BUBBI, ELVIS AND JUDAS - The Reykjavik Grapevine

BUBBI, ELVIS AND JUDAS

BUBBI, ELVIS AND JUDAS

Published December 3, 2004

Bubbi’s career is in many ways parallel to that of Elvis’; he started out as a rebel the likes of which we had never seen before and reached heights in popularity likewise previously unknown. He spoke against the rich and crooked; when he sang about the dire conditions of the poor and the plight of the common working-man, he did it with an unidentifiable charisma that made middle-class kids want to be common working-men. Sadly, his similarities to Elvis didn’t end with him being crowned as “The King“.

Once upon a time this “working-class hero” was feared by authorities for his power over the masses; he was respected as a leader of his community. Whenever there was some social issue to be dealt with, the journalists would seek Bubbi’s comment on it. His point of view was big news, and how we soaked them up. Things have changed.

In a way, Bubbi has now become symbolic for a musician’s version of the “1990’s leftist sell-out phenomenon”; his ravings on everything from whaling to inhaling (not to mention his screaming about the joy of boxing) have long since alienated him from many of his fans. No one doubts his talent as a songwriter. The problem is that when Bubbi releases a decent song, it connotes instantly to the rest of his escapades.

Bónus-Bubbi
Bubbi’s commercial success has been remarkable. He’s always been a bestseller; shortage of money can’t have troubled him much, compared to other compatriot musicians. All in all he’s written over 400 songs and sold about 250.000 albums, almost one per Icelandic citizen. Once upon a time, Christmas wasn’t Christmas without a new “Bubbaplata”.
But his steady record sales haven’t satisfied him; as his music became ever-blander, he started doing commercials for Tópas, and let Visa sponsor him.

Nobody really cared that much about this “sell-out” until people heard that familiar voice singing about the enjoyment of shopping for high-quality fresh fruit in Hagkaup, part of the incredibly wealthy Baugur supermarket chain. Bubbi added insult to injury when he had the audacity to excuse himself by dressing the low-cost marketing strategy of Bónus in philanthropic clothing by saying that the billionaire founder of Baugur, known as Jóhannes í Bónus, had single-handedly lowered the prices of food to previously unheard of rates when first entering the retail market; thus aiding the working-classes more than most political measures have achieved!

Although it is true Bónus did lower prices at the time, Hagkaup are actually the high price outlets of the chain.

Bubbi & EXXON, Elvis & Nixon

In spite of the whole shebang this sell-out stint provoked, Bubbi continued serving the not particularly almighty Króna. He started working for the (surprise, surprise) filthy-rich oil company ESSO (EXXON). ESSO had not been exactly instrumental in lowering petrol prices; but as always, Bubbi could explain. This time it wasn’t to honour a corporate comrade of the poor, this time it was for the benefit of little children. He was now an apostle of sobriety and signed an advertising deal with ESSO in which he agreed to appear beneath their banner all over the country preaching his favourite sermon at defenceless schoolchildren: the never-ending account of how merely-human Bubbi slew the fierce and vicious Drug Dragon. The king of rock had become a clown.

Such remarkable dishonesty is an interesting parallel with that scene from Fat Elvis’ “mission” in 1970, when he took a trip the White House to volunteer as a “Federal Agent at Large” in fighting the “anti-establishment” and “Communist-brainwashing” drug elements in popular culture. It is demonstrative of Elvis’ lengthy absence from real life that it was Nixon himself who dissuaded Elvis, citing the necessity that Elvis retain his credibility among youngsters. Similarly, Bubbi didn’t appreciate the fact that his anti-drug ramblings would probably have an adverse effect on the kids.

Bubbi & Reality

But a króna is a króna. Bubbi continued selling his name and reputation. He appeared on television advising children to use bicycle-helmets (prompting Megas to write the satirical song “Hjálmar” (Helmets). Bubbi also appeared advertising and driving an expensive jeep in the countryside delivering weird and sometimes baffling monologues about how much he loved going fishing in his fancy jeep and how he just couldn’t understand people who stayed in the city all week long. Here, inadvertently, Bubbi hit the nail on the head; he just doesn’t understand. He seems to have absolutely no idea about that dimension of reality inhabited by “people who stay in the city all the time”. These people, the very people on whom he built his career, simply can not afford travelling to the countryside in a luxurious jeep to go fishing in high-priced rivers, a luxury normal to successful self-employed people like Bubbi, bank directors and foreign royalty. Most of these people that Bubbi doesn’t understand, have to be at work every day to afford to buy their grub in benevolent Bónus.

