Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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The Genius and Power of Elvis

Almost 100,000 people, most of whom graduated from high school some time before the Beatles arrived and probably hadn't seen much of each other since, congregated in Madison Square Garden this weekend to witness the first live performances in New York of the man who once defined them as a generation, and discovered that he still did. The most miraculous thing about Elvis Presley's mass magic is its durability, and that has as much to do with the way he brings his audience together as with his own genius and power as an artist. His concerts aren't just rock and roll revivals--half-invigorating, half-pathetic attempts to recreate a youthful energy that is more than half history by now.

Presley knows how to recall that energy, of course, but he also seems to understand how it has changed. He does nothing less than transport the past into the present.

That may sound like a lot of highfalutin verbiage to pin on a po' boy from Mississippi who has trouble talking his way past a television newsman, but I swear it's true, and I didn't expect it would be. Despite a few great singles--including "Suspicious Minds," one of the very best--Presley's recording career has been basically undistinguished for at least a decade now. He rarely comes up with an exciting new song, and his cover versions, while more than adequate, are almost invariable less interesting than the originals. When he began to perform live again--in August, 1969, at the Hotel International in Las Vegas, after an eight-year layoff--he was lean and almost startlingly contemporary, but the reports from his occasional big-city concert gigs were discouraging. He was beginning to look puffy around the jowls again, it was said, and his act was going soft at the edges as well.

The reports were apparently as inaccurate as always, which was inevitable. Committed to the individualism of their craft, writers are always wary of mass phenomena anyway. With a culture hero as unlikely as Presley, the temptation to run him down must be not merely irresistible but imperceptible. After all, how can such a bumpkin have achieved so much?

No one calls him a low-life no-talent any more, but it is commonplace to dismiss him as a creature of his manager, Colonel Tom Parker. Amateur sociologists will tell you that if Presley hadn't come along someone else would have filled the same cultural need. Rock and roll historians often claim that his best music was behind him by the time that he left Sun Records in Memphis, owned by blues lover Sam Phillips, for the greedy producers at RCA Victor in November 1955. Others trace his deterioration to his first movie, Love Me Tender, which was also the occasion of his first schmaltz ballad. Political critics complain that he frecklessly abandoned his own vital rebelliousness when he was drafted into the Army in March, 1958, while others feel he lost his touch when he stopped touring to settle in as a surefire star of bad but profitable movies. And now it is said that he is just another Tom Jomes.

None of these analyses is entirely untrue, but all miss the point: Elvis knows what he is doing. The Colonel's astuteness is unquestionable, and he has certainly worked to nourish the Elvis legend, but his musical influence has always been negligible and in recent years Elvis has obviously taken over as image strategist as well, leaving the Colonel to tend to business. As a white who sang black music credibly, Presley was a historical necessity, but he was also himself. His feel for phrasing as well as rhythm and the provocative insouciance of his timbre are unique and essential to a magnetism that Charlie Rich, say, or Conway Twitty could never have generated. Elvis' taste for schmaltz predated his career--the first song he ever recorded was the Ink Spots' "My Happiness," a gift for his mother, whom he adored--and he always wanted a film career. What's more, he apparently came very close to producing his own records for RCA, not only selecting material but working out arrangements in the studio.

Perhaps most important, his rebellion was no less inspiring because he abandoned it as he grew older. He was the major adolescent influence on both John Lennon, the perpetual revolutionary, and Bob Dylan, who has mellowed some himself. Presley was always a good old boy who might strut like a tomcat but still sang hymns for his mama. Like anyone, he must have struggled and suffered for his values, and while it is reasonable to disagree with them--I myself would not choose to become an honorary narcotics agent as Elvis did--it is churlish to pretend they are dishonest. They aren't very different, after all, from the values most Americans choose. His audience has changed just as Elvis has.

Presley is very much a middle American, and in middle America--especially the South and Midwest, he is still a gigantic star. Here he is more a memory. Only his biggest singles are played on New York radio, and his movies did poorly here long before they began to fail elsewhere. New York is too tough and discriminating for the kind of hero worship to which he is accustomed. And yet this weekend he broke a record by playing four consecutive weekend shows at Madison Square Garden.

There were teenaged girls who'd caught the bug somewhere, and teenaged boys who were into '50s rock and roll as if it were folk music. There were many middle-aged people--Elvis has always commanded his older fans. But at least half the audience looked to be between 26 and 33. Dress was more casual than at a Tom Jones concert, say, hair a little scruffier. The crowd had a likeable spontaneity, confident of its good time, with a sort of Knick-game straight-to-hip heterogeneity divided equally between the sexes.

Friday night, the opening act, a black female trio called the Sweet Inspirations, were received with well-earned enthusiasm, but the comedian who followed was booed off the stage, almost as if all that remembered adolescent hostility needed one small, symbolic outlet.

Souvenirs were huckstered at intermission, and the crowd was reminded not to stand or move on the stage. Then the lights dimmed, and the orchestra played a few familiar bars from 2001. The Garden erupted as Elvis appeared in an outrageous powder-blue outfit, his hair straight and dyed black, the black hair on his chest bristling through his open shirt. The hall was illuminated with flashbulbs, popping stroboscopically as Presley socked right into "That's All Right, Mama," by Arthur Crudup, the Mississippi blues singer who is his biggest influence.

Next came a survey of post-Elvis mainstream hits--rockers from Creedence and Three Dog and Tony Joe White, ballads from Buffy Saint-Marie and Dusty Springfield and the Righteous Brothers, every one a great song. Elvis gyrated and got some shrieks, but more striking than the excitement he inspired, was the effortless control he exercised. That whole mass of people was moved as one in an emotion like that at a political rally or sports tribute, except that it was based on sexuality, and subsumed it--somewhere between solidarity and love based in implicit self-recognition. A long, affectionate medley of his old hits defined his and our relationship to the past. He didn't camp them up, but he understood his distance from that energy, so he sang "All Shook Up" with very little motion, and introduced "Hound Dog" as his "protest song for the show." Which of course is exactly what it always was.

Then a series of climaxes. "Bridge Over Troubled Water" was followed by a long, rocking version of "Suspicious Minds." There was a false moment as Elvis spoofed one line--as if once again he didn't trust his own excitement, a mistake, for now the excitement was genuine. Then Kris Kristofferson's "For the Good Times," which like "Suspicious Minds," is an adult break-up song, touched with the kind of detail that tells you the writer has felt the exhilaration of young love and known it to fail.

The next two ballads were like that, too, and since the optimism of teenaged love was a large part of what our rock and roll was about, it was suddenly as if Elvis was trying to tell us something about ourselves and why he was no longer a rebel, and why no one was rushing the stage. That optimistic energy had ultimately wearied all of us, even Elvis in his mansion. We were older. And yet we remembered, and we endured, and we were together one more time. There was hope. Just to say good night, Elvis sang "I Can't Help Falling in Love With You."

He was singing for all of us.

N'day, June 12, 1972

Postscript Notes:

This piece was later revised and incorporated into Any Old Way You Like It as Elvis Presley: Aging Rock.