Elvis and Elvishood
By Pete Shanks
Genius is a word that gets tossed around far too casually. We like to say that, oh, Einstein was a genius, or Da Vinci, or Goethe, or Mozart or Poi care … we like to name individuals and worship at the star’s altar. The cult of personality infects us all.
Contradicting ourselves — as usual — we also like to think of genius as an abstract quality, a fact, an almost-tangible thing that some possess and the rest of us yearn for … we’d like to define and refine and outline and confine it, to understand and use and exploit it. We tangle ourselves up, and list its meanings in the dictionary 1a, 1b, 1c, 2a, 2b and 3 and 4 and on and on. The cult of science infects us, too.
Science works, and we are all personalities. But science operates within its own self-defined limits, and each of us is part of our communal existence; we are social or we are not ourselves. Genius, I think, floats in the interstices between process and reality, it is there for each of us to recognize and cherish like the soul or conscience, the sense of what is right, and what has quality and value. Ineffable but not impractical, genius is part of what makes us, collectively and thus individually, human.
Singers can tap into it sometimes, just as runners, lovers and sculptors and dancers; people doctoring and engineering and accounting, even; anyone who acts precisely in tune with the universe. And the rest of us can see it happen, feel it, rejoice in it. Even without consciously knowing that we do.
* * *
"The warden threw a party at the county jail …"
Now, wait a minute. Who did what? … Ah, c’mon, it’s just a ditty written by a couple of Jewish wise guys from Brooklyn, taking the piss out of the kind of production number some TV idiot would put together for an ex-con making it in the music biz; part of a dumb movie, that’s all.
But that’s "Jailhouse Rock"! It’s Elvis. Forget about the words.
"If you can’t find a partner use a wooden chair …"
OK, don’t forget about the words. But it’s not the words, and it’s not the music, and it’s not the band, and it’s not even the singing. It’s … it’s genius is what it is.
Let me try to explain.
* * *
First a quick step back: I was born in 1949, so I’m a little young for Elvis. By the time I grew obsessed with music, he was in Hollywood and he seemed like history. He was great, of course — classic, even — but not really relevant. I saw the 1968 Comeback special on TV in college and was impressed, certainly, but not exactly converted. Aside from the odd hit, I didn’t listen to anything he did after that. For almost 30 years.
I did pick up the Sun Sessions LP, drawn from his 1954–55 work, much of which I had heard as a kid; it turned out to be even better than I remembered. I knew that John Lennon idolized Elvis, and I was struck by Keith Richards’ comment that when he was growing up (he’s just over five years older than I am) the world was black and white until Elvis appeared and then suddenly — shazam! — Technicolor. But I still didn’t get it, really.
Out of curiosity, I picked up the laserdisc One Night With You, which has an hour of material filmed for use in the ’68 TV show; some of that was great, too.
And what the heck, I’m a collector as well as a fan, and I’m interested in the history of pop music, so when I saw a really good deal on The King of Rock ’n’ Roll: The Complete 50s Masters, a five-CD box set, I grabbed it, and then the ’60s and ’70s CDs as well. Then I began to get a glimmer of something.
* * *
Everyone knows that pictures lie, but everyone always forgets. The same goes for video, and sound recordings, and especially memory. Something is always lost. But sometimes through the lies comes shimmering a hint of something more real than truth. Here’s a false memory, from a first draft:
" There is a moment in his 1968 TV Special [I wrote, inaccurately] when he is reminiscing about the very early days, when his first record was on the radio and no one knew what he looked like. Many white people thought he must be black; at his first radio interview Dewey Phillips was careful to ask which (segregated) high school he had attended, to set that straight, but the word took a while to get out. So, said Presley, "People were going round saying, "Is he? Is he?" and I was going, "Am I? Am I? " The line gets a laugh, and incidentally the way he says it serves to underline the fact that he was remarkably unprejudiced for a southern white of his era (many black musicians testify to this), but there is something just a little strange and, I think, significant, in the dissociation that is the source of the joke."
