I already know it: I shouldn’t have a problem with Elvis.
Elvis is an icon, a deity, the man placed unreservedly at the top of rock ‘n’ roll’s pantheon of superstars. It’s well established that without Elvis there’d be no Buddy Holly, no Little Richard, no Beatles, Stones, Nirvana, no Tupac or Eminem, no Cream, no Ramones, no Steely Dan. No Foo Fighters, Dave Mathews or Maroon 5. Maybe no Rock ‘n’ Roll. Maybe no Sixties, no cultural revolution. Instead, his cultural influences reach across decades and cultures and perhaps more than anyone else’s outside of Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed and a few others- guys like Aristotle, Newton, Einstein and DaVinci, who a lot of pretty smart people think are the most important people ever. Just don’t expect much agreement from any of the folks who line up at Graceland on Elvis’ birthday or the anniversary of his death, or all through the year, for that matter. I know what those people think, and I think they’re all freakin’ nuts.
Yeah, there are those who think that it all began with Elvis, and I would even have to agree that yes, maybe it did begin with the first dim spotlight on the nascent king, and I give him all the credit I can for all that was wrought in his wake. But that doesn’t mean that I have to revere him, and I don’t. I don’t even have a lot of respect for the dude, and I’ll tell you why.
One of the things that I admire about people who have accomplished something is when they accomplish what they’d set out to do. Kike Thomas Edison, who worked for freakin’ years on the light bulb. He had electricity, and he knew that if he applied it to a filament, it would burn brightly when placed in a vacuum-sealed tube. The problem was that the filaments giving off the most light also kept burning out the fastest, and he continued experimenting, trying more elements, and then combining elements through the years-long process of finding the right combination of elements until eventually he created and used a filament that wouldn’t burn out for an acceptable period. Some time before he found the right elements, he was asked if he thought his experiments had been a failure, and he famously responded that after testing 20,000 elements and combinations of elements, and failing to find a successful filament, he considered his experiments a huge success, as he now knew of 20,000 elements and combinations of elements that did not work. He’d worked all that time with single-minded determination, and when he found the right combination of elements, success and Mr. Edison walked arm in arm in to an (ahem) brighter future. So you’ve got to admire a man like that. Or anyone who is that determined and persistent.
And then there were the Curies. Of course luck played a part in the discovery of radiation, but who would begrudge them their success when they took a fortuitous, happenstance discovery and worked it into an understandable and controllable phenomenon and an incomparably useful diagnostic tool? These people (okay, it was mostly the Mme.) worked and worked with great effort and great sacrifice until their project had been wrestled to the ground and subdued. And there are so many other examples of such dogged determination- both good and ill.
There’s a literary term whose name I never remember, but I really like. It’s when you say you won’t list the items in a certain category, and then you list all the items you said you wouldn’t. But I would never do that, as there is no need to mention Galileo and Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, Michaelangelo and DaVinci and Brunelleschi, William Shakespeare, William Blake, Pythagoras and Socrates and that whole Aristotle-to-Newton-to Einstein crew, and don’t even start me on Descartes and all the others who did noble work in their fields, experimenting, observing, gathering, recording, ruminating, cogitating, contemplating, absorbing, growing, sharing. Thanks to them all and to all those whose shoulders they needed to stand on to see what they saw, to think what they thought.
The landscape of history is periodically and fortuitously strewn with genius, and my admiration for them is beyond refute, but I just recently heard Elvis called a genius. A genius… a genius? Elvis?
Could he sing? Sure, but that’s not the point: a lot of people can sing, and a whole lot of them sang better than Elvis. But it was Elvis who blew the doors off the joint and ushered in a whole new culture, who symbolized, energized and catalyzed a whole new era. What was coming wasn’t the Elvis Era, but a cultural change had been brewing and Elvis was the last log we needed under the cauldron for it to boil. Only someone who’s been in a coma for the past sixty years wouldn’t know about Elvis and what he did. The question isn’t who did it, the question is how deserving is Elvis of our worshipful admiration?
Let’s look at the pre-fame Elvis. He was a mama’s boy whose mama walked him to school every day. And that’s high school! What a pussy! Yes, he sang at some amateur events and they liked him. And then he went into a small-time low-rent storefront recording studio in a low-rent area in downtown Memphis to record a couple of songs for his mother for her birthday.
But it wasn’t rock ‘n’ roll he came to record at Sun Studios; it wasn’t anything remotely like rock. It wasn’t anything like rock ‘n’ roll that Elvis was singing at church or those amateur shows, it was corny, white pop music that Elvis loved. Elvis’ favorite singers were Dean Martin and Perry Como and other similar crooners. That was what Elvis “dug.” He was a wuss and a proven mama’s boy (see above), and the dude didn’t rock. Never tried to, maybe never wanted to.
