Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives.
June 15, 1972, Vol. XVII, No. 24
Elvis: The last laugh
By Carman Moore
I think I know who Elvis Presley is.
Wasn’t he the guy who was always combing his hair, because he knew the girls would be watching? Wasn’t he the guy who didn’t need to go out for football or study or join school activity groups, because he knew the girls would be watching him anyway? Wasn’t he the guy who was always getting out of trouble?
Doc something-or-other they called him at my high school. In W.H. Auden’s poem “In Praise of Limestone” he was the mother’s son depicted leaning against a wall with his dildo out, knowing that “for all his faults, he was loved.”
A real neat dude…somebody always looking at him, and funnier than hell. He could get laughs sometimes just be raising his eyebrow — he knew somebody was always watching closely. Doc was part bigot, too I think — not systematically but casually. He wouldn’t go out of his way to insult somebody, but if he could get a laugh by saying “coon,” he wouldn’t hesitate. It was clear to me all along that he was kind of fucked up, a wreck from the American Main Street scene before he even had a chance. He hated the law, but I knew that he was someday going to be brought to his knees, praising Jesus, Justice, and Uncle Sam for having helped him find a job with the trucking company. Meanwhile, the grin and the jokes would roll on.
Doc had a miserable voice. I never liked more than eight measures of Elvis Presley’s entire 1950s output, but he can’t help it, he has a hell-of-a natural voice. Doc is a truck driver, and Elvis is a millionaire.
Where has Elvis been all these years? He’s been vacuum packed, like a Polish ham, fresh as the day he was canned. No, not quite. He’s been leading some mysterious life or other. The only clues available to an outsider are what he sees at the Garden — a fat m.c. in faded bluish-purple business suit, Robert Hall-ish tie, short slicked-back hair, announcing that, by the way, you can purchase your souvenir booklet for $2, a show-opening comedian telling Copa jokes about the Wife and kids of today, a full symphony orchestra dressed in purple vests and seated in three flat rows; an audience full of people who’ve never heard of Sha-Na-Na or camp, who are apt — like the girls behind me — to compare Elvis to Tom Jones and not know who to pick; Elvis himself, backed up by the black female gospel-style trio, The Sweet Inspirations (once back-up for Aretha), and a powerful group of white choristers bringing down the Garden without even bothering to sock-it to anybody. Elvis, almost prim with movements out of Toshiro Mifune, but dressed outrageously — as you’ve probably heard — in alabaster white jump suit spangled with red and gold, encircled with heavy gold-white-red cartridge belt, topped with super gold-red-white cape.
Elvis sang basically his romantic movie songs beneath the balconies of 10,000 and forced you to admire the fact that at least he was forcing an entire crowd to admire something about him. Most were admiring everything. Twentieth century artists come in two types: those you are expected to identify with and those you are expected to admire. Any artist’s public success depends on the extent to which he succeeds at either or both (James Brown and Aretha for blacks and the Beatles for whites did both).
How much you can identify with a millionaire rebel with a great voice, classic good looks, ’50s Las Vegas aspirations, weak rhythmic sense, and virtually invisible social and political public stance depends, of course, on who you are. How much you can admire Elvis depends on how amazed he can make you. Me, he amazes by having made so much money out of hard black music with so little public social and political stance, without having taken Otis Blackwell along into some limelight as the Stones and Beatles did with Muddy, Howling, and Chuck Berry, without having, to my knowledge, put some bread back into the general coffers for the good of aspiring young musicians, other rebels, or just truck drivers’ heads.
I am being intentionally impressionistic and provocative — I have no idea where Elvis has been since I left school and he went off to Hollywood. I know that at the Garden on Saturday he was all there, one of the great entertainers — a ’58 Fleetwood cruising at medium speed through a town that is always small, because it still needs an Elvis to be bad and big. Funny as hell — he knew he was just pretending to be what everybody wanted him to pretend to be.
He rebelled ultimately by playing himself and laughing from ringside, wiggling a hip and laughing as the oohs and ahhs came down — still laughing years later at the thought of a truck driver in a golden jump suit, laughing at the teacher, laughing at the sergeant (but not the Colonel) and, of course, laughing at me, because we’ve all always watched. There’s art there somewhere.
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