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Do We Really Learn Anything from the New Elvis Box Set?

Rock historian Ed Ward on the 4-CD collection: "Elvis Presley Platinum, A Life in Music" (RCA) which includes some never released material.



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Other segments from the episode on September 19, 1997

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 19, 1997: Interview with Jane Shore; Interview with Danny Aiello; Review of Elvis Presley's album "Elvis Presley Platinum, A Life in Music."


Date: SEPTEMBER 19, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 091901np.217
Head: Jane Shore
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

The first thing that attracted me to Jane Shore's's poems was the title of her book: "Music Minus One." It's named after those recordings musicians can practice with -- records with arrangements that leave a space for your instrument. It turns out the title poem is about her father, who gave up his career performing with big bands to help raise the family.

The intriguing title led me to lots of poems I enjoyed. Music Minus One has just come out in paperback. On this archive edition of FRESH AIR, we have an interview with Jane Shore recorded last spring.

The poems in the book are very autobiographical about growing up in a Jewish family in the '50s and '60s. She lived upstairs from her parents' dress shop in New Jersey. With subjects like vacationing in the Catskills, shopping for bargain underwear in the five and 10, shaving your legs, and playing dead -- these poems are about the details that form you.

The book was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award. Jane Shore teaches creative writing at George Washington University and lives in Washington, DC and Vermont. I spoke with her last spring and asked her to read an excerpt of her poem "Heat Wave/Cold War."

I wheeled my baby sister to the cart
The baseball diamond deserted
A dusty wavering mirage
It was hot
So hot the chamber of commerce canceled the annual chicken barbecue
The coals already burning under the empty grills

My father closed up early
We lounged around all afternoon in our apartment over the store
My mother wore her sheerest bra and panties
My father stripped to his boxer shorts
He sat at the kitchen table in the path of the fan
Like a game of solitaire, the ticket stubs,
The week's receipts before him

I was cutting out a family of paper dollars
Wool winter coats and hats; the daughter's organdy party dress
My elbow stuck to the vinyl table cloth
My thighs to the vinyl cushions
I was wearing the thick cotton underpants
I'd worn throughout my childhood
My chest bare in front of my father for the very last time

The Cold War was on TV
My scissors cut along the shoulders, hips, the perfect neutral bodies
The father didn't have my father's bald spot
Nor the mother, my mother's belly
Their modest children, a girl and a boy
Had underwear painted onto their skin

I cut out their split level house in the country
Their collie, their crewcut lawn
I cut out their flagstone patio, shady backyard
The kit even had a fallout shelter
With walls of painted shelves
Filled with canned goods and bottled water

Too hot to talk; too hot to eat
We lowered the blinds and sat in the dark all day and evening
Turning on lamps only made more heat
We camped out on the living room sofa
Ozzie and Harriet, canned laughter, the news
The station signed off, jets flew in formation
To the strains of the national anthem

When the peacock's tail feathers fanned out
An array of grays
My father flicked the dial
We watched a white dot fade and shrink to nothing
In the center of the blackened screen

Finally, we all tried to sleep
My mother lay down in the twin bed across from mine
On top of her separate sheet
Dabbing her forehead with a cold wash cloth
During the night, the fever broke
Only juice for breakfast

At 10:00 a.m., in shorts and a halter
I went downstairs with my father
He unlocked the store, 30 seconds to turn off the alarm
Inside smelled stuffy, like the closet
He got the big ceiling fan going
Cooling air rustled through the dress racks

I had left my mother working at the kitchen table
Pasting up the ad for Sunday's paper
Snipping and gluing the cut-out models on the page
Under "Corduroy Village summer sale, 20 percent off"

While my father dusted the counter
I modeled jewelry for no one
The first customer walked in about eleven
Formal to the end, under his suit jacket
My father wore a short-sleeve shirt
And kept his tie tied until closing

GROSS: Jane Shore, I think one of the things that I liked so much about your poems is your sense of detail. And the triggers that some of those details set off in me, I think some of your poems just set off this like sense memory...


... reactions. And I'm wondering if you always gravitated toward the details of your memories and of day to day life.

