Thursday, January 8, 2015

Happy 80th, Elvis

It's not every day I write about Elvis Presley. There's been such an obscene amount of oversaturation. In their song, "Rock n' Roll Babylon," '80s band Love and Rockets began with the lyrics, "All those Elvis records circling the earth I think I've said four times over were you present at the birth?"

But Elvis, if he were alive, would be 80-years-old - elderly - today and I think that's worth commenting about. In his prime, Elvis Presley was the picture of wild, unbound youthful energy. Teenage girls would lose their panties for the guy and boys still sporting acne on their faces wanted to be him.

Of course, Elvis's image and style evolved over his career. Then he died and after all the stupid idolatry, the public image went to hell. He was parodied, stereotyped, reduced to a joke with ridiculous rumors about how he was still alive and working at the Kwikie Mart. In 1989, tabloids were still printing new lurid revelations about his drug use and sex life - something that never would've happened when he was alive. It's hard to believe in our oversharing era, but Elvis fiercely guarded his privacy and if anyone in his entourage talked to the press, they were gone. After he was dead, they talked.

"The man's never gonna get a rest," I said.

But after all these years, I think the dust has settled. We're at a point where we can put aside the fanaticism, cliches and tabloidism and consider Elvis from an artistic perspective.

He was a perceptive, magnetic and original performer who knew instinctively how to communicate with an audience and command the stage. Like Sinatra, he didn't write his own songs, but he could take possession of a song, interpreting the piece as if it were something autobiographical, a personal drama.

I see Lennon and McCartney, Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan and Robert Plant as his heirs. Of course, they were also heirs to Chuck Berry, Little Richard and about every early rock n' roll and blues singer going back to Ma Rainey.

My mom had a big ol' stack of 45 records from her childhood. There was one I'd listen to ad nauseam - "All Shook Up." I was 8-years-old and I tried to imitate the cool, masculine voice on the record. I'd have my sister, Angie, introduce me: "Here is Jeff Guy singing, 'All Shook Up.'"

That August, Elvis died and I discovered, "Oh, that's the guy who sang that song." I'd heard the name Elvis Presley and knew he was some kind of entertainer, but didn't know the big story.

My parents were up late, watching TV specials about Elvis. It wasn't until Michael Jackson died that I understood what must have been going through their minds. When a bigger-than-life icon from your youth - someone whose been a constant in your life - dies, even if you weren't a fan, you feel a loss. A piece of your childhood is gone and you're reminded of your own mortality.

There's been a lot of bullcrap over the years. People have blamed Elvis for getting rich and famous, copying black rhythm and blues music. The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin...they all gave their own interpretations of black music and they have all credited those influences. There has been crossing over between black and white music probably for as long as the two groups have been in America. Despite what's been said, Elvis wasn't the first. White crooner Bing Crosby and hillbilly singer Jimmie Rodgers were working with Louis Armstrong back around 1930. Now there's Eminem, Kid Rock, Rage Against the Machine. It goes on.

In the '80s, Elvis caught a lot of criticism for abandoning rock and roll for ballads in his later years. I think first and foremost Elvis was a singer and entertainer. He loved all genres of music and was non-discriminating in his tastes. It didn't matter if a song was written by Leiber and Stoller, Bob Dylan or Rodgers and Hammerstein. If it was pleasing to his ears, Elvis would sing it.

Besides I don't think his later stuff was all that bad. It wasn't as revolutionary or culturally significant as his early Sun recordings and there was shlock, but there was also some great, underrated stuff. The songs about heartbreak and lost love were his way of communicating what was going on in his life without saying it outright.

How much can you ask of a person? Sure I have fantasies of Elvis recording an album with Louis Armstrong in the '50s and Keith Richards in the '70s, but I think he gave a lot more as an artist than people can reasonably ask for.

Yes he got fat, sloppy, drugged out, but he was human. He wasn't a god like people have blown him up to be, he was a man. He had flaws and greatness, weakness and strength. I say, forget the mythology and white noise. Just see him as a man and an artist.

"The image is one thing and the human being is another." Elvis Presley, from a 1972 press conference.

From the first performance by Elvis and bandmates Scotty and Bill on the Louisiana Hayride. 1954

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