Elvis Presley: Aging Rock
I was never an Elvis Presley fan when I was a kid. In fact, I couldn't stand him. As it happened, I heard "Don't Be Cruel" three or four times before I learned Elvis was singing it, and once I had admitted to myself that I was hooked on that song, it was no real sacrifice to extend my reluctant enthusiasm to "All Shook Up." But I never understood the excitement over "Heartbreak Hotel"--I considered the Stan Freberg parody exceedingly witty--and refused to even listen to "Hound Dog" or "Love Me Tender." Can it be that I was the only American under age sixteen who wasn't shaken by that seismic pelvic power? Bob Dylan lived for Elvis, and I thought he was just another greaseball.
Of course, he really was a greaseball, which was why I didn't like him--he reminded me of every rock who ever threatened to beat me up. All of his musical contemporaries were faintly comic, and most of them were black. They had no real connection to me. I loved Jerry Lee Lewis's records, but I wasn't really shocked, much less inspired, when he married a cousin who was younger than I was--that was the kind of thing crazy people from Louisiana did--and I laughed and laughed the first time I saw Fats Domino on television, because he was wearing what looked like high-top basketball sneakers, dazzling white, with white crepe soles an inch thick. Elvis was different. Like a lot of straight and scared-shitless adolescent males, I must have been jealous of his effect on girls, and perhaps I gained some cachet in my own mind by dissenting from such blanket popularity. But it was simpler than that. He was real, almost like guys I knew, and he frightened me a little.
Much later, long after the Beatles, I began to think about Elvis again. By then I had been claiming Chuck Berry as a "true folk artist" for years--he was black, after all--and realized that half my friends had been rocks in high school just to frighten people who might benefit from a little fear, including not only adults but also straight adolescent males. But Elvis didn't move me. He had been immersed in Hollywood schlock for almost a decade, and even though Melody Maker still named him best male vocalist in the world every year, those few of his singles that become big hits were invariably monuments of schmaltz. True, he was still a star in middle America. His movies made money, and his albums sold surprisingly, and even his singles, which were never heard in New York, had a way of creeping up to fifty on the national charts. But there was reason to consider his career moribund at best.
Nevertheless, I came to understand. I had been such a rock and roll fan, yet I had missed Elvis, who personified everything that was best and worst about rock and roll. He was every white Southern boy who envied his black neighbor. He was every black leather jacket that turned into a poet and every set of sideburns that became a cop. He was inchoate rebellion serving two docile, short-haired years in the Army and swivel-hip sexuality mouthing stolid Calvinist hymns. He was the best of American folk culture--blues and country and gospel music--standing by like a good American while his genius was transmogrified into pink Cadillacs. So that you had to admit, eventually, that if that was where pink Cadillacs came from, then maybe pink Cadillacs weren't as bad as your professors taught you to believe.
Then, around the turn of 1968, there were indications that Elvis was not content to drift into million-dollar oblivion. Or perhaps, since his movies were starting to slip, he was worried that the dollar value of his apparent oblivion was about to plummet. In any case, he began to sidle back toward rock and roll. His singles--"Big Boss Man," "Hi-Heel Sneakers," "U.S. Male"--became much funkier. Late that year he taped a television special in a black leather suit, in front of a select live audience, opening with "Guitar Man" and closing with a mild social-conscience song, "If I Can Dream," that eventually reached top ten. On that show, too, he used a black chorus and talked respectfully, not to say pietistically, about the roots of his music. But it wasn't until Greil Marcus brought out the recording of that performance for me, almost three years later, that I realized how significant it had been. Marcus has spent as much time listening as anyone who is liable to be objective, and he believes Elvis may have made the best music of his life that crucial comeback night. It's so easy to forget that Elvis was, or is, or can be, a great singer. Any account of his impact that omits that fundamental fact amounts to a dismissal.
And yet he is still dismissed. No one comes out and calls him a low-life no-talent anymore, but it is customary to identify him as a creature of Colonel Parker, the renowned genius-manager. Amateur sociologists theorize that if Presley hadn't come along, someone else would have filled the same cultural need. Rock and roll historians like Charlie Gillett believe that his best music was behind him by the time he left Sun Records in Memphis, owned by good-guy blues lover Sam Phillips, for the greedy producers at RCA Victor in 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 fecklessly abandoned his own vital rebelliousness when he submitted to the draft in 1958. Others feel he lost his calling when he stopped touring in 1961. And now it is said that he is just another Tom Jones.
None of these analyses is entirely untrue--there is a great deal of the pink Cadillac about Elvis. The problem with pink Cadillacs, apparently, is that they make it impossible to see who's driving them. They inspire uneasiness, which protects itself by turning into condescension. For the fact is that Elvis is not just a freak of nature or the media. He is both a smart man and a genius; he knows what he is doing. The Colonel's astuteness is unquestionable, and his efforts have certainly nourished the Elvis legend, but his musical influence has always been negligible, and in recent years Elvis seems to have taken over as an image strategist as well, leaving his manager to tend to business. Whether or not the image is true--and I suspect it is--its content is clear enough: Elvis is both a headstrong rocker and a corn-pone sentimentalist. His taste for schmaltz predated his career--the first song his ever recorded was the Ink Spots' "My Happiness," a gift for his mother, whom he adored--and he always wanted to go to Hollywood.
