My pre-christmas blog – The Image Is One Thing and the Human Being is another - sparked an unexpected debate.
Victims and choices.
It’s near and dear to my heart because I am a victim who is desperately seeking choices. So, to Elvis before me.
Elvis -the story is so familiar as to have lost the human sense of what it meant.
Elvis grew up in rurally depressed Tupelo and moved to Memphis as a young teen, made a record at Sun and became the King of Rock n Roll, dying at 42 after a string of hit records and movies and sure, he had a great voice, but he’s not considered an artist or at least an understandable artist who was mismanaged to death.
That’s the concept – but that doesn’t give you a sense of the experience – especially no where near as intense as Elvis – being ground zero – fitting given his early promotion as an atomic powered singer – especially given how unknowingly accurate that title was.
Elvis grew up rural labour class poor. His father was taken away when Elvis was three and he followed his mother going door to door to get a petition for early release. Elvis’s first crime – stealing empty pop bottles was responded with a spanking and a scolding and Elvis never crossed that line again.
Elvis grew up without much and what he had, he shared as a matter of course. Gladys was forever following in his wake, getting back toys and comics that Elvis gave away.
By the time he noticed girls, he was so girl crazy, so crazy that any girl could be reduced to tears when teased that Elvis liked her. Elvis was Georgie Pordgie.
Elvis grew up in a small world where everyone was the same level of poor – and the middle class, well, being middle class was a pipe dream.
Elvis was a dreamer who didn’t fit in because he wasn’t like other people – he felt music to his core and he knew it’s transformative power – to turn a gawking guy into a girl magnet before he was famous. Suddenly, it was the girls chasing Elvis and he could run or not as he pleased.
Elvis would have been content to stay on Sun records, working the Southern Regions with his band, doing a single and a tour, then coming home to a home he had earned with his singing. Life would be good and compartmenalized – such was his dreams – a celebrity life on the road and a wife at home.
But the problem for Elvis was that other people had other plans and Elvis’ dreams were of the life he could manage and have – but Col Parker saw what Elvis didn’t see – national fame, a TV Appearance to make more money in a night that most would see working 10 or more years – and Elvis was caught in that how much is enough trap?
Parker played on Vernon’s desire to not do any actual work, Glady’s family baggage of Mother as invalid to be care taken – promising that Elvis could make enough money in a few short years to carry them in middle class style for the rest of their lives – and on that score, Parker was right.
Gladys would leap from rural poor to a middle class home on Audobon Drive – a languid tree lined peaceful street with a large lawn. A world away from cramped government warehousing tucked in between a highway and a major throughfare to Graceland – a 14 arce estate with a 20 room mansion and farming buildings.
Gladys only spent one Christmas in Graceland and she couldn’t even enjoy that, with Elvis’ draft notice looming over them – threatening to separate this close knit family more than fame ever took Elvis away from them.
Elvis would put in a pool and redesign the interior, re-making a plantation mansion into a Blingdom Man Cave. Elvis was the original Metrosexual, starting in the Sun days.
Everything Elvis worked for was over. He had more money and fame that he dared to dream in his wildest nightmare – and every time he compromised his dream – by letting Parker move him from the regional Sun label to the national RCA label and made Elvis a household name – be it in worship or a curse – to become the first and last entertainer we could all agree on – no matter what or who we are – Elvis was supremely fuckable – in the sense that he was such pure experience and sheer joy of living that you couldn’t help but get on board with him and how he expressed his creativity.
Elvis inhabited the songs fully and without reserve. This was why he could sing any genre and take over songs that were written as signature songs for other artists.
As long as Elvis was nutured, he brought everything he had to the music – Elvis learned from Sam Phillips how to produce his sessions and when Elvis worked with people who nurtured him as an artist – they got the best work – the Sun Sides, the early New York and Nashville Sessions, the Stax sessions, the early movies and the 68 special.
The problem was, that Elvis was so good that his phoned in work – the mid 60’s to the end of the movies, the 1973 special – well, we loved him so much we didn’t care or we didn’t understand and couldn’t tell the difference.
After a time, Elvis could no longer compartmentalize and separate his life, he wasn’t nutured at home or at work – and everything fell apart.
Because Elvis was not capable, not equipped and not prepared to be as socially capable of navigating the complexity that his world became.
He wanted to make a middle class living with music and divide his life between life on the road and life at home.
But he didn’t get to stay a regional musician, he became an international celebrity and instead of feeding his life to his art, he feed his art and life into a huge industry machine that cares only for making money while it’s possible to make it and then moving to the next fad.
