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Pop: Prisoners of Elvis World

I'm sick of the hushed voices and the critical deference. Face it: Elvis was one of the great putzes of the 20th century.

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Ten years after his death, the Elvis cult is as poisonous and destructive as ever. It's been a decade since he was found, face down and ass up, on the floor of his enormous bathroom, killed by the sort of extravagant drug use open only to people with vast fortunes and coteries of sycophants and abettor-participants, and you might have thought that this sad end to arguably the most famous human in the history of the universe would sober some thoughts. But no. Elvis continues to rot, both physically, in the ground below Graceland, and abstractly, in the minds of those fans and critics who continue to excuse his excesses or try to justify those twin vast wastelands that constitute the majority of his musical and the entirety of his filmic output. Unlike Babe Ruth, whose status as strike-out king could be excused as the inevitable counterpart of his other, much grander title, Elvis rarely swung mightily and missed; he bunted wherever and whenever possible.

Not that it made any difference. Elvis's great gift and curse was an ability to gather cheers no matter how mediocre or halfhearted his effort. What he did in the face of this phenomenon is history; how we see his reaction to it, whether with cynicism (Elvis laughing all the way to the bank) or sympathy (Elvis trapped--by the demands of his audience, the schemes of Colonel Parker, the hell of drugs) says more, at this point, about the perceiver than the perceived.

Me? I take the cynical view, if only because the formulation puts Elvis in the active voice, makes him the doer rather than the done-to; Elvis was one of the great putzes of the 20th century, but he wasn't a vegetable until 1972 or so, and I can almost respect the early Elvis--the Elvis who cranked out the schlock because he liked it, because it would sell, because he couldn't think of anything else to do. You want evidence? Listen to "Just Tell Her Jim Said Hello," a recording that was originally a B-side of one of E.'s lesser top-ten hits, "She's Not You," but later turned up on one of the "gold record" packages in a typical Presley-RCA move. From the song's clumsy, obvious title (it's not one of Leiber and Stoller's best) to its arrangement, aimless even by the standards of the Presley corpus, which is saying something, "Just Tell Her Jim Said Hello" is one of the sorriest songs of American popular music. And Elvis is right at home; his voice is sensitive, nuanced. You might say he sings the hell out of it. Elvis chose this song, recorded it, pushed it, sold a million dollars worth of it--not in 1975, in the midst of the nightmare years before his death, but in early 1962, when he was still relatively fresh out of the Army and before the Hollywood rigor mortis had set in. Elvis believed in that song; I do, too.

The alternative, you see, to this Elvis-in-control, this agent of his own decline, is Elvis in the passive: "Elvis was trapped"; "Elvis wasn't allowed to record what he wanted to"; "Elvis was never given good songs"; "Elvis was forced to play Vegas." This is the Elvis the rock critics have created, and you can understand the problem: Elvis's career taken in its entirety inevitably reduces the stature of his few unquestionable achievements. (Imagine Michelangelo finishing the Sistine ceiling, giving Pope Julius the finger, and devoting the rest of his life to making plaster-of-paris statues of little black jockeys for suburban lawns.) There's a tendency to look for the outside force that took over, the bogeyman soul-inhabiter that sapped E.'s precious bodily fluids, took away his will to rock, and left him a fat whale washed up on a beach. It's my contention that this is the truly poisonous attitude; it presupposes Elvis as an unsophisticated country boy pushed blindly in one direction after another, meekly obeying the dictates of Colonel Parker and entirely oblivious to changes in society and music.

Insistence on this tragic view not only creates an Elvis unworthy of respect, but also, ironically, takes from him his first great overarching achievement. No one created Elvis Presley. He invented himself. That this simple fact was forgotten had terrible consequences.

