Well today’s the King’s birthday (1935-1977). Early celebrity deaths don’t usually make me sad, but Elvis’s does, because it was so senseless and preventable and he could have kept going to do some really amazing things. So odd to find myself thinking of him as “young” when he died, but nowadays (now that I’m older than he was then), I do.
My old friend Sheila O’Malley’s the real Elvis expert — she’s down south now doing research for a book, and she’s been blogging about it here. She’s been to Memphis and to Tupelo, etc etc, and I’m just as envious as I can be. Living vicariously through her ain’t bad though!
But I do have some random personal observations and connections to make, though. This one’s gonna ramble!
My dad was the same age as Elvis and from the same state, Tennessee, cotton country. He was absolutely of the same culture, and I always thought it’s given me some insight into the way Elvis was, being so close to that culture but not of it. The main, overriding takeaway is this quality of humbleness — not just humility, but humbleness, a sort of self-denigration in interpersonal relations, born inevitably out of the famous Southern manners, but filtered through hairshirt Christianity, medieval ideas of class, and an unquestioning belief in authority, combining to make a cocktail that is quite literally suicidal. The symptoms are a naive belief that authority figures and others whom he trusted were looking out for him. There’s his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, whom we’ll write about later as one of the great flim flam men and impresarios of all time, but who also sabotaged Elvis’s career during the 1960s by selecting songs and motion picture projects that weren’t worthy of him, and then put him on punishing tour schedules that later killed him. Then there are the doctors who wrote all those prescriptions to pep him up and then calm him down. There were all those relatives and hangers-on whom he considered his responsibility, who were willing to leech off him without trying to save him. The man was apparently putty in the hands of the stronger wills around him – – a kind of savant.
But as a product, he was second to none, his image is seared into our collective consciousness like that of Christ into the Sacred Shroud of Turin. This was one of the great vaudeville acts of the 20th century. For my money, the best chronicle of Elvis’s life is two volume biography by Peter Guralnick, Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love. It’s very vividly rendered. I really loved reading about the early days of his career. No one knew what to do with him. He was packaged as a hillbilly act, because he was a hillbilly, and the southern show biz apparatus was all about that: the Grand Ole Opry, Louisiana Hayride, etc. But there was the black aspect of what he did, which meant that he would eventually cross over into something completely new on a national scale. My favorite Elvis record of all is the disc of his early Sun sessions, which somehow plays like a concept album, the song selection and the arrangements are all of a piece. I always associate it mentally with Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding and John Lennon/ Plastic Ono Band (Lennon’s first solo album), records so simple, sparse and intimate, they are about as haunting and personal as you can get.
The second phase is of course that national stardom that Colonel Parker was so instrumental in bringing about. There was the new, more commercial sound of the early RCA singles. When I was a kid, my best friend’s mom had these as 45s, and my buddy and me used to listen to them over and over again and write down the lyrics and envision that we would have a rock band of our own. It is so weird to think now that those records, “Hound Dog”, and “Heartbreak Hotel”, etc, were only 20 years old at the time. And there are all those classic television appearances on tv variety shows — here of course is where the VAUDEVILLE comes in. Elvis was a phenomenon, he was treated as a creature, a monster or freak of some sort. TV, like the vaudeville it grew out of, was very polite, very middle class. Elvis looked like what he had been, a hillbilly truck driver, the grease monkey who fixes your car. And then he sang all this suggestive, sexual music. Yet Ed Sullivan was impressed with how polite he was. Steve Allen defanged him entirely, forcing him to sing “Hound Dog” to a literal hound dog (see above).
In the beginning his movies had a kind of integrity (Love Me Tender, Kid Creole and Jailhouse Rock are prime examples, and Viva Las Vegas is probably the most electrifying screen musical ever made), but in the sixties the quality control was for shit, and the product was in serious disrepair.
Still, there’s something to be said for late Elvis, 70s Elvis. That buddy I mentioned and me were very much into that incarnation (mostly because his parents were fans. You could tell his dad was of that generation and held onto it, he wore Elvis sideburns). We loved the white jumpsuit Elvis, with the karate and the cape and the scarves and the wrap around sunglasses. He seemed like a superhero, and I always put him mentally into a triumvirate with Evel Knievel and the Fonz. I think there was a tremendous amount of showmanship in those concerts (the ones that killed him). It seems like a combination of a great concert and a car wreck…Elvis singing and dancing, and also (hopped up on pills) telling jokes and stories, backed up by this huge band and a chorus of back up singers.
My mom, though she was of the Sinatra generation, also loved Elvis, so there was that reinforcement. But she didn’t play his records. Why not? A remembered conversation will reveal it.
DAD: Elvis Presley was the devil.
MOM: (affectionately, not understanding) He was a devil, alright!
DAD: (glaring, meaningfully) Not A devil; THE devil. Know what I mean?
And that’s just what they said about Eva Tanguay.
Here’s his legendary 1956 performance on the Ed Sullivan Show:
To find out more about the variety arts past and present (including tv variety), consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. And don’t miss Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, to be released by Bear Manor Media in 2013.