Thursday, August 16, 2007

Elvis 1977-2007

Back in the Eighties, when WFMU was broadcasting from a clammy basement at Upsala College, I occasionally did a silly bit in the low tech spirit of the place then. We had an album, Having Fun With Elvis On Stage, entirely of his absurd, stream-of consciousness stage patter. I set up a mic in the record library, cued the record on the library turntable, cranked up the monitors. Just before a mic break, I'd start the record, & at some point I announced, "Let's hear what's happening in the record library," & brought the remote mic on the air. The effect was startling, & funny. It didn't sound like a recording, but like Elvis was actually in the library doing a show, except he never got around to singing.

It was at WFMU that I learned to love Elvis, all of Elvis. Not just the classic Sun recordings & the scattering of great RCA singles released throughout the remainder of his career. Not just the two or three quality movies & the comeback TV special & Memphis sessions. Not just the lean young Elvis in the leather suit. Oh I have my personal favs: "Trying To Get To You," "Mystery Train," "Don't," "Heartbreak Hotel," "Kentucky Rain," "Polk Salad Annie," "Return to Sender," "Burning Love," the 1960 gospel LP, His Hand In Mine, & "I'm Coming Home," an early LP cut composed by Charlie Rich. But it's no fun to be too selective about Elvis. It's most fun just to embrace Elvis as he really was, "Do the Clam" & all. Elvis didn't like singing that crap, but he didn't think it was tragic. His own tastes weren't always an improvement.If you don't love Elvis unconditionally, you don't really love Elvis. I won't say that about Sinatra, he doesn't deserve that kind of love anyway. & I don't need to say it about Louis Armstrong.

1965: In high school, Elvis was invisible. It didn't matter that the British rockers idolized him. Elvis simply did not figure into teen culture in Jersey in the mid-Sixties. Nobody went to his movies, except at the drive-in with the speaker turned off. Elvis was out of sight & out of mind. There were no "oldies," everything was new, so we believed.

1968: The story is that TV producer Steve Binder, to prove a point, coaxed Elvis out on to Sunset Blvd. El was terrified The King would be instantly recognized & mobbed. The freaks totally ignored him. That's why the 1968 "Comeback Special" really is special. My reaction: Hey, where was this guy hiding?

1972: "My Way." Decline is obvious. Again. Weight problems. Pills. Frozen personna in Vegas & on tour. A cash cow. Lousy live albums galore. Elton John releases Honky Chateau, described by Jon Landau as "a rich, warm, satisfying album that stands head and shoulders above the morass of current releases." The bar is very low & getting lower.

1976: The Ramones.

1977: It's completely unraveling for Elvis. Memphis Mafia members exposé, Elvis, What Happened. Can The King go on like this for another 30 years? Will he let himself be rescued by Nick Lowe. Elvis Costello, or Steve Van Zandt? At the time, that's as likely as Ronald Reagan becoming President. On August 16, Elvis Presley saves his career by making the ultimate sacrifice for it.

With Elvis' passing, we got lucky. There was no reason to expect he would be guided into middle age by personal trainers & sharp management. Mick Jagger, only 8 years younger than El, was about to demonstrate the possibilities. Yet, the release of The Sun Sessions LP in 1976 had connected Elvis to the rockabilly inclinations of punk; he was an inspiration, not a target. Vegas soon underwent another transformation, becoming a sanctuary where every aging "star" could come & be renovated & given a long-term lease on a showroom stage & marketed like Elvis, free of the pressure of appealing to ever-changing "youth" demographics. In the Eighties, Nashville blended Elvis with The Eagles & the formula worked so well that it still dominates the country charts. Elvis could easily have covered the songs on this week's Billboard Hot Country Top Ten.

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You would have enjoyed my wedding in 1997. I wish you were there.

Are you gonna listen to Dave the Spazz's Elvis tribute tonight?
There was no reason at the time to invite me, unless you wanted it written up in a silly local newspaper column. For that, I would've obliged you.

Dave the Spazz knows his Elvis.
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