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riley rock report

Austin Butler as Elvis

Childlike Wisdom

Soviet Pianist Maria Yudina Converses With Greatness
The Los Angeles Review of Books, August 4, 2022

DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH LIKED to tell a story about the legendary pianist Maria Yudina and her riveting 1953 radio broadcast of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in A Major, K. 488. Apparently, the music wafted into Joseph Stalin’s quarters, and, smitten, he requested a tape of her performance be pressed onto shellac and delivered to him by morning. He never woke up to hear it, though, since he suffered his fatal heart attack later that night. The story — too good for reality, perfect as myth — has lingered as a testament to Yudina’s artistry; Armando Iannucci even opens his buckled farce The Death of Stalin (2017) with a dramatization of the scene. In Playing with Fire: The Story of Maria Yudina, Pianist in Stalin’s Russia, Elizabeth Wilson closes the door on the tale as history in her first appendix.

What’s beyond mythic is how Yudina plays Mozart’s disconsolate slow movement. This adagio (in F-sharp minor), made more poignant by the enchantments of its major-mode bookends, has a delicate instability that stays with you, and Yudina’s relatively slow tempo doesn’t lag so much as echo some ancient internal grief. Her pianism has an uncanny transparency, as though her fingers channel some higher realm of expression…

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Austin Butler as Elvis

Reconsider Baby

Elvis, directed by Baz Luhrmann
Copper Magazine at PS Audio

Among other things, Elvis Presley invented the rock ’n’ roll comeback. Up until 1968, ”coming back” from a career break barely existed in the new style since most fell short, or failed. Carl Perkins’s 1956 car crash just before his first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show interrupted his “Blue Suede Shoes” momentum at a crucial moment. When it leaked on his 1958 UK tour that his wife was only 13, Jerry Lee Lewis sought redemption by appealing to the only audience that might forgive him: country and western, and country-gospel. With many others (Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Gene Vincent), fate delivered a cold, hard slap.

Elvis bombed during his first Vegas stint in 1956 just as he tried to break nationwide, and when called him up for peacetime Army service in 1958, he feared losing most of his listeners. His 1960 Welcome Home Elvis TV appearance with Frank Sinatra sent his career into ultra-safe mode. John Lennon liked to say Elvis “died when he went into the Army.” Presley had so much ambition that comebacks turned into a defining feature of his career. His talent, and what it signaled, foretold of such flamboyance and shock that the world needed time to keep readjusting. It’s still adjusting…

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Woody Guthrie, b. July 14, 1912

This World Was Lucky
How the Mermaid Avenue project reframes the legacy
Radio Silence, 2012

IN THE EARLY 1990s, Nora Guthrie, the daughter of the famous songwriter, came across a shoebox full of her father’s letters. Leafing through his notes, she soon found more boxes and was quickly overwhelmed. “I had just discovered that my father had written more song lyrics than any of us could ever imagine. Over 3,000 when I finally did the count,” she wrote in her liner notes to Mermaid Avenue: The Complete Sessions. Suddenly Guthrie’s legend began talking an entirely new language, saying things even his daughter never suspected. “I had just discovered that he had a bad crush on Ingrid Bergman and dreamed of getting her pregnant,” she continued, “that he felt sorry for Hanns Eisler, that he was a proud lush and a comfortable luster, that he believed in flying saucers, that he was homesick for California, that he even knew who Joe DiMaggio was, let alone wrote a song about him, or that he once made out with a girl in a tree hollow when, as a kid, he bragged, ‘There ain’t nobody that can sing like me.'”

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McCartney 80×80

The Humble Genius Duets on “Glory Days”

Guest column in Wayne Robins’s Critical Conditions
June 27, 2022

On the edge of turning 80, in front of 75,000 fans recently at the MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, and again the next week at Glastonbury, Paul McCartney invited Bruce Springsteen up onstage to sing “Glory Days.” Youtubers the world over have since joined in the swoon. Somehow, even though the song came out in 1984, it lassoed all the Beatles memories studding the McCartney set as well as its legacy. The sight of two senior citizens playing youth music to an adoring crowd gave rock history another shudder of wonder at how far the style has gone, and how unlikely it was to turn out like this…

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Tell Me Why: A Beatles Commentary (1988)

Riley offers a new, deeper understanding of the Beatles by closely considering each song and album they recorded in an exploration as rigorous as it is soulful.

"In Tell Me Why, a labor of loving obsession, Tim Riley minutely examines the music of the Beatles... Song by song, he notes the subtleties of craft and inspiration that keep the Beatles' recordings contemporary, illuminating music so familiar it's often taken for granted."

Jon Pareles, The New York Times