On and Off the Mystery Train
article by Kevin Harvey
ONE: Watching on the Sofa
I was sitting on the sofa with my mother watching Milton Berle entertain sailors when the dimensions realigned. Up until roughly 1956 my mother's Parental Play Book included this nifty move: If the street lights were on anywhere in North America, it was time to go to bed. I went along with this because I felt I had to, but I never understood the link. It wasn't as if I were sleeping in the streets or even playing outside, but the lights signaled that my mother's duties were officially over. I had no idea how this worked. In fact, I thought it had something do with my father's nickname for God: the Big Guy Upstairs. When the Big Guy turned on the lights, dark green, semi-Victorian, eight-footers in those days, I'd better get ready for bed. It didn't matter if I was sleepy or not, there was no telling what would happen if I didn't. But as I say, I was up later than usual for reasons that now escape me—perhaps some punk had knocked out the unprotected bulb on the nearest street lamp—but I was up watching Uncle Milty sweat his way through a set of jokes I didn't understand or trust. I knew when I was supposed to laugh because the sailors were laughing, but I suspected there was wrong and that when I was old enough to figure it all out, I'd pinpoint why they were faking it.
And then a singer came out to entertain the sailors; not a singer as I understood them, not a kindly fellow wearing a sweater and sitting on a stool, or a Three-chord cowboy charmer, or even a guy with a ukulele—there were lots of guys with ukuleles in those days—but a full-bodied dude who looked like one of the Junior High Killers who might have shot out our street light. And he was moving. Really moving. To my young eyes, he looked crazed. I had no idea what I was watching. Nor, would I soon learn, did my mother. I couldn't have been more adrift if my father had come home with Rusty Warren's Knockers Up album and said: "Listen to this, Kev, they're all tit jokes."
I tried to make sense out of what the moving man was singing, but I couldn't. His language—part Southern, part Martian—wasn't anything I recognized. And yet, for all of my eight short years, I knew it was something I wanted very badly to hear. In fact, I knew I'd always been waiting to hear it and didn't know it. This is why they put me to bed so early, I thought. All these years later, the sentence still resounds in my skull: This is why they put me to bed! I actually thought that this was what adults watched every night! Of course, I had to go to bed early! What sort of parent would allow a child to watch such stuff? More than mere morality was at stake; my sanity hung in the balance. And his name, audible at last in the stunned silence of our living room, was Elvis Presley! Of course, it was Elvis Presley! There was no such name. There was no such person. But, up past my bedtime, I had seen him. And he could be named nothing else.
TWO: Watching Alone
In between the show with the sailors and the Sullivan programs, my mother found the words to describe the singer and they were not good. He was . . . obscene . . . which I didn't understand, but that was the verdict. The streetlights might be on all over America, and I might have been standing Big Boy Tall, but we were not going to be watching Elvis Presley. Not in my mother's house. The first few seconds of silence that followed Mom's decree from Idiot Mountain were important ones: In the blink of an eye, perhaps less, I was formed. I didn't argue; I didn't plead; I didn't say she was attempting to make a laughing stock out of me, that everyone I knew would be watching Elvis. Indeed, I said not a word about the dividing line of social symbol or the need to recognize emerging archetype as it floated to the surface. Instead I turned and ran soundlessly out of our third-floor apartment—the second-floor apartment was home to an ancient lady whose name has long since vanished in the ether—and ran downstairs to the first-floor apartment of the Markleys— hard core Catholics all—a dark-shadowed hulk of an aunt chanted rosaries in the last room on the right—while I joined, without bothering to knock, the huddled group of hard core Catholic kids seated on the floor in front of the television. No one said a word. They knew why I was there. Elvis was on and by insisting on watching him against my mother's wishes, I'd reached what I've since thought of as my permanent age; I became someone, myself, and I never changed or aged internally. This moment, this first flash of rebellion, seems as good as any to shoot down an undying canard. And who doesn't love Canard Hunting? I've never believed that Elvis Presley introduced White America to Black Music; countless Blacks had already done so: Ray Charles, Billie Holiday, Little Richard, Ruth Brown. The list goes on forever. What Elvis did was he allowed a particular brand of strange Southern Identity Creation, call it Insistence, to enter the rest of America's living rooms. And by the rest, I mean everywhere other than the South. I've always thought his shocking appearance on 50's television was more Class Warfare than Racial, but even if I roast the canard on a stick, some White crank will insist my Canard Kabob is undercooked. Besides, it was easier, simpler, to blame Blacks. Let's leave it with me overcoming Mom's groundless resistance., my first insistence that there were things I was just going to do. Call it identity. That we can blame on Elvis.
