Classic Ellis: Elvis Remembered, 1997

Anyone who lived through all of Elvis will agree that he was most than just an entertainer. He was a landscape, a mood, a moral universe, a warm bath of youthful melancholy in which we steeped ourselves when the day darkened and our thoughts took on self-pity or adolescent fury. He was truly a god to us in the old Greek way, a high flawed being who suffered in our sight, who stood in heaven’s gallows in our stead, our voice, our advocate, our elected representative on Olympus.

He was one of twins and the other twin died and his yearning for this lost companion, vividly clear in his every expression, was one we believed was our loss too, the good big brother out there somewhere, reaching out to us from the dark. Brando and James Dean gave us our sensual gloom in the early fifties but Elvis, truly, gave us our voice.

He helped invent a new kind of music, one mixing rhythm and blues with white mainstream music, and the dates suggest he was there with it first because Mystery Train and That’s All Right Momma predated Rock Around The Clock by a couple of weeks. The sound hit America square in the middle of its biggest wave of suburban hypocrisy, when washing the car and mowing the lawn and passing exams and going to church and cheering the home team were supposed to inhale into history’s hoover all that was learned and loved in the forties, in wartime travel, the novelty or working women, the free and guiltless one night stands of men in uniform soon to sail away. It showed that youth was game and turbulent and ready and sexual as any wartime soldier on London leave. It threatened the new bland suburbs and their high school anthems and careerist greed with terrible things — with all-night parties and motor cycle gangs and heavy necking at the drive-in and high school girls who now knew more about contraception than their mothers. It admitted the unadmittable, that kids do it and like it and white weddings weren’t such a big deal, not any more.

Rock ‘n’ roll embodied all that, but Elvis was something more. His full-lipped leer and greasy sideburns and pelvic movements and coital bellow had something demonic about them, like a force of nature — earthquake, tornado, eruption — that was both containable and fated. He was the first white boy to sing like a Negro, with everything sexual that meant. He moved, in Al Clark’s words, ‘like a knowing stripper, he knew exactly what he was doing, and he relished it.’ The fearful television producers tried to domesticate him, filming him only from the waist up, making him sing ‘You Ain’t Nothin’ But A Hound Dog’ to an adoring bloodhound. They tried to turn him into something cute, and mild and amiable, but the kids knew; they knew what he stood for. That connection was made, and never broken.

It happened very early. While still an adolescent, he was a millionaire and a force in the land, a famous face of Rushmore enormity, like Orson Welles at twenty, the presiding Mephistopheles of American youth. But as with Orson it couldn’t last and part of him knew it wouldn’t, ever the tragic hero prescient of his fall. He had through life the classic working class melancholy of the southern white trash towns where nothing can be afforded but cheap liquor and marital violence and nothing is learned but pinball an mateship and souped-up secondhand cars. He never grew. He stayed as he was, a bit of a hoon, a small town mug lair and so went through a lot of sadness that quicker learners - Bob Mitchum for instance, or Johnny Cash or Springsteen or McCartney - were able to evade. He was amiable Southern white trash to the end, with an entourage of similar slow-witted small town boys who played the pinball machines in his mansion and took to their beds the girls unchosen by the King from his nightly line-up of doe-eyed groupies eager for his touch.

His career was in three parts: before he was dragged off into the army and shorn, like Samson, of his menace for a time. The seven years of Hollywood movies, two a year, that made his fortune but stole the best years of his artistic development, and his last, leviathan revival as an overweight, adroit, already mythical performer. In the first part he sang in a boy’s voice, in the last two in a big formidable baritone, the cured-ham voice of ‘It’s Now Or Never’ and ‘Surrender’ that shrank his preppy piping rivals (Johnny Mathis, Buddy Holly) to the status of geldings, a voice that seemed aged in wood and old and worldly wise and belied his true condition, which was one, I believe (despite the celebrated fetishes, girls in white panties wrestling in foam and the like) of ongoing innocence. Or perhaps I mean lack of curiosity.

A kind of innocence anyway. He was always very polite, yes ma’am, thank you kindly ma’am, calling his interviewers sir, and gentle and hospitable in the Southern way. He famously loved his mother, the first celebrity so famed (since, probably, Nero) and was shattered by her death when he was in Germany being a GI. He believed in his country, not evading army service as he might so easily (like John Wayne) have done. He accepted proudly from Richard Nixon a Drug Enforcement Officer’s badge and campaigned to have John Lennon, a heroin user, thrown out of America. He volunteered for the FBI (and in some fantastical views is alive and working for them still) and believed in law enforcement. Far from the demonic tempter he was reviled as by the middle class fifties — and as such the inspiration equally of Bill Clinton, Paul Keating and Tony Blair — he became in his last flabby years an almost establishment figure, upheld by the nation corporate, tamed and benign and fit for commemorative display on a stamp. He was, perhaps, a genuine Jeckyll-and-Hyde, the mild-mannered host of daytime, the beast unleashed at night in song, the dull puzzled witness next morning: did I do that?

