Santa’s helper

One December afternoon a number of years ago, I stopped by a nursing home to visit a member of my church. She happened to be attending a holiday program in the cafeteria, so I stopped by there to see her. The residents were being entertained by a jolly plump man in a fancy suit. No, the suit was not red, and the jolly plump man did not have a white beard. Santa was present, but he was not entertaining anyone. He was leaning against the back wall of the room with a bored look on his face. The man with the microphone was wearing a gem-spangled white suit. He had dark hair and long sideburns. He was singing one of his big hits—I no longer remember if it was “Love Me Tender” or “Heartbreak Hotel,” or which song it was.

Yes, the King was upstaging good old Santa Claus, and Santa did not seem to appreciate it one bit. But that passing moment opened a new chapter in my family’s holiday lore. Since that day, I have told my children that Elvis lives at the North Pole with Santa. During the year, Elvis makes toys for Santa to bring to children on Christmas Eve. Elvis helps Santa manage his database recording who has been naughty and who has been nice. Elvis is Santa’s helper, and if you thought Santa is assisted by elves, you have simply been hearing that name wrong all these years.

Of course we will have to rewrite some of the Christmas songs and poems and books. The man in red and the man in white are a holiday team, working together so that none of us has to face a Blue Christmas. Together they deck the halls, ring the bells, and rock around the Christmas tree. Together they bring Christmas joy to every girl and every boy around the world.

One of my favorite Christmas decorations shows Santa kneeling in prayer at the manger. Surely someone can create an image that has Elvis also at the manger, kneeling to honor the King of kings. That scene would go a long way toward bringing to the world the real meaning of Christmas.

To each of you, and to all those who are special to you, I wish a very Merry Christmas. J.

 

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Elvis

On this day, Elvis Presley would be eighty-one years old. The truck driver from Tupelo, Mississippi, became one of the world’s most popular singers when he was twenty-one years old. He began his singing career in taverns and high school dances in the cities and towns of Mississippi, Tennessee, and Arkansas. His television appearances made him a star over much of the world. Eclipsed in the 1960s, he made a bit of a comeback in the 1970s. His sudden death in Memphis in 1977 solidified his claim to fame for years to come.

I am too young to remember Elvis at the peak of his career. The only Elvis I remember is the 1970s Elvis, out of shape, no longer relevant, and practically a joke to my generation of music fans. For most of my life, I have been a Beatles fan, and I must respect Elvis because the Beatles respected Elvis. His music in the 1950s helped to inspire their music, and his movie career led them to want to make movies too. His performances, and the response they evoked from the crowds, preceded Beatlemania. If there had been no Elvis, there might also have been no Beatles.

Andy Kaufman made Elvis impersonations part of his standard act. Pretending to be a foreign man with little understanding of American comedy, Andy would do several bad imitations of celebrities. Then, “last but not to be the least,” Andy would offer to imitate Elvis Presley. In a matter of seconds he would transform into the very image of Elvis, not only in hair and costume and music, but also in nuanced mannerisms. Elvis Presley himself is reported to have said that Andy Kaufman’s impersonation was the best imitation of Elvis he had seen.

Elvis sang a lot of number-one songs, but he did not write many number-one songs. In that category, the Beatles far outrank Elvis. The magnetic public personality of Elvis meant far more than his song-writing ability. Some people achieve massive fame in a single year, and then never repeat their success: Madonna, Michael Jackson, and Bruce Springsteen come to mind. Only a few become icons for an entire generation: Elvis, the Beatles, Michael Jordan, and Bill Clinton, for example. The affection and loyalty they inspire in millions of fans far transcends their actual accomplishments.

Many of his fans were unwilling to accept the fact that Elvis died. Even today a few people cling to the hope that Elvis faked his death to escape the limelight and is living his retirement years in relative comfort and obscurity. Rarely has one person meant so much for so many people. I hope you are able to find a favorite Elvis song or two and listen to them today. J.

Obsession, or seven of my favorite rock ‘n’ roll songs

I can’t speak for you, but I always learn the most interesting things while researching something else. For example, yesterday, in a bit of mild curiosity, I wanted to know which group sang the song “Obsession” in the early to middle 1980s. (The answer is Animotion; it was their first and biggest hit.) Along with the answer to that question, I also found several interesting internet lists about popular songs related to the feeling or condition of obsession.

Earlier this month I posted an essay about the meaning of love. Three of the points I made were that love cares more about the other than about the self, that the opposite of love is selfishness, and that popular culture tends to confuse the two, expressing selfish thoughts and feelings as if they were love. I now wish that I had used the theme of obsession to show the difference between selfishness and true love. After all, obsession cares more about “what I want” and “how I feel” than it cares about “what you want” and “how you feel.”

Last night and this morning I started examining my favorite popular songs for themes of obsession. I did this because several of my favorite songs appeared on those lists of songs about obsession. About fifteen years ago I made a list of my favorite songs. Some preferences have changed over the years, but the top of the list has remained remarkably stable.

My favorite rock ‘n’ roll song for much more than fifteen years is “Good Vibrations” by the Beach Boys (1966). I have always loved this song for its harmony and polyphony, and the actual words have never been as important as the sound. In this anthem to love, the singer mentions a few details about the appearance and scent of his beloved, but the bulk of the song is dedicated to the good feelings and “excitations” he is experiencing. One might gather that she feels the same way about him, if the two of them have good vibrations, but from the lyrics alone it does not seem to matter to him whether she truly likes him or not.