From the ages of eight to twelve, numbers that mattered only to the external world, my love was a love that dare not speak its name. Only now do I realize that I passed those years without a record player! Elvis' records, from 1956 to 1960, were random bulletins stolen from Phantom Radio. It would take a couple of years to name them all, to internalize each second of sound, to memorize the given photo sleeve—the pose—the singer's clothing and hair style; but in 1960 I was ready to see G.I. Blues at the Capital Theater. So I went alone into a building filled with girls. It is entirely possible that I was the only male in the building that Saturday; for certain I was the only male in the balcony. (By the time of Harum Scarum or Double Trouble I would be the only person in the building.) But that day in 1960 was alchemical: I'd wandered away from the pack, the pals, the dreaded adolescent pack of fools my parents happened to live near and gone off to see an Elvis movie alone! It was mystical, glorious, weird! Sitting in the balcony surrounded by girls who were actually screaming at the screen—not enough to ruin the film, but still—I was as isolated a spirit as Joseph Cornell watching the counter girls in Woolworth's. G.I. Blues was co-billed with a reissued Tarzan and the Lost Safari; full color Elvis, walking and talking, followed by jungle greens and a spellbinding Tarzan! My mind, my memory, was recording and reediting the two films into a single impossible entity, my own Cornell, my own Rose Hobart! I'd seen many a movie since Jack Palance terrified me in Shane and The Blob stunned me stupid, but, alone that day with a double bill from heaven, I felt the first stirrings of an esthetic: the collision of disparate images can be a beautiful thing.
Well, if Joseph Cornell could construct a surrealist masterpiece from a discarded B movie starring Rose Hobart in Burma, then surely I was free to dream of Elvis moving through vine-covered temples. Eight years later he would return to the stage, dressed in the black leathers of a major comeback, singing "Tiger Man", validating the accuracy of my prophecy. But we're not done yet with 1960. Far from it.
Elvis Presley never wanted to be the King of Rock n' Roll: Elvis Presley was too big, too talented, too unique a singer and presence, to settle for so narrow a kingdom. Elvis Presley wanted to be Dean Martin, only bigger and better. Before Elvis blended Hank Williams with Johnny Ray, Rock n' Roll's missing link, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis were the Beatles of his youth. It's hard to understand today just how big they were, but when Martin and Lewis were together in New York City, the insane crowds surrounding their hotel were BEATLE BIG. And Elvis truly loved how Dino sang. My father, schooled in Bennett, Bing, and Como, disliked Elvis from the outset. Not because he was a burlesque rock n' roller, mind you, but because he mumbled like that goddamn Dean Martin! And this was "Blue Christmas" mumble. Not the faux-Italian operatic mumble of "Surrender" or Elvis' personal favorite, "It's Now or Never". No, give my old man credit: he caught the influence early. Elvis loved Dino, but the heartbreak of the doomed Southerner, Hank Williams, was also in Presley, mixed with the tongue- in- cheek hysteria of the doomed Johnny Ray. So when Elvis Presley, having righted himself forever with middle class America by going into the Army like a regular Joe instead of a Show Biz God, returned from the military in 1960, his voice high, sweet, and mature, he still wanted to be Dean Martin. Like Dino, he would record a smooth masterpiece of an album, Elvis is Back, "It's Now or Never", "Surrender" "Kiss Me Quick", he would walk through Westerns and comedies not unlike Dino. Why he'd even offset the threat of his glorious hair by wearing a tux when he went on television to blow Sinatra off the stage. Sinatra! Elvis was the biggest star in the history of the game and very possibly the most talented. Put Dino aside for a moment and ponder the impossibility of Elvis Presley. As I keep insisting, change any part of him, including his name, an iota, and you have nothing. A chump at a gas station. He was, at the very least, a mystery that remains unsolved.