As a white man who sang black music credibly, Presley was a historical necessity, but his individual musical identity overshadowed that necessity and perhaps even created it. At the early Sun sessions, on the many good songs he cut for RCA, for much of that television show in 1968, creating a classic hit single in 1972, Presley exhibits unique talents--his feel for phrasing as well as drive, his ferocity and tenderness, the provocative carelessness of his timbre--that are essential to a magnetism that Charlie Rich or Conway Twitty or Carl Perkins could never have generated. What's more, he apparently more or less produced his RCA output himself, not only selecting musicians and material but working out head arrangements in the studio. If the Beatles are responsible for Rubber Soul and Sgt. Pepper, then Elvis Presley is the auteur of "It's Now or Never," his second post-Army single, based on "O Sole Mio" and reportedly the biggest-selling record of his career.
I understood perhaps half of this when the rumors about a real live performance, the first in eight years, began to circulate in the first half of 1969. Everyone expected the usual series of arena gigs, so when it was announced that the great experiment would commence instead in the Showroom Internationale of the Las Vegas International Hotel, there was much disappointment. I got a letter from an apparent nonmillionaire from Long Island who flew out to Vegas just to see Elvis, but none of the professional rock fans in the East felt quite that dutiful. We had all been moderately knocked out by Chuck Berry and Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis in the wellspring of the rock and roll revival, and we anticipated something of similar value--solid, professional rock and roll. Obviously, we were still untouched by that greaseball.
But Elvis Presley has been supporting RCA Victor since 1956, and he is invariably surrounded by corporate magic. In this case the owner of the Las Vegas International Hotel invited RCA to fly a press party out for the opening. We could stay as long as we liked, on the house. Like most of those invited, I had never been to Las Vegas. Elvis was a major inducement, but only as part of the package.
As it turned out, the Las Vegas International--one of America's great opulence hotels, where everything looks fantastic and nothing quite works--was perfect for Elvis. The Showroom Internationale, an absurdly ostentatious two-thousand-seat nightclub, made its counterpart at Caesar's Palace look like a roadhouse with pretensions. Half the audience at the opening seemed destined to die of gout. As I tasted my Fonds d'Artichauts Farcis Walewska and marveled at the menu heading--"Bon Apetit," it said--I went into a small down. After the gold curtain rose and the Sweet Inspirations, back by an actual-count twenty-two-piece orchestra, proceeded to run through "How High the Moon," "Alfie," and "The Impossible Dream," the down became a depression, and after thirty minutes of leftover Don Rickles from a comedian named Sammy Shore I had pretty much tuned out. Elvis's male back-up vocal group, the Imperials, came onstage, and so did a small rock band. I braced myself for another warm-up--"D-I-V-O-R-C-E," "Danny Boy," and "Do You Know the Way to San Jose?" Suddenly, a lithe figure in a modified black karate costume dashed onto the stage and ripped into "Blue Suede Shoes." Guess who.
It was pentecostal. We were cheering before we had fully comprehended what had happened, and by the time it was over, one critic was standing on her chair and the publicity assistant from RCA was shrieking in a most unflacklike manner. Every sclerotic scene-maker in the room evinced a comparable nutsiness. Elvis was fantastic. His clothes were stylish but not showy. His sideburns swept forward, and his hair was just long enough. His baby-fat jowls had disappeared. And his material was perfect, ranging from "That's All Right, Mama" to "Yesterday" but concentrating on the rock and roll. Most of the time, the orchestra was silent--one guy in the back tapped time on his cello throughout the performance--and Elvis's own band carried the music. Most important, Elvis proved that he was not just a greaseball--he showed a precise, humorous sense of himself. He had lived long enough with the rocking and sentimental sides of his persona to understand that there was a sense in which each negated the other. Every time he wiggled his hips or lowered his eyelids, women screamed, but he knew they were screaming as much for a memory as for a presence, and we knew he knew. Like the Beatles, he was comfortable with his own eminence. It was part of his act.
I didn't see Elvis again for almost three years, and by that time I was ready to be taken by surprise all over again. His comeback secure, Elvis was turning complacent all over again. The hits came more frequently, but they still tended to be maudlin--he hadn't released any satisfying records since "Suspicious Minds" and Memphis to Vegas, the single and album following that first Vegas shot. Every big-city concert sold out, of course, but it was said that he was beginning to look puffy around the jowls again, and that his act was going soft at the edges as well.
