Evolution and Elvis

Alfred Russel WallaceOn this day in 1935, Elvis Presley was born. I know what you’re thinking, “How could he not win the day?” After all, in that scene from Pulp Fiction where Mia Wallace asks, “Elvis or the Beatles?” Of course: Elvis. As she points out, I like the Beatles. But if I had to pick the collected works of one or the other, there is no question. I even wrote very fondly on the Elvis impersonator industry: Transubstantiation of Elvis.

So you will just have to forgive me for not picking Elvis today. For one thing, the competition was extreme. And the guy who won is really, really important. One song will never do it, but here he is doing “Viva Las Vegas”:

Singer Shirley Bassey is 77 today. Here she is doing “Goldfinger” live:

And David Bowie is 67. Here he is doing “Five Years” live:

Other birthdays: playwright Wilkie Collins (1824); landscape painter Albert Bierstadt (1830); Dutch academic painter Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836); publisher Frank Nelson Doubleday (1862); Russian avant-garde painter Pavel Filonov (1883); humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers (1902); actor Jose Ferrer (1912); comedian Soupy Sales (1926); concert promoter Bill Graham (1931); character actor Roy Kinnear (1934); creepy game show host Bob Eubanks (76); physicist Stephen Hawking (72); and professional racist Charles Murray (71).

The day, however, belongs to the great biologist Alfred Russel Wallace who was born on this day in 1823. He is my go-to man when talking about how the brilliant aren’t all that brilliant. Darwin came up with the idea of natural selection. And at the same time, so did Wallace. Actually, it would seem that Darwin came up with it first, but he didn’t publish and it was only when Wallace wrote to him about the same idea that he had come up with independently that the two of them published a joint paper explaining the idea.

This goes along with my idea that if any “great man” had not be around, someone else would have. If Newton had not come up with universal gravitation, someone else would have soon enough. In the case of Darwin, we know that’s the case: Wallace was right there. This is not to take away from the accomplishments of people like Darwin and Newton. Nor is it to put people like Wallace at a lower level. Basically, I think universal gravitation or natural selection require great minds and lots of luck—especially timing. We tend to think of Darwin as a somewhat greater biologist than we do Wallace. But had Wallace been born 15 years earlier and Darwin 15 years later, maybe we would think the opposite. Regardless, Wallace is one of the greatest biologists ever.

Happy birthday Alfred Russel Wallace!

8 thoughts on “Evolution and Elvis

  1. If I had to listen to Elvis for the rest of my life I would kill myself. The Beatles are better, if only for variety.

  2. @Andrea – I figured you would have something to say on the matter. I would only suggest to you that Elvis’ catalog is actually much more diverse. What I like most of his music is his gospel stuff. And I feel certain that he would have done even more great stuff had he lived longer. In general, that’s not true of any of the Beatles. (Of course, Lennon didn’t even get to live as long as Elvis.)

    Having said that, I really like the Beatles. And if I could only pick the 20 best songs from each, then I might pick the Beatles. But there really is a lot of ghastly Beatles music.

  3. Not being a great fan of gospel music, no matter the quality, I would still go mad.

    Is the history of the world, has there been a musical group that hasn’t produced some awful stuff? The Beatles did a pretty good job.

  4. @Andrea – Yes, there have been. But they all died young.

    The Beatles ended with a bang. [i]Abbey Road[/i] is by far my favorite of their albums. It is, dare I say, a perfect album. Everything works. Now, [i]Let It Be[/i] (the last album [i]released[/i]) was just horrible. And I don’t really like anything until [i]Rubber Soul[/i]. That’s a whole lot of trash. After that, there are 5 fine and even great (but often uneven) albums. I still don’t know what to make of the white album. It has a lot of great stuff on it. But is it a great album? I don’t think so.

    I’m not trying to convince you though. I think picking the Beatles is just fine. And I would hate to never hear "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Penny Lane" again, even though they are both on a fairly weak album.

    It isn’t a fair comparison though. A better comparison is The Beatles vs Bob Dylan. I’m not going to get into that and just assume you know my position.

  5. Of course the thing about the Beatles is how they advanced rock-n-roll songwriting, for good or ill. They started out as skilled hacks who would write an intentional hit and add filler. They got more into the artistry of their music as they progressed.

    A local old-blues DJ once described the difference between modern songwriting and older songwriting as the difference between writing songs for any gifted performer to sing (as, say Porter/the Gershwins did) and writing songs that specifically suited your abilities (like the Beatles/Stones did.) He wasn’t slamming the new versus the old, just noting the difference. Some of the old stuff was wonderful, much of it was cheap manufactured garbage like AutoTune songs for tweens today. Much of the more personal writing since the Beatles is garbage, some is terrific.

    I’m guessing you loathe Dylan. But keep in mind what kind of attention he received. That was bound to make almost anyone a bit crazy. And I think he suffers in comparison to the Beatles/Stones in hindsight because their great stuff is still pretty familiar to many people and their pretentious twaddle mostly forgotten. Dylan is more-or-less completely forgotten now, except for a few songs. A young person curious about him will be steered towards a lot of pretentious twaddle.

    I was a big devotee of all the above when I was younger (save Elvis, for some reason; the only Elvis song I ever liked was "Suspicious Minds.) I still like them all. But I only like 80% of the Beatles I used to, 60% of the Stones I used to, and 40% of the Dylan I used to.