I'm going to go out on limb here: The music Elvis Presley made from the Elvis is Back album to the Viva Las Vegas EP is the best of his career. Only snobs and fools reject it. His voice was never higher or sweeter, or more adaptable. Listening to his work today, thirteen years into the twenty-first century, I am actually thankful that the world at large, filled with the terminally hip, was so quick to write him off. By panning his music, by ignoring it, they allowed it to live safely on, to resist parody. You will never hear "Doing The Best I Can" from G.I. Blues or "Angel" from Follow That Dream in a super market or a bookstore the size of an airport terminal. You will hear "Teddy Bear" in a mall parking garage or "Suspicious Minds" echoing within an MRI tube; but the other work, "She's Not You", "Just Tell Her Jim Said Hello", "Such An Easy Question", "Anything That's Part of You", even "Good Luck Charm" remains hidden, listened to in privacy, as if the listener were thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, and Elvis was still alive. Go back to the sleeve on "Good Luck Charm" for a moment: His hair is brown and barely brushed into place; one of the tabs on his button down collared shirt is unfastened! There is light in his eyes and his smile is real! The year is 1962, no one is paying close attention, and the greatest singer in popular history is tossing off masterpieces.
Well, the great records continued, huge hits or not, and the films piled up. Here's where I lose all but the dedicated. His first dozen or so movies, give or take two or three, all worked. In fact, they were actually good: they allowed us to watch a performer so beautiful and talented as to have dropped in from another dimension. He made no immediate sense; what were they supposed to do with him? What context involving humans could they possibly place him in that we might find believable? Leaving Dino aside for the moment, why was it okay for Gene Kelley to sing in the rain, to dance in puddles? People were fine with Marilyn Monroe playing ukulele in an all-girl orchestra, but Elvis couldn't sing on a stage in a New Orleans night club without people smirking? We stared in amazement when he worked in an actual garage, but Tuesday Weld, his near equal in beauty, lived upstairs? What were the chances of those two living over an antiquated pharmacy? And yet somehow we were willing to call him Lucky Jackson if Ann Margret, called Rusty to his Lucky, was along for the ride. People seemed to think he rose to Ann Margret's talent challenge, but I'm not so sure; rather they finally found a co-star as alien as Presley. Popularity demanded other qualities in those days. Elvis didn't live in a world in which Bill Wyman could pick his girl for the day. Beauty mattered in Elvis' world; a singer had to actually sing. I'm not denying that limited talents did quite well for short bursts of time, but even the tone-deaf Fabian was at least cute—and everyone, every one, allowed that his acting wasn't all that bad, that it might even be good. It's odd, really. The pre-Army films all have their charms: the first, Love Me Tender, is the dullest of the lot. Loving You, shot in color, is a wonder. Presley is glorious both on stage and off, even if Wendell Corey is in it. Jailhouse Rock, beautifully choreographed and realistically performed in the studio scenes, is in many ways the quintessential 1950's bad boy rock flick; King Creole, a semi-masterpiece, directed by Michael Curtiz, who had already given us Casablanca, made a film that had it been shot in color would today be recognized as being superior to Brando's Wild One, just a notch or two below Rebel Without a Cause, a movie that would have been reduced by half had it lacked Dean's iconic red jacket, as talismanic a piece of clothing as anything in American film since Bogey predicted Camus' belted raincoat or Dorothy clicked her red heels. Go back to the opening scene in King Creole. Picture a Technicolor Elvis leaning on the railing singing "Crawfish" into the New Orleans streets, or think of him being forced by Walter Matthau to sing his high school song in the night club morning, before smashing a bottle for his encore. No, someone nickel and dimed us , and a great work of popular art was diminished in the process.
