Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXI, No. 34
Wednesday, August 22, 2007
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Record Review

Celebrating Elvis: "His Greatest Gift Never Failed Him"

Stuart Mitchner

Thirty years ago last weekend I was buying a snack in the Gem Spa on the corner of St. Mark's Place and Second Avenue when I saw the headlines. ELVIS IS DEAD. Even though Elvis had never been a hero of mine, even though I never owned a record of his, I remember the time, place, season, weather, and what I was doing (in the city to see a movie whose name I've forgotten), because Elvis was and is — well, Elvis. Does anyone need to say Presley?

Although I never felt close to Elvis the way I did to, say, James Dean or John Lennon, I grew up in southern Indiana, and my summer night station of choice was WLAC in Nashville, Tennessee, where you rarely if ever heard "Heartbreak Hotel" amid the R&B repertoire of "Sexy Ways," "Diddley Daddy," and "Stranded in the Jungle." Anyway, you didn't have to tune in Nashville to hear Elvis. He was everywhere: car radios, juke boxes, even pinball machines. If I wasn't playing a pinball machine called Heartbreak Hotel with his illuminated face grinning down at the action as the lights flashed, the bells dinged, the ball rolled, and the flippers went click-snap-click-snap, then my memory must have superimposed an imaginary machine on the one I was actually pounding and shaking (and tilting) while "Heartbreak Hotel" played over and over on the jukebox "down at the end of Lonely Street" in Indiana's "teenage wasteland." When I looked online just now to see if I could find some evidence of the game I remember, I discovered a superlatively elaborate and glitzy Elvis machine, but from a later decade. This carnival of Presleyana, a veritable pinball Las Vegas, apparently can be played while listening to the King sing "Heartbreak Hotel," "Blue Suede Shoes," "Hound Dog," and "All Shook Up."

One of the few books I ever threw down in disgust was Albert Goldman's Elvis. Although I came away from the experience with more sympathy for the subject than I'd had when I began it, it was still hard to dimiss Goldman's vision of Elvis as a sordid parody of himself.

Oddly enough, or maybe not oddly at all, that tarnished Elvis has since been transformed, at least for me, by a number of what might be called his spiritual offspring. For instance, Jim Jarmusch's Mystery Train has Elvis's ghost appear singing "Blue Moon" to a somewhat bemused Italian woman in a Memphis hotel where Screaming Jay Hawkins happens to be the desk clerk. In a irony of our crazed culture almost too good to be true, the ghost of Elvis was played by none other than the husband of Paula Jones, who was so crucial to "the vast right-wing conspiracy" that almost dethroned Bill Clinton, the spiritual offspring of Elvis who occupied the presidency for two terms. As is surely common knowledge by now, our 42nd president was a lifelong fan who mourned with his mother as if Elvis had been a member of the family; Clinton's FBI code name was Elvis, and you can supposedly buy a postage stamp online showing the King and the President jamming together. Among the more amusing features of the Don Imus show when it was still on the air, along with appearances by Cardinal O'Connor and the ghost of Dick Nixon, were the occasional visits from a Clinton-as-Elvis impersonator offering Bubba's commentary on the issues of the day. You may also remember Nick Cage's channeling of Elvis in David Lynch's Wild at Heart. These are only a few examples of the way our endlessly amoral and infinitely inventive popular culture has helped create a mythic figure capable of drawing a reported 70,000 true believers to Memphis last week on a day when the temperatures hit 105.

After spending an hour on a YouTube compilation of Elvis film clips, and listening to a CD from the Princeton Public Library (Elvis: 30 #1 Hits), I've been disabused of the notion that Presley had become a pathetic parody of himself at the end. If he was a parody of anything it was the glorification of celebrity. His grand entrance at concerts, often to a fanfare based on Strauss's Thus Spake Zarathustra, along with his gold-trimmed, sunburst-emblazoned white jumpsuit and his entourage of courtiers and bodyguards, are show biz writ large. Inside the flamboyant costume in the clips of various performances six weeks before his death is an ailing, overweight but still strikingly exotic looking man who has to be steadied by his aides against missteps as he approaches the stage; who looks closer to 50 than his true age of 42; and whose demeanor before the packed auditorium in the nine-minute clip from June 21, 1977 titled "Elvis Forgets the Words" makes a mockery of all the introductory pomp. When he fidgets and falters at the microphone, he's not playing humble. Nor is he affecting stage fright as a way of setting off the splendor of his performance. Of course he knows that he can count on the patience of an adoring crowd; he could spout nonsense and gibber like an ape and they'd be with him so long as his voice and his music emerged from the chaos. At this particular concert (apparently in Rapid City, S.D.), he begins with a reference to the heat coming off the lights and cameras, makes awkward fun of his guitar playing ("I know only three chords: I've been faking it all my life"), then comes right out and says, "If you think I'm nervous, you're right." On announcing the song he's about to play ("Are You Lonesome Tonight") he says, "I am, and I was," more or less under his breath, in the manner of a offhand deadpan soliloquy, and then he bumps into the mike, "Damn!" and begins the song. What happens next is moving evidence of what one of the men who guided him onstage says in the brief narration accompanying this clip, "To the end, his greatest gift, his incredible voice, never failed him."

What does fail him on this occasion is his memory and his tongue, which he can't get around the words of the song's spoken middle passage. He manages the reference to Shakespeare that begins it — "Someone said all the world's a stage" — but he flubs the next words so flagrantly that he's forced to improvise babbling nonsense and then to clown and smirk and stammer his way through the rest as the backing voices sustain the melody. You see a great performer struggling through a naked human moment, breaking out in a sweat, laughing at himself, then finally improvising on what he remembers (he's done the song countless times). He seems to be back on track as he says "You read your lines so clearly/you never missed a cue," but he loses the thread again (having just misread his lines and missed his own cue), whereupon he plays the rest for comedy: "The stage is bare/I'm standing here/without any hair." Flashing the familiar sneering grin, which takes on a certain charm when it comes at his own expense, he sings the rest of the song brilliantly. What went on during that edgy interlude might be read by the likes of Albert Goldman as nothing more than drugged or drunken humiliation, just another scene in the last act of a farce. But as soon as he's singing again, all is as it should be, and you can think of the collapse in the middle as a sort of wisely mad soliloquy — the King played by the Fool — that only makes the recovery of his powers all the more touching and triumphant.

You don't have to love or even like Elvis Presley to be moved by his rendition of "My Way," the performance that concludes the YouTube clip. (After he died, his version of the song was released as a single and made the Top Forty.) It's hard not to feel emotional watching a man you know has only weeks to live sing "Now the end is near and so I face the final cutain" or "And now, as tears subside, I find it all so amusing. To think I did all that, and may I say, not in a shy way." Since the lyric was written to be sung as if by a man facing death, you could say the emotion was programmed. But watching and hearing him doing it at the June 21 event, it's hard not to read some premonitory power into the performance that lifts the last word into a realm traveled only by the great Roy Orbison where glorious voice and sheer feeling come together. Then you begin to understand why all those people came to Memphis last week.

Watching Elvis sweating under the spotlight, up against it and seemingly coming unwound, and then watching how he grinned and weaseled and performed his way out of that tight spot, I kept seeing Bill Clinton sweating under the spotlight forced on him by the Republican impeachment brigade in 1998, only to come out of it bloody but unbowed with that cocky Elvis smile stilI in place. Knowing that he left the White House with his approval ratings as high as ever, knowing that he's more popular now than any politician anywhere, it's hard not to "find it all so amusing" that he did it "his way" and got away with it —with some help from his alter ego.

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