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Kick Out the Jams

Jibes, Barbs, Tributes, and Rallying Cries from 35 Years of Music Writing

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About The Book

Selected writings on three decades of popular music from one of the most influential critics of his generation.

Spanning three decades worth of astute, acerbic, and overall astounding music writing, Kick Out the Jams is the first large-scale anthology of the work of renowned critic Dave Marsh. Ranging from Elvis Presley to Kurt Cobain, from Nina Simone to Ani DiFranco, from the Beatles to Green Day, the book gives an opinionated, eye-opening overview of 20th century popular music—offering a portrait not just of an era but of a writer wrestling with the American empire.

Every essay bears the distinct Dave Marsh attitude and voice. That passion is evident in a heart-wrenching piece on Cobain’s suicide and legacy; a humorous attack on “Bono’s bullshit;” an indignant look at James Brown and the FBI; deep, revelatory probes into the work of underappreciated artists like Patty Griffin and Alejandro Escovedo; and inspiring insight into what drives Marsh as a writer, namely “a raging passion to explain things in the hope that others would not be trapped and to keep the way clear so that others from the trashy outskirts of barbarous America still had a place to stand—if not in the culture at large, at least in rock and roll.”

If you want to explore the recent history of pop music—its politics as well as its performers—Kick Out the Jams is the perfect guidebook.

Excerpt

Prologue—“Elvis: The New Deal Origins of Rock ’n’ Roll,” ‘Musician’, December 1982 Prologue ELVIS: THE NEW DEAL ORIGINS OF ROCK ’N’ ROLL

MUSICIAN, DECEMBER 1982

Each year, on August 16, the anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death, Memphis State University hosts a memorial service and seminar in his honor.

The memorial service, which takes place in the early afternoon, includes testimonials and fervid witnessing from a great many of Presley’s friends and colleagues, including the disc jockey George Klein, who acts as host, and even Sam Phillips, the somewhat reclusive producer of Elvis’s great Sun recordings. The seminar, which immediately follows, is a rare occasion (in America) for serious public discussion of popular music issues, centering around a dialogue on the state of the Elvis image.

This year, coinciding with the publication of my book Elvis (Times Books), a critical biography, I was asked to deliver a speech on the state of the Presley image. The article which follows is a reworking of that speech; it sticks fairly closely to the original text, though I have added some detail and cleaned up some of my rather inelegant verbal grammar and syntax.

I thought the speech worth reprinting for a couple of reasons. First, because it places Elvis in a context in which he is rarely seen; and second, because it removes him—and in consequence, the music he founded—from the cultural isolation in which it is often trapped. Quite frankly, ever since a letter appeared in Musician several issues back questioning the appropriateness of references to Reaganism in a music magazine, I have been seeking a way to respond.

Like everything else, Presleymania has a political dimension. I hope this analysis suggests some of the richness of that dimension, not only for those who care about Elvis, but for anyone who cares about rock—or what is happening to the United States at the moment. At the very least, it reflects a perspective on the origins of rock which I do not believe anyone has suggested before.

Unfortunately, the only place to begin is with the rather ugly fact that Elvis is dead. We take this for granted, or avoid it with slogans such as “Always Elvis,” but the fact of Elvis’s death ought to astonish and outrage us. If he were alive, he would be only forty-seven years old, which is the very prime of life for a singer. Until we recover our sense of outrage about this loss, we will not begin to come to terms with Elvis’s life and work.

Elvis didn’t simply become sick; he did not have a terminal illness. Elvis Presley died of abuse, the majority of it self-inflicted, which had its source in his isolation, in his final years, from the rest of the world and in his absolute inability to connect sufficiently to share the details of his experiences with anyone else.

This is about the saddest thing one could say about anyone, much less someone who led the sort of public life that Elvis Presley did. So please forgive me if I refuse to look at Elvis and his life and image in isolation, as we usually do with stars. The only way I know to do homage to the singular nature of Elvis’s fame is to place him in the world, not above it or beneath it.

Like any Elvis fan, I sometimes find it comforting to imagine him still alive. Despite all my mental pictures of how I might reach him and help him go on to make great music once again, this comfort never lasts long or even completely cheers me up. That’s because the circumstances that caused Elvis to die young haven’t been altered. We haven’t learned the most fundamental lessons that the Elvis Presley story has to teach. So if Elvis did return, he would still wind up a lonesome wreck.

