Friday, October 5, 2012

Long live the King…


             
          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.

20 comments:

slyness said...

I can see I need to do a lot of catching up on Elvis recordings - at least to find out what else he was doing in the 70s besides "Burnin'", "Ghetto" and so on that reached the top 40 stations where I could hear them. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

An original take on Elvis. Who would've thought after all this time that something fresh and original could be said! Thanks for a honest, poignant read!

TomSmith said...

A very good reflection about an artist I fell in love with as a boy in the 50's. Then abandoned as a kind of 'joke' when I travelled down the path of Dylan, Lenin/McCartney, and the special appeal of traditional folk. When thinking about Elvis, the first word that comes to mind is sadness. Behind all of the Cadillacs and hard partying, was a deeply depressed person who was preyed upon by vultures... and even those who considered themselves friends. Regardless of your "cleverness" to avoid the pitfalls of fame and fortune, it has me thinking of the cliché "Be careful what you ask for".

Thanks for the blog. Brought back some memories.

slyness said...

Yes, great memories! I remember loving the sound of "Return to Sender" pouring out of cars when I was small and I still like it.

John Oberteuffer said...

Good blog! John Lennon had right and Michael Jackson came to the same end.

The Hack Mechanic said...

I'm not at all familiar with the 70s stuff. Like many people, I have stuff on my iPod that I have not idea how it got there. One of those outliers is Elvis Greatest Hits Vol II. I forced myself to listen to it on a long drive. I thought, my god, once you've heard the magnificent Sun Sessions, pass through the infections #1 hits like Jailhouse Rock and Hound Dog, this third-tier stuff is truly execrable. Though now, with your elucidation of Elvis' record company insisting he only sing songs they owned the publishing rights to, I know why.

Anonymous said...

Also, in the '60s the head of A&R in Nashville was Chet Atkins, who didn't 'get' Elvis at all. If you listen to Elvis On Tour, the band is really more R&B than rock or country - check out 'Shake a Hand' or 'Just a Little Bit.'

slyness said...

@Hack Mechanic, yes! The record company keeping him in a limited catalog does explain a lot!

Deede said...

I love this stuff! More than I ever needed to know about Elvis!

slyness said...

Elvis was alone. You said a mouthful there. Poor guy.

Terry Kitchen said...

But the music remains... There are also some great cover versions of Elvis tunes - Tom Petty's version of 'Wooden Heart', Phil Seymour's version of 'Tryin' to Get to You'.

Anonymous said...

Also Fine Young Cannibal's version of 'Suspicious Minds'!

Anonymous said...

It’s funny you mentioned Elvis Country; this was my introduction to Elvis and in fact was the second LP I ever owned; someone handed it to me at a yard sale. (The first album I owned was The Seekers Live in London, which the previous owners of the house I moved into when I was 9 inexplicably (or not) left behind in the basement). I played it quite a bit, as you tend to do when you only own 2 albums, but it really wasn’t until years later that I appreciated how good it really was. I started buying 45s in 1972 and Burning Love was one of the first; I still have it, picture sleeve and everything. But after that, as you indicate, Elvis pretty much fell off the map, though I still remember vividly how big a shock it was when he died. I’m sure if it happened these days everyone would have seen it coming, ala Amy Winehouse, but back then things were kept quite a bit more under wraps. Do you know the Fred Koller song The King and I? That’s probably my all-time favorite Elvis-related song. John Hiatt’s Tennessee Plates is another good one.

Terry Kitchen said...

Yes, songs ABOUT Elvis! Aside from the two mentioned above, there's 'Walking in Memphis' by Marc Cohn, 'When Vernon Moved from Tupelo' by Mark Stepakoff, and in my song 'Christmas Card' the adopted stray dog is named...Elvis (of course). Elvis also appears in various ways in the novel I'm working on... One last real-life reference and then I'll shut up - back when I was working at Rounder Records, which was unionized, I was on the negotiating committee, and we asked for Elvis's birthday as a paid holiday. When management pointed out that would be admitting he was really dead, we settled for blasting 'You're Right, I'm Left, She's Gone' over the warehouse PA. OK, enough about the King and onto ... ?

Anonymous said...

