Whether you rate him as an artist or not, and many don’t these days, the one thing you can’t deny about Elvis Presley is that he was enormously influential. By using white musicians with a country sensibility to sing and play songs from the other side of town, he helped wake up a whole generation to the existence of some of the greatest artists and most vibrant, sexy, challenging music of the last century.
Some say he stole their work. I don’t know about the deals his manager Colonel Parker did—maybe there were rip-off contracts—but I’m fairly sure Elvis would have had no part in that. He was too lazy, too passive about the organisation of details. That was why he had a manager. When Elvis wasn’t working—i.e. making records/ films or touring—he wanted to play. And he played like somebody who had never left his late adolescence behind—if, that is (according to some of the books at least), he wasn’t hiding from his fear of failure and his self-lacerating depression by taking every prescription drug he could lay his hands on.
He talks about the drugs in a spectacular onstage rant in this unlabelled bootleg cd I have (no doubt widely available in other forms on the internet); a bootleg which contains keys to many things that ruined the so-called (but not by him) King of Rock and Roll. Sounding exactly like somebody in a drug-induced rage he talks to a crowd of Las Vegas concert goers (I presume it’s Vegas) about rumours that he couldn’t perform recently because he was “STRUNG OUT on heroin.” No,no, he says; it wasn’t heroin, it was the flu, and he got over it in a day. But, he warns, “If I find or hear the individual that has said that about me I’m gonna break your goddamn neck, you sonofabitch…I will pull your tongue out by the ROOTS.”
Which is extraordinary, because Elvis just didn’t do things like that. In the age of the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppellin, his public image had him as the darling of Nixon’s Silent Majority. He was allowed to hint at a touch of devilishness, but it was always playful devilry; something to make his fans feel naughty, but not guilty.
The bootleg shows it was a con. I don’t know how intentional a con—perhaps he was just old-fashioned enough to think that some things were not for public consumption, even when you were an artist—but he was not the “yes sir, no sir” clean-living church-going apogee of Southern respectability Colonel Parker and every thirtysomething fan at the time wanted him to be. And maybe the fundamental dishonesty of his image is part of what crucified him, along with the relentless, grinding tour schedule he agreed to in the pursuit of more and more money and as a salve to his chronic insecurity about not being loved anymore. No human being can live a lie for very long without sustaining damage, unless he or she is a psychopath.
Throughout the recordings on the cd—which span, as far as I can tell, a 14 year period—Elvis uses every colourful cuss-word in the book, creating interesting lyrical variations on well-known songs: “I’ll make a wish in every fountain,” from Heart of Rome becomes “I’ll take a piss in every fountain,” and “May the fire of love still burn,” is transformed into “May the fire of shit still burn”; Love Me’s “If you ever go, darling I’ll be oh so lonely,” becomes “…darling I’ll be oh so horny”; and Hurt’s “I still love you so,” is suddenly rendered “…you cocksucker, I’ll still love you so.”
It’s quite funny, or at least, I think it is, but it’s not sophisticated humour. In fact, it’s pretty immature at times. That’s the late adolescence thing I referred to earlier. Elvis needs the security of his fame, but when he’s surrounded by musicians and hangers-on he needs the security of their laughter too; so he constantly tries to provoke it. And frequently other people on the cd can be heard laughing twice at a joke Elvis makes that wasn’t very funny the first time. It’s creepily reminiscent of the crowd around Andy Warhol, who treated his shallow observations and silly non-sequiturs as messages from some divine authority.
Somebody should have told Elvis to shut up and get to work. Of course, he was so accustomed to the praise of an uncritical entourage by then, he probably would have fired anybody on the spot who’d tried to direct his talent properly. Because deep down he would have known that they were telling the truth, and the truth is usually the most offensive, scary thing of all. But imagine if someone had stopped Elvis sabotaging song takes by barking and quacking and told him that he could do better. Much better. Sam Phillips did it before fame went to Elvis’ head, and those early Sun recordings are incredible.
A little bit of honesty from the people around Elvis might have saved his life as well as his career, come to think of it. He was a monstrous, bloated (and yet heartbreakingly fragile) wreck of his former beautiful self in the last televised show from 1977. Before he went onstage for that, he supposedly quipped to a helper, “I may not look good for the cameras tonight, but I’ll look good in my coffin.” Something like that anyway. What a tragic statement for a man of 42 to make. We are all masters of our own fate, to a large extent; but I do hope that those who helped Elvis on his rush to the grave wake up in the night sometimes remembering those words and wondering if things might have been different.