It is too easy to say, as John Lennon did, that Elvis died in the Army; just as it is too easy to say that Lennon died when he left the Beatles. Has anyone played the Wedding Album recently? Is twenty minutes of orgasmic name- calling, best played at an Artaud tea party, really superior to, oh, Pot Luck? I don't know. I don't want to pick on the Lennon records no one played; I'm here to defend the Elvis songs people ignored. G.I. Blues has several superb tracks, including one of his all time great performances, "Pocketful of Rainbows." Wild In The Country isn't at all bad and would have been better had Hope Lange been allowed to die. Flaming Star is a decent western that needed a few better actors and two more songs. Blue Hawaii is...well, his biggest hit, and proof enough for the Colonel that for as long as Elvis stayed trim and single, he could play lifeguards and sailors, race car drivers, bellhops and bowlers, it didn't matter. Until it did. There are great songs in Follow That Dream, Kid Galahad, Girls! Girls! Girls! and Viva Las Vegas. "Return to Sender" is superb. "Bossa Nova Baby" is better than anyone will admit, and "Viva Las Vegas", the song itself, once allowed in out of the cold because people noticed that Doc Pomus wrote it, was shockingly good. But from Kissin' Cousins and Harum Scarum on—better that they'd gone with the British title of Harum Holiday- things got very, very dicey. Still, I was always willing to stand in line, alone at the record store, prepared to say the latest soundtrack I was holding was for my institutionalized sister. Double Trouble, indeed.
And yet I feel the need to make the argument one more time: Every hipster on the planet will tell you that Elvis' best work was done before 1958, that from the day he separated from the Army—his years now filled with pathetic movies and crappy soundtracks—he wouldn't do anything worth listening to or watching until his '68 Comeback, a comeback for which everyone took credit, save Elvis himself. Well, it simply isn't true. One: To this day very few people can tell you what was recorded at Sun and what was recorded at RCA. Worse, very few can name anything other than "That's All Right" as a Sun recording. Two: They know only a handful of hits offered up before he was drafted, and then only because the hits were so big that anyone who ever shopped in a mall, a Calcutta street fair, or on the Russian Black Market subconsciously internalized them. So I offer a challenge: Explain to me why "All Shook Up" is superior to "Stuck On You" or, for that matter, "Good Luck Charm". I'll give you time to work on this.
Okay. "All Shook Up" was a sexier phrase because it implied something potentially explosive and/or sexual, but the song itself was actually smooth, mid-tempo, self-aware, and slightly humorous. "Stuck on You," free at last of conscription, is smooth, mid-tempo, self-aware, slightly humorous, and, believe it or not, more arrogantly threatening than "All Shook Up". By the time "All Shook Up" came out, the world was waiting for that exact recording. Expectations had been set and Elvis met them—almost casually, which is one of the reasons the song entered the world a classic. "Stuck On You," beneath its surface slap and accessibility, is the musical equivalent of Ali returning to the ring to beat poor Jerry Quarry, a legitimate contender, onto the path of senility. Take a good look at the once sexy tough guy Sinatra when he duets with Presley on the show that premiers "Stuck On You" to the world. Sinatra, for the first time in his career, is fighting out of his weight class. And knows it. He is puny, stunned, dull, and fully aware that he has been hit by what Ali, then Cassius Clay, created for the valiant Archie Moore: the Old Age Pension Punch. Elvis might have turned up Military Formal for the opening of the show, endearing himself to Middle America and alienating the hipster, but symbolic clothing and tuxedo formality aside, he was, in point of fact, an Army of One, returning to effortlessly reclaim his title.
A string of monster hits will follow, all magnificent studio performances, impossible to slip smoothly into a stage show, but no one noticed. As for this kid, "Pocketful of Miracles", from G.I. Blues was sung by a Technicolor God Man, a song as wonderful to these ears as any he'd ever record. His voice, high and sweet, slides as if he believed in miracles. G.I. Blues, both film and soundtrack were, at the time, pure pleasure. I even liked the lullaby he sang to the cliched baby, who would soon morph, with hideous regularity, into whatever the script seemed to require. No wonder the miscast Juliet Prowse, who here and there seemed to enjoy acting alongside Presley, spurned the hair-pieced Sinatra. She'd been to the mountain. Listen again to "It’s Now or Never" or "Surrender." Elvis even did Italian better than Frankie.
