Elvis Presley is a supreme figure in American life, one whose presence, no matter how banal or predictable, brooks no real comparisons. He is honored equally by long-haired rock critics, middle-aged women, the city of Memphis (they finally found something to name after him: a highway), and even a president. (Nixon had Elvis over to the White House once, and made him an honorary narcotics officer.) The cultural range of his music has expanded to the point where it includes not only the hits of the day, but also patriotic recitals, pure country gospel, and really dirty blues. Elvis has emerged as a great artist, a great rocker, a great purveyor of schlock, a great heartthrob, a great bore, a great symbol of potency, a great ham, a great nice person, and, yes, a great American.
Twenty-one years ago Elvis made his first records with Sam Phillips, on the little Sun label in Memphis, a pact was signed with Col. Tom Parker, shrewd country hustler; Elvis took off for RCA Victor, New York, and Hollywood. America has not been the same since. Elvis disappeared into an oblivion of respectability and security in the ’60s, lost in interchangeable movies and dull music; he staged a remarkable comeback as that decade ended, and now performs as the transcendental Sun King that Ralph Waldo Emerson only dreamed about — and as a giant contradiction.
Elvis gives us a massive road show musical of opulent American mastery; his version of the winner-take-all fantasies that have kept the world lined up outside of the theatres that show American movies ever since the movies began. And of course we respond: a self-made man is rather boring, but a self-made king is something else. Dressed in blue, red, white, ultimately gold, with a Superman cape and covered with jewels no one can be sure are fake, Elvis might epitomize the worst of our culture — he is bragging, selfish, narcissistic, condescending, materialistic to the point of insanity. But there is no need to take that seriously, no need to take anything seriously. “Aw, shucks,” says the country boy; it is all a joke to him, his distance is in his humor, and he can exit from this America unmarked, unimpressed, and uninteresting.
You can hear that distance, that refusal to really commit himself, in his worst music and in his best; if the throwaway is the source of most of what is pointless about Elvis, it is also at the heart of much of what is exciting and charismatic. It may be that he never took any of it seriously, just did his job and did it well, trying to enjoy himself and stay sane — save for those first Tennessee records, and that night, late in 1968, when his comeback was uncertain and he put a searing, desperate kind of life into a few songs that cannot be found in any of his other music.
It was a staggering moment. A Christmas TV special had been decided on; a final dispute between Col. Parker (he wanted 20 Christmas songs and a tuxedo) and producer Steve Binder (he wanted a rough, fast, sexy show) had been settled; with Elvis’s help, Binder won. So there Elvis was, standing in a studio facing TV cameras and a live audience for the first time in nearly a decade, finally stepping out from behind the wall of retainers and sycophants he had paid to hide him. And everyone was watching.
Sitting on the stage in black leather, surrounded by friends and a rough little combo, the crowd buzzing, he sang and talked and joked, and all the resentments he had hidden over the years began to pour out. He had always said yes, but this time he was saying no — not without humor, but almost with a wry bit of guilt, as if he had betrayed his talent and himself. He told the audience about a time back in ’55, when cops in Florida forced him to sing without moving; the story was hilarious, but there was something in his voice that made very clear how much it had hurt. He jibed at the Beatles, denying that the heroes who had replaced him had produced anything he could not match, and then he proved it.
Slow and steady, Elvis rocks into “One Night.” In Smiley Lewis’s original, it was about an orgy, called “One Night of Sin.” Elvis cleaned it up into a love story in 1958. But he is singing Lewis’s version, as he must have always wanted to. He falls in and out of the two songs, and suddenly the band rams hard at the music and Elvis lunges and eats it alive. No one has ever heard him sing like this. Shouting, crying, growling, lusting. Elvis takes his stand and the crowd takes theirs with him, cheering for what they had only hoped for. Elvis has gone beyond all their expectations, and his, and they don’t believe it. Every line is a thunderbolt. AW, YEAH! screams a pal — he has waited years for this moment, and as the song ends, Elvis floats like the master he is back into “One night, with you,” even allowing himself a little “Hot dog!” singing softly to himself.
It was the finest music of his life. If ever there was music that bleeds, this was it.
“One Night” catches a world of risk, will, passion, and natural nobility: something worth searching out within the America of mastery and easy splendor that may well be Elvis’s last word.
