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.