It cares not for legacy or the artistic and human values – it cares only for inserting performers and outputing product for sale.
Without ever understanding and believing that you get better more durable product when you nurture the performers – and the studio’s star system was based on mercurial boxoffice and even moreso studio heads – which is why people’s careers are hot and then not – because we are measuring the wrong things.
Like Henry Fonda was so good that he never made a bad movie, but he didn’t get an Oscar until On Golden Pond and he was dying – because the studios make movies play to actor’s strengths.
So we don’t have a Dustin Hoffman situation of when he’s good, he’s sublime, but when he’s bad, well, that’s another kind of sublime.
For for some reason, with Elvis, we look more to the legacy of what could have been, should have been, without really looking at what was there – the good and the bad – and Elvis ends up wearing everyone’s mistakes because he didn’t take the kind of control of his life that most people take for granted and he didn’t exercise the kind of control that other artists now take for granted – BECAUSE of Elvis.
Much like how the Little Rascals children growing up to discover all their money was spent by their parents – so artists now are protected from parents or studios or mangers – because if we don’t’ explicitly say, people will do what they can get away with.
And, when you are dealing with a person like Elvis, who is having all he can to to manage navigating a world that nothing could have prepared him or anyone else for – because remember, all the fame was happening in the here and now to him – he was dazzled and dizzy half the time – and under pressure to maintain the humble country boy don’t get uppity.
I was told, back in my volunteering for a local tv station, to keep your hair short and grow it long when you make it.
But Elvis started with long hair compared to the crew cuts of the day and he made it – but now he had to navigate a crew cut world where people wanted the money he could make for them, but found Elvis himself unsavoury, distasteful, unsophisticated, hillbilly.
And, you are supposed to be doing your best work and maintaining quality and trusting yourself when everyone is telling you contradictory things, and things more in their interest than yours and you just wanted to make music and have a middle class level life.
So, you do what you’re told and they leave you alone to live your life as you want.
But, over time, all that weighs on your mind, how different it turned out than what you imagined, how you can’t keep things separate and all you can do is brood about the compartments that are all merging together.
Elvis was a victim of management, studios, RCA, the various fans – we consumed him without ever understanding what he was really about.
Yes, it was about getting girls and getting to live a life where you made your own rules and set your own hours – and as long as life was fun – Elvis was happy and he made good movies and good records.
And when life wasn’t fun – when the work was a chore and repetitive and you are treated as a record and movie machine instead of being nurtured as an artist – then life wasn’t fun – no matter how fabulous it looked from the outside.
Inside, it was a misery – his mother gone and not getting to enjoy any of the success. And I think it was a family success, not Elvis’ alone.
The establishment making him out to be a sexual deviant drug using corrupter – from the beginning and it never let up – so after a time, what else can it become but true, if only to dull the pain and let you forget or pretend that it’s not there for a while.
Elvis resigned himself to participate in his own destruction by dutifully fulfilling whatever contract Parker signed him to because Elvis needed more money to try to fill that gaping hole where his heart used to be, because maybe, just maybe, one of his spending spree distractions would make him feel life was worth living again. For a while.
Elvis was a straight – he beleived in the American Dream, because he lived it. He beleive in equality of all people because of his life experience and was crushed by being raised up by his fame into levels of society that from the outside seem as advertised – people equal and able to work to their potential.
But, society is not as advertised – in fact, it’s because of those previous decades of people living small and being small – acting as if their preferred reality where what they beleive is real and their normal is normal for everyone, without regard to individual circumstance or their diversity.
Elvis was crushed by the greed and the prejudices of other people. He was an idealist and a visionary – who navigated a more complex world than most people ever experience, rising from the lowest socio-economic status to unrestricted fame, unlimited access to wealth, but who was constantly held back and limited by the smallness of the thinking of the greedy, self serving, bigoted people who operated the entertainment industry, the government, the society at that time.
Basically, the laws and rules that we establish set out the ideals – and then all the laws and regulations that detail and qualify are to address and prevent the behaviours that fall short of these ideals.
Elvis embodied the ideal, it’s how he inhabited the songs to wring every last drop of emotion from every note and utterance.
Elvis treated everyone he met as an equal – but he was not treated that same way back – he was an authentic straight in an inauthentic world, where bias and bigotry bend the rules to favour the status quo.
Agents of change, if not nurtured, die a slow and agonizing death over their shortened lifetime, crushed by the smallness and meanness of other people.