The radio-interview bit is correct, but I went back to the laserdisc, and the "Is he? Is he?" bit of business is not there. According to Peter Guralnick, in Careless Love, the second volume of his massive biography, (that I later read), comes from stage patter in Las Vegas the next year (this was based loosely on the format of this show), and it might not have much to do with race at all. But it should have done so, and maybe it did, to me it did.
I have never heard any of the bootlegs of Elvis in Vegas, nor the officially released Elvis Having Fun On Stage recording (apparently a scam of his manager’s devising). I suppose I must have read about that quote — it’s in Greil Marcus’s seminal, if sometimes misleading "Presliad" in Mystery Train, but I can hear it. That’s what’s so odd; I can hear him saying it. It should have been true, so for me it was.
* * *
Young Elvis was beautiful. He could move. He could sing anything he wanted. We have the records, we can look at the pictures; entire books of them, treasure troves discovered twenty years after his death and published forty years after they were taken and we can see a few cherished pieces of film from his TV appearances. Here, we can sit through his lousy movies just to enjoy the glimpse of his image, and all we can really say is, "Wow! He was Elvis." He always was Elvis, even as he grew fat and close to the end. Even with sold-out crowds at Vegas, till days before his death. It is said that he never played to an empty seat in his whole career (which may be hype, but it’s not far off), and by every account the crowd always went nuts. He could stumble on-stage, he could forget the words to his greatest hits, he could be bloated and obviously ill, and still they adored him. He was still Elvis. Or rather, he was in touch with Elvishood, and through him so were the audience.
Some people didn’t get it, some still don’t. That’s all right; it’s their loss. I’m not talking here of those who hated him — the idiots who branded him obscene, who had the TV cameras show him only from the waist up lest young America see those hips swivel, who tried to ban his shows and burn his records — they got it, in their way; they just didn’t like it. No, the ones who didn’t get it were the ones who kind of liked some of his songs but preferred, oh, Pat Boone; they didn’t understand that Elvis was working in a whole different league. Sure, he sang some of the same songs others did, including covers of black hits, and sometimes theirs sold more than his, but they were pop singers. He was Elvis.
And yet, and yet, Presley was shy, polite, weird, clearly desperately uncomfortable any time he wasn’t singing (he would wind down from a show by singing all night in his hotel room; it was all he really wanted to do), and so fucked up he effectively committed suicide. Elvis was perfect, but Presley wasn’t Elvis. Not all the time, anyway.
* * *
"What kind of a singer are you?"
"I sing all kinds."
"Who do you sound like?"
"I don’t sound like nobody."
—Elvis meets Marion Keisker of Sun Records in 1953
Well, yes. He was eighteen and he couldn’t possibly have known how right he was. He did presumably know what he liked — music. All music, if it was any good at all.
People seem to get confused by this. Some put him down as a guy who stole black music and sold it to the white audience. Others call him the great-lost blues singer, or the best ballad singer of the century, or the ultimate rocker. Still others claim that what he really loved was gospel.
None of the labels are true unless all of them are true, and maybe not then.
Elvis loved Dean Martin and often said so; but then he loved Ray Charles too. On the brink of national fame, he seriously considered joining a gospel quartet. His first single coupled a blues and a bluegrass tune, both revamped into rockabilly. In his later years, he had no compunction about covering Sinatra ("My Way"), Simon and Garfunkel ("Bridge Over Troubled Water"), Dylan, the Beatles, or anyone else.
It was all Elvis music, if he deigned to notice it.
* * *
In the 1968 TV show, Elvis jokes about the famous lip-curl, the ritualized sneer that was such an important part of his early image. "I got news for you, baby, I did twenty-nine pictures like that." He fools with it, practices it, proves he can still do it; makes it seem like nothing more than a carefully calculated piece of stagecraft. It was that — he was very quick to pick up on the moves that got a good audience reaction and keep them in the performance — but it was both less and more than that; it was a fundamentally natural expression to him, but it was also a way for him, as much as for the audience, to tap into the public presence of Elvishood.