The songs he came to record that day for his mother were unremarkable, as was the singing, but not the singer. Sam Phillips was the owner and the engineer at Sun Studios, and he didn’t even remember Elvis after it was over, but his secretary remembered him. Phillips had been saying that if he could ‘find a white boy that could sing black,’ he “could make a million dollars.” This kid, this truck driver, was what her boss had been talking about, and Marion Keisker remembered him.
Black, or “Race” music was exciting and all, but in the mid-Fifties no “jungle music” was ever gonna get on white radio or the pop charts. Radio and records were a business, and the market wouldn’t support that music. Until, it turned out, someone found the right white boy, and that was why we’re glad Ms. Keisker remembered Elvis Presley. A singer for a demo was a no- show, and the musicians were there and had to be paid. Sam Phillips was barely keeping his doors open and this was a setback; everyone was probably in a bad mood, and that’s when Ms. Keisker remembered that boy with the sideburns. He had those smoldering good looks, she remembered, and he could sing passably. He sang some lightweight confections for his mother, and his voice didn’t make as much of an impression as his face, but this gig wasn’t about making a record. The gig was about selling a song, and any label that bought it was buying the song, not the singer, and would record it with their own singer, arranger, producer and musicians. It was a low-paying, inconsequential gig. It was a demo gig.
We all know what happened as Sam Phillips found his white boy, and the explosion propelled Elvis away from his truck and into history. His success was instantaneous and the explosion expanded in concussive shock waves for years. Elvis gave birth to Rock, and it grew, creating those who followed, and then more followed, and some stayed for a while, and some shone brightly, but only briefly. It grew into the corporate musical behemoth that the music industry is today, with all of its charts monitoring all of its offshoots. These are the facts and I wouldn’t waste time debating them with you.
The question isn’t what happened- that has been documented and analyzed quite enough, thank you. The question isn’t about what happened, but considering the reverential attitude toward Elvis, the question is, rather, how much reverence does Elvis deserve?
Leave us not forget that Sam Phillips wasn’t hiring the kid to be a rock phenomenon, he just wanted a guy who could hit the notes on that demo. He just needed a voice. It was the words and the music he was recording, not the singer. It was another low-pay workaday session for a client, it had to get done, and they needed a singer… now! and Ms. Keiker had a memory.
So they called the kid with the sideburns and he came in, and I guess he warmed up or whatever he might have done, and they started the session. This was the first time he was being paid to sing, and it was also the first time that he played with session musicians, and I have only the vaguest idea of how frightening that must have been. It was the first time anyone was depending on Elvis’ singing. Before this, it had been church socials and amateur shows, and now there were studio cats and studio costs and tape costs, and a professional studio engineer in another room looking at him through the glass. And the musicians were pros. It’s understandable if it made the kid nervous as hell. It was only a demo, but it all depended on Elvis doing his job, and I’d bet that he was just hoping (and praying, naturally) to get through the afternoon without being laughed out of the studio. So he tried, and he tried, but it wasn’t going well. Elvis was sucking. In exasperation, Sam Phillips called a break, and that was when it happened.
Embarrassed, trying to blow off some steam and joke around during the break, ole Elvis took a guitar and started strumming an old blues/country song that he knew, “That’s All Right, Mama,” but playing it fast. Just to blow off steam… loosen up, y’know? The musicians on the gig were a guitarist and a bass player, and they were frustrated, too, and they knew the kid was frustrated, and they liked the uptempo beat the kid was playing, and began filling in around the kid, and they all kept on playing it, accidentally coming close to rockin’ it, and the kid kept singing. The kid got into it, set the pace, and the others fell into and rocked it.
Inside the control room, Phillips heard what they were doing and jumped over to the mic, telling them to hold on, to stop. Then he flipped the “Record” switch and told them to start again. That night he took the track to local Memphis DJ Dewey Phillips, no relation, whose show “Red, White and Blues” was a hit with the teens. He played the song and the phones lit up and stayed lit, and the non-stop barrage of calls forced the overwhelmed DJ to play the song over and over and over until Sam Phillips was sent out to find Elvis, to bring him to the studio, to talk on the radio.
Can you imagine what Sam Phillips was thinking at that moment? He couldn’t possibly have known what was going to happen, but did he have any idea of what might happen if his dream came true and he found the right white boy? At the time that this radio phenomenon was going on, at the moment that his unexpected, completely unplanned-for career was launched on the radio that night, Elvis was completely unaware of it. He was at a theater, watching a movie.
They must have quickly known that they had a phenomenon on their hands, but they had no way of knowing the whole thing had already begun to spiral wildly out of control. Nevertheless, America, ready or not: BOOM!