Here's the larger point, the point I will take to the grave: Elvis' best work, his loveliest, most irresistible singing, was made between the triumphant sessions for Elvis is BACK and the soundtrack EP for Viva Las Vegas, a film that easily trumped A Hard Day's Night at the box office. I'll even pinpoint his best two-sided single: it's hard to argue with anyone who says that "His Latest Flame" b/w "Little Sister" was a double A-side masterpiece, because both sides were exactly that: masterpieces. And time has done nothing to diminish them. But the perfect, long unmentioned, totally overlooked, two-sided jewel of "She's Not You" and "Just Tell Her Jim Said Hello" is quite possibly his peak. "She's Not You" a subliminal re/write of Patsy Cline's "She Got You" and "Just Tell Her Jim Said Hello," a performance so touching that one actually believes for two minutes that someone who looked like Elvis could be named Jim. The part of the mind that worships the singer is always aware that it is Elvis singing, that no other name, role, or context could change that. On top of that difficulty we are asked to believe that the singer has been dumped. Dumped! Who was going to dump Elvis, even if he was pretending to be someone named Jim? And yet, we believe. Let's call it acting and ponder for a moment what his career might have been like if he'd started in, say, A Streetcar Named Desire. the mind boggles, but we have this single. The fact that both sides of the record have avoided the spotlight of overkill is a welcomed miracle of omission, one I can happily live with. Don't pipe it in over the vegetables; don't let some fat guy in welder's glasses gag it up. Let's leave it in the attic, where no one ever goes. I'm almost sorry I mentioned it.
The hardcore stayed with him, but his audience began to resemble the crowd at a 25th High School Reunion: too big to fit in a cab, but a bit small for the Olive Garden. And then, in 1968, he came back in full leather, trim and hard, his hair making no concession to the calendar, and startled America and the world by telling everyone that if they were looking for trouble, they'd come to the right place. So much for the Colonel's Christmas show. Elvis would have hits again, and shock the world by returning to the stage, his first Vegas shows, pre-jumpsuit and orchestral overkill, were restricted to black suits and a stripped down sound, but he was planning. Indeed, he was readying himself to move Sherman-like to the North where I finally saw him in Boston in the Fall of '71,
THREE: Watching Him Live
My seeing Presley in Boston in 1971 was truly lucky. His show had yet to be seen and internalized by every fan or detractor on the planet. (The Live Via Satellite program would accomplish that remarkable feat.) I went with an Italian kid from work. For years he would tell people that I cried at the end of the show. And he told the story free of malice, with something close to awe, as if it were his first glimpse into the Irish soul. (We'd meet again decades later when he was now Officer Geradi and I was Professor Kev. You haven't changed, he said, stunned. This seems to be working, I said, meaning the way I looked. Why bother?) The Boston gig was extraordinary. The Sweet Inspirations opened; they might have been good but no one in the audience could focus. And that audience! No stranger Convention of Misfits ever assembled anywhere. Pale guys in vampire cloaks. Grandmothers. Hookers. Hunchbacked Charles Laughton illiterates; slumming intellectuals in Full Attitude. Floor seats were ten bucks a shot, and neither Officer Geradi nor I can remember how we got there or how we went home. It was as if we transported, which, given my long list of reality issues, is quite possible. So, the Inspirations, failing to live up to their name, were followed by a comedian named Jackie Kahane. So help me, I'm almost positive that was his name: I'm working from memory. It might have been Kahane, but I'm positive it was Jackie. He was painful. Granted, he was in the impossible position of preparing the audience for Elvis Presley, but he was hang- yourself- with- your- pants bad. Which may have been part of the plan, because the intermission that followed, the endless Dead Time designed to sell overpriced programs and Celtics-popped corn, was so long, so hideous, that I wouldn't suffer anything as awful again until I took my grandson to see Mickey's Magic Show forty years later. And yet, at exactly the instant, the instant I'd given up and decided to leave—I couldn't stand another minute in the Waiting Room of the Weird—the lights dimmed, darkened. And, holy shit, they were playing Thus Spoke Zarathustra! To encounter this level of Ego Entrance unprepared was jaw-dropping, mind-numbing. The people running his career finally figured out who he was and decided he should enter with an invocation to the Gods! The pounding kettles would eventually become shtick, but that night in the Garden—an accidently Biblical phrase—when no one expected them, was shocking. And then the drums morphed into a drum roll and he was out there. Broken free from where ever they