Thursday, August 16, 2007

 

Elvis left the building 30 years ago


By Edward Copeland
Dead Elvis has been part of my life far longer than Live Elvis ever was. When Elvis Presley died 30 years ago today, I had a vague idea who he was. I knew some of his songs (I suspect from the TV show Happy Days), but because of the hysteria that greeted the news of his demise, whenever I think of him, I always equate it with death, not music.


I still remember where I was when I heard the news. Lying on the floor of our living room, I either was back home from an early day in third grade or school hadn't started yet (I'm hazy on that). My mom was watching The Merv Griffin Show when the local station that carried the talk show began a crawl announcing that Presley had been found dead that Tuesday in his Memphis mansion. (Merv's guests that day were Buddy Hackett, Robby Benson, Steve Collura and Morton Shulman, which I didn't know off the top of my head but thanks to the research of the kind folks at The Paley Center for Media, formerly known as the Museum of Television and Radio, in New York.)

I don't think I'd ever heard the word "Graceland" yet. A neighbor down the street was a gigantic Elvis fan and so my dad and another neighbor went down to her house and started mockingly performing "Hound Dog" and telling her he'd be buried in a guitar case (That would have to be one huge guitar case), so the dark humor started even before it was clear how he died or where they found him. I always remember the Denis Leary routine about how much better off everyone would have been if Elvis had been killed early in his career so everyone would have fond memories of the energetic, fit-and-trim Elvis instead of the bloated man who expired on a toilet. Of course while I know from reading that there were huge media frenzies when other stars such as Marilyn Monroe (who died Aug. 5, 1962, nearly 15 years to the day as Elvis) and Rudolph Valentino (another August death, this one being Aug. 23, 1926), it seems to me that Elvis took it to a new level. He may have passed in the days before cable news, but I remember how the CBS Evening News received criticism for leading their Aug. 16, 1977, newscast with news that a final deal had been reached for handing over the Panama Canal to Panama instead of focusing on the death of the King of Rock 'n' Roll.

It's not that big a leap to go from Elvis' death (the death of someone with real accomplishments) to the overblown freak show that greeted the passing of Anna Nicole Smith. The hysteria over Elvis was instantaneous: late-night retrospectives, special airings of his old movies (one local affiliate rushed to get Blue Hawaii on that evening), special sections in newspapers, etc.

As a kid who still was vague on the detail of Elvis and his career, I also got caught up in a sort of investigative hoopla, having my mom take me out to a store to purchase 45s of "Heartbreak Hotel" and "All Shook Up." (Someone stop and explain to our younger readers what a 45 was. Hint: Not a gun.) What did annoy me though was that three days after Elvis' passing, a star I was aware of and whom I did love also passed away. Groucho Marx succumbed to pneumonia at 86. I even remember one station promising a late-night special on him, one which never seemed to air. Still, Elvis did fascinate me. When we went on our summer road trip the following year, we made sure to stop through Nashville and Memphis, visiting the Elvis museum, seeing his gold Cadillac and looking at the gates of Graceland, which was packed since our trip nearly coincided with the first anniversary of his death.

I also had a personal link since my sister had actually attended his final concert in Indianapolis in 1977, though a more aggressive fan grabbed the sweaty towel he tossed to the audience out of her hand during the show. Since then of course, I've become very familiar with his musical work, most of which stands the test of time even though on the radio soon after his death, the songs that seemed to dominate were less-interesting ones such as "In the Ghetto" and "Kentucky Rain."

I've watched some of his movies, most of which were campy at best. I think of the ones I've seen, Jailhouse Rock probably holds up best. Of course, I've always been fascinated by the great "what if?" about would everything had changed had Col. Tom Parker allowed Elvis to star opposite Barbra Streisand in the 1976 remake of A Star Is Born. More than likely, the film still would have stunk, but perhaps that would have given him a boost if the drug addiction storyline hadn't cut so close to his real life, since he would have had to stay high to deal with looking at Streisand's awful 'fro hairstyle at that time every day on the set. Still, even though I've been as guilty as anyone else at making jokes at Presley's expense, it's sad that his actual musical achievements have been lost in the shuffle of the circumstances of his death and, later, the loopiness surrounding the whole "Elvis is alive" phenomenon.

I still recall how creepy it was to go through the grocery store checkout line with my mom and see the tabloid cover showing Elvis in his coffin, though honestly it didn't look anything much like the most recent pictures of him in that time period. I imagine it's too late for Elvis Presley to ever truly rise back as a talent over the pop culture phenomenon he became after his death. I mean, when you have photos like this one with Nixon teaming up with him to help fight the war on drugs when everyone now knows that Elvis had his own drug problems and Nixon wasn't really that beholden to the rule of law, it's hard to counter that seriously. Still, that man could sing (Elvis not Nixon) and he left a lot of great music behind.