So let’s keep in mind that when Elvis came to Sun Studios for that demo session, his favorite singers were the same as at his first session, and they were no one even closely related to what was fomenting, bubbling up under the influences of blues, country, gospel and electrified guitars, and would evolve into rock. Elvis had heard all those influences, but Elvis dug Dino and Perry. Good singers, yeah, but were they rockers? Were they at the forefront of the rebellion that was brewing, bubbling? Did they speak for America’s youth? Did these guys rebel? At all? Against anything? And did they rock? At all? And then suddenly, the Rock Rebellion was on and Elvis was the king of the rebellion. There’d been a coronation and everything, it was in the newspapers- you could look it up. Bam! Elvis was known around the world as the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll.
I would admire Elvis for what he wrought, had he believed in it and worked at it. If he’d been gigging with this music before he got to Sun Studios that second time, I’d be in the line at Graceland. Had he been working on it on the side, maybe rehearsing on weekends, doing small shows when he could… if he’d done that, I’d have all of his recordings. If he had gotten a little combo together- you know, guitar, bass and maybe a drummer, and worked out a set of songs they could play at a local dance… Any combo- his or someone else’s. If he had done anything to rock…But… noooooooooo…
While Elvis was still singing for his mother in Memphis, down in Ferriday, Louisiana, Jerry Lee Lewis had been bugging his father to buy him a piano until his dad mortgaged the house to get it. Did Elvis have a drive like that? Think Jerry Lee’s dad could afford the piano? He couldn’t, and the bank foreclosed on the house, but the boy kept the piano, which anyway by then had the ivory worn off the keys by the kid’s enthusiastic pounding.
Jerry Lee had all of four piano lessons, the fourth ending with his teacher slapping him and storming out of the house, and at that point, barely out of adolescence, he continued his education by sneaking into Haney’s Big House, a nearby black nightclub, learning from guys like B.B. King and Muddy Waters. Rock was bubbling up and Elvis was going to church with his parents while Jerry Lee’s parents were trying to calm the boy down by enrolling him in an evangelical bible college. It was in the family, you know, what with Jimmy Swaggart being a cousin and all. Jerry Lee rocked the bible institute when he played a gospel tune with a boogie-woogie beat and got thrown out of school, but Elvis was still in school, being walked there by mom. Elvis had no rock in his soul; never had it, never would. If he had any rebellion in him, well… how would we know? Who’s the rebel? Who’s the rocker?
While Elvis was still spending weekends at home with Gladys and Vernon, Jerry Lee was playing piano with his cousin, Jimmy at whatever show was close enough to drive to. Jimmy played the bass keys and Jerry Lee the treble, and together they swept talent contests around the state, and they won by rockin’ the house. By fifteen, both young men were in Tennessee, Elvis attending church socials in Memphis, Jerry Lee pounding a piano at a Natchez nightclub. After Elvis’ “That’s All Right, Mama” came out, Jerry Lee’s dad drove him to Memphis, to Sun Records, and two months later, Jerry Lee’s “Crazy Arms” had sold 300,000 copies, and next up was “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” and Elvis, if you ask me, was white toast.
Elvis was coached into using all the influences that surrounded him to find Rock, but Jerry Lee Lewis was that mixture; he was Rock, the gen-u-wine article.
I’d admire the hell out of Elvis if he had been working on his guitar playing and singing in his room, maybe singing a song in this new-fangled style of his for his mother once in a while. But no, he didn’t do any of that. That he liked to sing was obvious. That he was good was evident. But did he work at it? Did he rehearse or attempt to make himself into a singer? Not much. Not until that call from Marion Keisker.
In the studio that day, did he explain that this was his style and say “let’s play it this way?” He did not. Did he show any inclination to rock? He did not. It was only in frustration and embarrassment that he became playful and experimented with what became rock. As far as I know, it’s not recorded how he felt about the tracks he cut that session back when it was happening, but I wish they had been. I’d like to know what Elvis thought about “That’s All Right, Mama” as he left the studio that afternoon. Hearing from him about it years later, washed through the filter of what became a monstrously outsized and self- absorbed ego covered in bullshit, I have little desire to hear what he later had to say about those first tentative minutes and days.
Yes, Elvis found rock ‘n’ roll at that second session, but it could equally effectively be argued that rock ‘n’ roll found him, as it was right at this point that Elvis began to give up control of his life. His guitarist, Scotty Moore was his first manager, but that was at a time when some booking agent booked him into a gig, and Elvis, Scotty and Bill loaded up Scotty’s car, they drove together, unloaded and set up, played and packed up the car again and drove home. Scotty didn’t get the gig because he had managing experience, but because Elvis was used to having his mother running his life, and he needed someone to help him, watch out for him. There was no real promotion yet, as it came to be known. It wasn’t like there were record deals to make, merchandise to authorize, license, design, print and sell, fan clubs and magazines and reporters, interviews and paparazzi, web sites to establish, update and maintain, agents to pay, songs, charities, projects, endorsements and scripts to consider, taxes to worry over, investments and outside projects. At first there was none of that, but Elvis still needed a manager.
