Thursday, August 28, 2014

Still the King

Singer Elvis Presley performing in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1977, three months before
Originally published in The Weekend Australian, August 16-17, 2014 

Today is the 37th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death. He was only 42 when he died, so pretty soon he will have been dead for longer than he was alive. Already he has receded so far from living memory that it’s become hard to talk sense about him. That doesn’t mean, of course, that people have stopped talking about him altogether. Quite the reverse. The fog of chatter that envelops him keeps getting thicker. The man can hardly be discerned through the haze of impersonations, pop allusions, Warhol prints, “sightings”, mash-ups, remixes. 

Do we need to talk about him more? Yes, provided we can find a way of slicing through all that image-related static and reminding ourselves that there was a real human being behind it. We have become strangely callous on the subject of Elvis. For a man who brought a lot of people a lot of pleasure, and whose worst sins were committed against his own body, he certainly cops a lot of posthumous stick. We joke cynically about fat Elvis, Vegas Elvis, dead-on-the-can-with-a-cheeseburger Elvis. What other man in history has taken so much flak for letting himself go? 

Perhaps we cling to the clichés to shield ourselves from the magnitude of his tragedy. Here was a perfectly healthy man who reduced himself to a bed-wetting zombie, and finally a corpse, by taking pills he never needed to take. He started with uppers, thinking them a harmless way to stay energised and trim. When they played havoc with his sleep he started taking downers too. Finally he was on a complex cocktail that rendered him variously narcoleptic, insomniac, constipated and incontinent. Between doses he had to be roused from bed like a child and led to the toilet by a member of his entourage. He couldn’t be left alone while eating, lest he should doze off and choke to death in the middle of a mouthful. 

All this is sad enough before we factor in the man’s talent, which was seismic. If Elvis wasn’t the most charismatic performer in the history of popular music, who was? Of course he had his limitations, especially when we judge him from the wrong angle – retrospectively, according to standards of rock credibility that didn’t prevail when he was alive. He didn’t write his own stuff, for example. He wasted a lot of time making disposable movies: the critic Pauline Kael said his films “ranged from mediocre to putrid.” He conspicuously wasn’t his own boss. He let his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, make all his career decisions for him, and they invariably prioritised cash over quality. But put Elvis behind a mike, especially on stage, and he had powers that could blow all these quibbles off the table. 

Dylan Jones, editor of the British version of GQ magazine, has written a book about Elvis whose title Elvis Has Left the Building – provides fair warning about the nature of the author’s interests. Elvis is as absent from this book as he is present in it. What Jones mainly wants to talk about is Elvis’s posthumous resonance – which, you might think, has been talked about quite enough already. But as the reader of this book will rapidly discover, Jones has no aversion to saying things you can’t possibly not have heard before. “For many, Vegas Elvis was already Dead Elvis.” “In truth he was actually the first fake Elvis.” “The cult of Elvis is rather closer to a religion than anyone previously imagined.” Surely we don’t need to hear these platitudes one more time, unless Jones proposes to pursue or question them. For the most part he doesn’t. His book has a restless, endlessly digressive texture that repels second thoughts. He keeps using Elvis as a springboard to talk about other things. 

Admittedly Jones knows a lot of tenuously Elvis-related stuff. He knows that the lead singer of the Troggs renamed himself Reg Presley in Elvis’s honour. That is mildly interesting, but does it mean we need a two-paragraph transcript of the Troggs swearing at each other in a music studio? Probably not, but Jones provides one anyway. We are informed, moreover, that Paul McCartney was in the habit of referring to Reg Presley as Reg Trogg. By now the link back to Elvis verges on non-existent, although Jones would no doubt prefer us to think of it as playfully tangential. 

With Elvis, there is a genuine mystery to be probed. What exactly was the nature of his magnetism? What was the thing he had that nobody before or since has come close to having? Unfortunately Jones is more interested in Elvis’s image than in the talents that caused him to acquire an image in the first place. Only in his last and best chapter, where he provides an astute run-down of his fifty favourite Elvis recordings, does Jones make a sustained effort to transfer his attention from the sizzle to the steak. Until then he is mainly content to circle Elvis in an archly post-modern way – or an irritatingly surface-obsessed way, depending on your taste. A couple of times he departs from reality altogether, and indulges in bizarre prose-poem fantasies about things that never happened but can nonetheless be imagined. What if Elvis had lived long enough to embrace disco? What if he’d let his image turn all dark and edgy? That one goes on for nine pages. 