In any event, Elvis isn’t coming back, or, if you believe otherwise, it will be too late when he does arrive to make any difference. But Elvis fans, from the very beginning, have had another related hope: we have always wanted to be like him. That doesn’t necessarily mean that we wanted to look or dress or sing like him; we wanted to be like him, to tap into the same freedom, the wildness and dignity that Elvis combined so beautifully, allowing many of us to glimpse the concept of such a mixture for the very first time. In this sense, wanting to be like Elvis means creating a world that operates the same way that his music does: a world in which everyone would have the chance to be like Elvis. But this leaves some questions unanswered: Who was Elvis? What would be the terms of living in such a world? How close have we come to creating it?

Elvis Presley grew up in Tupelo, Mississippi. The Presleys were extraordinarily poor, the sort of people who, according to most of the cultural establishment of America, are not supposed to have creative voices in public life. Somehow, however, Elvis found a little more breathing space in which to think through his ambition than those who had come before him. His father, Vernon, was untrained and often ill (he had a bad back). Frequently, no one in the Presley household had a job; for a time, they actually lived on welfare, and for a while they lived in a government-sponsored housing project. Even so, Elvis didn’t have to quit school and go to work when his father was laid up; he worked part-time, but he continued his education because the family’s minimal income was supported by subsidized housing, and, when things were at their worst, by welfare money. As a result, Elvis Presley became the first person in his whole family to finish high school. As another result, Elvis Presley not only dreamed of being a singer, but also found time to look for ways to realize that dream.

The amount of talent that Elvis brought to this project was quite remarkable—unprecedented and, in my opinion, utterly unequaled. But the opportunities I have outlined weren’t merely the product of Elvis’s dreaming and scheming; they were the result of living in a society which, by design, offered people as poor as the Presleys a chance for that breathing space.

This design was the product of the realization that everyone was entitled to something more than just food and shelter; they also had the right to a certain amount of dignity. That is, society realized that it gained by relieving the poor of the social and economic humiliations, by giving them a chance to be productive and creative. And the proof that this system worked was named Elvis Presley.

The name for this design was the New Deal. It was absolutely instrumental in shaping the world that Elvis knew. Without it, I don’t believe that he would have had the leisure in which to become a singer. For one thing, he would have been forced to go to work full-time much earlier, and for another, he might not have been able to maintain the idealism so crucial to his music.

Certainly it wasn’t an accident that the great breakthrough for Indigenous American music, built on the music styles developed in this country over two centuries, occurred precisely twenty years after that New Deal began. Not only Elvis but Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and just about every singer at Sun Records grew up in an environment the New Deal shaped: a world in which TVA, WPA, and rural electrification played a central role, and a world of increasing personal dignity as a matter of policy. And what these singers had to say—about dreams and freedom, the way the world works and the way it ought to work—was also a product of that climate.

It should be obvious that the worst betrayal of the spirit of Elvis Presley and his music is occurring right now, with the deliberate dismantling of the New Deal’s social programs and the simultaneous reneging on the social ideals those programs—and this music—represents. Those New Deal programs gave people more than food and shelter and some small income. They gave them the possibility of retaining some dignity even in the face of the worst poverty. And if that dignity is not the central kernel of what we loved and admired in Elvis Presley—well, then, you saw a different sort of hero than I did. It’s the spirit of a waking dream of freedom, an easy conscience, self-respect, and most of all, equality among all people that calls to us from those records.

Thus, it isn’t any surprise to me that the greatest effect Elvis had on American culture was to integrate it: to create an art so democratic that within it any kind of person would be treated on the same basis as any other, viewed with such compassion that it could finally be seen that what we had in common was far more important than those things that divided us.

For years, we have been told by those ignorant of the real history of this country’s popular music that Elvis Presley simply ripped off the innovations of Black musicians, that he was not a musical original, but simply a thief, a usurper of rhythm and blues. That nothing could be further from the truth may be demonstrated simply by listening to the original versions of the songs that Elvis first recorded, and by comparing them with the Presley records. “That’s Alright Mama,” in Arthur Crudup’s hands, is a simple country blues; in Elvis Presley’s style, it becomes something more complicated, more free-flowing, without losing its sense of the blues emotions, but with an additional edge of freedom and grace. You can say something similar about Wynonie Harris’s “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” and about Junior Parker’s “Mystery Train,” in relation to the Presley versions (“Mystery Train” just might be the greatest single Presley recording). None of these comparisons will reveal Elvis as a thief. All of them will show that he radically altered Black blues and R&B styles, and not only by adding a component of country & western accents.

