Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Elvis: Icon or Iconoclast?

On what would have been Elvis' 78th birthday, Emma Bell explains why he remains both iconic and iconoclastic nearly four decades after his death 

Elvis, 1956
(image source: nodepression.com)


1. a picture, image, or other representation: a curled lip.

2. A representation of some sacred personage, as Christ or a saint or angel, painted usually on a wood surface and venerated itself as sacred. A king

3. Semiotics . a sign or representation that stands for its object by virtue of a resemblance or analogy to it. A stance.

What to make of Elvis Presley, 77 years after his birth, 49 after his first hit, 35 after his death? Should we make anything of this? After all, rock and roll as musical form is surely no longer a music that is fresh, vital and relevant. Maybe so. But its most famous ambassador is I would argue, still relevant and important in the widest cultural sense.

 Society has always looked up to the icon: whether that is a god, a monarch, a mystic, or finally, in the twentieth century, a singer. One might argue that the need for celebrity mirrors the need to find a prism through which we may define ourselves.

It didn’t start like that. Not with a post-modern musing.  It starts more like a Southern Gothic: boy born to dirt poor parents; his twin dies at birth and is buried in an unmarked grave. Father gets sent to jail for attempting to buy a pig with a forged cheque. Mother and son create an unbreakable bond which debilitates the boy when she dies aged only 46. Family moves to a big city “because there just had to be something better”. Boy hears an extraordinary combination of music and sounds, records some songs…

Let us pause there. Reason number one to still recognise the iconic status of Elvis Presley:

The post war Southern States had yet to enjoy their boom years when Elvis moved to Memphis Tennessee in 1948. The South was in particular still gripped by the ghastly tensions of segregation and poverty. Within this swelter of injustice and deprivation, Elvis walked, listened, and absorbed the sounds of the South. To the East, Nashville; the home of country. To the northeast, bluegrass music (much mocked as ‘hillbilly’); to the South, New Orleans and jazz. Gospel and spiritual music poured out of every church and travelling show. And all around Memphis, the boy walked and listened to the blues. It was almost fate that rock and rock should find its voice at this crossroads and find it in the shape of a cripplingly shy young man who walked into 706 Union Avenue one rainy Saturday afternoon to pay to make a record for his mother’s birthday.

In doing that, in 1954, Elvis Presley began a journey that would see him become the most famous man on the planet. Did he know that, at the age of 19?

Of course not.

And there were others ahead of him who must have looked like they’d run the game before this kid: There was Bill Haley (but he was old and rotund and had a silly spit curl). There was Carl Perkins, who had a big hit with his own song, Blue Suede Shoes (but he was out of action for a long time after a car wreck); Boyd Bennet and Lonnie Donnegan were feeling around the charts with rock and roll and skiffle, but nothing really worked until…

July 5th 1954.  Elvis, who has recorded some numbers with Sam Phillips, owner of Sun records, is disconsolate and aware that his first forays into music have been unsuccessful (“Go back to driving a truck, son,” one kindly musician offers. “You’ll never make it as a singer”) Sam puts him together with experienced musicians Bill Black on standup bass and Scotty Moore on guitar in the hope that a jam session will calm the boy’s nerves. Nothing gels. Just as everyone starts to pack up Elvis bangs his guitar in frustration and starts singing Arthur Crudup's 1946 blues hit "That's All Right".

There it is. That’s the moment popular music begins.

The cultural importance of Elvis was recognized almost immediately. As soon as the record was played on local Southern stations it became a hit and Elvis was off: recording at Sun some of the most invigorating and electrified performances a youth can make: Blue Moon of Kentucky, Blue Moon, Good Rockin' Tonight, Milkcow Blues Boogie, Baby Let's Play House, I Got a Woman, Trying to Get to You,  I'm Left, You're Right, She's Gone, My Baby Left Me, and Mystery Train amongst others. Mystery Train. It still sounds like a clarion call from another world. It really does. A high, wailing, ethereal rock and roll epiphany that reached out from the sweltering South of the 1950s directly to all those who dreamed of a different world: Scotty on his Gibson and the bass beat relentlessly evoking the Memphian railroads the boy was to travel; the train that would take us all with him… 19-year-old Roy Orbison saw Presley for the first time on one of these first tours and recollected: "His energy was incredible, his instinct was just amazing. ... I just didn't know what to make of it. There was just no reference point in the culture to compare it."

He let the genie of out the bottle: the music he synthesised came wailing out over the airwaves and liberated a culturally hungry young who heard it and felt, like Bob Dylan, ‘like (they) were bustin’ outta jail’.