Jones’s central theme, which he frequently strays from, is the relationship between Elvis and punk. The month in which Elvis died, says Jones, was also “the month of punk’s apotheosis.” This nexus was not accidental. Punk rockers were in revolt against excess and pomp, and the later Elvis was nothing if not over the top. Jones, who grew up with punk, approves of both it and Elvis, and would like to believe the two things were not wholly antithetical. He reports that Joe Strummer of the Clash was once photographed wearing an Elvis T-shirt. More pertinently, he reminds us that the font on the cover of London Calling was a “deliberate homage” to the design of Elvis’s first LP. 

But Elvis can’t be reconciled with punk for long, especially once you start talking about that genre's more zealously horrible practitioners. “He came to represent everything we’re trying to react against,” said Johnny Rotten in 1977. “Elvis was dead before he died, and his gut was so big it cast a shadow over rock’n’roll in the last few years. Our music is what’s important now.” 

At moments like this we must choose sides, and Rotten makes the choice fairly easy. If we hesitate even slightly before making it, it can’t be because the Sex Pistols’ oeuvre makes us think twice about Elvis’s. It must be because punk’s rather yobbish value system, which puts “authenticity” ahead of things like showmanship and being able to sing well, remains to some extent in fashion. Jones, to his credit, doesn’t over-rate punk as strenuously as a lot of aging rock critics do. He pokes fun at its childish obsession with street cred. He points out that Strummer, the “son of a diplomat,” strategically roughened his posh accent until he sounded as if “he’d been brought up in the docks.” 

But when push comes to shove, Jones is more comfortable being sceptical about Elvis than about punk. Thus we are told that Elvis’s concerts, by 1977, had “become tragic-comic spectacles” at which the decrepit King did little more than “milk his crowd like a prize fighter.” The implication is that the fans who turned up to see the later Elvis were deluding themselves, while the youths who jammed into fetid English clubs in order to be spat on by louts who could barely play their instruments were on to something vital. This view is open to question, to say the least. But Jones doesn’t question it very far, because he can’t bring himself to be fully heretical about punk. 

“Fuckin’ good riddance to bad rubbish,” said Johnny Rotten, when invited to comment on Presley’s death. There is more in that than a rejection of Vegas-style excess. There is outright nihilism: the resentment of the pygmy for the giant. This spirit culminates in Sid Vicious’s sociopathic cover version of “My Way”, in which one hears the tones not merely of the cretin but of the vandal. Jones quotes the Pistols’ manager, Malcolm McLaren, as saying that punk succeeded because it “made ugliness beautiful.” But nothing can do that, because beauty is not merely a matter of style. All punk did was make repulsiveness fashionable, for a while. 

Elvis, on the other hand, had qualities that transcended fad and trend. For one thing he had charisma. It’s a hard quality to define, but roughly speaking it’s the opposite of the force that emanated from Sid Vicious. Nor is it irrelevant to observe that Elvis was a ludicrously good-looking man. The fact is plain, even to a straight male. Nothing could negate or conceal it, not even the ridiculous capes and flares and jumpsuits he chose to swathe himself in towards the end. Beauty isn’t fair or just, and you can see why the punks revolted against the very concept of it. But no amount of revisionist theorizing will ever make Johnny Rotten, let alone Sid Vicious, as acceptable to look at as the young Elvis. If ever there was an empty signifier in rock, it was Vicious: devoid of any quality except nastiness, he got famous only because vileness was temporarily in style. 

If Jones had pursued his promising theme to the hilt, he might have concluded that Elvis, whatever the punks managed to throw at him, had a nuke-sized weapon in his arsenal that rendered him untouchable, indeed immortal. He had talent, which really is a thing. You can’t watch Elvis in action and doubt that. And while Elvis had quite a lot of it, the Pistols had some but not much. If Jones had tried to compile a top-fifty list of their songs, how far would he have got? After two quite similar-sounding numbers he’d have been noisily scraping the bottom of the barrel – or the charred surface of the empty pan in which they made their flash. 