Will we ever recover from Elvis? There are some signs of hope. The ten-year anniversary of his death passed relatively uneventfully, the tension perhaps eased by a premature Newsweek cover. People and Us both checked in with covers on the anniversary itself, but both were rather lackadaisical. ("He called me 'chicken-neck,'" recalled one starlet.) Spy contributed a chart of Elvis's weight on various planets. The Star went the whole hog with a "four-page anniversary portfolio" whose major feature was an exclusive, full-page artist's rendering of what Elvis might look like today, had he lived. (The artist daubed E.'s head with gray, which is unrealistic: Elvis, whose natural hair color was close to blond, started going gray in his thirties; had he lived he would have continued to do what he always did--dye it jet black.) It's interesting that none of the major music magazines played the anniversary up at all, with the exception of the Village Voice, which ran a garden-variety what-if-Elvis-hadn't-been-a-putz article.

On the recording front, RCA has released a series of four "commemorative" albums, three of them double sets. The albums are a tacit outline of the commonly accepted highlights of Elvis's career: The Complete Sun Sessions, including the famous two sides of sessions recorded by Sam Phillips on his own Sun label in Memphis in 1954-55 and another two sides of outtakes; The Number One Hits, a single album of 18 songs; The Top Ten Hits, a double album of 38 songs that includes everything on The Number One Hits; and, perhaps most interesting of all, The Memphis Record, a two-record compilation of the so-called comeback material he laid down during his return to recording in Memphis in 1969.

The publishing world was also restrained. There are only two notable entrants: One is The Elvis Catalogue, a collection of the lamps, wallets, whisky decanters, velvet portraits, and everything else ever made that merchandised the King. When I think about this book, which isn't often, I think about how, in the sort of cosmic, existential sense, such a work would only be complete if it included itself. (The Elvis Catalogue shouldn't be confused with Elvis Collectibles, a loopy but less-offensive guide, with prices, that confines itself to the "authentic," predeath memorabilia.) The other publishing landmark noting the anniversary is Elvis World, an extravagant (gold lame vinyl covering), $35 volume purporting to be the definitive guidebook to its eponym.

I don't know what to think about Elvis World--I can't tell if it's serious or not. There is some useful information here (well, sort of useful): I didn't know, for example, that the New York Times had no obit prepared for Presley's death. But there's a lot of fluff, too. The art direction, striking throughout, and the first-class photo selection and reproduction classify it as a coffee-tabler, but its approach and introduction suggest that it's meant to be an insider's guide (for outsiders) to the Elvisian mysteries of Presley fanaticism, and there is in the book a slightly distanced, tongue-in-cheek tone: "Elvis' magnanimity was as big as his appetite. They all go together: his ability to eat, buy and give. His was a life that was truly King size." There's also a bunch of short monographs on absurdist things like E.'s penchant for baby talk (mother Gladys was "Satnin'") that are quietly cruel. Yet at the same time the authors, Jane and Michael Stern, who seem to have written a lot on Americana like food and trucking, obviously want to avoid offending the hard-core fans who are still around, and who by their sheer numbers quite often exercise an economic veto power over Elvis paraphernalia (taste isn't a consideration; respect is). They touch on his religious nuttiness, but don't go near some of the great Elvis lore that sprang from it.

(My personal favorite, if I may be allowed a short digression, is told in the essential Elvis: What Happened?, the scandal-ridden expose written by three estranged bodyguards. Red West tells the following story, the scene a car filled with E. and his good ol' boy pals driving across the desert:

("Now we are talking about some of this heavy psychic stuff, and Elvis is talking about how he believed he was destined to do something very big in his life apart from show business. [E. had a messiah complex.] I'm agreeing with him. Anyway, just to show me what he is talking about, he says, 'Hold on, Red, stop the trailer. Look up there, see what I mean?' Anyway I look up and I'll be a sonofabitch. There is a giant cloud formation above us, and I don't know whether it was autosuggestion or what, but this cloud formation is formed in the shape of two very definite likenesses of two heads. One was Elvis Presley and one was Joseph Stalin . . .

("And I said to him, quite sincerely, 'Yeah, sure, boss, I see what you mean.' And I'm not going to say that I don't believe in a lot of that stuff. Some of it is pure crazy, but there are too many unexplained things to dismiss it completely.")

Similarly, while the Sterns are straightforward enough to note that Elvis eventually signed a contract that gave Colonel Parker 50 percent of his income, they don't ask the obvious question: which of the seven moons of Jupiter was Elvis on when he signed it? Such inquiries offend the faithful, and it is only the faithful who are willing, at this point, to shell out 35 smackers for such stuff.