So. That reason would be enough were it not also augmented by one important point. These songs were, by and large, black songs. In recording them, in singing them live on national television, in getting banned for lascivious movements, he was showing racist white America what it feared most: an interracial future. This was a world in which public toilets, swimming pools and schools were still fiercely segregated. Elvis on National Television singing about Long Tall Sally who ‘likes to ball’? White America froze in horror (for they guessed to what he alluded) and condemned a white boy as ‘trash’ for singing ‘nigger music’. A young Bruce Springsteen watched and thrilled to this explosion of energy and joy. Ministers denounced him from pulpits. Even seeing Elvis singing his beloved gospel music on the Ed Sullivan show in front of 52 million viewers (and name me another 21 year old pop star who would do that) didn’t allay the suspicions that he was the very embodiment of the moral breakdown of American youth.

Did Elvis guess, in 1956, that breaking down those barriers would be an incalculable legacy?

Probably not.

In 1956, Elvis was on a breakneck schedule of tours, TV appearances; interviews and creating a history that would in the end constrain and choke him. But how could he know that at this point? This point is great! There are girls and cars and money for the first time and a house for mom and dad, and motorcycles and amusement parks that would open all night just for him! This is Graceland, and a gold Cadillac and million selling records!

But. Graceland was his sanctuary and his prison. A gilded prince trapped in his golden tower; for when the collective imagination creates a mass fantasy about the magnetic force of the icon what happens to the person behind it? Elvis Presley found himself in the rigid grip of what Elvis Presley was supposed to be. How could anyone rise above being the most famous man in the world? And what do you do when you know you can’t? Did he feel disappointed? Did he hate himself for not being anonymous and free?

Roll forward to 1968. Reason number two to still recognise the iconic status of Elvis Presley:

Between 1956 and 1968 Elvis Presley completed his two years Army Service, (ironically endearing himself to Middle America), lost his adored mother, made over 30 films of diminishing worth, made hastily assembled albums of varying quality, got married and had a child. His output was not as woeful as some critics would claim: his two and a third octave range voice had matured and he made some terrific records during this time. Never mind that he was a peerless proponent of song: no-one else could (or has) sung gospel, rhythm and blues, pop, blues, rock, bluegrass, showtunes and spirituals quite so convincingly and with such range as Elvis Presley.

But this talent was overshadowed by a Hollywood career that no-one really cared about. (How different from the boy’s early aspirations when he shyly confessed to an interviewer that he would love to be in a movie and wouldn’t care if he didn’t sing in them…) He was still famous, but in a new era of guitar groups, singer songwriters and nude musicals, was considered rather a quaint relic of the 1950s.

Elvis, 1968 Christmas Special
(source: dalvaeelvis.blogspot.com)
The Colonel decided a TV Christmas special would be just the ticket. Steve Binder, an up and coming director was engaged, with strict instructions that Elvis was to sing Christmas songs around a fire, with choirs of sweet children and Christmas trees and baubles and sweaters with reindeer on them. Very Perry Como.

However Steve Binder was having none of that. He recognised what others had by this time forgotten. Elvis’s iconic stature in American culture needed to be invigorated and re-presented to the people, to recognise that Elvis was still vital, energetic, humorous, hair-raisingly handsome and absolutely the best singer of popular song in the world.

Witness the start of the TV show:  Elvis, collar of black jacket only just visible, stares directly into the camera which is focused entirely on his face and growls “if you’re lookin’ for trouble, you came to the right place…” Absolutely in control of the material, he sings and swaggers and grinds and howls through ‘Guitar Man’ as the camera moves out to an image of dozens of ‘Elvises’ with guitars dancing behind him on rostra before ending the number, on his own, standing in front of giant red electric lettering spelling out his name. ELVIS. One word. No more is needed.

It was a triumph. He parlayed and distilled his extraordinary musical influences into this show: singing ‘unplugged’ with his original band; singing production numbers with go-go dancers, creating a gospel segment that recalled the revivalist fairground shows of his youth, acknowledging the passing of the years and staring at the camera as if to say “Yeah, and did you think I didn’t matter anymore?” Only Elvis could have the audacity to prowl around a stage in black leather, transfixing an audience with a sleek sexual danger that had only recently seemed so castrated by Hollywood. It was almost as if he knew this was his last chance to re-establish his star. 

He closed with a specially written number. (The Colonel was still holding out for a carol.) Martin Luther King had died in Memphis in April of that year. Bobby Kennedy had died in June. There were race riots and Vietnam and unrest. Elvis, avowedly apolitical, decided to close with ‘If I Can Dream’, a paean to brotherly love and peace. Unabashedly emotional but not sentimental, the song drew a powerhouse performance from Elvis who showed beyond measure of a doubt that the skinny shy kid with a high wailing voice had matured, grown and become a man.