SHORE: When I was growing up, one of the things I loved to do was paint. I was very interested in the visual world -- painting. And because my parents had a store and because there were clothes in the store, women's clothes, I was always very interested in the specific details of what I saw before me. But I think I always went for the visual rather than the oral. I always felt that -- I loved seeing things. I loved seeing the things around me, and I loved seeing stuff in the world; the things of the world -- just walking around and looking around.

GROSS: Let me read a couple of lines that are, again, kind of the details of life that, for me, evoke real sense memories.

"I snapped my rubber bathing cap under my chin, tucking in my pony tail and inched down the ladder into the pool, aquamarine as the birthstone ring I'd left in our hotel room for safekeeping."

I remember the bathing cap. I had the pony tail. I sometimes got into pools in the summer. I remember when every girl had a -- every girl I knew had a birthstone ring, the amethyst or what -- the turquoise, whatever the other stones were.


GROSS: I guess these were the details of life I always figured one had to leave to become a poet. You had to kind of give up this boring world of the rubber bathing cap and find a much more interesting world to write about if you were going to write poetry.

SHORE: Yes, that's what -- my teachers told me that. They said that poems had to be about life, death, love, beauty, and nature. And that's what poems were about. And it struck me that in my life, filled with bathing caps and bras and...

GROSS: Right, which you also write about.

SHORE: ... that, that -- it was certainly far from beauty, and certainly not about life and death at all. So -- but the older I get, the find -- I find the more I return to those things of, those specific things of childhood, those specific objects which just -- I just can't let them go. It's like going into an antique store and something calls you to it.

GROSS: Yes, exactly. That's funny 'cause I think you just described exactly the feeling I have from some of your poems.

Did you ever try to write poems with more exalted subject matter?

SHORE: Well, I hope that even though the poems -- you mean sitting down to be profound?

GROSS: Exactly.

SHORE: Exact.

GROSS: Like reaching for those big subjects -- the life, the death. I mean, your poems are about life and death, but actually literally writing -- writing about them in a more literal way.

SHORE: When I was 14 and 15, I wrote a lot of poems about life. And I wrote poems about the "womb of oblivion."

GROSS: Oh, yes.


SHORE: That was my big line; or the "kaleidoscope of life." And it turns out that that's what my students write about, too, although they're not 14 and 15. They're a little bit older than that. But I think that's where everybody starts.

And I actually think -- I think I set out to write poems that I felt were about profound subjects, so I could baffle my parents; so that they wouldn't understand what it was I was writing about. And I think that -- that I just -- it -- I'm not that kind of poet. I really feel -- I don't get the kind of pleasure.

I don't know -- I think when I was starting to write and as I began writing more, I guess I didn't feel like I had any really big ideas. And that if you were going to write about the smaller things, or the things that appeared to be uninteresting, except to yourself, that if the poem was really going to work the way it should work, it would somehow touch on the larger things.

But I -- I -- if I sit down and say: "now, I'm going to write a poem about life," I just can't do it. But if I say: "now I'm going to write a poem about a mah jong bracelet I have or a mah jong set I have," very quickly, I can find once I start exploring what that object is or that game is, I can start finding deeper things. Although I don't consciously know it when I sit down to write it.

GROSS: My guest is Jane Shore, and her latest book of poems is called Music Minus One.

There's another poem I'd like you to read from the book and it's the poem called "Work Out." Before you read it, would you tell us what inspired the poem?

SHORE: I have a sister who's eight years younger than I am, and she I think had to really follow in my footsteps in a lot of ways. And it's about, I guess, it's my sibling rivalry poem. It's about growing older and feeling that -- who has the advantage, perhaps; feeling the kind of burden of being the older sister.

Also, I know there's a burden of being a younger sister. And also, everyone says that the older sister is the one who's the nice, well-behaved girl. And the younger sister is the one who's the rebel. And so, I guess both sisters have their burdens to carry.

But my sister's a folk singer also, and she sings country and western and folk. And I think she inherited the musical talent in my family. And this is a poem about that -- about feeling that one passes through stages of life. It's about rivalry. It's about wanting to not have a sister, I think, at times. Although now, I'm very happy I have a sister.

Work Out.

