Elvis too cool to be middle class

I’ve seen most of the movies made of Elvis’ life and, for the most part, they fall short of what is standard for a movie.

Most just dramatize key scenes and do an overview, without ever showing events arising as a result of earlier scenes and choices that Elvis made. The best bio-pic that I have seen is Elvis Meets Nixon.

This movie focuses on three days and gives the most amazing look into Elvis’ life – there’s speculation and wishful thinking for the part of the day that Elvis spent in LA, but all other parts of the movie are based in facts.

Part of what makes the movie work is the use of real people and the actors playing he real people in the “documentary” part that provides the framework. Dick Cavett and Wayne Newton are inspired commentators.

Elvis’ life and career snapped into sharp focus for me, as did Elvis’ place in the fabric of society. When we realize that Elvis wanted nothing more than to be middle class, acceptable, part of mainstream, to make enough money to support his parents – all of his career choices make sense.

Elvis didn’t want to be a rock n roll rebel – he wanted to belong, he wanted to be Dean Martin.

Once he got onto RCA’s label and Parker wanted to move him to the mainstream so the money would roll in, Elvis went along with it, because he wanted to be loved and accepted. So of course he listened to Parker, who seemed to know how to talk to the northern business establishment who looked at Elvis like a freak.

Elvis let Parker drive away everyone who encouraged Elvis to be different – Sam Phillips, Scotty and Bill, Lieber and Stroller – anyone else who pushed Elvis to be an artist.

It may not be so much that it was Elvis, with Steve Binder on his side, standing up to Parker, as much as Parker realizing that Elvis was fading into obscurity and non-relevance and he had to let Steve think he was getting his way, so that Steve didn’t realize that Parker was making a deal about a soundtrack recording, which Binder never got a penny of, although he produced the whole thing.

One area of Elvis’ career that was particularly tragic was the quickie movies made just to put Elvis on screen and get cash from the starved for anything Elvis fans.

If Elvis’ movie career truly had followed the successful movie formulas, instead of becoming formula movies, the pairing of Elvis and Bill Bixby could have give Rock Hudson/Tony Randall movies a good run for the box office money.

Bill and Elvis in Speedway

Elvis’s own movies only seem back when isolated from the movies of the day – and his best movies completely stand the test of time – so in hindsight, Parker was actually right – to make Elvis a lasting entertainer, he needed to cater to the mainstream tastes, not remain the rebel rocker who’s light would have limited appeal and eventually, dim below remembrance.

Elvis’ sense of comedic timing was superb and he was very good at doing bits of acting business. In Viva Las Vegas, he engages in a lot of screwball comedy style banter, and when he pops the champagne cork, his Jerry Lee Lewis antics are hysterically funny.

Rock Hudson made a career of playing the gay/playboy with the heart of gold and Elvis should have made one of the naughty boy needing the right girl to make an honest man of him. There wouldn’t have been a dry seat in the house, had every Elvis movie played to that strength.

As it is, we have a film legacy that is largely unmatched, with the exception of his first film, he was the leading role and none of his films lost money. Often, they saved studios from failure and certainly were used to underwrite more artistic films that are not as watchable today, because of their more serious and dated sensibilities.

Film was the most appropriate medium for Elvis and we are lucky that his beauty was captured in technicolour, instead of the early 60’s being captured only in grainy black and white photos, had he come back and continued only touring and occasional TV appearances.

Parker’s short changing Elvis’s career certainly contributed to Elvis’ self destructive behaviours, but it was Elvis who never permanently fired Parker nor trusted his own judgment enough to take actual and long term charge of his own career. Elvis understood the power he had over the fans and he enjoyed it – his 50’s TV performances and his later self-parodies in the 70’s showed him at his playful best, testing the audiences and not quite being sure why his every move was so riveting – Elvis rarely used the power that his talent and fame brought him – expect to exert control over his Memphis Mafia companions – taking out his frustrations on them and then compensating with excessive gifts.

Elvis punished himself worse of all with impulsive and extreme behaviour in his real life, when he was not willing to express his extremes through his artistic output – had he been able to continue being outrageous musically and movie-wise, he may well have lived longer and healthier. But, being boxed into a generic actor and generic singer, Elvis’ outlandish side expressed itself in drugs, food and other binge-behaviour.

In listening to the recorded last conversation between Elvis and Red West, I was most struck with Elvis’ constantly referencing songs. Elvis understood the world through music, it was what he was and it defined his role in life. Elvis was in a constant state of existential crisis – he was trying to sort out why  he of all people, was Elvis Presley, and he had a gnawing sense that there was something more he could be doing than just singing for people, without understanding that him just singing was what helped people to rethink public morals, rethink gender roles, to rethink how to be in society.

His gnawing sense was that he knew on a level that he was squandering his talent and not using them to best impact – but that would require him to potentially turn away people who didn’t like what he was singing. Elvis had been truly proud to serve his country, the two years in the military was his last and only adult time spent close to being a regular person. But even then, while Elvis did follow the rules, he never was a regular soldier – he was able to buy himself the best possible permitted gear, while the rules allowed for living off base with dependants, it was intended as spouse and children, not parent and grandparent and staff.