And so, as in ’56, Elvis was back in the game, proving Fitzgerald wrong in his assertion that there are no second acts in American lives. High profile engagements in Vegas and nationwide tours followed (not via railroads and Cadillacs, but this time in his own jet, the Lisa Marie: owned not rented…)

And yet. This was the beginning of his end.  This was the point when the myth took its final shape. The icon in a white jumpsuit, studded with rhinestones, with a cape spread behind him. A supernatural force. A god. The rings and the medallions. The huge sunglasses which hid increasingly bloodshot and puffy eyes. The increasingly lurid tales of girls and cars and motorcycles and amusement parks that would open all night just for him and Graceland and more million selling records. But he was alone. He didn’t even have a band to share the crazy stuff with, just a bunch of friends who couldn’t possibly know what it meant to be Elvis Presley, even if they did hang with him 24/7.  And so there was more medication and more food and more medication and more food to cope with the relentless touring schedule and Vegas schedule and a marriage dissolved and a child he barely saw…

For, despite his huge earning power, Elvis did not have the private economic or professional power to break free. His manager, a fairground hustler ‘Colonel’ Tom Parker, was for years venerated as the manager’s manager. Only recently has it really been recognised how he strangled Elvis’s musical potential: taking a 50% cut, keeping him on the road for 300 days out of 356 (in order to earn the money for the Colonel to pay his own gambling debts); only accepting concert tours in the USA because he was in fact an illegal immigrant from Holland and if he left America it was probable he would be refused re-entry; refusing interesting and challenging movie roles for Elvis because the money wasn’t enough…

Did Elvis guess that this was the beginning of his end?


Roll forward to 1977. Reason number three to still recognise the iconic status of Elvis Presley:

Elvis, 1977
(image source: knoville.com)
In June of that year, Elvis was preparing for what would be his last tour. He was tired. He was overweight. He was a recluse, trapped in his superstar status. His voice, worn out from years of touring in increasingly poor venues was losing its purity and power. He would have minded a lot about that. Years of minor ailments had been treated with ever stronger medication which exacerbated those ailments and now had him locked in a dreadful cycle of addition. Pills to sleep, pills to wake up, pills to use the bathroom, pills for his glaucoma, pills for his head….

Did he sit in his gilded cage at this moment and imagine the joyous young boy he had been? Did he ever hear My Baby Left Me and ache to sing again with that verve and excitement? Did he long to convey that mystery and feel that hopeful about his future again?

He probably did.

A recently auctioned Bible belonging to Elvis, given to him by his aunt on his twenty-first birthday bears an inscription in the back in Elvis’s own hand:  "To judge a man by his weakest link or deed is like judging the power of the ocean by one wave".

Yes, he probably did.

His finale had more than a touch of the Southern Gothic about it, in the end. This ‘elegant young roughneck’ who began life in a two roomed shack, born in the darkest moments of The Great Depression, and by virtue of a talent and irresistible charisma which still defies real understanding, transformed his life and became the most famous man on the planet, only to die alone in a big house aged 42.

Elvis contained more of America, was America, with all of its contradictions and paradoxes. As Greil Marcus writes: “(we understand) Elvis not as a human being but as a force, as a kind of necessity: that is, the necessity existing in every culture that leads it to produce a perfect, all-inclusive metaphor for itself. This is what Elvis Presley turned out to be. Or, rather, turned himself into. Or, maybe, agreed to become. This would, of necessity, be a Faustian bargain.' What a sad Faustian bargain it turned out to be.

But. Zelda Fitzgerald wrote of a more hopeful public role: “Oh, the secret life of man and woman—dreaming how much better we would be than we are if we were somebody else or even ourselves…”  We felt that when we saw Elvis: we became better, dreamed further and longed for more…. He drove us forward with that irresistible smile, charm and talent to dream ourselves as a mirror of him. And it is in the end, only his voice that counts. That instantly recognisable iconic Southern drawl made into music and beauty which would forever “proclaim the dawning of a new day”.

(An abridged version of this article was originally published in Portsmouth Point magazine).

1 comment:

  1. This is a very fine piece of writing - not least because you take unusual care with the idea of icon, a much over-used word. I'd comment on just two things. Firstly it was exactly 56 years ago this week that Lonnie Donegan entered the British charts, covering Leadbelly's "Rock Island Line" and it was a long way from "not" really working. We'd had British 'blues' before via George Melly and Ottillie Patterson but the skiffle craze was briefly huge and started all kinds of future stars on their course including the Beatles, Jimmy Page and at Portsmouth Grammar School Paul Pond (later Jones of Manfred Mann). Secondly popular music certainly changed dramatically with the advent of Elvis (and electric guitars, 45s, LPs etc) but it didn't start there. There were many commercially popular artists for decades before that and in the broader sense of popular (people) we're off on a history trip. But as I said, very good stuff. Dave Allen.


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