Every performer has a stage persona, whether it is the flamboyance of the Liberace, Mick Jagger, Marilyn Manson variety, or laid-back styles like Perry Como and Andy Williams, or any of the stumble-on-stage-in-street-clothes school. Many of them are willing and able to play with their image, usually without actually stepping out of character. (A personal favorite, caught on tape: Jagger in his 1969 prime saying, "I think I bust a button on me trousers, hope they don’t fall down. You don’t want me trousers to fall down now, do ya?" Everyone is in on the joke, which is only a joke because of the image anyway, and everyone loves it). Indeed, it is common to see a performer dip in and out of the persona, nodding to friends in the audience for example, or acknowledging the applause that greets the opening line of a big hit before returning to the lyric with what seems like absolute sincerity. We are used to this, in fact we expect it, and as an audience we collude in the ritual without conscious effort.
Elvis carried his tangential relationship with his material to unheard-of extremes, and not only got away with it but reveled in it. On stage especially, he could switch from singing with complete and stunning commitment to poking fun at the way he had just been singing — and then back — practically in a single note, do it again, and still somehow, magically hang on to the emotional essence of the number.
In that 1968 performance, with the audience all around him, Elvis is sitting with his musicians who are on their best behavior. It is supposed to be a relaxed ambiance for him to talk and sing oldies as the spirit moves him, not an intense performance at all, even though he is dressed up in a cool one-piece leather outfit, with his hair dyed jet-black and slicked back in the classic rocker style. (The band look like dorks — sorry, guys, it’s not your fault — in burgundy leisure suits.) He’s obviously nervous, because it was his first live gig for many years, but as the hour unfolds he gets more confident, leaning into a fine version of his old hit "One Night" before jamming on Jimmy Reed’s "Baby What Do You Want Me to Do" while he figures out what to do next.
There’s only going to be one more number ("I just work here" he explains), and he wants to get a strap for the guitar and stand up, which he has already tried to do a couple of times. Since one is not available, and he rejects the idea of balancing the guitar on his knee as impractical, he decides to forget it and one of the band jokingly sings, "No strap for you," to the tune of "One night with you. Elvis picks up on it, moving right into the song itself, for the second time; at one point he actually sings "Where’s the strap?" And then, as he gets into the song, he does stand up anyway, despite having said that he couldn’t do it.
He can’t help himself; he has to be on his feet. There are no mike stands tall enough, so one of the players has to squat in front of him holding the mike up. Without a strap, the best Elvis can do is put one foot on his chair and prop the instrument awkwardly on his knee. The song stops and starts, an almost complete shambles, and yet it works, spectacularly. Somehow Elvis conjures up the way the song should be, and compels the audience to participate in that ideal, even while our mere eyes and ears are distracted by all this stumbling stage difficulty. In a sense, he channels the perfect, committed performance and translates it to us without actually doing it for more than a few moments at a time, and wouldn’t you know it, the second version works even better than the first.
* * *
This ability to dissociate the fact of his performance from the effect it creates may be how Elvis gets away with what we might politely call dubious material in the studio. When he sings, "I just want to be your teddy bear," it’s funny, of course, and it’s meant to be, and it’s also serious — it’s playful, and yet strangely convincing. He’s flirting with the girl, he’s flirting with the audience, he’s flirting with himself, and he makes it work because underneath it all there really is passion, he really does want to sleep with her, and he knows she knows it and he’s not in the least ashamed of the babyish way he expresses it.
I don’t want to be your tiger
’Cause tigers play too rough
I don’t want to be your lion
’Cause lions ain’t the kind you’d love enough
Come on! Perhaps to distract us, he gussies up the vocal with a bunch of his tricks; the deep half-hiccough, the liquid glissandi, and a natural-sounding ease that likely bespeaks hours of practice. (He did twenty-eight recorded takes of "Don’t Be Cruel" and thirty-one of "Hound Dog", continuing well after the nominal producer was satisfied.) And yet, it’s not a comedy record. It is indeed humorous, praise be, but it also hints in some mysterious way at a completely serious rendition, and the wonder lies in the fact that both exist simultaneously. If he wasn’t laughing, he couldn’t be serious; and if he weren’t serious there would be nothing to laugh about.