Elvis was happy when he got to play at being normal, but normal didn’t make Elvis happy, and his mother raised him with the expectation that he was special. No one ever made Elvis feel as special as his mother, and he lost her in the middle of the time he was being a regular soldier. As regular a soldier as Elvis could be, in any event.

Elvis didn’t do the things that regular people do – like taking responsibility for one’s career and family – Elvis left everything of his life to be taken care of by other people. Elvis was generous, but this was to compensated for his absence, his abdication, for other people allowing the rules of normal to not apply to Elvis.

It occurs to me that when people are brilliant in some way – intellectually or artistically – that there is a compensating lack in another area – and it seems to be in the social behaviour – so intellectually or artistically brilliant people tend to not be adept at social skills – so they are often absent minded and rude when intellectually brilliant or impulsive bingers combined with extremes of selfish/generous conduct when artistically brilliant.

Which makes sense, since intellectually brilliant is about logical process and artistically brilliant are emotional processes.

The white house staff thought that Nixon was insane when he agreed to meet with Elvis and his insistence that the meeting would help his image – Nixon knew that Elvis was th cool kid back in the 50’s and he didn’t understand why and Elvis weren’t relevant to young people in the 70’s. But, the photo of the two men shaking hands is the most requested item of any presidential library.

Nixon is considered an elder statesman and Elvis is finally being accorded the recognition due his vast body of work.

Game Changers

I have been involved in an authentic discussion on an internet forum – I know sounds impossible, but it’s true. The entire discussion is here. It starts off as a normal theist/atheist debate – well, as a grown up one for the most part – but then Ben and I enter into a very intense discussion where we are using the same language to describe ever slightly different things.

During this discussion, I was for the first time ever, able to article a though about the origins of the universe as perpetual existence, in which creation and armageddon – creation and destruction are balanced.

The short version is that everything is energy, and a lower magnitude order of energy is matter – black holes pull everything in and compress the energy and white hole explode that compressed energy out and is the conduit for creation.

All the dark energy and dark matter is that which exists in potential or unrealized realities in our universe – every universe is telling every possible story that there is be to told, and it’s our collective and individual choices that direct the story from potentially being told to what is actually told.

In this way, the future is bright and everything could potentially happen – but our nature (aka genetics) give us our potential and our nurture (experience of other people) gives us our limitations within that potential.

Every now and then, a person can break through the limitations and potential and exceed it – these are the people who are the social game changers – they push the rest us off onto a slightly different trajectory than we would have, had that person not changed the game.

I digress for a moment and say that the first time I wrote a letter to the editor of my local daily paper was back in the 1980’s. A letter was published that said, in effect, we shouldn’t make a fuss over Elvis Presley, because he was just a human and a singer and he didn’t impact history.

The letter that I wrote responded with: Elvis was a human in the same way that Hitler or JFK were just humans. Elvis changed the culture and thus did change history and who else did the letter writer think could change human history – snails?

Nearly thirty years later and now with the blog – the biggest unedited letter to the editor opportunity since it lacks an editor, I expand on that simple outraged thought:

Game changers can be a representative force for good or evil, but either way, they represent a collective choice to change direction. When we talk about game changers, it is usually in terms of that they changed the course of history – as if history was on a set course, instead of plodding forward from the last game changer until someone does something and we all get behind the new direction.

Game changers can be in any arena but their impact is far sweeping and often, unable to be directly connected back, so profound are the changes they bring. Because what a game changer does, is act as a focal point for a collecgive existential crisis. They represent an extreme of a value that as a society, we’re all over the map is – game changers polarize the population, until the value crisis is resolved.

Hitler was a crisis of orderliness – all the mechanisms of society ran like clockwork under Hitler – he standardized railway lines, he increased employment and restored a proud identity – and the world could have gotten behind his family values even for he demanded the arts reflect purity in mind and representation – he was trained in architectural paintings – and his paintings where technically well made – they just didn’t have any purity of heart or imagine in them – and this is where they fell flat.

This is also where Hitler fell flat, for his goals were not to restore a sense of order, but rather to marshal forces for a purification – a genocide of everyone deemed lesser than.

The world could not get behind this, for, everyone is lesser than someone else – Hitler was nothing short of total annihilation of human kind – the diversity of humans is our strength – adaptability – if Hitler had succeeded, he would have had to turn on his own Austrians as falling short of the ideal – tall blond and blue eyes.

It also didn’t seem to register on the nazis, that the countries with the highest concentrations of tall, blond and blue eyed people – Holland, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Sweden – wanted nothing to do with his ideas. And, if they could have had any understanding of genetics – these northern Aryans were descended from the original Aryans, who started in India. The paler features being merely acclimated traits to the colder and less sunny climate in the north.

Of course, my favorite game changer is Elvis Presley – and I put him in comparison to Hitler because Hitler was intentionally trying to remake the world in a specific manner – whereas, Elvis was a game changer in a wholly organic and unintentional way.