He was a hayseed, a mama’s boy and completely unprepared to deal with the world outside of his school, his family, his church and his job driving a truck for a small local electrical supply company. That he gave up so much control to others as soon- and as willingly- as he did, was even more of a tragedy in that he never got it back. Whether or not he ever tried to get it back I don’t know, but he never got back much real control of anything outside of Graceland or his hotel suite in Las Vegas, and that control manifested itself as tyranny even before the drugs took over. As long as Elvis didn’t have to think about anything, he was placid, and everyone liked him better that way.
Managers are notoriously shady people, but the man who became Elvis’ manager was the shadiest of the subspecies. “Colonel Tom Parker,” was probably a Dutch sailor who jumped ship in an American port and, undocumented, stayed until his death under his assumed name.
He was a part-time carnival barker who had worked his way into personal management, and he was handling country singer Eddy Arnold when he saw gold in them there sideburns that framed the sensuous lips and smoldering eyes of the young singer, and he took over his management and his life, as Elvis gave control of everything to the Colonel. It is rumored that the one time Elvis started showing signs of independence, the Colonel got him drafted, which made him more dependent on the Colonel than ever. Also, with no documentation for his assumed name, the Colonel could never get a passport, and this might be why Elvis never performed outside of the United States, despite the enormous demand and high-paying offers from Europe, Japan and elsewhere.
It was in the Colonel’s best interests to indulge Elvis’ desires, especially the drugs, as Elvis’ total absorption in this restricted life kept him in deep freeze until the Colonel needed him to defrost and do some shows. Afterwards, he could go back into deep freeze, out of the Colonel’s hair, and all that new cash left the Colonel free to indulge his hobby, which was gambling away all the money Elvis made for him. He lived at the hotel in Las Vegas where Elvis performed- and Elvis’ performances paid the rent- but when he was out of money again and so far in debt to the house that the pressure built up enough to scare him, Parker would thaw Elvis out, get him in shape and into some new heroic costumes, and put him on a stage at a fee that was a fraction of what other performers were getting. The more the drugs took over, the harder it was to thaw him out, and the Colonel must have known that the end was coming, that his cash cow was crashing. Comparisons may here be made to Michael Jackson, but as this is about Elvis, the bottom line was that he couldn’t, or wouldn’t let go of the lifeline that was killing him, and the artistry he might have had in him was virtually stillborn.
But how will we ever know what he could have done? Unfortunately, Elvis was an immature, insecure man of limited sophistication and questionable intelligence, whose success allowed him to live in his distorted, isolated world, surrounded exclusively by pathologically obsequious friends and relatives who competed to provide for him whatever itinerant whim might flit through his fried little mind, at whichever hour of the day he could arouse himself from whatever position of repose he had last collapsed in. He became a man with no restraint, but also no insight. When not nearly comatose, he was a perpetual pre-adolescent, encased in his own hype, concerned only with his whims and self-infantilized into slothful insensitivity. His life comprised of his demands and little else. He was a bully, a tyrant, and deeply, chronically, dangerously depressed.
In the early days he would rent out a skate rink and invite the “friends” his manager found among the local teens to share it with him. He invented a game in which he would skate into people and knock them over, and everyone had to play it, and God have mercy on anyone who tried to bump into him, or in any way diminish the appearance of his mastery of the game. He made up the rules and everyone had to play. He had already become an isolated, self-absorbed child, and I wonder how happy he could have been, because he sure never made anyone around him happy.
Oh, there were good times, all right, but that’s because the Memphis Mafia were always on duty, always on call, ever alert, and always terrified that something they said, or that might be said about them, might displease their liege, the King.
Look at Elvis’ interest in karate. He studied it for about a week before declaring himself a karate master. He loved putting on karate demonstrations for his friends, but the friends all fell down on purpose so as not to expose the incompetence of the King. Martial arts continued to fascinate Elvis, and he continued to pursue the study thereof, as long as said study wouldn’t burden him with any sort of discipline involving diet or physical exertion. That his karate demonstrations were a joke apparently never occurred to Elvis, and his circle of trusted friends never clued him in because that would puncture the bubble and end their free-loading days.
Elvis incorporating his karate moves into his shows was a delight for his audience, and a way for him to gain their eager-to-give approval. But was he a karate master outside of his own mind? Not even close, according to all sources.
As further evidence of his delusional state, we have as a memorial the most- requested photo ever to the White House Press Office: the photo of Elvis in the Oval Office with Richard Nixon. My God, one of America’s biggest drug addicts “dropped in” with an unscheduled and spontaneous visit to the White House, and once inside the Oval Office, he asked the President to swear him in as an agent of the DEA or any other national crime-fighting force as an official investigator to help fight the plague of drugs among the youth of the nation. The gall. The hubris! The delusion!