What Elvis actually did was to integrate these styles, which is the reason that he is disparaged by people who do not find Johnny Ray or Benny Goodman or Pat Boone—all of whom did rip off Black styles—at all offensive. Elvis wasn’t a threat because he stole from Black people—when has a White American ever been condemned for that? He was a threat because, in Greil Marcus’s phrase, he performed the union, acted out our lip-service belief in equality before our very eyes.

In this sense, the only comparable cultural blow in the movement for racial equality of the post–World War II era was Jackie Robinson’s. And for a White Mississippian like Elvis to take the heat—well, it took an immense amount of guts. And along with Sam Phillips and the other singers at Sun, Elvis integrated American music and, equally against its will, American broadcasting (at least radio broadcasting). And I know, as a person who was brought up in Michigan amidst many of the same vicious racial lies that people in Tennessee and Mississippi are taught, that Elvis Presley fundamentally altered many people’s vision of how Blacks and Whites ought to get along in this land.

That wasn’t an accident. The New Deal, with its decision to reopen certain possibilities in America, set it up, not only by giving Elvis the space a poor boy rarely has to find his artistic soul and by spurring his family in their move from the country to the city, but by proposing that, if this nation were to succeed, then it would have to be one in which all the wires crossed. Elvis was the junction.

Elvis represented integration on a host of levels. For many Northerners, including myself, Elvis symbolized the idea that this was one nation, and that people with Mississippi accents could be as great as those who spoke like the folks on TV. Certainly, he represented a kind of sexual integration, between the frenzy of lust and the absolute modesty of personal love, between secular passion and religious ecstasy. And he incarnated the new ideal that our society should not be divided into one in which the rich spoke up and the poor shut up, but that it should become one in which all deserved a voice—even the rich, for those who think that only the poor are born funky. But especially the poor, because they have been unwelcome for so long in any area of the arts or media, except as foolish Amos ’n’ Andy or Li’l Abner stereotypes.

All of this and some more is what Elvis meant, and you can boil it down to one word: integration. This is the ideal that propelled the New Deal imagination and if you listen to any Elvis record from “Mystery Train” to “Burning Love,” you’ll hear some fragment of it. People talk about the spirit in those records: in my view, this integration is the essence of that spirit.

This is a vision as old as America—older, in fact. But when Elvis was a boy, and all through his early days, it was a spirit abroad in the United States under the name New Deal.

We have now come to the point where the exact opposite of that vision is being preached: the so-called New Federalism. What this rise of the radical right really means is the repeal of the concepts of social and economic justice that made Elvis (and all of rock music) possible in the first place. Every day, a little more of that New Deal spirit is eroded and the message is driven home that this is not one big, integrated society, but two cultures, one high and one low; one privileged, the other restricted; one dignified, the other humbled; one respectable, one contemptible. In the midst of this political counterreformation, it’s no wonder that Elvis Aaron Presley, who was the incarnation of the benefits of the New Deal and the integrationist movements, is presented as a fraud and a talentless know-nothing clown and that his audience is portrayed as a batch of ignorant suckers who fell for the biggest con job in national history.

This is the message of “neoconservatism,” which means to redefine all of our social and cultural relationships. In this respect, Albert Goldman’s version of Elvis is clearly a stalking horse for the new attitudes. If people will accept that Elvis was worthless because he was Southern, because his family background was not worthy of greatness and all the rest of it, then they will also accept the other lies the radical right sells. These lies can be heard from the lips of media commentators, educators, politicians, and other “respectable” persons, and they are amplified by the absolute contempt in which popular culture, and Indigenous American arts in particular, are held. All in all, what we now face is an attempt to deny that the entire cultural turmoil Elvis began and symbolized ever happened, or that what happened was meaningful. (This goes hand in hand with the neoconservative denial of the New Deal–derived movements for Black and female liberation, and of the victory of the ’60s anti-war movement.)

Because Elvis is a great mirror of our society, it’s easy for a writer like Goldman to spread the neoconservative theory over his life. In this version, Presley becomes an example of what such people really think of the poor, Southerners, the uneducated, the unprivileged (even, most absurdly, the uncircumcised). What’s delivered isn’t just a message about Elvis; it’s a vision of the way the world ought to work, a precise inversion of the vision expressed in Presley’s music (and the rock that follows from it).

What’s going on here is a constant retraction of human dignity. Under such conditions, a phenomenon like Elvis Presley would be inconceivable. Allowing this theory to prevail would thus be the greatest dishonor we could do to Elvis.

People always want to know why Elvis screwed up and died. When he acted out the high school civics lesson version of the American Dream, which ought to be true, and found out it wasn’t, it was like hitting a brick wall. He gave up, and as a result he got lazy; he stopped believing, and he started abusing both his body and other people, and he died.

