Elvis Presley would have been 71 years old today if he had not died from an addiction to prescription medications.
As I was throwing out some old magazines recently I ran across yet another article painting Elvis as some sort of cultural punching bag strung up and bitch slapped by one more douche bag writer who missed the point but feels he has a rock-cred-laminate Elvis bashing pass because he still has all of his YES albums on vinyl. Along with the usual white trash hamburger jokes this jackass quotes Albert Goldman, the hack icon assassin who wrote desperately hipper than thou books that attempted to tear down no less artists than Lenny Bruce, John Lennon and Elvis Presley. Goldman wrote that "Elvis never stood for anything". What does that mean? Elvis never stood for anything?
In this age of mediocrity it is hard to remember that occasionally people become famous because they deserve to be famous. He was a singer who sang and got very very famous because he did it so well and because he struck so many people as being so EXTRA-ORDINARY. It is The Revenge Of The Nerds where many "pop culture columnists" and Elvis are concerned. The unfortunate thing is that it seems the nerds are actually winning because I am afraid that the man who invented an art form that changed the world more than any other art form or any other movement other than religion is locked forever in the collective conscious as a fat bejeweled jumpsuited clown mumbling "thankyouverymuch" in used car lot commercials.
As Johnny Carson once said "If life were fair, Elvis would be alive and all the impersonators would be dead."
I recently asked my very cool 16 year old niece Jacqueline what she knew about Elvis. "He was the fat guy in the white suit who said 'thankyouverymuch'" she said. "Actually, there is more to Elvis than that" I told her. I then popped in a DVD of some of Elvis's 50's TV performances and by the time it got to Elvis on the Ed Sullivan Show she turned to me and said "This is like punk rock in the 50's". "EXACTLY" I said. We then spent the rest of the evening watching various things Elvis. Halfway through "The 68 Comeback Special" she said, "He was great"! When we got to the end of the film "This Is Elvis" she turned to me and said, "It's so sad". She's right. It is SO sad.
Watch his black and white TV performances from the fifties and consider that before him there was NOTHING like him. Look at clips from his early films, songs like "Jailhouse Rock", "You so Square (Baby I Don't Care)", "Don't Leave Me Now" and "Teddy Bear" to name just a few. If you haven't seen "The 68 Comeback Special" watch it. Elvis in black leather sitting around strumming and singing the guts out of "Lawdy Miss Clawdy" and "One Night" is truly awesome. At the end of that show as he sings "If I Can Dream" remember Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. Elvis never stood for anything? With that song alone Elvis stood for more than a thousand Albert Goldman's could ever dream of.
Why did Elvis record all that dreck? I don't know. He probably didn't know. He was the FIRST ROCK STAR. He was pretty much on his own except for his brilliant carnival barker manager whose only objective was to keep the money rolling in on the back of "his boy". Elvis was locked into a deal with a single second-rate publishing company that brought him all of his songs. The rub was that before they would bring Elvis a song they made the writer give up his publishing on that song. Well, guess what? The good writers said "forget it" and Elvis ended up singing "Do The Clam" and "There's No Room To Rumba In A Sports Car".
Elvis was not a joke to Paul McCartney or John Lennon, Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen. On the contrary. Elvis Presley inspired Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and every rocker that went between, before and after them. Buddy Holly was a country singer. He went to see Elvis Presley at a local gig in Lubbock Texas. The next day he started playing rock and roll. Same with Eddie Cochran. Gene Vincent got his record deal when he won a contest that Capitol Records had to find the "next Elvis Presley".
John Lennon once said, "Before Elvis there was nothing". For Lennon there was no color, no light, no nothing. Paul McCartney and John Lennon heard Elvis Presley - The result was the Beatles. Bob Dylan, when asked about being a "prophet" said, "I never wanted to be a prophet or a savior. Elvis maybe. I could see myself becoming him. But prophet? No." That would explain why out of the whole folk movement Bob was the one destined for the brightest lights. Bob Dylan was Elvis Presley disguised as a folk singer. That's why everybody was so surprised when "Dylan went electric". Instead of saying "Dylan went electric" you might say, "Bob went Elvis".
Yes, he was a fat and desperately sad human being at the time of his death and to make matters worse he breathed his last breath face down on the shag carpet next to the toilet in the bathroom adjoining his wildly decorated bedroom/prison as the industrial refrigerator air-conditioner hummed not far from the white jumpsuits, platform shoes, pill bottles and half eaten peanut butter and banana sandwich's. It was the sad end of an amazing life, which had veered horribly and irretrievably off the rails.