And speaking of delusion, has anyone mentioned those laughable, sequin-bedecked jump suits that Elvis is so infamous for? It’s the most present-day possible example of the Emperor and his new clothes, and I find it curious that to date no one ever mentions how ironic they are. That Elvis has become such a sacred cow (and yes, I enjoy the image), that no one even wants to say the obvious: that his silly, ostentatious jumpsuits were a joke? We all know they’re ridiculous, right? They’re excessively gaudy, cartoonish and circus-like, but not in a good way. Much better for being shot out of a cannon.
And those superhero capes? Those silly capes he wore with the equally silly Imperial high collars? At least Stevie Wonder has an excuse for some of the clothes he wore in the Seventies. He was physically blind, but Elvis was willfully blind. The costumes, the capes, the karate kicks and flailing arms stuff. My God, what a clown.
All right, Elvis Presley was as swept up in his popularity as we were, and that is certainly understandable, but then he never took his natural talent, nor the opportunity that he had been given, and worked at his craft. He quickly became a product, following directions because he didn’t know, or want to know, how to think his way out of the life that had enclosed him.
Elvis was immediately and completely immersed in his life as the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, but he didn’t as much win the title as have it thrust on him. And, as soon as he’d been given the title, Elvis stopped working at rock ‘n’ roll, and became what he was familiar with, what he started out admiring and undoubtedly imitating: the casual pop stylings of Dean Martin and Perry Como and the others of their ilk.
Here it is in the story of one song: When still fresh and enthused, and only a matter of months into his adventure, Elvis recorded the Smiley Lewis song, “One Night of Sin” with the original lyrics, “One night of sin, that’s what I’m paying for.” It was blues-y and a little bit dirty, and it was real music. But by the end of the first year of his Rock ‘n’ Roll Adventure, Elvis re-recorded the song as “One Night With You” with new lyrics by a couple of guys who had not written the original song, and Elvis sang, “One night with you, that’s what I’m praying for.” Elvis had sold out, and I wonder what ol’ Smiley got paid…
What did Elvis care? What did Elvis owe to the blues? Elvis liked Dean and Perry, the poser! Did Elvis ask, “Am I selling out?” No, he asked, “Where do I sign?” I’m pretty sure he could write.
Once Elvis happened, other doors opened fast. Blown open is more like it. There is no way I’d dispute that it was Elvis who opened the door. He did, and I’ll fight you if you think differently. But forget not that he was pre-conceived and pre-ordered by Sam Phillips as a product. Phillips- or Marion Keisker- had an eye out for just exactly what Elvis was- a white boy who could sing black. Phillips thought he could make a million dollars with a boy like that, but he had seen Elvis already, in fact recorded him, and wasn’t all that impressed with him. Phillips hadn’t seen any potential in the kid until the day he needed a singer, any singer.
No, friends, Sam Phillips ran the session when Elvis recorded those two songs for his mother almost a year before, and he wasn’t impressed enough with him to remember him. We don’t know if it was Elvis’ sexuality that Ms. Keisker saw as exploitable, or if she thought he was what Mr. Phillips had been talking about, or if she remembered that he was simply good enough of a singer to fill in at a demo session. But she remembered Elvis, and the rest is history. Skewed history, perhaps, but then that is why we are here, ladies, gentlemen and others.
Phillips wanted Elvis, or someone like him, as a product. The Colonel bought the contract because he had better vision and bigger plans for Elvis- but also as a product. And Elvis bought into it at what could be known in country parlance as “lickety-split.” So where was the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll after he got the crown? Well, he was still the King, but it was the media version of him that we all bought. That version placed him inside the frenzied, virtually unprecedented milieu that was the Elvis Presley Phenomenon. Frank Sinatra had been big with the Bobby Soxers in the ‘40’s, what with mobs of screaming teenagers and all, but this was something else. This was culture-wide and culture-transforming. But back at Elvis Central, it was all about the business. It was all about the image, and it was always about the business. Here are some fun facts:
•It was on July 5th, 1954 that Elvis came to Sun Studios for the second time. Later that month, with Elvis on acoustic guitar and backed by the same two players, Scotty Moore on electric guitar and Bill Black on bass, they added DJ Fontana on drums, and he opened for Slim Whitman. The ad for the show billed him as “Ellis Presley.” Here from a website:
Elvis was very nervous that night. He most likely sang his just released single That's Alright Mama backed by Blue Moon of Kentucky.
His nervousness caused him to move constantly throughout the first show. And all the while, the girls screamed an enthusiastic response. After the show, Elvis asked Scotty Moore what had the girls so excited. Moore replied, "It was your leg man. It was the way you were shakin' your left leg."