It's sad when anyone dies that young (it's easy to forget he was only 42 at the time), but especially someone with so much talent that got squandered as so many entertainers have. Valentino begat James Dean who begat Marilyn who begat Jim Morrison who begat Elvis who begat Natalie Wood who begat John Belushi who begat Karen Carpenter who begat Kurt Cobain with a plethora of names interspersed between them all. I hope that somehow Presley did find some peace and an endless supply of peanut butter and banana sandwiches (Sorry I couldn't resist. Even I'm not immune, no matter how noble my intentions.)



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Comments:
I too confess to making numerous Elvis jokes over the years. When they were voting on which Elvis to put on a postage stamp, I said skinny Elvis for regular mail, fat Elvis for packages, and that the stamp would taste like peanut butter and bananas. Or that the reason he shot his TV was because one of his movies came on.

I was familiar with Elvis before he keeled over. Channel 5 in NYC was always running Elvis movies when I was a kid, as was the Channel 7 4:30 movie. We watched them because there was nothing else on, but I couldn't stand any of them except Loving You, for reasons I wish I could explain, and Jailhouse Rock because it was blatantly gay and I can't believe nobody caught on. "number 47 said to number 3/you're the cutest jailbird I ever did see..." BZZZT! Jail is not co-ed, people!

When Elvis left the living, there were so many tributes to him on TV that my aunt said "I wish they'd shut the eff up and let the man rest in peace!" The one I remember was on that incest variety show, Donny and Marie. It was horrific, and might have killed Elvis if he hadn't already been dead.

I was never a big fan of his music, but I won't deny he had talent. Oddly, I found I enjoy his gospel stuff quite a bit, and I think In the Ghetto is so unintentionally hilarious that it's brilliant. I can only imagine him singing Evergreen with Babs. He might have made it tolerable, that is, when he wasn't laughing over Streisand's Struck by Lightning hairdo. I also confess to enjoying the Fat Elvis in Vegas White Jumpsuit special, but you know how much I love trash.

Unlike Tupac, and despite all the sightings, Elvis knows how to stay dead. Elvis hasn't released a new album since he's been gone, but Tupac had more albums dead than alive.

I guess I'll watch an Elvis double feature in honor of the anniversary. I'll start with John Carpenter's Elvis movie and follow that up with Bubba Ho-Tep. Bruce Campbell is fantastic in that as the King--where was his Oscar nomination--and if Elvis indeed had been alive, I bet he would have made this movie and sang songs about mummies.
 
Funny you should mention "In the Ghetto" because I just read earlier today that Lisa Marie plans to release a record and one of those creepy-type Natalie Cole/Nat King Cole videos tomorrow of her singing "In the Ghetto" with dear old dad.
 
Oh be still my kitsch-loving heart! Lisa Marie and Daddy singing "In The Ghetto?" I don't think I'll be able to process the sheer, awful horror of that! I might have a stroke. Superimposed rich White people singing about the ghetto! All it needs is a guest rap by Q-Tip or something. I must see this immediately.
 
Two greatest love ballads of the rock era: Elvis' "I Can't Help Falling in Love With You" and the Beach Boys' "God Only Knows." Dare you to listen to either without mistiing over. I love pre-hunka hunka burning love Elvis as well as Elvis movies, one of those '50s phenoms that marked a seismic shift in pop culture. I'd vote for "Jailhouse Rock" and "Viva Las Vegas" as the defining Elvis films, the first for defining Himself as the misunderstood outlaw, the second for framing him as the teenage pleasureseeker. I also have a fondness for "Roustabout," but that might have something to do with seeing Barbara Stanwyck in Levis.
 
I guess I was too young to pay attention to his death, which is a good thing because with Groucho dying in that same week, it would have been a crusher for me.

skinny Elvis for regular mail, fat Elvis for packages...

Too funny. And a great solution, Odster.

For years, my default answer when asked what type of music I like was "In the Ghetto" without any caveats that I liked anything else. It was a joke answer, but I do like the song tremendously for the reasons Odie stated. But in addition to being unintentionally funny, it's also heartwarmingly sincere. Elvis certainly knew what it was like to be poor.

I also agree with Carrie about Elvis movies. Most of them are a real kick, and 9 times out of 10, when you see one on TBS or something, its going to be the best thing to watch on television.

Not that Copeland was criticizing his later work, but I'm surprised in general how many writers have been harsh on that. Sure, he turned in some bad performances: forgetting lines, laughing through sad songs and sweating so much, at times, that it actually takes away from the performance, but all that taken into account, I still enjoy his later work. "Suspicious Minds" is a great song.

I'll never forget what my grandma said about Elvis one time. I was surprised that she liked him, because she consistently disliked rockers and drug addicts. When I asked her why she liked Elvis, she replied: "Because he loved his mama."
 
And if you want to see what Elvis can do for young troubled girls, watch "Out of the Blue" (by Dennis hopper), the most beautiful and disturbing film I can think of when hearing the magic words The King.
 
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