    And, to Andrea: Old gospel is different from how we think of it now. The best of it was great protest music, using religious metaphors to express black anger at terrorist-enforced apartheid. "Down By The Riverside" was one of Howard Zinn’s favorite songs. It’s one of mine, too. I was at an outdoor music fest in Saint Paul years ago, with different acts you could walk to and sample, and the sparsest-attended was a church gospel group. There were maybe three of us in the audience. The group was outstanding. At the end, they sang "Down By The Riverside" and came and made us three white people stand up and join them. I felt hugely embarrassed. But it was a great way to show us how communal and important this music was, and dammit if I didn’t love it.

  6. @JMF – How wrong you are about me today! I believe I own more Dylan albums than any other artist. When I was comparing him to the Beatles in the comment to Andrea, I knew that she understood that I think there is no comparison. Just look at when both were doing cover tunes. Dylan’s cover tunes were fully internalized and made greater. The Beatles were just, as you say, hacks.

    I don’t even know where to begin with Dylan. But a good example of his songwriting ability is that mostly his stuff doesn’t need to be produced. Without George Martin, I don’t think the Beatles would have been half as good. And that is especially true of their best album, [i]Abbey Road[/i].

    But look: during the time the Beatles were together, Dylan put out [i]at least[/i] eight great albums. The Beatles didn’t come close to that. What’s more, people may not listen to Dylan as much, but he was much more influential. In fact, many of the best Beatles songs would never have been written without Dylan. I don’t think "Strawberry Fields Forever" would ever have been written without work like "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again." Or think of "Come Together"! That’s Dylan through and through. I don’t think it is appreciated enough just how derivative Lennon is from Dylan, other than "You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away" (which isn’t actually written that much like Dylan).

    And then, [i]after[/i] the Beatles broke up, Dylan continued to do great work. [i]Blood on the Tracks[/i] is still one of my favorite albums. And he made a number of great albums after that. I don’t think one of the Beatles’ members made a single great album alone. They made some fine ones, of course. But none as good as [i]Blood[/i] or even [i]Infidels[/i] or [i]Modern Times[/i].

    There is a tremendous amount of hype regarding both Dylan and The Beatles. I think it is deserved in terms of Dylan. In terms of The Beatles, it isn’t so much. They were a great band, there is no question of that. But they were not the musical revolution people claim. In fact, I would rate Creedence Clearwater Revival above The Beatles. But no one I know of beats Dylan as a popular music artist in the 20th century. He was the best.

  7. Wow, I’m very surprised. I would have pegged you as a Dylan hater for his later, really self-indulgent shit. And, really, much of his earlier shit was self-indulgent, too. But I loved a lot of it as a kid and still love a lot of it today.

    If I knew a modern kid who was curious who Dylan was, I’d make them an MP3 starting with the early protest songs. Even "With God On Our Side," although that’s a straight ripoff of the old Irish "The Patriot Game."

    Then I’d move on to the stuff from "The Freewheeling Bob Dylan," and "Bringing It All Back Home." If the kid asked for more, I’d tell them to check out "Greatest Hits, Vol. 2" from the library. If the kid asked for more than that, I’d tell them YOU CAN GET MY COPIES OF "Highway 61 Revisited" AND "Blood On The Tracks" WHEN YOU PRY THEM FROM MY COLD DEAD HANDS. Then I’d make the kid go shoot something alive and kill it. Because that’s what people who use all-caps think kids should do.

    I was sucking up to the blogmaster. I should know better. I’m still a pretty huge Dylan nerd (I know very little of his recent work, but I can sing every one of his pre-1975 songs from memory.) I don’t like his 80’s stuff as much as I used to, save "Jokerman." If you asked me what songs I could put on repeat on the IPod playing music to soothe me in my hospital bed to my death, you couldn’t go far wrong with "Desolation Row." I have no idea what that song means. It’s just words strung together. And, dear lord, I love it.

  8. @JMF – Yes, he is self-indulgent at times. But what artist isn’t? It is very often the case that there is a very thin line between brilliant and bullshit. Look at [i]Casablanca[/i]; I still think based upon all of its parts, it should be awful. But it’s not.

    The first Dylan album I bought was his first album, which is great. And then it just got better from there. (It also proves that it isn’t just his writing.) I used to listed to "Rainy Day Women ♯12 & 35" when I was down, because there was so much joy in that song. It’s interesting: when Dylan found God, he created some of most depressing music ever. I usually don’t know what Dylan is talking about, but it just works.

    I have, however, spent an enormous amount of time analyzing "Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts." I believe I have it all worked out. I’ve been meaning to write an article about it. I love the line, "Rosemary started drinking hard and seeing her reflection in the knife." If you miss that line, you kind of miss the whole song.

    I have the BD and Johnny Cash version of "Girl from the North Country" as my alarm, although I much prefer the version on [i]The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan[/i].

    The truth is, even when he’s bad I enjoy him. Now you say you can sing everything pre-1975. Does that mean you like [i]Self Portrait[/i]? I actually think it is a lot better than people say. Not that that’s saying a lot. But at least he’s trying to do something on that album and that’s pretty much always true. In general, I stay away from the live stuff. But he just keeps on going, pretty much always at least trying to do something interesting. If you haven’t heard [i]Modern Times[/i], you should definitely check it out.

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