Still, there were a record four consecutive weekend shows scheduled for Madison Square Garden in June, 1972, the first time he'd ever appeared live in New York, and I wouldn't have considered missing him. Accompanying me were two friends, both of whom had been thinking mostly about Weatherman politics when I'd first seen Elvis in Vegas in 1969, and yet the three of us fit into the crowd. It included teen-aged girls who'd caught the bug somewhere and teen-aged boys who were into fifties rock and roll as if it were folk music and the usual complement of the middle-aged fans Elvis has always attracted. But at least half the audience looked to be between twenty-five and thirty-three. Well, you might say, Tom Jones gets the same kind of crowd, but it was different. Dress was more casual, hair a little scruffier; the fans showed a likable straight-to-hip heterogeneity, like the fans at a Knick game except that they were mostly in male-female couples. The weekend audience of eighty thousand included a sort of subcrowd of perhaps fifty thousand people who had graduated from high school sometime before the Beatles arrived and hadn't seen much of each other since. Elvis had provided the occasion for the vastest high-school reunion in history.
The Sweet Inspirations were received with well-earned enthusiasm, but the night I was there the comedian was almost 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 rush the stage. Then the lights dimmed, and the orchestra played a few bars from 2001.
The hall was illuminated with an explosion of flashbulbs as Elvis appeared in an outrageous powder-blue outfit, his hair bristling and dyed black, the dark hair on his chest bristling through his open shirt. First came "That's All Right, Mama," then a survey of mainstream rock, uptempo hits from Creedence and Three Dog Night and Tony Joe White, ballads from Buffy Sainte-Marie and Dusty Springfield and the Righteous Brothers, every one a great song. Elvis gyrated and got some shrieks, but more amazing than the excitement he inspired was the effortless control he exerted. That whole mass of people, including me, really moved as one. The emotion was like that at a political rally or sports tribute, except that its source was explicitly rather than covertly sexual. And like all outpourings of fellow-feeling, it subsumed sexuality, achieving some combination of solidarity, love, and communal self-recognition.
Having established the audience's identity, Presley then set about defining its relationship to the past where that identity was forged. He didn't camp up the medley of old hits, but he did dramatize our distance from our own youthful energy, singing "All Shook Up" with very little motion and introducing "Hound Dog" as his "protest song for the show," which of course is what it always was. And then he brought us back to the present with "Bridge Over Troubled Water." The song has been mushed over so many times that it's hard to hear anymore, but whatever its failings it is epochal and precedent-setting, because it is a love song about friendship--that is, about bonds between people that have very little to do with pop romance, just like two more recent standards, "You've Got a Friend" and "Lean on Me."
And then there was a long climax, starting with a rocking version of "Suspicious Minds." There was a false moment when Elvis spoofed one line--as if once again he didn't trust his own energy and excitement, a mistake, for by then the excitement was not only genuine but virtually unstoppable. Then Kris Kristofferson's "For the Good Times," which like "Suspicious Minds" is an adult breakup 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 teen-aged 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--why no one was rushing the stage. Even as that optimistic energy gained us some of what we wanted, it had wearied us all, including Elvis in his mansion. We were older. And yet we remembered, and we endured, and we were together one more time. When Elvis said good night with "Can't Help Falling in Love," it felt like he was singing for all of us.
When the recording of this monumental music appeared, however, it was as mediocre as most of Elvis's LP's. This doesn't mean that my rapture at the Garden was unreal, but only that Elvis didn't do it alone--he was working in concert with all of my brothers and sisters in the audience. Of course, under most circumstances those people wouldn't have felt like my brothers and sisters at all. Some of them had probably threatened to beat me up in high school, and I would certainly never attend a reunion with them. So Elvis's genius in Las Vegas was really no different from his genius at the Garden--he enticed me into communion with people whose values were very unlike my own.
The theory of generational solidarity, once essential to almost everyone's rock rhetoric (including my own) has proved somewhat chimerical. Roughly speaking, it is a class-based delusion that occurred when educated people with access to media simultaneously formulated parallel observations about their acquaintances. If Elvis makes this clearer--if you cancel out his excessive vanity and ambition, his values are a lot more middle-American young-adult than mine, or probably yours--he also makes the alternative a little easier to take. I myself would not choose to become an honorary narcotics agent, as Elvis has, but I've thought enough about Elvis's alleged sellout to conclude that he arrived at his values through a difficult and organic process of struggle and suffering. Every fifties rock who eventually decided to work and raise a family, however halfhearted that decision might have been, underwent a similar process. People do what they must to survive. Yet they do change; their rebellion does persist. Ours is the first generation in which all of urban mass society--not just the jazz fans and the Cole Porter buffs and the obsessively Calvinist country-western audience and the blues supporters--recognizes songs of adult heartbreak as the center of its music and deals with friendship as a basic human need. I'd like to think we could go a lot further than that, but I'm happy enough to say "we," and I'm willing to believe that we may make part of the trip in some equivalent of a pink Cadillac.
Village Voice, Aug. 1969