It is like there were many different Elvis's. The fifties rebel. The clean cut GI. The sad young man mourning the death of his mother. The jet-black helmet haired guy singing to goats in bad movies. The black leather clad returning conqueror. The tanned rail-thin drop dead gorgeous Vegas performer spinning off Tom Joneses and Neil Diamonds in his wake. The slightly swollen glassy eyed Elbot in the heavy jewel laden jump suit up to his ears in leys during the first ever live satellite broadcast from Hawaii, then finally the grossly obese drug addict forgetting the words as he blankly hands out scarf after scarf to oblivious adoring fans who don't seem to care what he looks like as long as they get to share the same cavernous space with their favorite living barely breathing human oddity for a few minutes.
Elvis was going through a bad period. A seriously bad period. A bad period that had it's roots in the little white pills he took to stay awake while pulling night patrol in the army in Frankfurt, Germany. Bad songs, clothes, behavior, and diet all the product of a mind completely scrambled by the effects of prescription medication. Had he lived he might be looking back at that period now and laughing about it as he prepared to release his latest #1 Bruce Springsteen produced record. Ah, if only. Can you imagine Springsteen and Elvis?
As far as the rap that Elvis gets about ripping off black music that is simply not accurate. Pat Boone ripped off black music. Elvis sang the music he was raised on. The music he heard sung in the streets and in the black churches as a poor child living across Main Street from Shake Rag, a black section of Tupelo, Mississippi. He was immersed in black music from the day he was born. He was a product of his environment. Later on he would become the perfect synthesis of the music he was raised with and the time he was raised in. A time when segregations foul grip dictated that race music was for blacks and whites listened to white music.
Elvis exploded onto the national scene in 1956 and the hacks got to work right away. Most of it is understandable. This WAS the fifties and Elvis surely scared the shit out of respectable folks. But the hacks could be brutal and no more so than when the rumor was spread that Elvis had been quoted as saying "The only thing that a black man is good for is to shine my shoes". I even heard that rumor in the 70's as a kid on the playground when it became known that I liked Elvis. The rumor was false. In fact JET magazine launched an investigation and in their August 1, 1957 issue came to the conclusion that "To Elvis people are people, regardless of race, color or creed."
Elvis was like something that dropped out of the sky from outer-space. In the early 50's he was a good looking white kid with a crazy greased up hair-do and long sideburns who wore wild pink and black clothes bought at a store that catered to colored folks in downtown Memphis. He wasn't famous. He was just a freak. He didn't say "Hey I bet if I comb my hair like this and grow my sideburns like that and put on these pink pegged slacks and this black and gold jacket maybe I could become a BRAND and make a few million dollars. Elvis Presley just WAS.
Sam Phillips was recording blues artists like Howlin' Wolf, B.B. King and James Cotton at his little studio on Union Avenue in Memphis and telling anyone who would listen "If I could find a white kid that could sing with a black mans feel I'd make a million dollars". In walked Elvis Presley, straight out of Humes High School with a toy guitar. Phillips decided to give the kid a shot. During a break in a recording session that was going nowhere fast the kid started strumming his guitar in a wild rhythm and singing in a way that sounded like nothing nobody had ever heard. Bill Black joined in on Bass. Scotty Moore added his big hollow body Gibson guitar. Sam Phillips rolled tape on Elvis Presley singing "That's All Right Mama". That is the day rock and roll was born. Right there. If you've never heard this recording or maybe you have but just didn't know exactly what it was you were hearing, listen to it now. You are listening to an historical document as important as any that has gone before it. You are listening to the moment that set youth free, made good girls bad, made bad boys cool, painted Cadillac's pink. What you are hearing is the absolute birth of rock and roll as we know it. You can say there were rock and roll records before it both black and white but I would argue that never before had all the elements come together so perfectly because to make a rock and roll record there first had to be a rock and roll star and Elvis Presley was it. Everybody that has come since has had Elvis to look to as an example of what to do or what not to do.
Every time I see an Elvis movie like ROUSTABOUT or TICKLE ME I marvel at how he could've gotten so deeply enmeshed in the machine that turned such raw talent into pabulum in return for a buck. Maybe he was just lazy. Perhaps he was too polite and did what he was told by the people who were supposed to know what the public wanted. And Elvis wanted to give the audience what they wanted. He was a rebel who genuinely loved his audience. There is an amazing moment in the film "Elvis: That's The Way It Is" when Elvis steps off the stage in Las Vegas and walks out through the audience. Something drew him out there and whether you love or hate Elvis you have to admit he looks otherworldly as he walks among the mortals. And of course he was so very mortal and it is that mortality distorted by the gifts of incredible talent and charisma that makes the scene ultimately sad. He is like that guy who went to live with the bears in Alaska who loved the bears so much that he thought he was a bear until one day one of them big fuckers ate him. Elvis was mortal but he wasn't one of us.
Elvis was an explorer who gave us some of the greatest music ever recorded. It is time to put Elvis where he belongs. Not just with the greatest musicians and singers but with the greatest artists of the last century.