Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Rockin' the Jailhouse

Following on from my article on queer “baroque’n’roll” a couple of weeks ago let’s turn our attention to modern rock’n’roll and one of its most famous and iconic songs, “Jailhouse Rock” by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. The song was immortalised by Elvis Presley in 1957. 

What has become apparent in more recent years is that “Jailhouse Rock” may not be as innocent as it sounds. And it’s enough to leave Elvis “all shook up, uh-huh”. 

Elvis’s performance of this song, as seen in the eponymous film of 1957, clearly gives the impression that “Jailhouse Rock” is about having a party and a good time. But it’s the sort of good time to which the song may actually refer which would never have made it past the film censors. 

On analysis the lyrics of the song, when read on their own, can reveal a queer angle to life behind bars which, as we all know, are not mixed-sex establishments. If we take the lyrics one verse at a time we can see a very gay interpretation, even if its not there intentionally. 

Verse 1
The warden threw a party in the county jail.
The prison band was there and they began to wail.
The band was jumpin’ and the joint began to swing.
You should’ve heard those knocked out jailbirds sing.
Let’s rock, everybody, let’s rock.
Everybody in the whole cell block
Was dancin’ to the Jailhouse Rock. 

It’s clear from line one that it’s the warden who is in charge of this party. I’m not sure what kind of party he was thinking of organising in an all-male prison. It’s not as if he’d be allowed to bring in a female stripper or anything. It sounds like it was just a gig by the prison band. 

Verse 2
Spider Murphy played the tenor saxophone.
Little Joe was blowin’ on the slide trombone.
The drummer boy from Illinois went crash, boom, bang,
The whole rhythm section was the Purple Gang. 

Whether Leiber and Stoller were aware of sexual slang to a great degree is unknown, but the actions of Little Joe have a sexual meaning. “Blowing” is a common term in sexual slang, but “trombone” is less well known. Basically, “blowing a trombone” (more specifically a “rusty trombone”) describes a particularly intimate sexual act between two men, about which I am too much of a gentleman to admit to knowing! Of course, not every reference to a trombone in song lyrics necessarily has any sexual connotation, but in this song it fits in. The Purple Gang mentioned was a real gang. They operated during the US prohibition era and were known for blackmail and extortion as well as providing illicit alcohol. Such a gang would be appropriate inhabitants of any jail, and perhaps “Jailhouse Rock” wasn’t an alcohol-free party at least. 

Verse 3
Number 47 said to number 3
“You’re the cutest jailbird I ever did see.
I sure would be delighted with your company.
Come on and do the Jailhouse Rock with me.” 

So Number 47 thinks Number 3 is cute! So cute, in fact, that he wants to do the Jailhouse Rock with him. Apparently (and I’ve tried to track down the origin of this use without success) the word “rock” was used in some US cities to describe sex itself. Interestingly, the word “roll” was also used as sexual slang for a man’s genitals, so “rock’n’roll” could have sounded overtly sexual in some cities. The two words, of course, don’t have to mean anything sexual in this respect, its just unfortunate that “rock’n’roll” can have two very different meanings. 

Verse 4
The sad sack was a sittin’ on a block of stone
Way over in the corner weepin’ all alone.
The warden said, “Hey, buddy, don’t you be no square.
If you can’t find a partner use a wooden chair.” 

Here we have the warden trying to cheer up one sorry soul in the corner by advising him to use a chair. For what? Sitting on instead of the stone? Dancing? Elvis dances with a chair in the film, but it looks rather ungainly and a potential hazard to those near by. Other analysts of the lyrics have suggested the warden is perhaps referring to a chair leg. Let’s hope the chairs in prison are well sanded and varnished, otherwise the “sad sack” will get splinters in a very embarrassing place! 

Verse 5
Shifty Henry said to Bugs, “For Heaven’s sake,
No-one’s lookin, now’s our chance to make a break.”
Bugsy turned to Shifty and he said, “Nix, nix,
I wanna stick around a while and get my kicks.” 

Shifty Henry, who was real jazz musician, urges Bugs to make his escape. Bugs obviously thinks that he’s having such a good time that he’d rather stay in jail and enjoy the fun. 

I have to admit that all these interpretations of the lyrics are loaded in favour of sexual meanings. I don’t think that Leiber and Stoller meant “Jailhouse Rock” to have such a queer interpretation, even if they knew some sexual slang, and even more sure that Elvis didn’t.

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