After being rightly embarrassed by a lot of his '60s movies (and the songs he had to sing in him), he told Chips Momam, the producer of his '69 Memphis sessions, that he would never again sing s song he didn't believe in. Good advice for all of us!

Anonymous said...

Hi Terry --- this is really original. I love the way you discovered E and your insights about him as a fellow musician. I heard on NPR yesterday that the recently deceased King Sihanouk (of Cambodia) was an artist, not a pol, and a fan of Elvis' ballads.
So "the King" left quite a legacy. *&*&*&* Also good to read your firsthand report on music-as-community. May this circle remain unbroken! I remember the 60s hootenannies, when people gathered to play for the love of the music, with no thought or scheming about a commercial career. (at least until Dylan arrived on the scene)
Did I tell you I knew Taj Mahal during that period? (before name change, when he was honing his chops). He always said "La Musica" -- the human heartbeat -- would continue, no matter what happened in the music biz. So keep on truckin,' Ter, and don't let the blogmeisters distract you. -- Shelby

Anonymous said...

> Also Fine Young Cannibal's version of 'Suspicious Minds'!
No foolin! I will have to look that up.

Stan L said...

@Terry, re "Aside from the two mentioned above, there's 'Walking in Memphis' by Marc Cohn, 'When Vernon Moved from Tupelo' by Mark Stepakoff": Those are two of the greats for sure!

Steve Chelmsford said...

Terry, I thoroughly enjoyed your article. I'm a couple years younger than you and didn't hear much Elvis music when I was growing up. With 4 older brothers and 1 older sister (1 younger brother too) I heard a ton of Beatles music in my youth. My siblings were huge fans and I've been one too...pretty much since birth. I was 5 years old when Sgt. Pepper was released and I remember the sound coming out of my brother's room for what seemed like forever...they were 7 and 8 years older than me, so they were old enough to be part of the "mania". I must have heard that album 1,000 times that summer. When I was 15, I heard the news about Elvis while I was watching a game show on TV on the afternoon of Aug 16, 1977 ("Match Game" maybe... with Gene Rayburn... a daily favorite back then). During the commercial break it was announced "Elvis is Dead ...more news at 6PM". I knew who Elvis was from his movies and I might have seen the "Aloha" show when I was 11 years old, but I wasn't a fan. Then for Christmas of 1977, probably because of the flood of Elvis re-releases out there, my mother gave me my first Elvis album, "Elvis: In Person at the International Hotel" ... that was it...I was hooked! Thirty-five years later, I now have tons of Elvis vinyl, CDs, books, movies etc. ... including two of the books you mentioned "Last Train to Memphis" and "Careless Love"... I also recommend them highly ...I would have to say that the 50's tunes are my favorites ..."Hound Dog" being my absolute favorite...but I have to admit I also like "Do The Clam" and "No Room to Rumba in a Sports Car" as well ... Thanks for the great article!

Steve Chelmsford
"The Mop Tops and The King" Radio Show
Heard on Radio Goldfield, www.KGFN.org & www.themoptopsandtheking.com

Ed Gaffney said...

A few years ago, I visited Graceland while on a book-signing tour with my wife and a couple of friends. Before I went, I had pre-conceived notions of how Elvis lived, and what Graceland was like. I thought I was going to see a monument to greed and self-aggrandizement. I was wrong wrong wrong.

Judged against the standards of today's celebrity palaces, Graceland was small. Sure, it was bigger than a typical home for a few people, but the rooms were, as I remember, relatively modest. The indulgences/questionable decorating choices (shag carpeting in the kitchen(!), the "jungle room," the racquetball court, etc.) seemed -- well, they seemed like the kind of things that a young guy with money to burn would buy.

But they didn't seem outwardly directed. I didn't get the sense that they were bought in order for Elvis to show to a camera crew so he could prove to the world that he had "made it." He didn't buy a bunch of golf carts and keep them on the grounds because he was showing off. He did that because he loved racing around in golf carts with his friends. (For the record, it's really fun to race around in golf carts with your friends. No matter how much money you have.)

And then we went to Sun Records, and we saw the picture of Elvis with Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins. But even more powerful was hearing the snippet of the recording of those four, just messing around with a guitar and a piano, just musicians.

Seeing Graceland and listening to a few minutes of the "Miilion Dollar Quartet" made me see Elvis as a person, not as a celebrity.

I loved it.