•August ’55: Col. Parker takes over. •Nov. ’55: Elvis signs the highest-ever contract with RCA- $40,000, with a $5,000 bonus for Elvis. •Jan ’56: “Heartbreak Hotel” is released and gives Elvis his first gold record. •April 1956: Elvis signs a seven-year movie contract with Hal Wallis and Paramount Pictures. •March 57: Graceland is purchased. •Early in 1958: Elvis was already at work on his fourth movie, “King Creole.”
So Elvis never had any reason to continue rockin’ because he wasn’t really a rocker to begin with, and soon the Colonel had him in the movies, and we all know that was that. Of all the places that rock went, it went without Elvis. Rock got harder and better and then it got deeper and smarter and more sophisticated and more intricate and more country and more disco and then more mellow and more of this and some of that, and it went everywhere and in none of those travels did Elvis have a part. He just didn’t register. Not in the charts, and not in the hearts.
(And if I can speak as among friends- let’s be honest about that erroneously reported “Elvis-choreographed-the-dance-number-in-‘Jailhouse Rock’ thing.” If Elvis choreographed it, then I’m a Klingon insurance salesman and I’d like to discuss your Romulan protection. Or, it might be that the choreographer- exasperated at Elvis’ terpsichorean ineptitude- asked Elvis to show him his dance style, at which point Elvis would have shown him how he shook his left leg. The lucky choreographer then invented a series of steps that he thought Elvis could handle. Elvis performed them exuberantly, and that was the extent of Elvis’ creative contribution to the number.)
And right after that, it was the nonstop cheesy movies, and, as I postulated earlier, that was the that in that. Elvis had stopped rocking a lot earlier, but his fans still loved him and supported him so fanatically that it made no sense to go back to what he wasn’t doing anymore, anyway. So the abuse of the fan base got worse until it got better in 1969.
Elvis’ irrelevance was staggering under the weight of the Beatles, the Stones and the whole British Invasion and Bob Dylan and then the Doors and Hendrix and… And then came the free-form radio revolution with album bands like Pink Floyd and Little Feat and The Band and ... and Elvis was on the ropes creatively, commercially, mentally and physically. The dude was down- and out, if you know what I mean.
(Yes, I know it’s extraneous and comes close to sniping, but when I say that Elvis was creatively bankrupt, what I meant was that not only Elvis, but also the team that created Elvis was bankrupt. There was no steam in the engine, no juice in the jar. El stopp-o.)
So, in 1968 they stripped it down, he lost some weight and they gave him a black leather bad boy suit and made it simple. They put him back into his element and made it a “Special.” And it was. It had buzz all over it, and it was good to see him back in form and it went well, which was something we all hoped for but no one could really be sure of.
Yes, Elvis wore leather and had just “the boys” with him on acoustic guitar, bass and tambourine, right there in close quarters and they played jes’ like they usetah. Maybe. I don’t know… maybe. Maybe they did have sessions where they sat around and played for the joy of it. It would be nice to think that. And it was great to see him playing again with those three guys. And he rocked- for him, I guess.
But, you know, by that time rock had been developing, changing at a rapid rate over the years. It had lived through periods of stagnation and renewed fruitfulness and experimentation, and had it had grown and mutated, and all that time the level of expertise in musicianship and recording technology had advanced, and the rock that we knew back in the mid- and late Fifties wasn’t the rock that we heard at the end of the Sixties. So much had happened and we’d seen so much from Doo Wop to the Beatles and Dylan and everything else that had happened in the interim and after, and we’d seen some real rockin’ rock ‘n’ roll, and we knew the killers from the fillers, and frankly, for me, when Elvis took the stage that night I was really glad to see him, and glad to see him hangin’ with just those guys and playing it simple and straight and what they wanted us to believe was down-home, but by then I’d seen a lot of rock ‘n’ roll, and grown a lot in my appreciation of the form, and well, I’m sorry I’ve gotta say it, but Elvis just didn’t have it that night. Not for me. I know he wanted to, but he just didn’t rock me.
I know that everyone raved about the “Comeback Show” and God only knows how many tapes and DVDs of that show have been bought, but it just didn’t rock me. You want rock? You want rock royalty? You want the King? Well, the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll has to rock! And if you don’t rock, then you’re just an Oldies show, and I’m as sorry to say this, but he just didn’t rock me.