Elvis was an inordinately gifted man. You can either resent him for that or surrender to the tractor beam. Watch him perform: it’s almost impossible not to like him, even if you don’t consider yourself a fan. He got his whole personality into the way he sang a song. This knack faded as he got older and sicker and less committed, but it never entirely went away. In June 1977, in the middle of his generally lamentable final tour, the King sat down at his piano and delivered an uncanny do-or-die rendition of “Unchained Melody.” The performance was filmed, and can be watched on YouTube. It’s a hauntingly human piece of footage. Peter Guralnick, in Careless Love, the second and final volume of his compelling Elvis biography, calls it a moment of “grotesque transcendence.” Elvis is only two months shy of death; it might not be going too far to say he’s dying already. But he’s putting everything he's got left into the song. You can see it in his melting face. He’s going for the big notes, and he’s hitting them. He’s nailing it, one last time. And as he does, something surreal happens. His younger face triumphantly reappears, surging forward through his fat-mask like a special effect. 

A lot of things about Elvis have deservedly gone out of style now – the jewel-encrusted jumpsuits, the use of Thus Spake Zarathustra as walk-on music, the way he turned off the TV by shooting it with a pistol. No doubt we should thank punk for accelerating the evolutionary process by which the King's late excesses have come to strike us as ridiculous. But after we sweep those inessentials aside, something about Elvis endures. Not just something: the main thing. The lingering spirit of punk would like us to feel awkward about calling this thing by its proper name, but there are times when we mustn’t be afraid to use the word greatness.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Vodka, coke, Keith, candour

The cover of Keith Richards’s new book.
Originally published in The Weekend Australian, July 5-6, 2014 

The front cover of Keith Richards on Keith Richards features a photograph of the great man taken circa 1990. In one of his gnarled hands a burnt-down cigarette smoulders perilously close to the knuckles, its silver fumes mingling seamlessly with the mushroom cloud of his hairdo. On the middle finger of the same hand reposes the skull ring he started wearing in the 1970s as a memento mori – his lone concession so far to the concept of death. The middle finger of his other hand is raised directly at the camera. But the veteran eyes twinkle, as if to assure you that he flips you off out of love. 

Keith is not averse to playing up to his fried image, or down to it, so that his persona has become a parody of a parody. He shambles, he croaks, he looks like Wile E. Coyote after an accident with some gunpowder. But Keith is an unusual star in many respects, and one of them is that he gets more interesting when you listen to him, not less. He is at his most engaging on the page, where his words are not obliged to pass through his ravaged face. His startlingly lucid Life, published in 2010, has a fair claim to being the best rock autobiography ever written. Now we have an anthology of his press encounters from the past fifty years, shrewdly selected by Sean Egan. If the Life proved that celebrity memoirs don’t have to be trivial and self-serving after all, provided their author isn’t, this new book pulls off the same trick with an even dodgier genre, the star interview. One had thought the form was dead by definition. Like a voodoo priest Keith brings it jiving back up from the grave. 

He achieves this by employing a method so simple that you wonder why nobody has thought of it before. When asked a question, he replies by saying exactly what he thinks. In the age of spin, such honesty is beyond unusual. It verges on the insane. These days everybody is in the good-PR business – even pop stars, or perhaps especially them. Granted, Justin Bieber will deface the odd public monument: but the act will be carefully designed to edgify the brand, and there will be plenty of minders on hand to stop the locals from giving him a richly merited beating. In Keith we have the authentic article: a man who has a mind of his own, invariably speaks it, and genuinely doesn’t give a shit what you think about him. Here is Keith on the importance of family: “I love my kids most of the time, and I love my wife most of the time. Music I love all the time.” Keith on why he refused to play at Bob Geldof’s Live8 concert for debt relief: “Decreasing debts? It all seemed a bit nebulous to me … I mean, Bob’s a nice bloke and all that, but ultimately he’s the one who comes off best, isn’t he?” Keith on a solo album of Mick Jagger’s called Goddess in the Doorway: “When [the newspapers] asked me about it, I said, ‘Oh, you mean Dogshit in the Hallway?’ … I heard it, and I thought, ‘Yeah, it is dogshit.’” 

Keith is at his least corrigible on the subject of Mick. During the 1980s, there were long periods when it appeared, both to the world and to Keith, that Mick would sooner develop his solo career than play with the Rolling Stones. Those days are now safely in the past: the Stones have recorded several albums since, and their roadshow will be back in Australia this October. But Keith’s wounds will plainly never heal. “I’m still his mate,” he wrote in one of the most touching passages of his Life. “But he makes it very difficult to be his friend.” 

No doubt Mick would say roughly the same thing about Keith, if he was into speaking his mind in public. But he isn’t. As if to prove that, the current book includes a solitary, brief, and excruciatingly pointless interview with Mick hailing from 2002, when he and Keith sat down (separately, of course) to plug the band’s forthcoming world tour. “I don’t do sniping,” Mick replies, twice, when invited to comment on his feud with Keith. 

