the band was jumpin’ and the joint began to swing

On Scott Walker’s extraordinary, truly sui generis new CD The Drift, one of the most powerful tracks is “Jesse” (subtitled “September Song”), concerning which an epigram notes that “In times of loneliness and despair, Elvis Presley would talk to his stillborn twin brother Jesse Garon Presley.”

The lyrics of the song are apparently sung by a dreaming Elvis. Of course, in our world, Elvis is himself as dead as Jesse – and even while alive Elvis had attained a curiously twin-like status, as in the famous postage stamp poll soliciting favor for either the young Elvis or the older Elvis (popularly called merely “fat Elvis”). Dream-Elvis here might almost be talking to himself, to his now-dead, once-youthful twin self.

Walker’s subtitle, of course, alludes to the famous Kurt Weill/Maxwell Anderson song, whose lyric glancingly mentions the proverbial May-December romance and is therefore another sort of dialogue between age and youth. More directly (as played out in his song’s lyric), Walker means a particular September: that of 2001.

In his dream, Elvis sees a “tall tall tower” in ruins, figuratively casting its shadow as far as Memphis. Later, the dream-Elvis sees himself “crawling around on [his] hands and knees/smoothing out the prairie/All the dents and gouges…” It’s not clear (not least to Elvis) why he’s doing this: in desperation? in hopes of eliminating difficult, rough patches and creating a smooth conformity? in expiation? Walker ends the song in a wintry, sepulchral a capella, its tone and vocal production reminiscent of a withered Elvis: “I’m the only one left alive.”

At first glance, the only common trope visible between Elvis and the events of September 11 is that of twin-ness: Elvis and Jesse, the Twin Towers. But the lyrics (and aspects of the Elvis myth in our culture) suggest a few more (which are also twins of a sort): age and dissipation vs. youth and vigor (crawling across the flat, horizontal prairie vs. the “tall tall tower”), present vs. past, sleeping vs. wakefulness, death vs. life. The phrase “six feet of foetus” serves to conflate the identities of the living, grown Elvis with his stillborn twin: in the half-death of dreaming, Elvis confronts his dead, other self. Of course, insofar as the notion of twins contrast the young Elvis, the lively Elvis, the energetic Elvis with the bloated self-parody dying on the toilet, there is no twin, no other – only a mythic projection. There’s only one Elvis. “Jesse” is a phantom, Elvis is the only one left alive.

And I think this may be the bluntest, most painful and relevant parallel Walker sees between his twin images. The twin towers were self-identical: America might think its image in the eyes of the terrorist, as variously exploiter, bully, culture-killer, and hypocrite, is some sort of phantasmic evil twin, a mere projection; and that the heroic, tall-standing, shining beacon of freedom is its true, real self. But there is no twin, there is only America. And as the towers fell, and we too fell to the ground, weeping, praying, raging, mourning, desperately smoothing the gaps and covering the gouges, perhaps we realized we were one: there was no dead, zombie-like evil twin shadowing us. We are both: the shining, youthful and creative promise and the pathetic, isolated grotesque, compulsively stuffing ourselves until we pass out in a pile of our own shit. Good thing that we, along with Elvis, are only dreaming, and that soon we’ll wake and discover it was only a nightmare, right?

Incidentally, you might recognize that “Jesse” is built around a ghostly transfiguration of the “Jailhouse Rock” guitar riff. Curiously, another Scott with a new CD out (Scott Miller, whose new album What If It Works? is billed as a collaboration between Miller’s band The Loud Family and Anton Barbeau) somewhat tongue-in-cheek calls that song “history’s most perfect paradisal vision” in that album’s liner notes: “Angel wardens arrange kicks for the willingly penitent. The outcast criminal element now neighbor, peer – tolerated, loved. The cutest jailbird I ever. Blessed are those who can’t find a partner. Use a wooden chair! This is how it will be in the Kingdom of God.” One of that record’s standout tracks is called “Mavis of Maybelline Towers.” It would seem to be about a couple who’ve enjoyed the good life for some time, one of whom is beginning to realize the falseness, instability, and danger of that life. (“Maybelline” is both the cosmetics company and one of Chuck Berry’s reckless drivers.) “Mavis of make-believe hours, slow lullabyes showed us that almost-unnoticed, known through new eyes,” Miller sings in the chorus. Elsewhere, the song’s narrator seems to lash out at the loss of his carefree freedom, deciding to “chuck it” (Miller’s said this is a euphemism, in fact) while flying into, of all places, the home of Puff the Magic Dragon, Honalei – whose inhabitants, far from being the carefree denizens of the older song, now screen travelers for fear they might be bearing contraband “fruit that would displace the native life.”

After posting my transcription of these lyrics (accuracy not guaranteed) to the Loud Family mailing list, another list-member mentioned that he thought the imagery and themes of the song might also aptly describe some aspects of America post-9/11. I certainly hadn’t thought of that possibility – but there’s nothing in the lyric to deny that possibility, and the song’s main lyrical tropes (false or deceptive appearance, self-obliviousness, recklessness) certainly resonate with those events.

If nothing else, it’s curious that two songs in 2006 make use of two different iconic ’50s rockers – and look back with a wary, irony-shaded nostalgia to see things rather more darkly than those figures ever did.

Scott Walker “Jesse (September Song)”
The Loud Family with Anton Barbeau “Mavis of Maybelline Towers”

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “the band was jumpin’ and the joint began to swing

  1. Anonymous

    So, what are your initial thoughts on ‘What If It Works?’ ? Wax on, wax off to your heart’s content. I mean, it is your blog; who’s gonna stop you?

  2. Phil

    Ooh, Scott Walker. The only song I’ve heard from him is 30 Century Man, in The Life Aquatic.

    Give me a starting point, please.

  3. 2fs

    Phil –

    Well, since he’s released on average an album per decade since the eighties, in terms of his current work either The Drift or 1995’s Tilt will give you a sense of it. “Jesse” is fairly typical: you’re not looking for typical song structures or hooks. I haven’t picked up Climate of Hunter from the ’80s yet. His earlier work is more conventional, and here too my exposure is limited.

    As for writing about What If It Works?:

    Oh, Anonymous –
    All in good time…

    (to the tune of “Inverness”)

  4. Anonymous

    I’d assume that’s some convention
    To obviate the question
    And move these things along

  5. yellojkt

    That’s a lot of philosophical underpinnings to hang on poor Elvis. The whole twin thing seems a little creepy.

    In the words of Paul Simon, I’m going to Graceland. I will try to catch some of the dead twin zeitgeist while I’m there.

  6. 2fs

    Yes, “creepy” is one prevailing mood of the CD. But not in the cheesy, superfluous mode of, say, Marilyn Manson or someone. Walker’s not trying to shock – he’s digging in the dirt (complete your Peter Gabriel quote here). I don’t think it’s Elvis himself that bears the brunt – more the idea of Elvis. I mean, there’s a reason he’s so mythically omnipresent (uh, “reasons”: many many) in US culture. Not just his music, or even the popularity of it: other, equally popular US musicians don’t have that kind of weird cultic resonance around them (even someone like Sinatra, or Louis Armstrong. Not even Dylan – although Dylan’s definitely a larger-than-life figure as well).

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