Thursday, August 16, 2012

That's All Right

Until relatively recently I had struggled to understand what it was about Elvis Presley.

Why did some people devote themselves to him as others do religious figures? Why were there people who fetishistically dressed like him, copying any one of a number of looks from his 24-year career, less out of homage as lifestyle? Like transvestism without the cross dressing. You don't see many people with long hair, beards and sandals dressed so out of devotion to Jesus, now do you?

It has, slowly, dawned on me that those people are, in their own eccentric way, keeping alive the flame of the world's most charismatic and, in influence and bearing, enduring pop star ever.

Last night more than 70,000 fans held their annual candle-lit vigil at Graceland, the Presley family home in Memphis, in honour of the King's death, 35 years ago today. Presley's widow, Priscilla and his only daughter, Lisa Marie were, for the first time since the vigil tradition began, amongst the fans.

Like most aspects of Presley's post-mortem existence, the vigil has been part of an organized week of events to commemorate his death, which has included, the online memorabilia store, doing a good trade in 35th anniversary goods.

The trouble I have with this is that Presley's memory these days seems to be only good for image exploitation. Unlike other icons who died too soon - Lennon, Hendrix, Cobain - Elvis has been turned into a caricature represented by anyone and anything in a white jumpsuit, gold-framed sunglasses and stick-on sideburns.

In Las Vegas, where the Presley's career descended into the mediocrity of cabaret, his legacy is maintained by the opportunity of you and your beloved (or new acquaintance) being married by an Elvis lookalike at a drive-through wedding chapel. And to sweeten the deal, you'll get $200 of gambling chips for your trouble. It's Vegas. It's just part of that city's gaudy schtick.

Unfortunately its exactly that sort of tackiness that helped drive my indifference towards Elvis. He'd become a cartoon. What changed my opinion was my first visit to Memphis four years ago. Part of a driving pilgrimage to The South, this was - if you'll excuse another religious reference - a visit to my musical Holy Land: Clarksdale's crossroads is Manger Square, Beale Street the Via Dolorosa.

Memphis has a unique place in musical history, being the meeting point and melting pot for blues, soul and R&B, drawing on country and gospel in their genetics. It was these influences that put the fire into Elvis Presley's belly when he first turned up at the Sun Studio on Union Avenue as a teenager to record an acetate disc to give to his mother Gladys for her birthday.

My own visit to Sun transformed my view of Elvis forever. For the first time in my life I saw him not as the jump-suited king of high camp, but as an earnest young singer who had something that no singer had then, or has had since.

It was, then, logical to start my Elvis tour at Sun. Most Memphis visitors make straight for Graceland as soon as they can. So, knowing that Sam Phillips' studio was where the whole Elvis thing began, and with my deep-seated aversion towards tourist excess, I chose to skip the Presley mansion until I was in the mood.

Anyone visiting Memphis should do the same. Graceland represents the Elvis that he became. The Sun Studio represents the raw talent of an 18-year-old truck driver, called back by Sam Phillips almost two years after he'd cut the disc for his mother, to team him with guitarist Scotty Moore and bass player Bill Black ro record the Arthur Crudip blues standard That's All Right.

It became a hit across the segregated South (many couldn't believe they were listening to a white man singing a black song...and sounding black), making Presley a regional star. That drew the attention of 'Colonel' Tom Parker and eventually RCA records, who in turn released Hound Dog which, when performed for the first time on The Ed Sullivan Show caused havoc in living rooms across America.

All of that - and much of the pop and rock music that has followed - can be traced back to that tiny studio on Union Avenue in Memphis, which I went back to last year. The other effect of visiting Sun is that after virtually breathing the same air filled Presley's lungs as he made his recording debut,  it becomes impossible not to visit Graceland.

Eight miles separates it from Sun, but it's a distance as significant as the Mississippi Delta is from Chicago. Modest, as mansions go, it was Presley's principle home from 1958 until he died there in 1977.

It was his Camelot, his seat and a magnet for family members as well as the 'Memphis Mafia' that surrounded Presley for much of his life after success took a hold. In the TV room, for example, Elvis would sit for hours watching three TV sets simultaneously, like a nightwatchman monitoring CCTV screens.

The oddest place in Graceland, though, has to be The Racquetball Room. Presley had it built in the early 70s to actually play racquetball, that odd cousin of squash.

The building was another of Presley's hangouts, furnished with a bar, a very comfy lounge, pinball machines and a piano. It was at this piano he sat playing Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain in the early hours of August 16, 1977.

It was the last thing he ever played, closing the piano lid before going back to the main house, where he was later found dead in the upstairs bathroom, having suffered a fatal heart attack, most likely the result of his addiction to prescription medicines. He had died alone, aged just 42.

The irony is that Elvis had rarely been alone in years. In the brilliant Beatles Anthology series, Ringo Starr talks of the somewhat odd atmosphere the Fabs encountered when they were invited to an audience with Presley at his Los Angeles home in July 1965. The band were on tour just a year after they'd made their own breakthrough appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, prompting the so-called British Invasion.

The opportunity to visit Elvis at his Bel Air mansion was seen as keeping protocol, like state diplomacy. In principle it was The Beatles Meet Elvis, but with the Liverpudlians in the ascendancy it had become Elvis Meets The Beatles. Starr noticed an unease about the King during their encounter, which he spent idly strumming a bass guitar. The "weird" atmosphere was not helped by Presley being surrounded by guffawing sycophants. These were the so-called Memphis Mafia, his hangers-on who can also be heard on Presley's 1968 'comeback' TV special, laughing on his every ad-lib like the hyped-up studio "posse" of a zoo-format radio DJ.

Though The Beatles have mostly spoken positively of the meeting, the uneasy atmosphere can be explained by the fact British band were, at the time, succeeding in enjoying critical as well as commercial success, while Elvis had been reduced to Las Vegas cabaret and making cheesy movies, a status, sadly, that would arguably change very little until his death.

I was nine-years-old that Tuesday. I remember it distinctly. I was on a family holiday in Wales, staying in a quaint slate-roofed cottage with a pretty little garden. Coming back from a day's excursion somewhere, I remember rushing into my bedroom, being a Tuesday, to hear the new Top 40 being read out on the 5 o'clock bulletin of Radio 1's Newsbeat. Instead it was relaying the news: "The King Is Dead".

Being nine, I can't say it had a profound impact. It was news. It was someone famous that I had heard of and had probably heard. I certainly had no idea of cultural significance. In 1977 I was undergoing my own musical awakening, the result of immersive chart radio listening rather than educated taste. Hound Dog, Heartbreak Hotel and even Blue Suede Shoes - written by fellow Million Dollar Quartet member Carl Perkins and drenched in the Delta Blues that I would come to love - may as well have been novelty records from the wind-up gramophone era.

Memphis, Sun Studio and Graceland all opened up the cult of Elvis for me by exposing his roots. It opened my eyes to the God-given talent that was completed by the personality and charisma.
Seeing black and white clips of Presley's first appearance on American TV, swinging his hips and rasping "You ain't nothing but a hound dog", with his greased-up hair and kiss curl, explained the revolution that he brought.

John Lennon claimed that he was kicked out of school for growing sideburns like Presley's, and indeed all four Beatles have cited Elvis as one of their main influences. Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, Jim Morrison, Robert Plant, Michael Hutchence - all have Elvis to thank, too.

The difference is that Elvis did it by the accident of simply being Elvis.

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