"My sister is doing her exercises
Working out in my husband's study
The rowing machine sighs deeply with every stroke
Its heavy breathing, like a couple making love

"She's visiting from Iowa
Where the cold weather is much worse
When she was 10
I'd hear her strumming her guitar through the bedroom wall

"She'd borrow my albums
My Joan Baez, my Dylan
And sing along, shutting me out
Drawing me in
Imitating my hair, my clothes, my generation

"I used to feel sorry for her
For being eight years younger
She opens the door a crack
And surfaces in ear phones
And wearing pink bikini panties
And a lover's torn T-shirt

"Strapped to her hands
Are the weights that weighed her suitcase down
Her thighs are tight
Her triceps shine
Her body is her trophy

"The night she arrived
We sprawled across my bed
Her cosmetic bag spilled open
And she shadowed my eyelids violet
Demonstrating the latest tricks
The way I used to make her up
On those nights she watched me dress for dates
Watched me slip into my miniskirt, my sandals, my love beads

"Now, she's no longer in love with me
And eyes meet pityingly, triumphant
Her expression the same as mine
When I watched my mother examine her face in the magnifying mirror

"She's got to keep in shape
She's a performer
It's her business to look beautiful every night
Sometimes, when she begins to sing
Men in the audience fall in love

"She's warming up in the shower
The tiled walls amplify her voice
Safe, for once, under temperate rain
Like a dress handed down from sister to sister
In time, one body will inherit what the other has outgrown

GROSS: Has your sister read the poem?

SHORE: Yes, in fact she said when she read it, she said: "well, it's the one poem that you wrote about me, and I don't love it, but you know, it's the way you really felt." It is -- it is -- I know now that I read it, I realize -- well, I guess I knew it when I was writing it, too -- eight years, I'm eight years older. I'm a lot of pounds heavier. It's about rivalry.

GROSS: There's the line in the poem when you say that your sister's expression was the same as mine when I watched my mother examine her face in the magnifying mirror. What did you think about when you watched your mother examine her face in the magnifying mirror?

SHORE: You don't want to think that you're actually going to be like that once yourself. And in fact, I'm working on a poem right now in which I've inherited my mother's magnifying mirror. And I don't like what I see. I mean, what I see is my mother's face. You look at yourself getting older, and you think when you're a younger person, that will never happen to me. And when I'm that age, I'm going to be really beautiful because I'm really going to take care of myself.

GROSS: No, when I'm that age, I'm going to be really young.


SHORE: That's right. I'm still gonna look just the way I look when I'm 20. But in fact, it's absolutely true that you look at yourself and it magnifies who you are. It magnifies your faults and maybe your good things, too. But unfortunately, I look just like my mother now. And my sister knows that. So...

GROSS: So, she scores a point for that?

SHORE: Well, you know, I realized also -- I mean, at the end of the poem, it's a kind of curse. You know: one day, you're gonna get what I don't -- you know, what I have now.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

SHORE: It's a kind of curse. I guess that was my last -- I had to get one last lick in. My sister was not thrilled with this poem.

GROSS: My guest is poet Jane Shore. Her book is called Music Minus One. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

Back with poet Jane Shore. The title poem from your book Music Minus One is about your father.


GROSS: Who used to play with big bands, I guess, in the '30s and '40s. Played with Clyde McCoy (ph). Did Clyde McCoy have the recording of "Sugar Blues?"

SHORE: Yes, and this is an amazing thing that just happened. I was in San Francisco last week and I was in a bookstore, and I was leaving the bookstore and on the way out, I walked by the music aisle. And a title caught my eye, and it was the "Big Bands Almanac." And I thought well hey, let me just take a look at this and see what's in there.

So I looked up "M" and I looked up Clyde McCoy. And there -- the picture of Clyde McCoy's band was a picture of my father taken in 1936, I think, when he must have been 21 years old and there he is playing. And I almost died. It's the first time that the -- my inside -- what I felt was my personal inside history suddenly was -- there I was in the bookstore and there was a picture of my father.

GROSS: Your father had to give up music, I guess, to be home with the family maybe, or...

SHORE: Well, it was after -- he had played before the war. Then he had got -- he'd been a Marine in the war. And he'd play -- I guess he'd led the Marine Band. He played in the South Pacific. And when he came home, it was another world. He married my mother and I was born a year later. And I think he felt that music was no life for -- if you wanted to be a family man, you couldn't stay out all night playing music. You couldn't lead your wild, crazy life that you'd lived before.