* * *
Allied to all this is the strange sense that Elvis was always there; we just had to wait for him to be revealed, and then we recognized what we had been missing. How else to explain the reaction the very first time "That’s All Right, Mama" was played on the radio? Sure, it’s great, and Dewey Phillips, the DJ, gave it a characteristically enthusiastic build-up, but it was an unreleased version of a moderately well-known song, done by a complete unknown who had never had any kind of record out, and yet, as Guralnick puts it in volume one of his superb biography, Last Train to Memphis:
"The response was instantaneous. Forty-seven phone calls, it was said, came in right away, along with fourteen telegrams — or was it 114 phone calls and forty-seven telegrams? — He played the record seven times in a row, eleven times, seven times over the course of the rest of the program."
---(If Guralnick can’t nail down the numbers, it can’t be done.)
That was Thursday, July 8, 1954. Elvis was exactly nineteen and a half years old. It took about eighteen months for him to conquer the world, but that first flash of reaction was instant. And so were most of those that followed.
Where did this cat come from? Forget the facts and figures, just look at the photographs from the mid-fifties. Tear your eyes off the man himself for a moment and look at the people around him. They look old-fashioned, as well they might since it was half a century ago; Elvis looks, well, like Elvis. It’s not just the clothes, though even in high school he was different, wearing dress pants and a jacket and a carefully tied scarf when all the guys wore work shirts and jeans. It’s not just the hair, though no one else ever really pulled off that style and millions tried. It’s not just the outrageous taste that when you describe it brings to mind a black street pimp and yet manages to look somehow innocent at the same time; this is the kid who liked pink Cadillacs — it’s so much of a myth by now that the phrase has become almost meaningless, but pink? No one seems to have thought it was particularly bizarre. He was … Elvis.
Skip ahead twenty years, and the same is true. Elvis looks different, certainly, and more like he is hiding inside his persona; not only is he much heavier, but he wears high-collared sequined jumpsuits with plenty of scarves and jewelry, and often oversized aviator sunglasses, while his sideburns have blossomed to nineteenth-century splendor and his hair has become an enormous tonsorial sculpture, a sort of abstract human topiary. Unique is not too strong a word, as bad artists and worse impersonators have gleefully confirmed for a quarter of a century. And what about the people around him? They look old-fashioned, naturally, and nothing like The King.
* * *
It is easy to be dismissive of the fans that worshipped Elvis in his last days. Behavior that seems silly in twelve-year-olds seems utterly ridiculous in forty-year-olds. They were certainly responding at least as much to memory as to what they saw and heard. Although the panoply of the stage show should not be underestimated: by then it was lavish — but then in part they always did. A memory of what could be, more even than a memory of what was.
In his very early years, Elvis did occasionally fail (notably, and ironically given his massive success there later, in his first Las Vegas appearance), but usually he triumphed. He blew the opposition off the stage, not really by singing better or moving better, nor by the quality of his material, and certainly not with the size or sound of his first band (initially just Scotty Moore on guitar and Bill Black on bass, soon adding D.J. Fontana on drums), but in an unspoken conspiracy with his audience. They just loved him. They didn’t know why, nor did he, but they accepted it, and so did he. Elvishood was there to be loved.
* * *
P.J. Proby claimed, during his mid-60s fifteen minutes of fame, that he used to have a gig doing demos for Elvis; he’d be hired to do new songs in imitation of Presley’s voice and Elvis would reproduce them exactly and sell a million. Well, half a million. It may be true — this was in the musically dire days of Hollywood soundtracks — but Proby didn’t seem to understand why what he’d done was nothing to boast about. He wasn’t good enough to reinvent anything, he just faked Elvis, who in turn (because he got paid a fortune to sing that crap), faked Proby faking Elvis. OK, so Elvis is guilty of a stint being the world’s highest-paid P.J. Proby impersonator. Let’s forgive him.