Bubbi & Jesus
After a trilogy of albums of banal love songs and some misguided attempts to be a young rock n’ roller again, Bubbi is back with the fishermen and workers. But this time he’s brought along a new friend called Jesus Christ. Together they redeem Judas (who was only doing his divinely commissioned job), chastise Mammon and his followers, of whom (we can only hope) Bubbi is conscious of being one himself. Some of the songs are based on the recently discovered (1945) Gospel of Thomas.

Elvis Presley is Rock’s first and greatest gospel singer. Until recently he was also one of Rock’s few gospel singers. These days it’s something of a trend, more and more Christian songs are coming out: KK and Magnús Eiríksson are only two of many Icelandic songwriters that have begun writing a lot in this vein. Why not atheist Bubbi?

This album is, quite surprisingly, his best work in years. The melodies are pretty smooth, with folksy humming, and relaxed playing. They’re familiar, but not as forced as usual, and come from all around: he’s most likely been listening to the Oh Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack, but Irish influences are prevalent (both the banjo player and the fiddle player work in “Celtic” band Papar). In one song he dabbles in Icelandic old-time rhymes and then we have the usual suspects: Dylan, Johnny Cash’s American period, traces of Bruce Springsteen’s whining on Nebraska can be heard, Tom Waits and more; Bubbi himself cites Jack White, Nick Cave and Leonard Cohen as his main sources of influence. Good company to be in. There’s nothing electric to be heard here, no drums. Reputedly, the album was recorded in 16 hours and it sounds as if Bubbi’s band is (finally) having fun. He should stick with these guys for a while.

Why it works

Tvíburinn (The Twin) is roughly divided into two halves: songs about work and working-men and songs concerning Jesus. Many say it’s high time he gave that “Aldrei fór ég suður” (a bitter song about the perils of fish processing) theme a rest. On Tvíburinn, this becomes evident; the Christian songs are refreshing compared to the seaman shanties, because in them the listener is spared the burden of Bubbi’s fame and track record. It’s possible to actually consider him as a religious and honest songwriter that simply wants to sing “constructive” songs about that immortal biblical theme. He isn’t preaching as much as he is wont to and with the exception of thinking about Pop-Idol in the line “Around the corner the Judge is waiting”, the listener is mostly alleviated of having to remember Bubbi’s extra-musical career.

The King’s Castle of Lies

Iceland’s most famous song about cannabis is Bubbi’s “Afgan”, a love song about hashish from Afghanistan. Tvíburinn’s “Lífið er erfitt” (“Life’s a Struggle”) uses similar imagery. Here follows a translation and a tempting interpretation of some of the lyrics. It begins thus:

“Life’s a struggle and the meter is running. An old King and a small boy lose their way in reality’s ocean. The sad Queen does her dance, while the Clown picks up dusty darkness; the magic’s gone, as is the ancient vigour”.

In his rockumentary Blindsker the image of Bubbi being a middle-aged “boy” is often repeated, (to become child-like is also a necessity if one is to fathom The Father in The Gospel of Thomas). Here, he’s lost his way, his queen (who else but Brynja?) is sad while he (the clown) picks up the “dusty darkness” (drugs?) and all is lost. Later, he continues:

“Greed poisons your heart like a snake … In Armani-armour you storm into the bank … [but] the shield is broken … your weapons are dull, that step [Hagkaup/The Jeep?] was a mistake/that you made in hope of a quick buck … my friend you’ll never find neither honour nor dignity in falsehood … the castle [of lies] burnt-down, the well is empty”.

Bubbi seems to repent his dishonesty and service to Mammon, as he recently pointed out in an interview on the Christian fundamentalist TV-station Omega, where he said that he was “on the national team of liars”, that out of his “deep-rooted lies” he “builds a [protective] castle”, and that “I lie to myself, to my closest ones, to the nation, the media; to the whole bundle … [lying] is what I’m trying to get away from, and it’s going miserably”.

Well, on this album he seems to grasp the (at least musical) difference between right and wrong. When Bubbi sings about Jesus, he gets away with it, maybe because he has yet to sell out his faith in god. To the many who have been hoping he’d redo his Utangarðsmenn-albums and be “for real” again, he puts up his middle finger in a more or less graceful manner. Let’s accept Bubbi Morthens into our lives once more as Rock’s saviour and our own private Elvis. It’s not as if Kalli Bjarni looks likely to dethrone him any time soon.

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