kept him hidden. In a black jump suit with what looked like Aztec sun symbols and longish black hair that fell forward into something close to a cross between Louise Brooks and Prince Valiant. Knowing that we needed to look at him a bit, to take him in before he sang, he paced the entire stage, pausing at the corners, arms extended to maximize the cape, fully aware that no other performer on earth could pull off such an entrance without descending to Pro Wrestling Parody. He understood. We all did. The waiting, the years of waiting, were paid off at last. And then, deciding to return to the very beginning, he opened with "That's All Right" I was pinned to the seat now, hardly able to breathe. This was better than the balcony at the Capital, a thousand times better than the balcony at the Capital. Writing now, decades later, I know that anyone who was paying the least bit of attention knows the set list, but what happened that night to freeze the event in my memory was the moment when Elvis sat down on an amp, demanded the house lights be turned up, and sang "Funny How Time Slips Away". Voices, male, female, I have no idea, cried out: Don't go, Elvis! Don't go! And it was then, I suspect, that fearing I'd never see him again, that I choked up. I'm not sure. You'd have to ask Officer Geradi. I'd been picked up and held by Gene Autry as a kid, but this was different. I'd been taken over by an emotion too large for a mere Rock Show in the old Garden. I'd been in the presence of a performer, a Magus, who defied all logic. No wonder Sinatra, standing next to him while trying to sing, looked stunned.
I'd see him again in New York City, where he was wonderful, but the template had gone public and I knew the program. They took decades to acquire, but I own copies of both shows; Follow That Dream Records released the Boston show in 2012, complete with photographs from the actual gig, and RCA put out all three NYC shows as Prince From Another Planet, a line taken from one of the reviews, perhaps going as far back as Boston. I'm no longer certain. But it doesn't matter anymore now than it did then. His voice had deepened from the sweet perfection of the early 60's, much of his set was filled with songs that weren't his, but I'd seen him twice. Proving once and for all that he existed and that I wasn't hallucinating all those years ago on the sofa, that all of those records I insisted on buying were worth buying because even the throwaways of a genius are interesting. Presley was a human being after all. Bumping into him as he was headed towards the New York stage, George Harrison thought he'd encountered Krishna, but Citizen Presley was real and Officer Geradi was correct: I was willing to tear up in public for someone I'd never met. I admit it. So, decades later, long after Presley was gone, I'd drop off a copy of the Boston show for the good Officer and feel as if I'd closed an important circle, a circle I hadn't realized was open. Which brings us, I'm afraid, to admitting that after August of '77, I didn't know how to listen to Elvis Presley. The Nation, our haunted America, had turned him into a parody of a parody, a fun house weirdo, too heavy to live, too ridiculous to listen to seriously. Elvis impersonators replaced clowns at kid's birthday parties. Indeed, being an Elvis Impersonator was a recognizable profession. I ducked out and turned my back. I had no choice.
FOUR: Watching Him Now.
August 16th is a dangerous day for icons: it took Robert Johnson and Babe Ruth before Elvis lowered his guard. Six months after Elvis died I took a midnight train from New Orleans to Memphis. It was the end of January and it snowed a full half- inch simply to meet me. I talked to Elvis' uncle through the Graceland gates before he handed me an ordering card for his cookbook. Apparently every one
of Elvis' relatives cooked. He was sorry I couldn't come in because twhat with the snow and all, there was always the possibility of a lawsuit. I tried to convince him that I wasn't the kind of guy who went around suing people, but it was no use. It had snowed and no one was getting in. I watched him drive back up the perfectly clear driveway, wondering why he'd even risked coming down to reject me. And then I looked hard at the card for the cookbook. Uncle Vector looked a bit like Elvis' father, only weather-beaten and partially toothless. How many ways can you make a peanut butter and banana sandwich, I wondered. Well, at least I'd talked to one of his relatives. I'd later start up a conversation with a young cabbie, who turned off his meter and drove me first to the spot where Martin was murdered and then to the hospital entrance where the ambulance rushed Elvis too late to save. He was a nice kid. A young woman I didn't know took a picture of me freezing outside the gates of Graceland that showed up in the mails years later. I still have it. Sadly, I lost Uncle Vestor's card. Years would pass before I'd again be able to listen easily to Elvis' voice. It arrived with so much baggage that I could no longer hear it for what it was: a gift. And gifts were not designed to bring pain.