I was unmoved by the book, but intrigued by the title. Elvis World, a place less concrete than Disney World but no less commercial, was invented simultaneously with its first, most important, and only citizen on that momentous day when he first showed up at school with his hair slicked back, dressed in one of his outlandish pink jackets and copping a supreme amount of attitude. The King's first pronouncement is unknown, but I like to think of it being a version of a scene he acted in Jailhouse Rock five or six years later:

STARLET [poolside]: How d'ya like my suit, Elvis?

ELVIS [with drop-dead stare and sneer a mile high]: Crazy.

The amount of ego involved in this dual creation was phenomenal. The mental, internal part is easy: we all have our fantasy worlds. But to project it out into what is otherwise reality is fraught with the most unimaginable risk. (Perhaps this almost pathological confidence was urged along by his almost pathologically doting mother; perhaps it is also the most easily discernible cause of the inexorable 20-year slide that commenced immediately after his first successes.) Elvis's inheritors, remember, had him to fall back on; Elvis had no one but Tony Curtis, and the kids at school might have had a hard time identifying even this ancestry, combined as it was with the moves and costumes of the R & B players he almost certainly met and played with down on Memphis's Beale Street.

The dual creation is by far the most salient fact about Elvis World, so much so that the other benchmarks--Sam Phillips, "Heartbreak Hotel," "Suspicious Minds"--fade away by comparison. Elvis the rock star, like Elvis the film star and Elvis the bloated pig, is only a subset of Elvis the Elvis.

Which is not to say that Elvis the rock star isn't important. Unlike most superheroes, he sang his own sound track, and the Sun sessions material documents the fiery early days of Elvis World. They are, of course, not only essential Elvis but essential rock and roll. Although the purest distillation of Elvis could only have been live onstage, it's enough for us now to hear these first wild vocal expressions. Elvis at the time didn't know what he wanted: he wanted to jive, he wanted to sing like Dean Martin, he wanted to shout. Phillips knew what he wanted, though, and helped Elvis come to the great fusing of his desires.

If you don't have a copy of the Sun sides, you should, and at this point you might as well get the new one. Unlike nearly every other album RCA has put out, The Complete Sun Sessions has been assembled with some care, is tastefully packaged, and includes excellent liner notes by critic Peter Guralnick and detailed recording information by RCA A and R man Gregg Geller (who should know that "Tomorrow Night" was released in the mid-60s, not 1985, though it may just be a typo). RCA, or Elvis, or the Colonel, didn't see fit to release the original set of 15 songs (one track, "I Love You Because," is repeated) until 1976 as The Sun Sessions; with characteristic contempt for the core audience, they released it in the UK a year earlier as The Sun Collection. These songs are so important historically, culturally, cosmically, that you excuse the banalities ("Blue Moon"--yes, the Rodgers-Hart tune), the falsities ("I'm Left, You're Right, She's Gone"), the curios ("I Forgot to Remember to Forget") sprinkled throughout. You try to put yourself in the position of not having heard anything like this before; you try to forget all about the music that has become a part of you, and try to feel what it was like to hear these songs for the first time. For me, the big effect comes not on "Mystery Train" or "That's All Right," not even on the fun but not-quite-believable spoken intro to "Milkcow Blues Boogie" ("Hold it, fellas--that don't move me. Let's get real, real gone for a change"), but on the ferocious "Tryin' to Get to You," a hurricane of successive emotions--reproachfulness, hurt, anger, self-righteousness--that ends with the first and greatest of the bring-down-the-house vocal pyrotechnics that Elvis would use to good effect throughout his career (on "Wear My Ring Around Your Neck," for ex.). You can explain away a lot about Elvis, but not the genius for synthesis that created this singing. His mind had somehow assimilated a century of American music, and his voice somehow was able to conjure almost any part or even all of it on demand.