Elvis Presley grew up in the poorest circumstances possible for a white person – the American South. His father is often referred to as a sharecropper, but that is a gross exaggeration, since Vernon was in fact a layabout who drifted from job to job without a thought to the legality of the job and he ended up for a short time in one of the harshest prisons of the south for altering a cheque – a small fraud of less than ten dollars.

Elvis was probably more scarred by the authorities removing his father than the poverty he grew up with, because the poverty was an experience that everyone he knew was having, so it was normal. This prison stint is likely why Elvis had something of a fetish for the symbols of authority – badges, uniforms and guns – because authority meant power.

Elvis wanted to sing and entertain people and he wanted to make enough money to support his parents, whom he referred to as his babies.

Elvis the game changer response to Hitler.

Hitler represented purity and order. Purity in behaviour, in body and mind, and purity of person – when purity ideas combine in religion and politics, ethnic cleansing is sure to follow.

Elvis represented everything impure about people – but impure in the fun and untamed sense – in him, the impurities were express through music, a joyful celebration of all that is earthy and basic drives for sex, food, colour, excess, vulgar but  an uplifting vulgar, a joyful vulgar. Elvis was the embodiment of racial equality, the unadulterated public sex, for Elvis didn’t just wiggle, Elvis fucked us all – the performance style of the fifties was exaggerated sexual movements and the represses teens threw off the social chastity belts and screamed and writhed and fucked back.

No performer would ever stand still to sing again until Sade in the 1980s, who made stillness her rebellion against the over choreographed performances that came after Elvis, reaching their penultimate in Madonna and Micheal Jackson.

Sadly, by which time, the audiences were once again used to carefully controlled performances and techno music, rather than the joyous and raw and authentic emotional release of the short explosion that the rockabilly, before it became the more mainstream and tame rock n roll.

John Lennon once said that Elvis died when he went into the army, but I think Lennon was being kind – Elvis the game changer died when his contract was sold to RCA and Elvis was no longer in partnership with Sam Phillips, who got the best of Elvis, Scotty and Bill – and Elvis, allowed himself to be led by Col. Parker, who took careful steps to separate Elvis from Scotty and Bill and turned Elvis away from the pure sexual art path and into a groomed commercial product.

We would not see Sun Elvis again, until 1968, when leather clad and running with sweat, Elvis again connected to his sexual power and made love to us all and then ended, white and powder dry, pouring out his soul, with If I Can Dream.

Please let that dream come true, indeed.

Hitler is the template for all that we should avoid in a political leader – one who dictates the party message, closes the field to differing opinions and especially prevents the development of future party leaders, seeks to control the role of women in society, controls eduction, focuses on families only and characters non-conformity as deviant – and in particular sexual deviance from the norm, scapegoats sub-cultures as being the cause of society problems and inequity, when it is the demand to conformity and purity that invents and is the basis for the inequity that sub-cultures and ethnic minorities are subjected to discrimination upon.

Elvis is the template to oppose these puritanical political-religious leaders – and he arose unforeseen from the ashes of the US South to challenge the social status set in motion by Senator McCarthy – a man not very distinguishable from Hitler at all in any meaningful sense, except that he did not achieve the degree of absolute power that Hitler had, McCarthy was limited to influence through threat and scare tactics.

Elvis equalized the the dominate white with the subculture of black, he was religiously zealous and worshiped authority and his 1950’s concerts should be viewed as southern revival gatherings. But Elvis never recognized himself as having any authority or power and thus it tempered his impact – for if Elvis had retained control of his artistic career, we well may have been pushed too fast, too far, beyond what we were collectively able to manage – so, Elvis, had to be not only tamed, but sacrificed.

Elvis himself, spent his life in a state of bewilderment, why him, of all people, was he Elvis Presley? To grow up so poor and then on the cusp of adulthood, become the most famous and controversial performer and the lighting rod for debate about public morals.

No one could have been prepared for the kind of existential crisis that would cause for a boy who was the first of either family side to complete high school, who aspired to the middle class American dream, to be entertaining people in a way that was no different to him than the churches he was raised in – Elvis brought what was his sense of normal onto the rest of us. Egalitarian and earthy, of the flesh and pure in spirit.

Elvis was the joy of living to the fullest, despite all hardships and setbacks, because you can’t know how long you will have life or how long a good stretch of life will last.

This is why Elvis was receptive to the message that he was a flash in the pan and he should get while the getting was good. Elvis, like everyone else, didn’t expect to last.

So, he listened to what Parker and the studios told him, they had the experience and were the experts – and he listened until he couldn’t anymore – then he would take control. When he did, no one could stand before him.

Sadly, this is in the purest sense, the SUN recordings and the 1968 tv special. Everything else was Elvis tamed and controlled, but still, Elvis working within constraints and Elvis phoning it in, was more often than not, better than most other people’s most authentic efforts.

And nothing that pure and gold could last. Elvis left the building of his own accord.