Looking back now, I suspect that Elvis peaked internally after conquering New York. His marriage
in ruins, his problems too well know to bother listing, he'd lost interest in being Elvis. It was, finally, too demanding a role. I used to wonder what it must feel like to look in the mirror and see Elvis looking back at you. Years have passed and I'm still discovering photographs I'd never seen before. How could the most photographed human being in history, his soul shredded by celebrity, continue? No wonder he stayed in the house, his hours the same as Christopher Lee's. His own mystery consumed him. How could it not? A story is told in several biographies. The father and son are together on the road, outside the safe confines of Graceland. They engage in a conversation. A pause occurs, a pause in which the enormity of his success washes over the singer. They had nothing, and then they had everything. The son, thinking out loud, asked a question: What happened, Daddy? And no answer followed. How could it? Neither really understood what hit them, how the father made the son, how the son became the most popular performer ever. Poor Presley had the misfortune to die in the 70's, a wretched decade by all accounts. Look at the photos of Paul McCartney dressed like Freddie Mercury; everyone in the Ford cabinet had sideburns. Most of the music was so poor that Lennon, tired off singing about himself, retired. Lured by Dylan, hipsters turned desperately to Country and Western. a form Elvis absorbed but used for his own ends. Willie Nelson was okay, as was Merle Haggard, I guess, but to return to Country and Western at that point was really an admission that Rock had abandoned its original mission. Radical in origin, Rock n' Roll was morphing into something safe, something that would day require a Hall of Fame, an institution antithetical to threat. So, as I say, Elvis had the awful misfortune of dying overweight in the era of the jumpsuit, his last period being the easiest to parody. It's a shame he didn't live long enough to lose weight, box the jumpsuits back to Vegas, and settle for being a working musician. Who knows, with luck he might even have figured out, after years of painful questioning, just who he was. But that didn't happen. He died when, afraid of his 40's, he stopped paying attention to being alive—it's often that easy—long before performers were allowed to stumble onto stage, waxed and buffed at the shop, not quite up to singing, half talking their way through their performance to ecstatic audiences happy to be fleeced by someone who was once an artist, or even better, royalty. As for the kid on the sofa, his mother also long gone, he lived long enough to enjoy it all again, thankful to have seen a great artist when no one could touch him. And here's how it happened.
Walking at dusk, two years after Elvis died, an answer I could live with formed in my mind. Elvis didn't get it either! He was, finally a regular guy whose pals, a pretty dim bunch, couldn't help him either. When all was said and done, he was a simple man with a complex talent. I repeated the phrase to myself a few times and felt I had him. Maybe. Compared to Presley, the enigmatic, mystic, Dylan was understandable—after all, by insisting he was nothing special and performing with his last shards of voice, he made sure we did. Even John Lennon could look in the mirror and recognize who was shaving. He spent years telling us exactly who he was. But Elvis? He had to wonder. And the question chased him down the years until the mystery crushed him. But enough time has passed now that I can play him again—with more pleasure than ever, and that is saying a great deal. I roam the first half of his sixties work most frequently, but every now and then, something, a spark in the late material will suddenly register, and I will hear what I always heard: a mystery. I didn't understand him that first night on the sofa, nearly sixty years ago, and I may not now; but I didn't turn away then and it's way too late to stop wondering now.
Elvis' death made as little sense as his life. He shouldn't have happened and yet he did; he shouldn't have died in his early forties, and yet he did. A logic seems to be hiding in the wings, something that might link the pieces, something that might point in the direction of an original, emotional finality. And yet the voice in the wings is unlike any other; and, walking alone in the dusk, I settle for calling what happened a mystery.