By this time, I’d seen Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company, the early Dead and the first Airplane with their original singer. I’d seen the Allman Brothers and Creedence and the Stones. The Beatles and the Stones had taken rock beyond it’s staid parameters, and the Doors and the Byrds were happening and Jimi was around then, and Led Zeppelin was happening, and…
Holy shit, there’d been some rock! I remember liking Elvis when he first happened. I was nine, almost ten, and I certainly knew that something big was in the air, and I liked it a lot. I really dug Elvis, and I loved some of the guys that followed him. I remember seeing Jerry Lee Lewis for the first time on Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand.” Clark introduced Jerry Lee, who was sitting at a piano, and then he burst into “Great Balls Of Fire,” and from the moment the song started he was attacking the damn piano keys like they were on fire and he was trying to put them out by hammering on them, furiously pounding the piano and screaming the song, then jerking up, kicking the stool away violently backwards, and he was screaming, shouting, pounding and playing the rest of the song on his feet! He was bending over the piano and shouting at it and attacking it! He was a rock ’n’ roll madman! He had the fever, and he gave it to me.
I’d seen Elvis, and I liked him, but when I saw Jerry Lee Lewis I was blown away, yelling loudly in my mind, “That’s it! That’s it! That’s great!” Honest to God, friends and neighbors, I remember saying that to myself.
Jerry Lee Lewis rocked his ass off! And mine! And there were others. Little Richard may have thought he had to be outrageous because he was black and he wanted to make an impression, or he might have just been that weird on his own, but the little guy just fucking rocked his ass off whenever he played! Good lord, he acted like he was crazy, but he rocked so hard!
Eddie Cochran rocked, and so did Chuck Berry. Fats Domino was rocking way before Elvis, but black singers from New Orleans would never make it onto the national charts, which also meant that we never heard much from Huey “Piano” Smith and no one outside of the black community knew what Ike Turner was up to yet. And there were others, which was a real loss for us white kids at the time. Have you heard the original recording of one of Elvis’ first hits? Have you heard Big Mama Thornton’s original recording of “Hound Dog”? My God, does it rock! Although I don’t think it was rock ‘n’ roll yet. I think there was just a little… too… much… Gospel in it, and that and she was an overweight middle-aged black woman couldn’t have helped. There was so much rock in her recording, but the beat came from handclaps, not drums, so I think it rocks, but it wasn’t Rock. If you added the drums, it would be rock ‘n’ roll, but for that we would have to wait for Elvis.
I implore you to find Big Mama Thornton's recording of “Hound Dog” and then tell me that Elvis invented rock ‘n’ roll. He heard Big Mama and he ripped her off. They changed the lyrics for Elvis’ version to make it more acceptable for the mass market. Even the song’s writers- the legendary Jewish kids from New York, Leiber & Stoller- were surprised to learn they had a hit with one of their songs by some kid they’d never heard of. In other words, they took the color out of the song when they gave it to Elvis. They didn’t care that someone had changed their lyrics- they had a hit and they happily cashed the checks. It wasn’t about authenticity, it was about sales, it was about business, and as always, the bigger the better. Without a doubt Elvis that took the new music and sent it around the country and around the world. He was the King, but he quickly gave up rocking and went back to the safer, mellower sounds he so loved and was so used to. He gave it up for Elvis, Inc.
Business took over rock ‘n’ roll pretty quickly, and soon there was new product on the market, and they were the new American teen idols like Frankie Avalon, Bobby Rydell, Fabian, who were heartthrobs, and once you have a Pat Boone, you know by then it’s pretty much over. There was precious little “good rockin’ tonight” on the charts, but there were guys who still rocked. Jerry Lee and Little Richard, Fats and Ike Turner, Eddie Cochran, Bo Diddly, Gene Vincent and others. Muddy and all three Kings: Albert, B.B. and Freddie. But the record companies produced what they thought we wanted to hear, and the radio played those records, but it was all the safe stuff. The companies made the records, radio played them, and people went out and bought them and listened to more radio. It went full circle that way and suddenly it was a big, new business, and fortunes were being made by the record companies, not by the musicians. And where was “The King?” Where was Elvis when we needed him to wrest the music back from the suits and lead the rebellion? Where was the guy who should have brought back rock ‘n’ roll and saved us from the marketers? Why, he’d been the first one to sell himself to the market.
Had ol’ Elvis been working on his chops any time after his first flush of success until he died, an inflated, shameful carcass? Had he been rocking? Had he been gettin’ back to his roots? What roots? Dean and Perry? What had Elvis been doing with the rock that he’d “invented?” Had he even been rocking at all ?
No, he’d sold his soul and his sorry fat ass to the market and was living a dissolute life, obsessively cut off from reality, addicted to uncontrolled indulgence and paranoia, popping pills so heavy they scare me even when I only see their names in print. He was a bully, dictatorially demanding instant gratification for every whim, no matter how petty. The man was, in substance, a total dick.
