Monday, July 30, 2007

885 MMMM: Gone too soon (or too late)

I was nine years old, that day in August 1977, forced indoors by a central Illinois thunderstorm. As I lay on the living room floor, watching a rerun of Family Affair, the crawl came across the bottom of the screen: Elvis Presley, the King of Rock and Roll, has died in Memphis at age 42.

I didn’t understand the full import of the news, but I knew it was big.

My parents were no huge music fans, but Elvis was a presence in my house. My dad had a box of old 45s that included “Don’t Be Cruel” and “Treat Me Nice” (which are pretty much the same song now that I think about it), and Mom plopped me in front of the TV to watch the Hawaii concert with her just a few years earlier. Though I was just shy of five years old that night, I knew how I liked my music (namely concise and catchy), and the sweaty man in the heavy jumpsuit doing karate moves in the Oahu heat just confused me. Still, he was the only rock and roller getting two hours of prime time on one of the few stations that came into our home. That made him even bigger than the Brady Six, whose “It’s a Sunshine Day” was as close to televised rock stardom as I could recall.

And he was dead. And I was sad. And I wasn’t quite sure why. All those songs that had become genuine American cultural artifacts – “Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Heartbreak Hotel” – hung in the air for days, vibrant non-stop memorials crackling out of AM radios. A palpable pall had descended; the first superhero for a new generation was gone.

Listen to “Jailhouse Rock”

Then the sordid details began to trickle out. On the toilet. Drug addicted. Paranoid. Fat. Isolated. Estranged from all but his enablers. I didn’t have the wherewithal to piece it all together then, but I knew that something sadder than mere death had happened.

It was clear that Elvis had died too soon. Or too late.

For those too young to recall him in his prime, he was frozen in time as a caricature, the bloated carcass of rock’s past, a symbolic sacrifice in the year of punk rock. He became a punch line, an apparition spotted eating peanut butter and banana sandwiches at southern truck stops, the pill popper who asked Nixon for a narc badge, the half-assed actor in all those bad films, the Vegas staple who paved the way for Wayne Newton as much as the Beatles. In short, he became about as un-rock and roll as you can get.

Later, to make matters worse, the historical revisionism set in. Elvis became either the cunning cultural pirate who stole the popular music of black America and repackaged it for the masses, or the rube marionette who danced at the hands of Colonel Tom Parker and industry powers.

But the reality, as it almost always is, was much more complicated, and luckily, the reality of Elvis is captured in Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love, Peter Guralnick’s two-part Presley biography, as fine an example of personal history as I’ve ever read, rock and roll or otherwise. They paint a picture of a man neither terribly sophisticated nor easily manipulated, but one so advanced in terms of race as to be a man out of time. Elvis made little distinction between styles of music; he simply knew what he liked, and he was as comfortable with the African-American religious tradition as he was with the music of the South’s rural whites. In his first Sun Studios session, he recorded the rhythm and blues chestnut “That’s All Right” and the bluegrass classic “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” and made them sound like they belonged together. Even now, more than fifty years later, it’s hard to imagine many artists could pull off that feat and make it sound so effortless.

Listen to “Blue Moon of Kentucky”

Of course, we also have the recorded tokens of the man in his youth, when he was the antithesis of what he later became. Riveting, authentic, vital, electric. He was not a music biz creation, for man cannot create what he cannot imagine. He was a revelation and a revolution, a vessel that channeled something else, something new, an energy that poured through and out of him.

Elvis was inducted into the Army in 1958, and sent to Europe. If he had never returned, he would have been Buddy Holly times one thousand, an icon unburdened by aging. He would have been James Dean and Jimi Hendrix rolled into one. Or if he could have pulled out of that mid-1970s tailspin, perhaps he’d be here today. Maybe he would have had a late-career renaissance like Bob Dylan. Maybe there would have been one more NBC comeback special in him.

But it was not to be. We lost him too soon. Or too late.

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