The new set combines the basic 16 tracks with a couple of lost-along-the-way not-quite-nuggets: the aforementioned "Tomorrow Night," which is a ghostly crooner along the lines of "Blue Moon," and "Harbor Lights," a not-too-compelling Hawaiian warble whose mystique as the great lost Sun recording dissipated when RCA released it just before E.'s death. But the real kickers in this collection are nearly two sides of outtakes. These are apparently all the Sun tapes in existence, and they're fascinating: Elvis, Scotty Moore, and Bill Black fucking around in the studio, playing the songs over and over again, stopping, starting, stopping again to assess the damage. Phillips himself makes an appearance: "That's fine, man--hell, that's different," he says at the end of a fragment of "Blue Moon of Kentucky," an old Bill Monroe song that Elvis was in the process of warping beyond recognition. "That's a pop song now, near about."

And so it went. Elvis got real big real quick, earning, in the process, the quaint title of "number one performer of the rock era." Elvis performed, all right--like a prize racehorse. He charted an average of five singles a year for 20 years. Three LPs a year did equally well (during half this period the albums were sound track LPs). Gold record and sales titles are hard to trust--Albert Goldman, in Elvis, says that RCA would ship records gold but then quietly accept returns, and an estimate I've been hearing of one billion records sold seems a bit high, translating to five million each of every album and single E. produced--but common acceptance puts him first in both categories.

The sheer unadulterated weight of this oeuvre--something like 1,000 songs recorded for his public--is matched only by the sheer unadulterated banality of something in the area of 95 percent of it. What strikes me, listening to The Top Ten Records, is how utterly haphazard everything about Elvis Presley's recording career was. An explosive little ditty like "Jailhouse Rock" would be released one month, a treacly bit of junk like "Don't" the next. Sloughs of transcendent puffery ("Wear My Ring Around Your Neck"; the verse continues: "And tell the world / I'm yours by heck") edge up against even more sloughs of trash, trash, trash: "Surrender," "I Got Stung," "Good Luck Charm." Elvis will find a bit of oomph in a song, like it, and blow it: "Too Much." So he'll try it again, and get it right: "All Shook Up." And then, by God, with that all-but-patented Presley overkill, he'll do it one more time and screw it up again: "Stuck on You."

His hits parallel the content of the rest of his recordings. Whole years could be lost with no loss to the archives of great American music. It's like this: Elvis (RCA after his death) has released nearly 100 LPs. The essential Elvis can be contained on three or four: 16 Sun sides, maybe 20 hits, another album of live stuff ("American Trilogy," for ex., just for laughs), maybe one more of comeback material. It's frequently rumored that in the midst of the dross from the mid-60s and all of the 70s there are occasional nuggets. Biographer Dave Marsh, for instance, says that "Let Yourself Go," off the Speedway sound track, is "a tour de force." We haven't done enough for Elvis, Marsh says, until we have sought out and appreciated such performances. "Our resolution," he concludes, "ought to be simply to do better by him." I'll tell you something: Unless a good-condition copy of Speedway floats down and hits me on the head as I sit at my trusty typewriter on a day when I have nothing more important on my turntable, and I'm also feeling relaxed enough to spend the time to look over the cover and figure out what side of the record the thing is on, I'm never going to hear "Let Yourself Go." And yeah, I might have seen him sing it in the movie, but I was too busy concentrating on the plot, which has a miniskirted Nancy Sinatra as an IRS agent investigating a racecar-driving Elvis; and I might go see it again, except that I would probably find myself stuck in a double bill with, say, Tickle Me ("Elvis as an out-of-work cowboy at an all-girl spa" --Elvis World).

Why anyone--even a rock critic--would want to play through the 50 or so hours of music Elvis recorded to see whether there is or isn't a good track on Let's Be Friends (there isn't) is beyond me and the fact that anyone has done so is a shame and a waste. Elvis had an adoring audience whose taste in music was as catholic and undiscriminating as his own, and he returned their adoration with a healthy contempt. He knew he could record anything and still be called the King.