And he right away went to work in a music repair shop on the Lower East Side. He did that for a year or two. And then I think he was just really looking around to see what he could do. And my mother had been a saleswoman I think at Bamberger's (ph) or Stern's in Newark selling cosmetics, and they decided to go into business.

And in the beginning, he was just going to help her. And then as the years progressed, he got more and more involved in the business.

GROSS: I'm wondering if when you started writing, you thought, well: "I'm gonna stick with it. My father had to give up playing professionally and ended up owning a store. But I'm gonna stick with this writing thing."

SHORE: I think that was the center of what -- I always felt the sadness that my father had. And even though I would say: "Dad, you know, wouldn't you rather be playing now? Wouldn't you rather be in the band? Wouldn't you rather be on television with all your buddies that you see on Johnny Carson?"

And he'd say: "no, no. I'm quite content. I can listen to my music." And of course, he had a tremendous collection of records. He'd listen to the radio day and night. But I never really believed him. Never. I thought, well, why would one -- why would you want to give up that glamorous life for this?

But in fact, I think that you're right. I think that if you have a commitment to something that you really, really love, and if it's possible to do it, and I think you make it possible to do. Then you should do it.

And with my father, I think there were circumstances. He was born -- it was the Depression. People had a different mentality. They gave up a lot of things that I think I certainly nowadays probably would not give up.

GROSS: I have one more question for you. You said before that you respond really well to encouragement. As a teacher, how do you handle encouragement and criticism?

SHORE: I immediately, because I had wonderful teachers in college and graduate school, I think that a person does not do well when they're yelled at or when they're made fools of. I feel that if the one -- if you write a line in a -- if you write a poem, and there's one terrific line in it or one image in it, you should know that you did that. And I believe that poetry and all art grows through nurture.

And I try to treat my students the same way that my teachers treated me, which was really encouraging, really -- but when you do something that's not so good, when you write a cliche, you have to be told also, so that you won't keep making the same mistake.

And also with my students, everybody has a very unique life. Each person has a unique life, and only they know what they can write about. And that's the thing I try to get to, to them. I think if you try to write about everything that you see around you that's not you, you won't get -- you won't get art. You won't get a good poem. But the more particular you get, the more specific you get in your life and in your art, I think that's when the really good work happens.

GROSS: Well Jane Shore, I really want to thank you a lot for talking with us.

SHORE: Thank you so much.

GROSS: Jane Shore's book Music Minus One has just been published in paperback by Picador. She teaches creative writing at George Washington University.

Well, this is Sugar Blues played by Clyde McCoy and his orchestra, the band her father played with.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.


Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Jane Shore
High: Poet JANE SHORE. Her new collection of poems "Music Minus One" is out in paperback. It reads like a memoir of her youth growing up in the 1950s in New Jersey. She's won several prizes for her two previous volumes of poetry and is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship.
Spec: Poetry; Women; States; New Jersey; Jane Shore
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1997 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1997 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Jane Shore
Date: SEPTEMBER 19, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 091902NP.217
Head: Elvis Presley Platinum
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:55

TERRY GROSS, HOST: We began this week with an interview with Sam Phillips, who discovered Elvis Presley and produced Elvis' first recordings. We end the week with a review of RCA's recently released collection "Elvis Presley Platinum."

It's packed with stuff we've never heard before, from every stage of The King's career. But after listening to it, rock historian Ed Ward wonders if we'll know him any better as a result.


ANNOUNCER: And here he is, the new singing sensation all over the country, Elvis Presley. Come on. Sing out.


ELVIS PRESLEY, SINGER, SINGING: You ain't nothin' but a hound dog
Cryin' all the time
You ain't nothin' but a hound dog
Cryin' all the time

Well, you ain't never caught a rabbit
And you ain't no friend of mine

Well, they said you was high class
Well, that was just a lie
Yeah, they said you were high class
Well, that was just a lie

Yeah, you ain't never caught a rabbit
And you ain't no friend of mine

You ain't nothin' but a hound dog
Crying' all the time...

ED WARD, FRESH AIR COMMENTATOR: There's no doubt about it: even though he's been dead 20 years; Elvis lives. A great deal of this can be laid to the fact that his record company, RCA, has astutely marketed his recorded works, constantly repackaging and reshuffling them so that there's always something new for the faithful.