But I am not a vindictive man. I have no need to demean or indiscriminately vilify any poor stupid bastard. Perhaps this particular one had the potential for genius, for art- who knows? Although Elvis’ potential was rarely utilized, and even then at a low rate of engagement, it remains that he did pursue his muse, and we are clearly the better for it, and I say God bless the fellow and God bless you if you are one of those dedicated fans who would gladly wait three hours in the rain if it were rumored that Elvis’ shoes were to be driven past them on a nearby highway. And God bless you if you faithfully went to as many of his shows as you could, and remain faithful, carrying your tattered Elvis banner into the unappreciative wilds of the new century. God bless you, and God bless your freedom to feel that way.
If that is how you feel about Elvis, then I hope you enjoy your appreciation, but I don’t share it. I am grateful to Elvis for opening the door. That the elements were in place and the door was waiting to be opened is indisputable, and that it was Elvis who opened it cannot be taken away from him. All kudos and bragging rights to Elvis Presley and his minions for that.
But after he blew the doors open, the market was on to it and others rushed in, and some exploited the form and made money for their labels while others mastered the form and moved it forward and worked at it and made it better. And while all this was happening, Elvis had dropped out of sight, accessed only as nostalgia. Elvis had his moment in history, and history had its way with him. He did what he did, then he hung on for the ride even though he quickly became irrelevant, and to credit him for what he did would be justified, but to credit him for what he did not do would be commensurately unjustified.
And those who revere him? Why not, if that’s what gets them off? The important thing was that when Elvis’ audience attended one of his shows, the King rocked them. And what was more important than that? So what if some part of their devotion is an attempt to validate their lives and hang onto their youth? Fine. Let them have it, and God bless them. It sounds like fun, and I’d like to see everyone with a rock fantasy- and it isn’t important what it is, as long as they’d gone to the show and they’d been rocked! They’d come to be rocked by the King, and the King rocked them. Paid and delivered with all due respect to the performer who achieves that, who moves his audience. That’s totally admirable and good for both performer and audience whenever and wherever it happens.
If these middle-aged people rocked at a show, that was great! We have to approve of anyone rocking, right? And where else is a middle-aged guy or gal gonna go to rock? I went to a Jimmy Buffett show a couple of years ago, and it was the first time in twenty five years of going to rock shows that I was the same age as the rest of the crowd. Everyone was in their forties and fifties and sixties. And these old people were rockin’! They were having a great time, dancing and singing and wearing silly parrot crap and Hawaiian shirts, and they were all rockin’. And where else are these people going to go to do that? The arena that hosted that show had mostly hard rock shows all summer, as that’s the crowd that buys tickets and comes out to live shows. The Jimmy Buffett crowd buys tickets and comes out, so he got booked into a 20,000 seat arena and it sold out and they had a great time.
So those who rocked out to Elvis, God bless you and rock on! But if that’s as much rock as you’ll ever see, Elvis is gone and you’re missing something. There’s so much good music that’s way too hard, too loud, and too young for you, and that’s all right, you don’t need to go to the harder shows. I totally understand that. I know the music business a bit, so I don’t go to shows I wouldn’t like, but I go to a bunch of shows where I’m the oldest guy in the joint. I think I’ve made my peace with that, and I think I know how you feel, but if you still want to rock, you’re in luck. Find a show, go to it. Chances are if it interests you, it’ll be safe for you. Country shows are a good bet. Sixties shows get your crowd. No mosh pits, no punk attitudes, and no gangsta shit.
But we all agree that rocking is good, right? And we agree that any way you rock is good, right? The problem with Elvis is that after the first bloom of excitement, he didn’t rock any more. He pretended to for a while, and then he didn’t even pretend. It didn’t matter- he was still hugely popular. For the shows, the Colonel bought him the best band Elvis’ money could buy, and that band rocked, but look at his hits and ask yourself if you can call them “rock.” “Heartbreak Hotel” didn’t rock, and neither did “Don’t Be Cruel,” or “(I Wanna Be Your) Teddy Bear.” Hell, if you’d slow down “Wear My Ring Around Your Neck” by a few beats, you’d have a Bossa Nova! Okay- I’ll give you “Jailhouse Rock”- that still totally rocks, and “Hound Dog” was pretty good, but other than those, his recordings got real soft real fast. “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You,” “Love Me Tender,” and the always estimable etc.
I’ll bet that I’m not the first person to think the people who revere Elvis are largely celebrating and reliving their youth, nor is there anything wrong with that. But I also think that some of the people who revere him haven’t really thought much about whether this man is worthy of all the reverence. Some reverence, maybe, but not all that. Not the iconic stuff.
His legacy may be rock, but his legend is what everyone knows it is: a tragically sad story of a dissolute, listless man, lost in perpetual self-indulgence and self-medicated oblivion, and other than a few early recordings, what impact has he had? Some like to speculate about what he might have done, but no one will know because he became a product and a drug-addicted self-parodist. He could have done more, and as for his fans, I suggest you go to a country show. You’ll probably like the crowd, and those bands say they’re country, but they rock pretty good. Let ‘em rock ya.