Which is a fair enough response, although quite boring to read. As Mick speaks, he and Keith have officially put the nasty stuff behind them. Miraculously, the band is back together. Only a madman would revive the old quarrels now. Enter Keith. When the same journalist asks him why he publicly put down Mick’s latest solo record, Keith immortally replies: “Where else could you put it?” Well, you could always not put it anywhere, if you really didn’t want to. You could keep your more controversial opinions to yourself, à la Mick. But Keith does not do softcore. He can’t not speak his mind. 

Thus when he is asked, during the same interview, if he would care to re-air his grievances about Mick’s recent acceptance of a knighthood, Keith finds that he would. “Typical of Mick to break rank,” he says. Besides, “it’s a bit of a paltry honour, innit? If Phil Collins is a knight, then you should hang out for the fuckin’ peerage, man. Get a Lordship. They give knighthoods for covering a few Supremes songs.” 

Mick’s approach to getting interviewed is the orthodox one, by our woeful current standards. He turns up on time, he switches on the verbal autopilot, he sells what he’s there to sell. Every star does it – every star except Keith, who lurches into the room with his vodka and orangeade, if not his cocaine, and treats every interview as a festive occasion, an orgy of candour. If he declines to behave himself, it isn’t just because he’s drunk or high, although he usually is. It’s because he refuses, on an existential level, to accept that he is in the PR business. All he wanted to be was a musician, not a politician or a celebrity or a role model or a spokesman for a generation. That other stuff came later – and was undesirable. “You don’t shoulder any responsibilities when you pick up a guitar or sing a song, because it’s not a position of responsibility,” he insists, radically. 

This had better be true, considering what Keith is known to have swallowed, snorted, and injected into his buttocks over the years. Not many people, mind you, would look at him and conclude that heroin is good for you. Nevertheless, one reflexively waits for Keith to clear his throat and utter the obligatory cautions against repeating his mistakes. This is what stars are for, right? But Keith is Keith, so one waits in vain. “It’s a totally peripheral thing to me, and my own problem,” he declares. Or, more pointedly: “If they hadn’t come smashing through my front door no-one would’ve known what example I was setting! They made it public, not me.” 

Among their many merits, the interviews in this book serve as a sort of running cultural history. They cover fifty years, during which a lot of things have changed. Some of them were changed by the Stones. Their career began in the era when bands wore suits and ties and had their concerts drowned out by screaming teenyboppers. Very soon the times got a lot funkier, partly because the Stones did. In 1967 Keith and Mick were sentenced to prison terms for minor drug offences. Even The Times, newspaper of the British establishment, thought this punishment over the top. So did the appeals court. If it hadn’t, Keith would have spent a year behind bars for letting people smoke cannabis in his home. Society was loosening up. For a while it loosened up to the point of anarchy. In 1969, the Stones played their notorious free concert at the Altamont Speedway in California, with the local chapter of the Hell’s Angels providing security in exchange for a tremendous amount of beer. Four babies were born at the show and four adults died at it, including a man who waved a pistol at an Angel and then got stabbed to death on camera. 

Things are far less heady now. Rock is no longer central to the culture. The last Stones song that everybody knows is “Start Me Up”, which came out in 1981. Arguably the band has recorded better songs since, but you could be forgiven for never having heard them on the radio, if indeed you still have one. Of the music magazines that still exist, none would now invite Keith to do a thirty-thousand word interview about the Zeitgeist, the way Rolling Stone did in the early 1970s. The nearer Keith’s interviews get to the present day, the more they tend to be pinned to the launch of some new product, or more likely a repackaged old one: an augmented Exile on Main Street, one more shameless compilation of greatest hits. 

Keith’s fight to keep rock uninfected by celebrity values was doomed from the start. But in his own corner he still fights it. He keeps things real, ironic, sceptical, English. He talks the kind of prose you can’t stop reading, because it has the irresistible tone of a thoughtful and funny man being as honest as he can be, memory permitting. On the guitar, he can sound like himself just by striking a few ragged chords. He has the same knack with language, which seems unfair. To find him entertaining, you don’t have to agree with everything he says. Indeed it would be a worry if you did. It would make you Keith, and there is only one of him. Long may he live. But he’s done that already, somehow. Even longer may he live, then.