A strong second favorite song is “Hey Jude” by the Beatles (1968). Hard-core Beatles fans know that Paul McCartney wrote this song to comfort Julian (“Jules”) Lennon on the divorce of his parents, John and Cynthia Lennon, and John’s on-going romance with Yoko Ono. Some of the song directly mentions the sorrow of the boy (“Take a sad song and make it better.”), and other lines seem to encourage him to accept his father’s second wife (“Let her into your heart.”). As Paul filled out the lyrics, though, he seemed to add just a touch of obsessive “love.” (“You have found her. Now go and get her.”) Neither of my two favorite songs made the lists of songs about obsession, but they contain elements of the feeling.

My solid third favorite song is “Cherish” by the Association (1966). This song was featured on every list of songs about obsession. “Cherish is the word I use to describe all the feeling that I have right in here for your inside.” The singer sings about how she makes him feel and laments the fact that she has no interest in him. Writers of these lists comment how strange it is that this song is sometimes featured at weddings, even though it describes unrequited love. I agree. The song seems more suited to the sad and lonely guy at the back of the church than to the happy bride and groom.

After this, my favorites clump as a group, so I will list them in chronological order. “Can’t Help Falling in Love” by Elvis Presley (1960) is a simple love long about a man who is helpless in the face of love. Elvis had already sung about the symptoms of love, making them sound much like a panic attack, in “All Shook Up.” Now Elvis sings more calmly about those feelings, but again the singer does not seem to care whether or not she feels the same way about him.

The most obvious song on this list of obsession songs is “Every Breath You Take” by the Police (1983). Sting even wrote this song to portray the thoughts of a stalker, and, according to interviews, he remains astounded by its popularity. Like many other people, though, I have been drawn to this song since the first time I heard it. Its simple tune and beat describe a feeling that might well be mistaken for love, even though the singer is so obsessed that he sings, “Oh, can’t you see you belong to me,” without even stopping to ask whether or not she wants to be with him.

“We Belong” by Pat Benatar is a much gentler song about love, but seen in this light it may be just as demanding as “Every Breath You Take.” Although the song is about us instead of me, unlike most of the songs on this list, the singer takes for granted that “we belong together.” One wonders if the song is being sung because the beloved has suggested a bit more distance between the two of them might be healthy.

I was surprised to see the deeply romantic “I Know You’re Out There Somewhere” by the Moody Blues (1988) on the list of songs about obsession. This song would appear to be one of the healthiest expressions of true love on my list of favorites, with reminders of “the promise that we made each other” and, “My arms will close around you and protect you with the truth.” On the other hand, the singer is obsessed with someone who is not present at this time. He remembers the past and he hopes for the future, but his love has no reality right now. He sings, then, only about his obsession, not about a love that the two of them share.

Here, then, is a challenge: how many popular songs from the last sixty years actually sing about true love—love in which the beloved matters more than the lover—and not merely about how the lover feels toward the beloved? Are there many love songs from this era that really express love rather than an addiction to the feeling of love or a desire to own and control the beloved? Let me know what popular love songs you like that actually express true love.

J.

Generations

A few posts back I grumbled about members of the Baby Boom generation and their self-centered ways. Some readers may have been thinking, “Hang on a minute, J. Aren’t you part of that generation of Baby Boomers that you are raking over the coals? You’ve been posting about Star Trek and the Beatles and a lot of Baby Boomer kind of things. Aren’t you one of them?”

Well, technically, yes. The Baby Boom generation is usually identified with people born between 1946 and 1964. (By the way, I believe that Baby Boomers are the first group in history to start identifying and labeling generations, but that’s another story.) My birth falls within that time period. For that matter, I’ve been offered or given a “senior discount” in some stores without anyone asking for identification. By strict definition, I think it’s fair to say that I’m one of those Baby Boomers about whom I was complaining.

There are big differences, though, between Americans born during the Truman administration and Americans born during the Kennedy administration. Truman Boomers attended increasingly crowded schools. New schools were built during the Eisenhower and Kennedy and Johnson years, and the Kennedy Boomers attended those new schools. Truman Boomers had to worry about the Vietnam War and the draft, but before we turned eighteen, the Vietnam War had ended and the draft had been abolished.

Even in arts and entertainment we are different. Early boomers remember the Elvis of the early hits and the movies, but late boomers remember only fat Elvis singing in Las Vegas and Hawaii. Early boomers remember Beatlemania and the concerts, but late boomers remember the Beatles only as a studio band that broke up while we were not yet teenagers. Early boomers went to Woodstock, but late boomers only attended if they came with their parents. Early boomers were drawn to rock and roll music; but by the time the late boomers were in high school, rock was already fragmenting into disco, heavy metal, and other categories.

Early boomers were able to vote for Bobby Kennedy and remembered his brother John, but late boomers have no memory of those two Kennedys. Early boomers took part in civil rights marches and war protests, but late boomers had no great uniting causes while Reagan was president. Early boomers have Sputnik and Mercury astronauts to remember, but late boomers have to settle for distant memories of men walking on the moon, followed by the triumphs and disasters of the space shuttles.

Early boomers and late boomers are very different from each other; they are not the same generation. I only hope that as the late boomers move into retirement, we will do so more gracefully than our predecessors.

J.