Now, they've announced they're not going to release any more until the turn of the century, and they've left us with a four-CD collection called "Elvis Presley Platinum: A Life in Music." On the face of it, it looks pretty exciting: 100 tracks; 77 of which have never been released; including private tapes; excerpts from TV performances; and out-takes from recording sessions.

But really, what do we have here? The set starts out with one of the recordings he made at Sam Phillips' private recording service, done, the liner notes speculate, to remind Sam of his existence.


PRESLEY SINGING: If you find someone knew
Who means more than me to you
I'll never stand in your way

If you feel we must part
Don't let pity rule your heart
I'll never stand in your way

WARD: His strategy worked, of course, but "I'll Never Stand In Your Way" is pretty weak and today is just another curiosity. I mean, does this sound like the boy with the Negro sound and feel that Sam was looking for?

As we all know, Sam knew what he was doing though, and we're provided with an out-take from that historic first session. Unfortunately, it's the wrong one.


PRESLEY SINGING: Well, that's all right, mama

Well, that's all right, mama
That's all right for you
That's all right, mama
Just anyway you do
That's all right
That's all right
That's all right, now mama
Anyway you do

WARD: Interesting as it is to hear guitarist Scotty Moore flub some notes, the real gem from the session is the first take of "Blue Moon of Kentucky," where Sam comes out of the control room, mind blown by what he's heard, and tells him: "that's a pop song now, Little Vi (ph). That's different."

Bootleggers have had this track for years. Why isn't it here? The fact is, Elvis usually had a real good idea what he was going to do when he stepped up to the studio microphone, despite his flair for winging it on stage.

Very few of the out-takes here give us any deeper understanding of his artistic growth at least partially because, at first, nobody wanted to spend valuable studio time on something as ephemeral as rock and roll. Where the revelations come from in this collection is from private tapes, and some of these are strange revelations indeed.


PRESLEY SINGING: I'll take you home again, Kathleen
I'll cross the ocean wide
To make your heart ever (Unintelligible)
And (unintelligible) you were my bonnie bride

The road is all (unintelligible) your (unintelligible)
I watched them fade away at last

WARD: This boogie woogie version of "I'll Take You Home Again, Kathleen" is part of a medley of sentimental songs recorded in Bad Nauheim, Germany where he was stationed in the Army, by Freddie Beanstalk (ph), the music publisher who fed him his material.

And it's this very material, overseen by Elvis' manager Tom Parker, which lurks over most of this collection. Do we need an alternate take of "Bossa Nova, Baby?" I don't, although I have to admit that the worst of the post-Army stuff didn't make the cut here, so that alternate take of "You Can't Rhumba in a Sports Car," if it exists, is missing.

The 1968 TV comeback special was a brief revival of Elvis as rocker, and part of its appeal was the segment where he sat around with some musicians and just jammed. The idea for this came to producer Steve Binder (ph) when he heard Elvis and some friends unwinding after a rehearsal, some of which is captured here.


PRESLEY SINGING: Oh yeah, I see my baby

I gotta one

WARD: This kind of tape makes you wish there was more private Elvis to hear, because other rehearsal tapes here from 1970 show that he was at his best working with his musician friends.


PRESLEY SINGING: You know, the landlord rang my front door bell
I let it ring for a long, long spell
Went to the window
Peered through the blinds
I asked him to tell me what was wrong all the time
He said:

Honey, honey
Honey, honey
Honey, honey
If you're wanna get along with me


Honey, honey

WARD: In the end, though, the progress of the comeback special was erased by more touring, more Vegas, and more personal turmoil. Elvis Presley Platinum rightly turns the spotlight on Elvis the rock and roller, but there's just no getting away from the collection's final musical selection: fat Elvis gasping his way through "My Way" to a cornball climax.

Fanatics like me will need this collection, but don't come looking for insight. I'm afraid that left the building with Elvis.

GROSS: Ed Ward writes about music from his home in Berlin.

Dateline: Ed Ward, Berlin; Terry Gross, Philadelphia
High: Rock historian Ed Ward on the 4-CD collection: "Elvis Presley Platinum: A Life in Music" which includes some never released material.
Spec: Music Industry; Elvis Presley
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1997 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1997 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Elvis Presley Platinum
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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