* * *
If the Coasters had done "Jailhouse Rock", or the Clovers, the Drifters, the Robins, or even Big Mama Thornton, for all of whom Jerry Lieber & Mike Stoller wrote witty hits, it might be showing up on oldies radio shows, but no way would it have been on a number one album in 2002, let alone provide the musical introduction to the album’s official website (www.elvisnumberones.com).
Elvis rips into the song as though his life depended on it. Of course he knew it was silly. Of course he knew it was great. He was completely in control — it was a recording, he could always reject the take — and, paradoxically, at the same time completely lose control. He was knocking out the title song for a movie, he was trying for a number one hit, he was reaching to give us something we didn’t know we needed. He was rocking. Still is.
* * *
If the essence of his genius was that he gave the world access to something much more than his self, still the checks were made out with his name on them. Presley was phenomenally generous with material things; Cadillacs here, diamond rings there, forget the price tags if you can, it is still clear that he enjoyed giving gifts. A gospel singer who knew him speculated that he only kept on working in order to have more toys to give away; which may be true, since he was so profligate with money that he had to mortgage Graceland less than a year before his death.
His eccentric manager, "Colonel" Tom Parker, ensured that they (it was definitely a partnership) earned huge amounts; adjusted for inflation to year 2000 dollars, comes to around $16 million net, for seven weeks of touring in 1974, plus another $2.5 million or more after expenses for six weeks in Vegas and Tahoe (in Vegas, hotel occupancy rates in low season went from 50% to sold out when Elvis appeared), plus $3 million or so from record royalties, at a time when he really wasn’t bothering much with records, but Elvis’s dad, Vernon, was quite right to worry that they might go broke. (The estate is said to have ballooned to around $200 million dollars since his death, so we don’t need to worry about his daughter Lisa Marie, at least not financially.)
The same friend recounted that Presley showed no interest in meeting stars and politicians but would always chat with the "little people" like the janitors at the halls he played. Asked why, Presley is said to have replied, "They need me." And maybe they did need Elvis, but Presley was undoubtedly one of them, in his soul that, just in case anyone should miss the point, is a high compliment, and surely he needed them at least as much. Presley was a poor kid who made it big, and unlike, say, Frank Sinatra, did so without aping the mores of the upper class.
Elvis was an icon, as even non-fans recognized; a friend of mine once confessed that he’d hardly thought about Elvis "since he forgave Nixon" which expresses it nicely — a myth, to be sure, a complete untruth based on one of the more bizarre stories (a drug-addled Presley asked the President in 1970, long before his downfall, to make him an honorary Agent of the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs), but who else in America had the authority to forgive the disgraced President?
Presley was fully aware of the power that he, as Elvis, wielded; of the wealth that he, as Elvis, accumulated; of the love that he, as Elvis, inspired. To believe he deserved it would have made him a monster; to have been a monster would have destroyed the purity that made him what he was.
The one constant in all the various stories about his last years is pain. And, yes, some of his actions at the last were evidently monstrous, to some of the "Memphis Mafia" that hung on his every whim, and especially to himself. His marriage had collapsed, and his relationships with women were little less than tragic; his lovers all seem to describe him fondly, but as childish, controlling and emotionally (and often sexually) unavailable. He poisoned himself with all manner of prescription drugs and, notoriously, with food binges featuring the legendary deep-fried peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches (if that’s not true, it should be), which sent his weight from its normal 170 lbs up to 240 or more.
To me, the conclusion is inescapable: The contradictions between Presley the man and Elvis the icon killed him. The wonder is that he lasted so long.
Presley was forty-two when he died. John Lennon, who seemed to have made his way out of a similar dark confusion of person and persona only to be shot by someone who hadn’t, was forty. Hank Williams, another whose connection with his audience was magical and whose self was filled with pain, was only twenty-nine when his heart gave out. Robert Johnson, who never achieved fame in his lifetime but inspired similar awe in his circle, was about twenty-seven when he was poisoned. Bob Dylan was a mere twenty-five when the first flush of his career came to a screaming halt in a motorbike accident that almost killed him.