The condition of Elvis Presley’s memory in the coming years depends upon re-creating the dreams that he embodied. It requires a refusal of a world that is unequal and a willingness to battle for the ideals inherent in those dreams.

In his songs—which, for me, means in his dreams—Elvis Presley shows us a different world. It’s tempting to say that he gave us that world, but that isn’t true. That world is always present, as a hope or a chance, but no one, not even the true visionary who sees it clearly as Elvis did, can give it to us. Such a world must be seized and created, then preserved with care and devotion by everyone who wishes to live in it. Get lazy and stop taking care, and you end up as unfortunately as Elvis did: the dream world crumbles at your feet.

When Bruce Springsteen played Europe last year, he decided to sing an Elvis song which might tell the audiences in the countries where Presley never played what this American mythology was all about. (Every American rock singer must feel like an Elvis stand-in overseas.) He picked “Follow That Dream,” but felt that the words didn’t speak as clearly as the music. So he wrote some new lyrics, which got to the essence of the matter. I like to imagine Elvis singing them:

[Every man has] a right to fight for the things he believes

For the things that come to him in dreams

And if we can follow that dream, wherever that dream may lead, then we will have honored Elvis Presley, and his image and music will be preserved.

But if we let our country be ripped in two, allow the spirit of fairness and equality that he represented to die, then Elvis will seem to history not a hero but only a noble fool—though even then, he’ll never look as foolish as we will for letting it happen.

About The Author

Dave Marsh was among the first editors of Creem magazine and wrote extensively for Rolling Stone and other publications. He has authored twenty-five books, including two bestselling biographies of Bruce Springsteen, Before I Get Old: The Story of the Who, and The Heart of Rock & Soul: the 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made. Marsh cofounded the newsletter Rock & Rap Confidential and currently hosts Kick Out the Jams and other programs on SiriusXM. 

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (August 15, 2023)
  • Length: 336 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781982197162

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Raves and Reviews

"Dennis Boutsikaris performs this selection of essays published between 1982 and 2017 with a driving energy that sounds exactly right for Dave Marsh’s smart-alecky writing. Boutsikaris’s quick pacing and assertive diction infuse the listening with the same immediacy that makes Marsh’s arresting opinions so entertaining and thought provoking. Marsh is a nuanced observer of the people and cultural trends that have impacted the way rock, rap, punk, and other music genres evolved over the past 50 or 60 years. He holds back nothing, criticizing artists, radio DJs, unscrupulous industry executives, and meddling politicians while grappling with the uncomfortable direction the country was going. For anyone fascinated with American pop music and the culture at large, this is an essential audio guide from a preeminent music writer."

– AudioFile Magazine

"Kick Out the Jams should restore [Marsh] to his rightful place in the pantheon of America's very greatest music writers." —Jack Hamilton, Slate

“I regarded Dave Marsh as a teacher right away. With Dave, it’s emotional, it’s personal. He draws people together on an emotional as well as an intellectual level.” —Jackson Browne

"Not only is Dave Marsh a great writer, a great person, life-giving lover, a great friend, and a wordsmith, but he has great insight into the music business, connecting the dots, defining things for me." —Dion

“One of the striking things about Dave Marsh, right off the bat, is his emotional involvement. It’s fun to sit down and talk with him about music.” —Patty Griffin

“Dave Marsh has always been a tireless advocate of justice, human rights, and rock’n’roll. His pen and voice are an important player in the history of the music we love and the struggle for a more just and decent world.” —Tom Morello

“Dave Marsh has always been vociferously a champion of equal rights in music writing and of viewing music outside of the segregationist categories formed by the music industry and too often the music press. He’s just a great writer.” —Ann Powers, author of Weird Like Us and Good Booty

“I connected to Dave because I knew he felt about music the way I felt about it. It was life sustaining. It was central to your existence.” —Bruce Springsteen

“The impact of Dave Marsh seeped into my critical consciousness early on. He was the kind of leader in the field who pushed to see the critical conversation be democratized and inclusive and incredibly diverse.” —Greg Tate, author of Flyboy in the Buttermilk

“Dave was just full on, 100%, tying together art and politics, which of course are really tethered anyway. He was the embodiment of that.” —Steven Van Zandt

“Throughout [Kick Out the Jams], Marsh’s deep passion for the music and the artists he writes about provides a bassline of energy and excitement. The author breathes new insight into well-known artists and provides avenues of discovery for new music while maintaining humor and heart…Heartfelt and often amusing, these essays will have you reaching into your record collection to listen with fresh ears.” —Kirkus Reviews

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