Why the world still loves the King

Four decades after his death, what are we to make of the leg­end that was Elvis Presley?

Sunday Herald - - NEWS - By Barry Did­cock

FIFTY Mil­lion Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong was the over-thetop ti­tle of Elvis Presley’s 1959 great­est hits al­bum, whose cover fea­tured 16 im­ages of the singer dressed in a gold lame suit made by tai­lor to the stars Nudie Cohn. It wasn’t even the hip-swiv­el­ling chart star’s first foray into great­est-hits ter­ri­tory – see the pre­vi­ous year’s Elvis’s Golden Records. But in its de­fence, Presley had re­put­edly sold at least that many sin­gles by then, so per­haps we can for­give the al­bum ti­tle its note of bom­bast.

To­day, how­ever, could 50,000,000 Elvis fans even be found, far less judged to be right or wrong? And if not to­day, then how about on Wed­nes­day, which marks the 40th an­niver­sary of the singer’s death?

Elvis Presley breathed his last on Au­gust 16, 1977 in Grace­land, the pala­tial Mem­phis man­sion he had bought in 1957. He died young in real terms but was old for a rock star whose ex­ecu­tors found them­selves with an icon to sex up and a rep­u­ta­tion to bur­nish.

Nor was his end one of those seed­ily glam­orous deaths that had taken Jimi Hen­drix, Jim Mor­ri­son, Ja­nis Jo­plin and Brian Jones to early graves.

They all died aged 27, giv­ing rise to the so-called 27 Club (later mem­bers would in­clude Kurt Cobain and Amy Wine­house). Presley was 42 when he was found slumped in his toi­let, and the of­fi­cial cause of death was given as heart fail­ure though it was cer­tainly ex­ac­er­bated by years of abuse of pre­scrip­tion drugs and medicines.

“Live fast, die young, leave a beautiful corpse” runs the fa­mous line at­trib­uted (wrongly) to James Dean. Presley only man­aged the first of the three.

So the an­swer to the ques­tion posed above is yes – and also no. Cer­tainly, the thou­sands who will flock to Mem­phis to take part in the an­nual Elvis Week’s pro­gramme of events (high­lights in­clude the Ul­ti­mate Elvis Trib­ute Artist Con­test And Show­case) will view them­selves as mem­bers of a mil­lions-strong fam­ily of fans. So, too, will those who think tun­ing into a live stream of Elvis Week’s all-night can­dlelit vigil is a worth­while way to spend 12 hours. And so will the pil­grims who will pay to stay at The Guest House At Grace­land re­sort (it opened last year and fea­tures the largest ho­tel to be built in Mem­phis in nearly a cen­tury) or who will queue to en­ter Grace­land’s lat­est block­buster at­trac­tion, Elvis Presley’s Mem­phis.

French fan Joci­lyne Bel­lanttr, in­ter­viewed by an Amer­i­can news crew at the open­ing of the new $45 mil­lion, 40-acre vis­i­tor cen­tre, prob­a­bly speaks for many of those who treat a trip to Mem­phis as some­thing akin to a pil­grim­age. “When Elvis died, I said, ‘Well my life is over, my fan club will close and I will be lost’. But after all these years I’m still here, my fan club is still big and it’s a mir­a­cle. So to me, I’m liv­ing a mir­a­cle ev­ery day with Elvis.”

Bel­lanttr’s French Elvis fan club is one of around 400 still in op­er­a­tion around the world, ac­cord­ing to The Elvis Presley Fan Club Of Great Bri­tain, which was founded in 1957 and bills it­self as “the world’s most re­spected” Elvis fan club.

It has around 10,000 mem­bers it­self and some 300 are trav­el­ling to Mem­phis for the events mark­ing the 40th an­niver­sary of Presley’s death. Mul­ti­ply that by ev­ery other Elvis fan club worth its leather jump­suits and, while it prob­a­bly doesn’t come to 50,000,000, you can ap­pre­ci­ate how busy Mem­phis In­ter­na­tional Air­port will be this week.

Any­one who ex­pe­ri­enced the vis­ceral thrill of Elvis at his most po­tent – the mid-1950s – would now be in their late sev­en­ties or eight­ies. So it’s safe to as­sume that these Elvis fans are more re­cent con­verts, drawn not so much to the idea of Elvis the man as to the idea of Elvis the leg­end or even Elvis the dead show­biz icon.

What draws them to events like Elvis Week, what gives Grace­land its ti­tle as the most-vis­ited pri­vate res­i­dence in the world, what makes oth­er­wise sane folk fork out $20,000 for five nights in the light-filled Bev­erly Hills pad Elvis lived in be­tween 1967 and 1973, is the lure of a very par­tic­u­lar type of Amer­i­can celebrity – one built on graft and tal­ent, but tinged with some­thing darker and more tawdry.