Perhaps Dylan, a big Elvis fan, learned from Presley’s early death. Lennon certainly did — he often spoke of it — and still he slipped into an "eighteen-month long weekend" of mindless boozing before he got himself back on track. Presley, however, had to operate without precedent or peer. If only he could have reinvented himself musically, undercut the grandiosity that haunted his later shows, to become … what, a gospel singer, a country icon, a balladeer, or the head of a rhythm-and-blues revue? Why should Elvis choose? He was all of those, and more; that was Elvis. But who was Presley?
Hell, he didn’t know.
Younger people, and by now they need not be young at all, surely have trouble understanding the furor. If they see the movies, how can they not notice that virtually all of them were, not to put too fine a point on it, awful? Even the "good" ones don’t really hold up, give or take a scene or two. And what can it be like to hear a piece of rubbish like "Do the Clam" (which faithful British fans barely pushed into their Top 20 in 1965, though Americans had more sense) when your mind is not already saturated with the sense that the guy who brought us "Heartbreak Hotel" and "Jailhouse Rock" and "Mystery Train" can do no wrong?
* * *
Elvis was a myth. Not so much self-invented as self-discovered and in a strange covenant with his audience — did they imagine him or was it the other way round? He was a pointer to something greater than himself; and yet, could there be anything greater than himself, o greater, at least, than the myth?
* * *
If Elvis learned any one thing from Sam Phillips, his first producer, it was to recognize the moment when it happened. "Investigate that accident," as Keith Richards once said. That’s how Elvis, Scotty and Bill found their version of "That’s All Right," goofing off in the middle of a session that was going nowhere. Sam’s biggest contribution was to say, "What are you doing?"
"We don’t know."
"Well, back up, try to find a place to start, and do it again."
Sometimes, that’s how it happened, right to the end of his career. The guys would sit around, jamming loosely, till something emerged; not a new song, but perhaps a half-remembered one, something anyway that felt right. Other times, they’d play demos (possibly by P.J. Proby), and Elvis would say "Yea" or "Nay", often rejecting a song seconds into it. Occasionally, Elvis would come across a song he just had to do, like "Guitar Man," and set up the session specially. Or they’d plan to record a gospel album and, what the heck, while they were about it, why not do a couple of standards, a delightful old flop rhythm and blues tune, a Dylan song as well. Whatever seemed to work.
It’s not that Elvis was a genius, not exactly. That’s not a useful way of looking at the concept. He was a talented musician, an underrated guitarist whose playing propelled many of his greatest records, and a singer with an uncommon ability to sound at home in a wide variety of styles without ever sounding other than himself; but that’s not really the source of his brilliance.
"Think lightness," suggests the critic Robert Christgau, and he’s close. Think indirection. Think by-product. Consider some intuitive sense that the way to be serious is to joke, to glance off the edges of a reality too powerful to confront head-on. Think trance, think looseness, and think about how the way to dance is to ride the beat, not hammer it. Or just don’t think at all.
We really did something special when we invented Elvis.
* * *
The records tell the truth, and as they do, they lie. Elvis was — is — more than what is in the grooves. Elvis is the King of Rock ’n’ Roll.
Elvis lives.
Elvis has left the building.
* * *
Which is a nice, snappy ending, I suppose; it’s what used to be announced over the PA, so they say, to quiet the crowd after one of his shows by convincing them that there was no chance of an encore.
But it doesn’t get it, doesn’t nail it, and doesn’t explain it right.
I’m not sure anyone can. If you take the intellectual approach, you lose the gut reaction and risk analyzing the phenomenon out of existence. If you go for pure emotion, you might as well just shut up and enjoy it. Facts shmacts, and eat your own theories.
This is what I call Elvishood: the ability to convey a sense of greatness at any moment. And part of it is the ability to receive that sense of greatness. Any great performer needs a great audience, creates a great audience, and is created by that audience. It’s a gestalt, right?
In a sense, he channels the perfect, committed performance and translates it to us — without actually doing it for more than moments at a time.
Reckon I’ll stand by that. It’s pretty much what he did for his whole career.

The warden threw a party at the county jail …

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