Thursday, August 16, 2007

Thirty years on

Even although I was very, very young at the time - still hadn't worked out that the summer holiday was some kind of trick - I can still remember hearing the news about the terrible, pointless loss of life in Memphis that August day thirty years ago.

Oddly, though, it's not Elvis' death which has stayed with me across three decades, but the reports on Radio 2 News about the two girls killed outside Gracelands when a car ploughed into the mourners. Elvis himself? That was just Top of the Pops cutting a song to fit in a "tribute" - pointless, as it turned out, as death was about to float him up the chart again, carrying him aloft, like Styx. Only with the Estate rushing to get the pennies off his eyes.

It's not that I disliked him - frankly, he hadn't made much of an impression on me before he took his final trip to the toilet (he was no Carpenters, say) and my young mind didn't think there was much point in paying to attention to him now. I'd done death already - it meant grandparents stopped popping round once a week with a bag of shopping they'd picked up, so it seemed that this Mr. Presley dying meant that we'd not be seeing him around any more, either.

That turned out to be wrong.

History is littered with people who built things, and people who were first to do things. Both are noteworthy, in that their names are noted, but it makes sense to reserve your awe for the man who built the bridge, rather than the bloke who went across it first of all. Elvis, I think it's fair to say, was a bridge-crosser, not a bridge-maker, a man who followed a route rather than plotted a map.

It's telling that he's known as The King - a title handed down to people by accident of birth, signifying wealth built on the exploitation of others. An honorific, not an earned title.

That the TV today will be full of people in white suits screwing up their faces and going "uh-huh-huh" shows that he wasn't even inimitable.

He did make some great records - he had an excellent ear, he had access to the work of legendary writers, he was surrounded by people who either knew what they were doing, or had the luxury of being able to make it up as they went along.

He was the first of his kind. But let's not confuse first with best. Had he lived, we'd probably find him a little embarrassing nowadays, like Cliff Richard, uncertain how to balance the respect for what he was with against the awkwardness of what he's become.

Raise a drink to Elvis Presley, and his memory. But don't make the toast "The King".


M.C. Glammer said...

Can we who weren't there at the time really understand the impact and significance? He was a white guy playing black music. In 50s USA. Respect is probably very due, but I wasn't there so I dunno.

I do know I find a lot of over 40s musos embarrssing and more than a few under-40s, too - McCartney, Jagger, Burrell, Ciccone, Sting, Doherty...none of them could give as relaxed and personable a performance as the '68 comeback special. If I had to choose a king I reckon I'd want somebody like that rather than some bloody credible-as-all-cred indie miseryguts like Morrissey or somesuch.

Uh huh huh.

Anonymous said...

your comment is wack. you're obviously way more of an elvis fan than a jagger, macca, maddy or doherty one. i think moz, doherty, jarvis or strummer 9were he still with us) could do something just as personable as the '68 comeback special elvis did. but then, i'm more of a fan of them than i am of him. so i would say that wouldnt i?

M.C. Glammer said...

Being way more of an Elvis fan than any of the others is not an absolute measurement. I'm not much of an Elvis fan, but I can see that years of image misuse have led to the cornball image he has. Some of his records have been some of the best rock & roll ever made. It's telling that Moz fashions himself with quiff and fancy jacket. He'll be playing Las Vegas next.

As for the names you mention, Moz doesn't have the affability to carry that kind of gig; Doherty doesn't have the personality, the talent or the setlist; Jarvis doesn't have the confidence and Joe would be too full-on and self-conscious. So my assertion stands. And actually, I suspect some of those mentioned would agree with me.

Anonymous said...

I'm no Elvis fan, but I disagree that had he lived he'd be an embarrasment like Cliff Richard. Don't forget it was his Manager, Tom Parker, who forced Elvis onto the cheesy movie roundabout and the glitzy vegas showcase circuit.

Parker died in 1997, but I'm pretty sure Elvis would have seen the light eventually and ditched him way earlier, leaving him to maybe be taken on by a Manager who understood his potential for the Rock market.

Had he lived today he could well be seen as an elder statesman of sorts.

Anonymous said...

"Moz doesn't have the affability to carry that kind of gig; Doherty doesn't have the personality, the talent or the setlist; Jarvis doesn't have the confidence and Joe would be too full-on and self-conscious."

and what are you basing that on? your opinion? right. jog on mate. know them all well do you? i doubt you even know their backcats.

i see what you're saying but i really don't agree.

simon h b said...

MC - I agree that his appearance would have made an impact, but all he represented was a way of selling white America black music. His impact was mainly in the marketing.

Here's a thing, though: Elvis did his comeback special at roughly the same age that Jarvis Cocker had his first number one. Makes you think, eh?

Anon #2: Elvis was a mess when he died. Indeed, it's what killed him. It's nice to think that maybe he'd have wised up, dropped a few pounds, sacked the hangers on, cleaned himself up and gone back to the start - Elton John tried this, on a somewhat smaller scale. I don't think it's very likely though.

Tom said...

"His impact was mainly in marketing"
Simon, you're sounding ever more the rent-an-iconoclast with that comment. What about the influence a white guy playing black music had in Britain? To the likes of messrs lennon, mccartney, jagger et al, who took that sound back to the states and cleaned up after Elvis joined the army?

simon h b said...

Actually, Tom, you don't have to rent me, I'm more than happy to push for Elvis to be downgraded in the pantheon.

It's true the young Beatles listened to Elvis - but they also listened to Chuck Berry and Little Richard, too, and the Beatles started out life as a skiffle act - I'd suggest that Lonnie Donegan was probably more important in their gestation than Presley was.

Admittedly, Elvis proved a comforting way to repackage black music for a white audience - but that's all he was, a friendly face on a (then) difficult product. He was skilled, but not gifted. His fame and fortune rely on being a middleman.

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