Last weekend I was at my mom's in Pennsylvania, not far from Hershey, where the Farm Aid concert was going on. I saw a snippet of the press conference, with Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp and the other artists in folding director's chairs, kidding each other back and forth while talking up the cause. I had a thought - wouldn't Elvis have enjoyed that, sitting back in one of those chairs, wisecracking, being part of that rarefied group. He never got to be the elder statesman, like Willie or Johnny Cash, basking in the respect of his peers. He was gone at 42.
I was born the year Elvis was drafted, and growing up he was just the guy in the drag race movies, shaking his hips and singing about clambakes to his latest female co-star. I was a Beatles kid. But in college I read Greil Marcus's book Mystery Train, and I was curious enough to listen to The Sun Sessions, Elvis's first rockabilly recordings. My roots only went back as far as A Hard Day's Night, but even I could recognize that Elvis had it - from day one he had both that souped up high register that cut through the band and jumped out of the speakers, and that low, sexy, intimate "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" whisper that had women tossing panties at him two decades later. And his place in history was secured when John Lennon said simply "Before Elvis there was nothing."
In August of '77 I was just back from being a camp counselor, hanging out in my best friend's basement where our band rehearsed, when I heard Elvis had died. Too bad for him, but the flowers and tearful crowds outside Graceland didn't mean anything to me. Into the '80s I was caught up in my own band's music, but every once and a while Elvis peeked through - Robert Plant covering Elvis's "Little Sister" at the Concert for Kampuchea; Warren Zevon's song "Jesus Mentioned," with its line about digging up the King, begging him to sing; Ellen Foley, when asked between songs at a Channel gig who she listened to, answering "Elvis." "Costello or Presley?" "Presley! He's much more original." (No offence, E.C.). Paul Simon calling his South African album Graceland.
In the '90s I picked up another Elvis book, Peter Guralnick's Last Train to Memphis, and a box of his '60s recordings. There were early musical high points - his minimalist, breathy version of "Fever," the Peggy Lee hit - and late high points - "Suspicious Minds" and "Kentucky Rain," from his '69 Memphis sessions - but lots of undistinguished, and indistinguishable, stuff in between. I didn't even consider his '70s output, when he was wearing jumpsuits and playing Vegas. I pretty much put him aside, and got deeper into folk and blues, and even country, which in its primal form is just another American folk music.
Then in 2008 I was in Memphis for a folk conference. I skipped out one morning and took the tour of Sun Records, the original studio miraculously still standing where it had fifty years ago. I got to stand, and sing a few bars, in the exact spot Elvis had stood singing "That's Alright Mama" and "Good Rockin' Tonight," and see the "million dollar quartet" photo of Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins - all Sun artists - singing gospel around the studio's piano. Sam Phillips gets all the credit for discovering Elvis, but I learned it was Marion Keisker, his receptionist, who had to keep bugging him to give the kid a chance. I bought a shirt with the Sun rooster logo and encored my next few shows with "Can't Help Falling In Love."
That might have been it, but a couple years later when Borders was clearing out its racks I saw a half-price compilation called Elvis Country. By this time I considered Kris Kristofferson and Merle Haggard up there as songwriters with Lennon and McCartney, even if you couldn't dance to them. I blew six bucks and added it to my stack.
Here's the thing. It was good. Really good. It wasn't high energy, wasn't rock'n'roll or even honky-tonk. It was calmer, maybe the way John Lennon's Double Fantasy is calmer, more assured. In reading the minimal credits, I found it was mostly from the '70s recordings that I'd dismissed. Standards ("For the Good Times," future standards ("Always on My Mind," soon to be Willie Nelson's theme), a perfect version of "Good Time Charlie's Got the Blues" that felt much deeper than Danny O'Keefe's original. Elvis's voice was rounder, fuller, than I'd ever heard it. I got a copy of Careless Love, the second volume of Guralnick's Presley bio, with a cover photo of a youngish Elvis looking wary, like he doesn't trust what's happening. Good call.
The book starts the year I was born, with Elvis in the service, having just lost his mother. I won't retell the book, suffice to say it's surreal and sad - the pills, the hollow Hollywood years, the domineering huckster manager - and we all know the ending. But it did help me appreciate, and differentiate, the vast body of music Elvis left. I think the bigger crime of his '60s period wasn't the countless, identically plotted movie vehicles, but his manager's insistence that Elvis only sing songs they owned the publishing on. Greed versus art, pure and simple - while the world was changing at lightning speed, and Dylan, Lennon/McCartney, Jagger/Richards, Brian Wilson, Jimmy Webb, Burt Bacharach and Smokey Robinson were writing their masterpieces, Elvis was given retreads by the same team who churned out his '50s hits, keeping him stuck in a time warp. And Elvis, polite, superstitious Elvis, was too meek to tell his manager to fuck off, and too passive and pill-riddled to go out and find his own songs. But again there were high points: the '68 TV special where Elvis insisted on black leather instead of the tuxedo Colonel Parker wanted him to wear, the '69 Memphis sessions, the crack touring band Elvis assembled, with the underrated James Burton on lead guitar.
By the '70s, with Elvis depressed about his divorce and ballooning weight, RCA was so happy to have him record anything that the publishing stranglehold was relaxed, and he got to make what to me stand as his best recordings. They weren't groundbreaking - he'd broken his ground in the '50s - and taken en masse they're a bit heavy on the ballads, but he tackled, and mostly mastered, an impressive array of songs and styles (collected in another box set, of course, called Walk a Mile in My Shoes). There's blues ("Merry Christmas Baby"), country/folk (Dylan's "Don't Think Twice It's Alright"), even vintage rock'n'roll ("Burnin' Love," his last true hit). His last-ever movie, the '72 documentary Elvis on Tour, captured him at his peak, with all the mythology - the scarves, jumpsuits and jeweled sunglasses - in place, but before the myth ossified into parody.
So what happened? For one thing, eighteen years of pills - uppers in the Army and on movie sets, then sleeping pills and pain killers to follow - caught up with him. He'd been to the dentist the day he died, and gotten codeine along with his daily regimen. Like all addicts, he was cagey - had doctors in Vegas and California sending him pills his Memphis doctor never knew about - and self-deceptive to the point of getting deputized to be an undercover DEA agent. He was also addicted to spending money, and unlike, say, Paul McCartney, wasn't a songwriter, so he had to keep performing to pay expenses. And all the people around him, the people who supposedly loved him, who should have said, stop, you're killing yourself, were making money off him too. His manager had million-dollar gambling debts - time for another tour. Even his doctor borrowed money off him for a new house. Elvis was smart enough to know he was buying friendship. At least Sinatra's Rat Pack were all performers in their own right, not dependent on Frank for their next meal. At least the Beatles had each other for a reality check. Elvis was alone, unequalled in sheer volume of fame until Michael Jackson, who met an eerily similar fate.
So far I've cleverly avoided the pitfalls of fame and fortune, and as I make my rounds these days as a struggling songwriter / folksinger / author, I'm likely to have an Elvis disc in my pack, maybe the one with the stunning version of "Bridge Over Troubled Water" on it, or the bargain cut-out with original non-remixed "Little Less Conversation." Of course I like the music, but it's more than that. I guess I just don't like the idea of him being left all alone.