02 July 2006

The Elvis God as Prognasticator...30 Years On

Those of you who know me personally or have read enough here, know that I have little tolerance for people unwilling to learn about new ideas and things, unwilling to question what they see or are being told, unwilling to think outside a box they had absolutely no hand in making whatsoever. I will fully admit I'm one of the dumbest fools ever to grace this planet, but I'd like to think I try really hard each and every day to test myself, to challenge myself, to maybe learn from my mistakes...even if takes some time for those changes to form roots and grow. I am one of the people who found the internet (and blogging, for that matter) not as a need to see the 'next big thing' (although that's appealing in its own right, I admit), but rather as a way to fill a void in my development as a human. Sounds like doubletalk, I know, but here's the logic: I wanted to see if I could still learn and be inspired, and maybe meet others with the same wants. At some point not very long in this life I realized that the human connection of thoughts and ideas is what makes us better than other animals, it's what makes everyday life worth living...it's what we can pin our hopes and dreams on, ultimately. Otherwise, life as we know it becomes a dreary version of Fritz Lang's classic silent film, "Metropolis".

This is not a new goal for me and certainly not for others. For hundreds of generations before me and hundreds more to come, our very survival as a species depends on our ability to think and to question in order to solve problems and enhance our lives. But somewhere after high school graduation and the beginning of 'adult life' (I always like how no one sees that on-ramp road sign), it seems to me that we're encouraged to become Borg-like. (To those of you not familiar with the "Star Trek" reference, it means to think as a group and not as individuals, to become an autonomized collective..."resistance is futile" is the catch phrase and they mean it.) Well, call me naive or a dreamer, but I don't subscribe to the theory that I can only think until 'responsibilties' hit me up side the head like a nail-studded 2 by 4 wooden plank. I don't believe I should stop questioning things because it's 'too much work', or 'too big a problem', or (a particular fave I think so encompasses an American way of thinking) 'it doesn't directly effect me, so it's not my problem'. Note to the Borg reading this blog entry: you've landed at the wrong destination and yes, I will proudly resist.

Which leads me to my lifelong love affair with the musician widely known as Elvis Costello. Elvis, to me (and this Elvis in particular, although the other one is up there, too, in sentimental favourites) is God, or at least what God wants me/us to be. Truly, completely, but not in some stalkerish cult like fashion as the word 'God' frequently induces. We all have our 'God' (regardless of your religious slant, for that's not up for discussion here)...and mine is the man born as Declan Patrick MacManus. If 'God' is something we want to be a part with more, understand more, emulate more, forgive more, and challenge more...I can do far, far worse than Elvis Costello. He is not a saint, by any means, and knows more than a few things about self-serving propaganda to be certain. But Elvis represents a never-ending struggle not only within himself and his own emotions, but also that of those he observes around him. He's not afraid to take risks, he's not afraid to get angry and act out, he's not afraid to act the fool. Instead of dimming his light and taking the easy way out (on so many different levels), he keeps on looking in unopened closets, he keeps answering calls that the rest of us find too easy to ignore. I can only imagine what a day in his brain would be: I see phrases floating in and around everywhere, I hear an odd riff down by the audio canals, I float my way around delicately amongst a jumbled sea of ideas I can't even begin to comprehend. The eyes are tired, as they have been behind those glasses for years now. But the Elvis madness calms me, weakens and inspires me simultaneously to be something more than for what I've settled. And although the hum of activity never turns off, I sleep well at night knowing, despite it all, I am asking the right questions. Yep, it would be good to be God, if only for a day.

Elvis has been doing this for as long as I've ever known of him and well before. For me, it was a defiant act of independence on "Saturday Night Live" in 1977 (which, amazingily, I cannot find a video clip for on the net...only mentions of it). At the risk of dating so many of us, I was watching the show in the utter darkness of my living room, aged 7 years, waiting for a much-loved skit of "The Killer Bees" to hopefully grace the screen. I wasn't supposed to be there that night...my parents considered some of the material 'too adult' and far 'too counter-culture' for even a mature child growing up in Kansas. (And they loved using the TV as my babysitter.) But on that night, wrapped up in blankets and staring mindlessly at our gigantic Montgomery Ward telly and disappointed no "Bees" were to be on, I saw God. And, no he hadn't impressed me with his earlier song, but when he did his finale and stopped it mid-song to change from "Less than Zero" to "Radio Radio", I guess I understood on some level what chance he took, although I didn't understand the meaning then. I just remember being stunned about how someone had stopped my beloved "SNL" and how mortified he must have been for making a mistake. Little did I know then (or for many years later, really) how it had not been a mistake...instead, it was just God's little way of reminding us all that none of us were supposed to be there like mindless zombies, either.

Elvis Costello and The Attractions


I was tuning in the shine on the light night dial
Doing anything my radio advised
With every one of those late night stations
Playing songs bringing tears to my eyes
I was seriously thinking about hiding the receiver
When the switch broke 'cause it's old
They're saying things that I can hardly believe
They really think we're getting out of control

(CHORUS) Radio is a sound salvation
Radio is cleaning up the nation
They say you better listen to the voice of reason
But they don't give you any choice 'cause they think that it's treason
So you had better do as you are told
You better listen to the radio

I wanna bite the hand that feeds me
I wanna bite that hand so badly
I want to make them wish they'd never seen me

Some of my friends sit around every evening
And they worry about the times ahead
But everybody else is overwhelmed by indifference
And the promise of an early bed
You either shut up or get cut up, they don't wanna hear about it
It's only inches on the reel-to-reel
And the radio is in the hands of such a lot of fools
Tryin' to anaesthetise the way that you feel


Wonderful radio
Marvelous radio
Wonderful radio
Radio, radio

Official website of Elvis Costello

Lyrics from Leo's Lyrics, as always.

It's nothing short of amazing to me how something as simple and catchy as "Radio Radio" seared the music and radio industries in 1977 as much as it did, as it seems obvious to us non-jaded folks who are subjected to widescale corporate radio daily. Not only does the message still hold true now, but it has also morphed into the whole mainstream media bandwagon. (References to 'biting the hand that feeds me' and 'think that it's treason' seem especially poignant this week...wonder if anyone's sent a copy of this to The New York Times after their brouhaha this week?) The lyrics today are as relevant as they ever were, and perhaps even more so for times to come. If blogs and the internet had been around on a wide scale in the mid to late 1970s, I'd like to think we would have adopted this genius song as our rallying cry. After all, the "radio radio" of the mainstream media and press is why so many of us have turned to the internet for our news, discussion, and connection to the outside world.

I heard "Radio Radio" the other day driving home and I listened, really listened...probably as intensely as I did that cold night almost 3 decades ago. And it occurred to me just how 'on point' the song was then, is now, will be still tomorrow. And I pulled the truck over and scribbled some of the lyrics...words I've heard hundreds of times but never really looked at and reflected upon before. Then it hit me all over again: that Elvis Costello is my God, and this time because he saw what was going on in mainstream music then and was brave enough to make a stand. Not only write it, but record it. Not only record it, but promote it. And not only promote it, but stop live television and perform it so some hick kid in Holly Hobbie® pajamas would someday decipher his message about thinking for oneself and not being afraid of challenging the norm. It's been awhile, yes, I admit, but I think I finally got it. Good onya, God.

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