I don’t know why I started thinking about this subject. Maybe it’s because I saw a brief reference to Elvis sightings recently. Maybe it’s because there’s been a spate of rock star deaths recently. Maybe it’s because I’m a fan of tall stories, I don’t know.
I think it’s something of each of those. I’ll make a confession – I’m not a huge fan of music in and of itself. Don’t get me wrong – I love music and think it’s a fundamental part of human society (not only as entertainment, but in ritual and worship and as a way of trying to communicate stuff that can only be communicated with a melody – there’s probably a reason there’s a whole book of the Bible dedicated to songs covering a whole range of emotions and attempts to somehow express the transcendent). But am I always buying the latest album, going to live gigs, having in-depth conversations about b-sides and liner notes and how, once upon a time, I was at the Terrorvision gig at JB’s in Dudley when the floor collapsed? No. I’m probably one of those annoying people who automatically see music as a soundtrack – not in the sense of lift music, but as something that attaches itself to your life and becomes a part of something bigger.
For instance, much as I love The Impression That I Get by the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, it’s always going to be associated with a bunch of us clapping along to it as we sit in the pub. We always do that. It’s almost a ritual. Somewhere along the line, although we’re all fans of the song, it’s as much about the communal clapping nowadays. Heck, I do the clapping when I’m listening to it in the car.
And then there are songs that seem to become a person or a personality in themselves. This might just be something common to me and Meat Loaf, but sometimes songs just seem to become people – the Badly Drawn Boy cover of my favourite song ever, Springsteen’s Thunder Road, is a busker with an old keyboard or guitar; U2’s Until the End of the World is a guilt-choked Judas looking for a rope. Hurt IS Johnny Cash, even when it’s not his cover version.
And then there’s stuff people mock you for liking, but you just don’t care. I love Meat Loaf and Jim Steinman’s collaborations, and I don’t care who knows it. Terry Pratchett once said that the first time he heard Bat Out Of Hell he was driving along the motorway – when it had finished he was considerably further down the motorway and he had no idea how he got there. I know exactly what he means. It’s the story and not the song. Or maybe the song just becomes the story.
I think that’s what attracts me to rock and roll mythology – the stories. Not the sex and drugs, because they’re a bit tawdry, and I tend to agree with this article that suggests rock music is becoming demythologised – we all know how the music industry works (thanks Cowell!), and while the democratisation of music is probably a good thing, the bloke down the pub who keeps getting done for drug possession isn’t mythic; he’s kinda lame and should probably either get the help he desperately needs, or just grow up. No, I’m talking about the proper stories, the tall stories. The epic stories.
Like Elvis. He’s an important pop culture figure, no doubt about that, but he became a legend when he started showing up in places like Burger King. No, literally, he became a legend – the King of Rock and Roll became the King in the Mountain, joining King Arthur, Charlemagne and Andy Kaufman as a sleeping hero who will one day make a triumphant return. The little things point to this – his name is spelled incorrectly on his gravestone, it’s obviously a clue, if you want to see it as a clue and not just a mistake. Although I kinda like the idea that there’s an elderly Elvis out there fighting Egyptian mummies in cowboy boots.
(Interestingly, there’s been an attempt to turn the King of Pop into the King in the Mountain too, but I’m not sure how much that has taken hold. It’s probably too forced, and Michael Jackson’s messianic imagery is already worrying enough… But then that video casts Jarvis Cocker in the role of trickster figure, puncturing pretensiousness, so I guess that’s another folkloric archetype being enacted through music.)
(And I’m also aware that the myth of the Sleeping Hero isn’t a million miles away from the idea of a dying and rising god, so at this point I’m honour-bound to link to this article covering how CS Lewis saw those ideas working within Christianity.)
You’ve also got the flipside to this sort of thing – while some people want to believe that Elvis and Michael Jackson are really still alive, some people want to believe that Paul McCartney is dead. I did consider whether this ties into folkloric ideas about imposters and changelings, but that’s probably too far-fetched. Anyway, it’s the evidence cited for Paul’s untimely death that really links in with a wider mythology, all backward-masking in Revolution 9 and hidden codes on the cover to Abbey Road. Of course, you’ve got to really want to see most of this evidence, but hey, don’t all good stories require you to suspend your disbelief sometimes?
I think all this is why Muse are interesting – they’re not singing about falling in love or getting drunk, they’re singing about conspiracy theories and the Face on Mars. They’re tapping into wider elements of contemporary folklore, conspiracy culture and aliens, all that stuff that seemed to be becoming mainstream in the nineties (now that was a weird decade, but you’ve got to expect that from a period that can’t help but count down to the year 2000), but perhaps got overtaken by the new narrative that started on 9-11 (which I think might be a more apocalyptic set of stories, what with the more active involvement of politicised religious fundamentalism).
Do I believe any of this stuff? Nah. That’s not the point. They’re modern day folktales, part of a shared culture that dances on the margins to re-enchant the world (let’s face it, no-one’s ever going to turn an X-Factor or Big Brother winner into a Sleeping Hero); we’re talking about literature here more than science or history, and literary truth is more slippery and sneaky, a trickster in itself.
Any conclusions? No. It’s probably spoiling the stories to point out that Elvis is dead and Paul McCartney isn’t. Just enjoy the stories, and the music. And turn it up to 11.