interview situation to construct a personality, an image that, like Hollywood film stars before them, could be the object of controversy or projected fantasy, especially in tandem with their music. Bob Dylan, for instance, might turn an interview into another kind of performance, questioning questioners, giving cryptic responses, making up biographical details. In rock interviews, facts might wind up subordinated to pose or attitude. It was subjectivity gone wild.
Inverting and expanding the once-exclusive interview situation, oral history has become a popular form for chronicling rock’s idiosyncratic history, personalities and genres. Offering multiple perspectives, it’s a natural tool for exploring the collaborations essential to music, and much of rock’s history is recent enough to be recounted by those still around to tell it. Accounts such as Please Kill Me by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain, about punk, or Meet Me in the Bathroom by Lizzy Goodman, about New York’s music scene in the early 2000s, for instance, collect vibrant and telling interviews with musicians, promoters, and other scene makers linked by their presence at a particular musical moment, and their sense of its historical significance. Because of that first-hand authority, such oral histories will necessarily stand as accurate, like earlier histories of jazz.
Interviews are central to three recent and major career retrospectives of Elvis Presley and David Bowie, two of rock’s most iconic and complex musicians. From different genres--documentary film, literary oral history, and museum exhibition--all three presentations offer encounters with oral history and illustrate how interviews might be used to reconstruct or deconstruct a popular performer’s life. More tellingly, the interviews in each biographical portrait attempt to navigate the relationship between the images that both performers projected of themselves, and the reality of their lives.
As a rock and roll pioneer, Elvis Presley’s image remained singular partly because no one quite like him had happened before. So much about his music and his level of success—across records, television and movies—was unprecedented. He was “first in battle,” notes Tom Petty, one of the musicians interviewed in Elvis Presley: The Searcher, an HBO film directed by Thom Zimny. Over four hours, the two-part documentary attempts to be a definitive account of the singer, while also introducing him to a generation unaware of his alchemical, culture-busting synthesis of country music, gospel and rhythm and blues. The film’s strategy is to divorce him from the kitsch excesses of his later years--the rhinestone jumpsuits and the photo ops with Richard Nixon--and reposition him as a consciously purposeful musician. The documentary is completely persuasive on a visual level, deftly assembling hundreds of still images and film clips from Elvis’ life and career, from his early live performances to his “comeback” tv special in 1968, which relaunched his career and frames the HBO film. In our current age of faux celebrity, Elvis’ obvious charisma is startling: he is compellingly watchable even in his cheesiest movie roles and troubled later years; young and unleashed, he was incandescent.
His story is narrated by the voices on the soundtrack, vintage sound clips of Elvis and others and 20 new interviews with academics, Priscilla Presley (an executive producer of the film) and musicians such as Robbie Robertson, Emmylou Harris and Bruce Springsteen. The interviews are striking because the narrators are all off-screen (although some appear in the vintage clips.)
Each disembodied voice is identified only by a caption. Talking heads from the present don’t intrude on this construction of Elvis’ life and world. Yet the technique is vaguely reductive, there’s no disagreement--the choir is preaching to us. Lending gravitas, fanboys Springsteen and Petty offer devout and knowing comments about music making. Some of the others default to the hyperbole that Elvis can elicit. (He is alternately “like Huck Finn,” and “a Southern trickster figure.”) Despite their attempts to explain and recast Elvis’ image and story, the interviewees run head on into the inexplicable paradoxes of his life: his subservience to his manager, “Colonel Tom” Parker, and the desperate touring that consumed his last years, marked by isolation and prescription drugs. The film’s musical selections make the strongest case for his reconsideration: from his first session for Sun Records to his final burst of creative energy in Graceland’s “Jungle Room,” his voice carries the magic.
Like many British rockers of his generation, David Bowie was profoundly influenced by Elvis, a detail mentioned several times in David Bowie: A Life by Dylan Jones (published by Crown Archetype), a massive (521 pp.) oral biography that uses extracts from over 180 interviews. (Published in paperback this September it will be retitled David Bowie: The Oral History.) The book is catnip, especially for fans. The multiple interview voices recount the classic arc of Bowie’s career from slow start to hot success in the early 70s, followed by excess, artistic rebirth and years of sustained creativity and influence--the rise and fall and rise of Ziggy Stardust. Most of the interviewees try to do the man justice, and their accounts can be affectionate, full of panache. Recalls choreographer Toni Basil, “He was always the most beautiful thing in the room, male, female, children or whatever…He was wow.”