Elvis's albums, with so few exceptions as to be unmentionable, are crummily produced, breathtakingly uneven, and carelessly sequenced. Elvis Country (1971) features snippets of a song called "I'm About 10,000 Years Old" between each track. (It's sort of a concept album.) Elvis' Gold Records Volume 4 is an album whose title stretches credibility, containing as it does such big hits as "Please Don't Drag That String Around" and "Just Tell Her Jim Said Hello," along with a very weird song, a soporific rocker called "Witchcraft" that is not the old Sinatra number (did Elvis think it was?). Elvis albums almost never have recording or musician credits. Filler is used indiscriminately. Backing vocals, orchestras, applause, and "live" patter were added or deleted whenever either was convenient; live albums often weren't, and vice versa. Elvis's album covers uniformly sucked.

And Elvis's taste in music was atrocious. Given his drug use, Elvis's emotional maturity must have frozen at a pretty early age: his personal aesthetics might be embodied in some of his favorite songs: "Old Shep," "Sweet Caroline," "Gentle on My Mind." E. didn't like the Beatles, and didn't like rock and roll in the 60s definition of the term. His contempt for songwriters equaled his contempt for his audience: Elvis had a publishing scam that got him a percentage of the royalties due the writers of the songs he recorded--sort of an institutionalized kickback scheme. This immediately cramped the flow of what should have been Elvis's lifeblood: music, good songs to sing. "Memphis, Tennessee" was a perfect song for E., but it didn't occur to him to record it until Johnny Rivers, for God's sake, had a hit with it in 1964.

In the liner notes to The Memphis Record, Peter Guralnick quotes the following from Portrait of a Friend, a book I've somehow missed, by E.'s secretary-accountant, Marty Lacker:

"There was not, however, [at the Memphis comeback sessions] enough of what we would consider really good songs. . . . I said, 'Elvis, there's a reason you don't hear the good songs first anymore. . . . There are a lot of songs that never get to you anymore because they don't need to pay you the twenty-five percent (for publishing).' The room was absolutely silent, and I thought Elvis was going to blow. He looked at each of us and said, 'I want everyone in this room to hear what I have to say. From now on I want to hear every demo, every new song, and I'll be the one to decide if I want to record it. If we can get the damn percentage, fine, but if we can't get it and I still want to record the song, then I'll record it. I'll make the decision.'"

If we can get the damn percentage, fine! Welcome to Elvis World. There are a lot of interesting things in this paragraph. I get a kick out of the courtier's worry about the King's reaction to the news that the world is round, the obvious posturing on Elvis's part (like most of his sweeping orders for changes, it was probably forgotten the next day), the extraordinary disconnectedness of Elvis's perception of how the music business worked. But most of all I'm amused at the way first Lacker and then Guralnick drag the anecdote out in Elvis's favor, as if to say, "Look, his brains hadn't devolved into complete rutabagas, at least as of this particular date in 1969!" Had Elvis uttered those words to Colonel Parker in 1958; had he, on his release from the Army, made his stand when faced with the unappetizing chore of recording "It's Now or Never"; had he laid down the law on the set of any of the movies or in the sessions of any of the sound track LPs that he littered the cultural scene of the 60s with--if he had done any of these things, I'd be with Elvis all the way. But in 1969? Fifteen years into his career? Gimme a break. Elvis wanted a comeback, all right, but not at the cost of having to think.

And The Memphis Record reveals the comeback to be--what? Well, something less than spectacular. If you saw the rebroadcast of the 1969 Steve Binder TV special over the anniversary, you saw that Elvis could still sing "Jailhouse Rock." (The lowered expectations that accompanied Elvis's return to the spotlight remind me a lot of those today hovering about Ronald Reagan: "If the concert/press conference doesn't end with the King/the president face down in his mashed potatoes, it's a success!") If you listen to The Memphis Record, you'll come away reimpressed with some of your old favorites--"Suspicious Minds," though still a bit overwrought; the truly amazing last verse of "Long Black Limousine"--and newly respectful of some you'd forgotten. The spoken introduction to Gamble and Huff's (!) "Only the Strong Survive," a hit for Jerry Butler, sounds silly when Elvis does it: [spoken in a deep, very false one-songwriter-to-another voice] "My mama had some good advice, and I thought I'd put it into the words of this song." But the rest of it is pretty hot. And I have to confess to a couple of guilty pleasures: "Wearin' That Loved on Look," an offensive song ("The floor needs a touch of the mop") with a brass-to-buckles low-down chorus that I sing all the time; and ditto for "Kentucky Rain."

