Friday, August 16, 2002

Elvis memorial cut-out section

I'm old enough to remember the death of Elvis - although, to be frank, all I can recall of the news that day was the story about the car crashing into Graceland's gates; that, and the Top of the Pops tribute that week. I read the complete history of Elvis when Look-In ran it a couple of years later, but, frankly, Elvis really did mean shit to me. And I know that isn't merely because of my age - I can remember sitting in a bedsit in Leeds listening to a younger mate read a poem he'd written; a rant against Miles Hunt, whose crime was to have named an album 'Never Loved Elvis.' To Gary, this was an act of secular blasphemy; a rejection of the sacrament; a denial of rock and roll. He could never forgive Hunt.

But as Elvis' death in the Silver Jubilee year reaches its own street-party 25th anniversary, Gary would find defending Elvis a harsher job. Not least because the Chuck D thesis - Elvis was a straight-up racist, pure and simple - is attaining academic support just at the same time as D himself has recast his statement as a critique of the music industry's lauding of Presley, rather than of Elvis himself.
Writing in The Guardian, Helen Kolawole calls for the entertainment industry to hold its own "Truth and reconciliation commission."

Apparently unaware that anyone with any interest in music happily acknowledges that Most Popular Culture was a black creation, usually repackaged for pasty white ears, Kolawole calls for Michael Jackson to officiate at these proceedings. Good choice, because it's not like Jacko's been grinding his own axe about race as part of his ongoing contract negotiations, is it? This would probably be on a par with having Mugabe in charge of the apartheid T&R process.

Although, interestingly, Kolawole falls into many of the traps Jackson himself did. She seems unable to even consider the possibility that Elvis was as much a victim (in those early years) as the artists whose work he was recording; his talent was sucked dry by Tom Parker through an unfair contract.

The main charge against Elvis is that he took black music, sanitised it, and sold it into a mass market. Well, yes, but that is the story of the Music Industry - it's not down to colour, it's down to the way corporations always tame individuality to make it marketable.

It's why punk - rather than being unleashed in the form of genuine shouty scary screaming - got commodified by a shop boy into the punktomime posturings of the Pistols (they'll chill your blood, but they'll not slit your throats); it's why the resurgence of metal and rock was quickly hosed down and made into Limp Bizkits, who, y'know, let the kids get it out of their system while remaining firmly within The System. It's ridiculous to posit a world where no Elvis would have led to the true innovators - Berry, Richard - becoming the biggest stars in the US, because that wouldn't have happened. A nation where being black meant you had to stick to the back of many buses, where systems were set up to exclude blacks from voting, with no black faces on television - how would removing Elvis have made it likely that the networks and the labels would have got behind a black artist in the same way? It's possible to be realistic about the system that Elvis was working in without supporting its assumptions, you know; and however painful it might be, while we're paying proper respect to the people who made the music that inspired Elvis, maybe we should also recognise that Elvis (and Hailey) cleared the path for other artists - of all colours - to follow.

Go back and read the outrage caused by Elvis' wiggling, swaying and noises. Now, try and imagine the calls for heads to roll if the first taste white America had had of rock had been a black guy. D'you think the genre would have got past the first single?

One other point: In a lot of the anti-Elvis articles, much has been made of Elvis saying that all blacks could do for him was to shine his shoes, and buy his records. Disgusting sentiments, that Elvis should rightly be pilloried for. If he ever said it. Snopes seems convinced that the lack of any record of the quote, and the way it gets attributed to shows he never appeared on, or to towns he never visited, makes it little more than an urban myth. Certainly, if Elvis was racist to that extreme, it's curious that everyone has to fall back on this single instance to 'prove' it.

So, I shan't be wishing I could be stood outside Graceland tonight. And I know that, if hadn't been Elvis, it would probably have been someone else taking the role. But, for today, I'll drink a toast to Presley, for without him (or someone like him), the chances are it'd be Perry Como's death that people got dressed up for, and Bing Crosby who'd be spotted, alive and well, working in Safeways.

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