Cleaning our Parents’ Attic

 Posted by on December 1, 2010 at 11:25 am  Matthew Weiner, Retro
Dec 012010
 

Matt Weiner has often said that doing this show is like peeking in his parents’ bedroom.  It’s easy to see what he means.  The voyeuristic quality of Mad Men was established almost from the beginning of the series.  He’s being both literal and figurative – a bedroom is really a metaphor for a life, is it not?  Where the truth lies, indeed.

A couple days ago, I came across a fascinating and deeply relevant article written by the late rock critic Lester Bangs (for those of you saying “where have I heard that name”, Bangs was portrayed by Philip Seymour Hoffman in Almost Famous), called “Where Were You When Elvis Died?“.  It was originally published in the Village Voice, shortly after The King’s death in the summer of 1977.

The piece reflects on the age of Elvis, which reached its height in the 1950’s and ended in the 1970’s – largely ignoring the 1960’s – by concluding that “we will never again agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis.”

Bangs remarks, at length, on the cultural fragmentation to be set off by Elvis’ passing.  Essentially, from here on, you will have your heroes, I will have mine; they will not be the same, nor will we care.  His proof of this, paradoxically, is that Elvis had nothing but contempt for his audience and we loved him anyway.  Look at all the crap this guy produced in the last 10 years of his life and we still adored him like a saintWe will never see this again.

It’s a good point.

This made me think that the peeking into our parents’ bedrooms and Bangs’ thesis are connected.  When someone dies, we reflect not only on their times, but how they related to those times.  Those who were adults in the early 1960’s (post-WWII; pre-Baby Boom … Don’s age) today are elderly or have died.  There are attics being cleaned out as we speak, maybe for their children, maybe they get a Maid Complete Dallas service to do it, but the memories remain.

Mad Men isn’t so much peeking in our parents’ (or grandparents’, as it were) bedrooms as rummaging through their attic.  Seeing one’s bedroom is a snapshot – the juicy things in our lives that exist in the bedroom are fluid … scraps of paper, random photographs, etc.  They come and go.  On any given day, one’s bedroom could say everything, or say nothing.

The rich, long-term story is told from the attic, where items are stored and forgotten, where when people hire the home cleaning boston services never ask for a cleaning in this part of the house.  These are the things we consciously decide to keep – they tell our story, and that story is cumulative.  Sometimes not the story we thought we were telling, but our story nonetheless.  And that’s what Mad Men feels like; sifting through the actions and stories set in motion long ago.

Elvis’ death was a lesson in missed opportunities, and Bangs’ piece is fascinating for many reasons, not least of which is its immediacy – Elvis had just died.  But the lost opportunity was years in the making … a slow motion train wreck.

Speaking of Elvis’ years since the Army, Bangs says

And ever since, for almost two decades now, we’ve been waiting for him to get wild again, fools that we are, and he probably knew better than any of us in his heart of hearts that it was never gonna happen again, his heart of hearts so obviously not being our collective heart of hearts, he being so obviously just some poor dumb Southern boy with a Big Daddy manager to screen the world for him and filter out anything which might erode his status as big strapping baby bringing home the bucks, and finally being sort of perversely celebrated at least by rock critics for his utter contempt for whoever cared about him.

Looking back on the stories from the MM era, at least the 52 hour-long snapshots we’ve seen, one cannot help but feel the same – missed opportunities; lessons not learned, or learned and dismissed.  The social contract is packed away, long forgotten.  Up in the attic, hanging in a corner, must be a rhinestone jumpsuit.

FacebookGoogle+RedditShare

  12 Responses to “Cleaning our Parents’ Attic”

  1. we haven’t seen Elvis mentioned on Mad Men, have we? And he was at the height of his movie fame in the early 1960s.

    I had just gotten my driver’s license that summer. I was only supposed to drive with an adult. But my parents went away, and left the car keys “for emergencies.” I had a summer job and decided that instead of taking the bus, I’d drive. I was on my way home, turned on the radio, and they said Elvis had died. I thought, “I took the car and I killed Elvis!”

  2. Brenda, he was mentioned in Season 1. Pete says, notably, “Elvis doesn’t wear a hat,” in reference to the differences between Nixon and Kennedy during the 1960 campaign.

  3. You’re right, B. But nothing since then, correct?

  4. No – from what I hear he was generally out of fashion until his 1968 comeback special, following expiration of his last studio contracts.

  5. Talk about meta (as we were a couple of threads ago): I don’t have a vivid memory of Elvis’s death, but I definitely remember reading the Lester Bangs article in The Village Voice in 1977.

    What always stuck with me was the poignant concluding lines, an epitaph for both Elvis and his generation: “I won’t bother saying goodbye to his corpse. I will say goodbye to you.” But the rest of the thesis does fit Mad Men, which is about the pre-Elvis generation(s). We don’t see it fragmenting, but fading into irrelevance even as it seems to retain its power. Roger is already nearly obsolete, while Don struggles to remain relevant. He still can inspire awe, but his day is already gone. That’s Elvis, too.

  6. I have vivid memories of Elvis’s death, but I wasn’t an Elvis person.

  7. There was a review for a movie (I think it was “Summer of Sam,” the Spike Lee movie about the summer of 1977 when the Son of Sam killer was at large, NYC went through a blackout, etc.). The reviewer was talking about the movie and he said something about how the past is like another country that we can’t really go back to. I wish I remembered the exact quote. It was interesting.

  8. Lester Bangs FTW!

    BTW, Peter Guralnick’s Elvis books — Last Train to Memphis (covers birth to mother’s death in 1958) and Careless Love (covers everything after that) — are frigging GREAT. Lots and lots of pages, lots and lots of original interviews with people from every stage of his life, and really puts you inside Elvis’s head and in his milieu, like no one else ever has. (And Guralnick, in the second book, has some insights on Elvis’s 1960s pre-comeback “forgotten years” that are pretty fascinating.) So if you haven’t read ’em, and you’re tired of non-Mad Men TV, you could do a lot worse.

  9. Elvis is referred to by the whole Bye Bye Birdie subplot. The 1963 movie was a spoof about him.

  10. Deborah, thanks! Yes, I guess this film critic borrowed it from Hartley then. He said something slightly different (and probably referenced the initial quote), but the general point was that we can never fully re-visit it.

  11. @ Meowser #9

    100% agreement on Guralnick’s Elvis books. Also recommended: Greil Marcus’s Mystery Train. The final chapter, titled “Elvis: Presliad,”is one of my favorite things to read and re-read when I want to think about Elvis, American music, or American popular culture.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.