In his army years in Germany he met Priscilla who was then fifteen and with her dealt most like a Southern gentleman, keeping her in his mansion for six years but not (it is said) having sex with her until they were married and going into a roaring vortex of grief when four years later she stormed away from his taking his daughter Lisa Marie. It was this enormous loss of an innocent vision of romantic love (it is also said) that soured and saddened him and made him the mean mother of his final years, the Roman voluptuary fat with candy and pickled with drugs and whisky, shooting television screens with handguns and groaning long hours in his room of differing drug-fed maladies and rages.

‘His final years’ is an odd thing to say of a man who died at forty-three (the age that, say, Bobby Kennedy died) but he always seemed older than his years. When the Beatles met him (and Lennon repelled him with his genial chiacking) he was only thirty but already the grand old man. His iconic status was early and never shrank. He had only, it seemed, to wait out his time, to join the dots of his inevitable doom. He was a tragedy waiting to happen.

He suffered, like most Roman emperors, from flatterers and foolish strategic advice which, because he had talent but little judgment, he often took. ‘Colonel’ Tom Parker booked him into movies for the big easy money and not all of them were bad, Don Siegal’s Flaming Star and Clifford Odet’s Wild In The Country. But between shoots and shots and song rehearsals he indulged that sensual corpulent laziness of mind (he never, for instance, wrote any songs) that in the end was to bloat and waste him. With Priscilla forever waiting in bridal readiness back in Gracelands and L.A. broads by the busload at his beck and call, he spent in bovine stupour and carnal pointlessness and chemical peril (popping amphetamines to lose weight in Hawaii, gorging on steak and fries in L.A.) those years from when he was twenty-seven to when he was thirty-four that he might otherwise have used to shape and deepend his art. He got into bad habits, in short, and they stuck.

So when he was older there was nowhere for him to go. He was offered the fading-male-superstar role in Streisand’s A Star Is Born that might have inspired and varied his later years but he turned it down, in fear, I suppose, of its echoes of himself. He never, like lesser stars — Cliff Richard comes to mind, Tommy Steele and Normie Rowe — essayed the Broadway stage, though what a Sky Masterson he might have made in Guys and Dolls and what a Javert in Les Miz. What a title role, indeed, in Bye Bye Birdie. And so it goes.

I think of him always with a sense of loss, a wanting his life to be different, and better, and longer. The girl that might have made all the difference, Ann-Margret, was in every way his equal, and a great ignitor of his talent (their numbers in Viva Las Vegas still blaze and sizzle with sexual excitement) he used and cast aside. And that was a pity. He never became curious about anything. His head was formed in the clapboard, hot-rodding, redneck outlands and never became anything more.

Or anything much more.

These words, as I write them, seem seriously wrong. A man that conveyed and meant so much to hundreds of millions of people across the planet, and hundreds of thousands of people across the planet believe is still alive, resurrected somehow, a cultish conviction every bit as remarkable (and, in its numbers, popular) as the initial cult of the resurrected Nazarene, a man whom thousands across the planet daily and nightly mimic in dress and voice and gesture, ballrooms full of them sometimes, and run as his clones for the House of Commons as the Elvis Presley Party and to Tony Blair’s delight and bemusement pick up votes, a man whose fan club president signs off ‘Elvisly yours’, a man whose voice is heard more now than when he was alive, adds up, I think, to something more than these bare sociological excuses. There is tribal magic here, the corn got born anew each spring, of a rare and heady kind.

Because no-one thinks James Dean is still alive, or John Lennon or Bobby Kennedy. There are no Bing Crosby sightings. It can only mean that our need for Elvis, and what Elvis means, is greater; whatever it is that Elvis means. A more glamorous projection, perhaps, of our youthful bruised unease. Something like that. A need, at any rate, that his principal supplanter Tom Jones could never fill, then or now.

When he came back in 1969 he was really magic, looking better than he ever had or did again. He was Lucifer back from the underworld, Osiris reborn, in a series of swirling white capes and sequinned jeans that made him seem, at times, like a homicidal matador. The fans, now middle-aged, flocked to him and exulted around him, throwing keys and panties, as others might have done if Che Guevara, say, had returned from Bolivia scarred but alive. But soon his performances became laboured, and when it was an old song, fat and contemptuous, puffed and flabby. And then the last phases began. And so it goes.

Anyone wanting a whiff of what he was like should look at the opening sequence of King Creole. He leans with a kind of twitchy languor over the balcony, his eyes both menacing and lazy, his hips implacably active, singing ‘Crawfish’ to the rising noise of New Orleans at dawn. Later, in a nightclub, he stands bolt upright, legs moving and head tossing, singing ‘Trouble’ with the accent and stance and stubborn gaze of every kid who ever wanted to break a window. That’s the way I remember him, and the way you should meet him.

Elvisly yours.

Originally post in the Courier Mail.

  1. Elvis is good, but he is no John Lydon.

  2. A lovely piece Mr Ellis.

    I always thought King Creole and Kid Gallahad were underrated movies and lurking within them were glimpses of a possible serious actor, or at least one with more than just singing and kissing abilities.

    And you have nailed Ann Margaret’s contribution. Her solo albums are sadly neglected these days, but they are gems in the own right.

    Thank you for this beautiful tribute.

  3. Ann Margaret. Her green sparkling eyes. Yes, she was special.

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