More than that, these Elvis fans may be drawn to some­thing they can­not quite ex­plain. In his 1991 book Dead Elvis: A Chron­i­cle Of A Cul­tural Ob­ses­sion, hawk-eyed critic Greil Mar­cus dips into what he terms Elvis’s post­hu­mous “se­cond life”: “a great, com­mon con­ver­sa­tion, some­times a con­ver­sa­tion be­tween specters [sic] and fans, made out of songs, art­works, books, movies, dreams; some­times more than any­thing cul­tural noise, the glos­so­lalia of money, ad­ver­tise­ments, tabloid head­lines, bestsellers, ur­ban leg­ends, night­club japes”. In other words, an Elvis con­structed from a tis­sue of sup­po­si­tion, wish­ful think­ing, ru­mour, con­spir­acy the­ory – is he re­ally dead? – and nos­tal­gia.

One thing we can say with cer­tainty is that even 40 years after his death, Elvis is a se­ri­ous money-spin­ner. Elvis Presley En­ter­prises (EPE), founded in 1979 to man­age Presley’s es­tate, con­trols Grace­land and its as­so­ci­ated as­sets, of which Elvis Presley’s Mem­phis is just the lat­est. EPE also con­trols all Elvis-re­lated prod­ucts, films, TV shows, plays and mu­si­cal ven­tures. It is ma­jor­ity-owned by Au­then­tic Brands Group (ABG), a New York-based brand de­vel­op­ment and li­cens­ing com­pany.

“We are brand own­ers. Cu­ra­tors. Guardians,” runs the spiel on the ABG web­site. “We build brand value.” Other icon-re­lated “brands” in ABG’s con­sid­er­able port­fo­lio in­clude Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe, Muham­mad Ali and Michael Jack­son. In that sense, the King is in pretty good com­pany – or Mon­roe, Ali and Jack­son are, de­pend­ing on how you look at it.

What peo­ple of­ten for­get, though, is the mu­sic. But the last few years haven’t been short of weighty box sets to buff the legacy and Elvis com­pletists still snap them up. In 2010, for ex­am­ple, The Com­plete Elvis Presley Masters was re­leased, a 30-CD set con­tain­ing all 711 of­fi­cial record­ings Presley made. In 2016, a 60-CD box set ti­tled Elvis Presley: The Al­bum Col­lec­tion was re­leased con­tain­ing all the ma­te­rial the singer re­leased on the RCA la­bel be­tween 1956 and 1977.

Last month came a more man­age­able three-CD set called Elvis Presley: A Boy From Tu­pelo – The Com­plete 1953-1955 Record­ings. As well as a con­tain­ing al­ter­nate takes, out-takes, live record­ings and early in­ter­views, it fea­tures a 120page book and (get this) a week-by-week chronol­ogy of Presley’s move­ments and ac­tiv­i­ties in the pe­riod con­cerned. “Mu­si­cal bedrock” was the phrase used by Rolling Stone mag­a­zine in a glow­ing five-star re­view.

The man be­hind this last re­lease is Dan­ish Elvis en­thu­si­ast and ar­chiv­ist Ernst Mikael Jor­gensen. To his mind, you can­not over-stress the im­por­tance of Elvis Presley and he thinks that by re­duc­ing Presley’s ca­reer al­most to the length of a tweet – he was in the right place at the right time, made great records in the 1950s, some ter­ri­ble films in the 1960s and then died in the 1970s from pop­ping pills and gorg­ing on burg­ers – “you skip most of what’s re­ally in­ter­est­ing along the way”.

“I’m con­vinced that his­tory needs to be told and re­told and re­told again,” he said in a re­cent Los An­ge­les Times in­ter­view. “If noth­ing else should come through, it’s that we don’t need to go back to [the idea that] Elvis got lucky. He didn’t just get lucky. Chuck Berry didn’t just get lucky. Lit­tle Richard didn’t just get lucky. They ad­justed to a new form of mu­sic that wasn’t like any other form of mu­sic. They did some­thing orig­i­nal, some­thing that af­fected ev­ery­thing that came later.”

It is 63 years since Presley’s first sin­gle That’s All Right, a cover of a 1946 song by African-Amer­i­can blues artist Arthur Big Boy Crudup. “When you lis­ten to that track now, you have to be re­minded of how im­por­tant, how ground­break­ing it was,” said Jor­gensen’s col­lab­o­ra­tor on the A Boy From Tu­pelo pro­ject, RCA’s John Jack­son, in that same Los An­ge­les Times in­ter­view. “There was a lot of stuff re­leased right around that time that sounds very sim­i­lar, but to have that song, in that time, sung by that in­di­vid­ual in that stu­dio was one of the most im­por­tant events of the 20th cen­tury. It set the stage for ev­ery­thing that fol­lowed.”

That’s true. No-one de­nies the ef­fect Presley had on the mu­si­cal land­scape of the mid-20th cen­tury. But since his death, and de­spite the con­tin­ual flow of box sets repack­ag­ing his work, much of his mu­si­cal legacy has ei­ther been ob­scured by the achieve­ments of those who came after him or sim­ply for­got­ten about. Elvis may still be The King, but it’s not clear what he is king of or what his rel­e­vance is to many peo­ple un­der the age of 40.