The Memphis sessions meant a lot to Elvis, legend has it; he was acutely aware of the way pop music had advanced during his years in California cranking out the worst series of successful movies in Hollywood's history. I don't know how true this is, but one thing is for certain: Elvis had had only one hit (a gospel dark horse, "Crying in the Chapel") since 1963, and was turning into something of a joke. A session at the American Studios in Memphis, which Guralnick says was in the middle of an extraordinary run that would produce 122 chart hits in a three-year period, seemed like it might do the trick. Just how far poor Elvis's star had fallen is revealed in this poignant quote dug up by Guralnick: "'I mean, we were thrilled about Elvis,' said horn player Wayne Jackson, 'but it wasn't like doing Neil Diamond.'"

I hate to keep coming across like the Grinch or something, but a lot of The Memphis Record is pretty lame stuff. The hullabaloo around these songs--Elvis playing up-to-the-minute pop music--is nonsense, unless we're talking about 1969 in Peru or something. "Gentle on My Mind" (If we can get the damn percentage, fine!) is as much a horror as you'd expect, even without the truly pathetic clavier line. "In the Ghetto" is as drippy, blindered, and dishonest as the day Mac Davis wrote it. "True Love Travels on a Gravel Road" is as full of potential as its title suggests.

Part of the problem, of course, is the usual Elvis Presley let's-clear-out-the-vaults approach to record releasing. The 35 or so tracks laid down in January and February of 1969 turned up, in usual erratic fashion, over the next three years on From Elvis in Memphis, From Memphis to Vegas/From Vegas to Memphis, and assorted singles. Assembled here are 23 of these, far too high a percentage to end up with a consistent collection at that stage in Elvis's career. It's another sign of the lowered expectations syndrome that an album that includes not only "Gentle on My Mind" and "In the Ghetto" but also "Don't Cry Daddy" (another great Davis effort), "Any Day Now" (a Burt Bacharach throwaway), and junk, junk, junk like "Mama Liked the Roses" could be hailed, as Guralnick does in his otherwise bang-up annotation, a masterpiece. Also, the sequencing is rotten; ironically, the first side of From Elvis in Memphis, the single most consistent 20 minutes of music Elvis ever recorded, has been reprogrammed, with the songs spread across the four sides here. In the midst of the remnants we get "Rubberneckin'": "Stop, look and listen, baby / That's my phil-os-o-phy / It's called rubberneckin', baby / But that's all right with me." Old Elvis sings the hell out of it.

Elvis was the first denizen of Elvis World; everybody else came second. And all of us have been contributing to its health and well-being in the years before and after his death. A paranoid needs friends to fan the flames; a recluse needs a society to isolate himself from. What Elvis wanted more than anything was an audience that would crown him King; we did, and got revenge by letting him sit on his throne until he literally keeled over dead.

Elvis knew that no one who mattered was ever going to call him on anything; we were all in it together, and traitors would only bring the roof down on their own heads. Me, I'm sick of the hushed voices and reverential tones, the unquestioning deference. Elvis didn't die for a thrill; he wasn't living in the fast lane; he didn't burn himself out in the hot flame of his art. He died a druggie in a diaper at 42, and a retinue of bodyguards and his current girlfriend, a former Miss Memphis Traffic Safety, couldn't save him. The tragedy is not that there wasn't anyone there to help him when he died, but that there hadn't been 25 years before, when a fake colonel and the most unsophisticated record company in America met a boy named Elvis, who had only the sweetest voice we'll ever hear and the world by the tail, and lacked only the brains God gave a mule.

His legacy, besides a few records' worth of hot tunes and a culture turned upside down, is a reinforcement of that wonderful American tendency to turn away from the truth if it might be scary, to avoid answers at any cost, to do anything but look at ourselves or our heroes and say you're fat, you're stoned, you've thrown away your talent for absolutely no reason. That's why I don't want to read a book about Elvis World. I'm already fucking living in it.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kurt Mitchell.

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