The postmodernists Walter Abish and Mojo Nixon found themselves seated next to one another on a plane. To pass the time, they invented a game (though “game” does not connote sufficient seriousness) based on equal parts of Abish’s novel How German Is It? and Nixon’s song “Elvis is Everywhere.” They called it “How Elvis Is It?”
How Elvis Is It? works this way. You choose any song or movie or processed food product—any object at all—and assign it a value from one to a hundred. One hundred, of course, means that it is completely Elvis. One means that it is not Elvis at all.
For example, a toasted Swiss cheese sandwich receives a score of 40. Grilled cheddar gets 63. Deep-fried American cheese gets 82. And, now this is important: these ratings do not imply any value judgment whatsoever. In its way, toasted Swiss is just as good as deep-fried American. It is simply not as Elvis. Similarly, young rockin’ Elvis Presley is not as Elvis as old, sweatin’ Elvis Presley. Once again, that does not have anything to do with art, but rather with the unalterable law of Elvisness. (And, by the way: young Elvis still scores high on the How Elvis Is It? scale, numerically beating out beating grilled cheddar though falling far short of deep-fried.)
George Winston gets an Elvis score of about 10 with this recording of Montana-inspired piano solos. Plains is about as far from greasy or soulful as you can get. It is like one of Garrison Keillor’s Swedish hymns performed without the funkiness.
But, then again, a low Elvis score is no reason to complain. It is simply a fact. If you are looking for Winston to top out at 60 or 70 on the scale, you’ll need to get hold of his Vince Guaraldi tribute and groove to “Linus and Lucy.” Just as Snoopy frugged madly to Schroeder’s piano in A Charlie Brown Christmas, so too might you.
Plains encourages meditation rather than celebration. Winston’s re-visions of Garth Brooks and Sarah MacLachlan Angelo Badalamenti reveal the niceness you always knew was their guiding principle, which is a fine thing to think about. His take on “Merry Go Round” interpolates “Bicycle Built for Two” with such calm precision that you forget how downright dynamic HAL was when he sang the latter in 2001. Again, this is not bad. Instead, it is not Elvis.
So too is the focus of these meditations. Whatever it is—rain and wind seem to dominate—you do not find yourself thinking about life and death. (Death outscores both fat Elvis and The Weekly World News in How Elvis Is It?) Rain and wind are not metaphors for anything else. They are simply rain and wind.
If you are thinking of doing something to prove that you are a grownup, you could have a child or get a job. You could also buy this album and play it when there is no one around but your cats to impress with your maturity. But you must understand that it will not help you be the kind of grownup who scores high in How Elvis Is It?
If you are the type of person who thinks that it is good to pay four dollars for a cup of coffee and drink it while doing the Sunday Times crossword, then you should give George Winston your money. But if you are a cultural icon who faked his own death so he could go off to Tulsa and sell chili dogs in a Zippy Mart, you might think about looking elsewhere.