Where Elvis’ image was massive but confining, Bowie’s was fragmented and inspirational. “He really tried out lots of David Bowies,” say U2s Bono. “That’s sort of wonderful for other artists.” By regularly changing his musical style and appearance, Bowie celebrated difference and experimentation for his audience. “In a way he was the patron saint of misfits,” says filmmaker Julien Temple, “.. he said you should experience everything you can, just in case you like it. There have been many people who have liberated us politically, but David liberated us emotionally, sexually. Ultimately, he wanted to set people free.”
Like many literary oral histories, Jones’ book also serves as a collective portrait—of a generation in England, where Bowie, despite moving to New York City in 1999, continued to influence fashion and the visual arts as well as music. (Jones is editor of British GQ.) “There were lots of people with progressive ideas,” recalls Nick Rhodes of Duran Duran. “But it was David who managed to focus that ‘70s energy into something that was irresistible…You bought into him being different, and it rubber-stamped you as being someone who thought about life in a different way.” While it features an international cast of narrators, many of the book’s most incisive and thoughtful reflections are by British journalists, painters and musicians, for Bowie’s life story accompanied their life stories. Similarly, since many of the interviews were conducted after Bowie’s death in 2016, they include subjective considerations of mortality and loss. “I’m sure everybody says this,” says the writer Hanif Kureishi, “but he was a perfect gentleman.” Many in the book do say that, but the range of creative people who describe Bowie’s effect and influence on them is formidable, from Christopher Nolan to Kate Moss. “We have all collaborated with the idea of David Bowie,” says journalist Paul Morley, musing on the singer’s broad appeal. “He pinned together, like no one else, an avant-garde sensibility with a middle-of-the road showbiz sensibility.”
Both of those sensibilities are on view in the exhibition, David Bowie Is, which opened in 2013 at London’s V&A Museum, travelled to 10 other cities, and is currently at the Brooklyn Museum, its final stop, until July 15. Unlike Jones’ multi-voiced book, Bowie’s voice dominates the museum exhibit, which is immersive. Visitors must wear headsets to view the galleries and hear music and other sounds synched to images and films drawn from different periods in Bowie’s career. Bowie’s presence is established immediately in the first gallery: he discusses his life in interview fragments that fade into one another. He gets into your head and stays there, for the changing sound of his voice hints at the shifting styles he adopts in the years (and galleries) ahead.
The exhibit includes many of Bowie’s memorable costumes, and multiple images of the people and work he drew on for inspiration, including Little Richard, A Clockwork Orange, and a trunk full of books. In the first part of the show, Bowie artifacts share the walls and display cases with his influences; as it continues, the exhibit becomes his work alone. Wisely, it never strays far from his performances. Memorable appearances from TV and his groundbreaking rock videos are projected on various monitors. The last gallery seems straightforward--concert footage and photos projected onto several large screens--yet it feels genuinely climactic. The sound is suddenly loud, the headsets become unnecessary. After tracing Bowie’s career privately in our ears, we encounter the complete performer, larger than life, and understand intuitively what he was about.
While the images that first defined Elvis and Bowie—country boy and space alien--were light years apart, the men had plenty in common. They shared a birthday (January 8), and the alienating effects of fame were central themes in both of their lives. Notably, both of them brought overt sexuality to live rock performance: Elvis’ hips and Bowie’s bisexual adventurousness bookended the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Coupled with the private experience of listening to music, their audiences constructed a fantasy of intimacy. “So many people felt they had a personal connection to David Bowie,” observes Dylan Jones, yet many he
interviewed wondered if they ever experienced the “real” Bowie. Elvis fans surely wrestled with the same contradiction, and it continues to tantalize fans and biographers. As it profiles popular artists, oral history, providing granular stories of personal experience, may get closer to cracking fame’s mystery. With the life histories of Elvis Presley and David Bowie, even when it reinforces that mystery, it leaves no doubt to their cultural significance.
If you enjoyed this piece and would like to read more on the subject of oral history in music please check out Bud Kliment's other reviews such as “The B-Side: ‘Negro Folklore in Texas Prisons’ A Record Album Interpretation’”, Mahalia and Studs, Mr. Jones and Dr. King and Alessandro Portelli and Barbara Dane: Records of resistancealso posted to the OHMA blog.
Bud Kliment is a part-time OHMA student. His master's thesis will be about American song collecting and the development of oral history. A native of Philadelphia and a graduate of Columbia College, Bud is a Deputy Administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes, helping to organize and oversee the annual awards in journalism, books, drama, and music. He has also worked regularly as a freelance writer, specializing in music and the other performing arts. Bud has published young adult biographies of Count Basie, Billie Holiday, and Ella Fitzgerald, along with travel guides, cookbooks, and museum labels. He wrote a radio series for BBC World Service that used Motown songs to help teach English. In a younger incarnation, he ran a record store.