Even 13 years after his death that was al­ready starting to be­come the case. In a 1990 study of eight- and nine-year-olds con­ducted in a mostly white pri­mary school in Ten­nessee and cited by Greil Mar­cus, English pro­fes­sor Charles Wolfe asked the ques­tion: do you know who Elvis Presley was? The an­swers are il­lu­mi­nat­ing. “He was an old guy who was a king some­where,” said one. “He lives in a big house in Mem­phis and he only comes out at night,” said an­other. “He was this guy who sang with his broth­ers Theodore and Si­mon,” said a third, con­fus­ing Elvis with Alvin, lead singer of 1950s chil­dren’s nov­elty act The Chip­munks.

One prob­lem for Presley’s legacy as an artist is that he didn’t write his own songs. He was given co-writ­ing cred­its on a few of them, in­clud­ing Love Me Ten­der, though that was mostly at the be­hest of his grasp­ing man­ager, the in­fa­mous Colonel Parker. And he cer­tainly put his stamp on any song he recorded, even going so far as to tweak the ar­range­ments. But for mod­ern mu­sic fans in thrall to the cult of the singer­song­writer and des­per­ately seek­ing au­then­tic­ity in the cul­tural ma­te­rial they con­sume, it makes Presley a per­former rather than an orig­i­na­tor.

The fact that in his early ca­reer he of­ten cov­ered songs recorded orig­i­nally by black artists doesn’t help ei­ther. In the age of Spo­tify and iTunes, when vir­tu­ally ev­ery­thing is avail­able at the click of a mouse, why lis­ten to Presley’s ver­sions of That’s All Right, Hound Dog or Mys­tery Train when it’s so easy to find the ear­lier, earth­ier, root­sier – and blacker – ver­sions recorded by Arthur Crudup, Big Mama Thorn­ton and Ju­nior Parker re­spec­tively?

While we’re on the sub­ject of anniversaries, last Fri­day’s Google Doo­dle was an in­ter­ac­tive cel­e­bra­tion of the 44th an­niver­sary of the in­ven­tion of hip hop – ar­guably a mu­si­cal form which is more in­flu­en­tial and mean­ing­ful to­day than the rock mu­sic that Elvis Presley orig­i­nated. Ask a group of Amer­i­can eight- and nine-years olds to­day who Jay-Z is and they’d have no prob­lem telling you.

Like­wise, any young teenage rock fan in 2017 would recog­nise the cover of The Clash’s ground­break­ing 1979 al­bum Lon­don Call­ing, with its fa­mous pic­ture of bassist Paul Si­monon smash­ing his in­stru­ment. But how many would know that the de­sign was a de­lib­er­ate homage

to Elvis Presley’s equally ground­break­ing 1956 de­but al­bum?

So back to the open­ing ques­tion: how many Elvis fans are there re­ally and which Elvis is it they re­late to?

The Elvis that got fat and lost his way, a be­fud­dled, right-wing, anti-Black Pan­thers gun nut who gen­uinely thought Richard Nixon would/could make him an un­der­cover agent for the Bureau of Nar­cotics and Dan­ger­ous Drugs? The Elvis that Andy Warhol turned into a rock and roll cow­boy and po­tent sym­bol of Amer­i­can re­bel­lion when he used a still from his 1960 west­ern Flam­ing Star to make a series of Elvis screen­prints, one of which – 1963’s Eight Elvises – mim­ics that 1959 al­bum in its repli­ca­tion of the singer’s im­age? The Elvis that crooned and hollered on those won­der­ful early records while Scotty Moore threw out his inim­itable gui­tar licks? The Elvis who played Ve­gas in a cos­tume that would be­come the go-to gar­ment for a gen­er­a­tion of mid­dleaged im­per­son­ators? Elvis as Christ? As Satan? As Bud­dha?

The only an­swers about Elvis’s ap­peal that Greil Mar­cus could come up with was that there was no an­swer, and that seems equally true in the 21st cen­tury. “There is a good deal in this book I can­not ex­plain,” he wrote in an in­tro­duc­tion to the 1999 pa­per­back edi­tion. “It’s easy enough to un­der­stand a dead but evanes­cent Elvis Presley as a cul­tural sym­bol, but what if he – it – is noth­ing so lim­ited, but a sort of cul­tural epis­te­mol­ogy, a skele­ton key to a lock we’ve yet to find?”

Elvis made his­tory, he states, but when he died “many peo­ple found them­selves caught up in the ad­ven­ture of re­mak­ing his his­tory, which is to say their own”.

Here’s a tempt­ing line to end on, then: The King is dead, long live The King. But from a 2017 view­point, things aren’t quite as sim­ple as that. For a start, the monarch in ques­tion is dead and not dead at the same time – and even if his “se­cond life” is as long as that hoary old procla­ma­tion wishes it might be, it will un­spool in a king­dom whose bound­aries are con­tin­u­ally be­ing eroded and re­drawn.

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