They called Elvis the Hillbilly Cat in the beginning: he came out of a stepchild culture that for all it shared with the rest of America had its own shape and integrity. It was, as southern chambers of commerce have never tired of saying, A Land of Contrasts. The fundamental contrast, of course, could not have been more obvious: black and white. Always at the root of southern fantasy, southern music, and southern politics, the black man was poised in the early ’50s for an overdue invasion of American life, in fantasy, music, and politics. As the north scurried to deal with him, the south would be pushed farther and farther into the weirdness and madness its best artists had been trying to exorcise from the time of Poe on down. Its politics would dissolve into nightriding and hysteria: its fantasies would be dull for all their gaudy paranoia. Only the music would get away clean.
The north, powered by the Protestant ethic, had set men free by making them strangers: the poorman’s south Elvis knew took strength from community. This community was based on a marginal economy that demanded cooperation, loyalty, and obedience for the achievement of anything resembling a good life; it was organized by religion, morals, and music. Music helped hold the community together, and carried the traditions and shared values that dramatized a sense of place. Music gave pleasure, wisdom, and shelter.
Music was also an escape from the community, and music revealed its underside. There were always people who could not join the community, no matter how they might want to: tramps, whores, rounders, idiots, criminals. The most vital were singers; they bridged the gap between the community’s sentimentalized idea of itself, and the outside world and the forbidden; they were artists who could take the community beyond itself because they had the talent and the nerve to transcend it.
Jimmie Rodgers was one. He was every boy who ever ran away from home, hanging out in the railroad yards, bumming around with black minstrels, pushing out the limits of his life. He celebrated long tall mamas that rubbed his back and licked his neck just to cure the cough that killed him; he bragged about gun play on Beale Street; he sang real blues, played jazz with Louis Armstrong. There’s so much room in this country, he seemed to be saving, so many things to do — how could an honest man be satisfied to live within the frontiers he was born to?
By the late ’40s and early ’50s, Hank Williams had inherited Jimmie Rodgers’s role as the central figure in country music, but he added an enormous reservation: that margin of loneliness in Rodgers’s America had grown into a world of utter tragedy. Williams sang for a community to which he could not belong; he sang to a God in whom he could not quite believe; even his many songs of good times and good lovin’ seemed unreal. He was a poet of limits, fear, and failure; he went as deeply into one dimension of the country world as anyone could, gave it beauty, gave it dignity. What was missing was that part of the hillbilly soul Rodgers had celebrated, something Williams’s music obscured — the feeling, summed up in a sentence by W. J. Cash from “The Mind of the South,” that “even the southern physical world was a kind of cosmic conspiracy against reality in favor of romance”; that even if Elvis’s south was filled with puritans, it was also filled with natural-born hedonists, and the same people were both.
Growing up in Hank Williams’s time, Elvis was attuned to the complexity of his inheritance; he was a dreamer, and he looked for ways to set himself apart. Always, Elvis felt he was different from, if not better than, those around him. He grew his sideburns long, acting out that sense of differentness, and was treated differently: in this case, he got himself kicked off the football team. High school classmates remember his determination to break through as a country singer; with a little luck, they figured, he might even make it.
But you don’t make it in America waiting for someone to come along and sign you up. What links the greatest rock ‘n’ roll careers is a volcanic ambition, a lust for more than anyone has a right to expect; in some cases, a refusal to know when to quit or even rest. It is that bit of Ahab burning beneath the Huck Finn rags of “Freewheelin'” Bob Dylan, the arrogance 0f a country boy like Elvis sailing into Hollywood, ready for whatever kind of success America has to offer.
Rock ‘n’ roll caught the defiantly unrealistic spirit of such ambition on records and gave it a form. Instead of a possibility within a music, it became the essence; it became, of all things, a tradition. And when that form itself had to deal with reality — which is to say, when its young audience began to grow up — the fantasy had become part of the reality that had to be dealt with; the rules of the game had changed a bit, and it was a better game. “Blue Suede Shoes” had grown directly into something as serious and complex, and yet still offhand, as the Rolling Stones’s “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” which asks the musical question, “Why are you stepping on my blue suede shoes?”
Echoing through all of rock ‘n’ roll is the simple demand for peace of mind and a good time. While the demand is easy to make, nothing is more complex than to try to make it real and live it out. It all sounds simple, obvious; but that one young man like Elvis could break through a world as hard as Hank Williams’s, and invent a new one to replace it, seems obvious only because we have inherited Elvis’s world, and live in it.
There are four of them in the little studio: Bill Black, the bass player; Scotty Moore, the guitarist; in the back, Sam Phillips, the producer; and the sexy young kid thumping his guitar as he sings, Elvis Presley, just 19. 1954.
The kid with the guitar is … unusual, but they’ve been trying to put something on the tape Sam keeps running back — a ballad, a hillbilly song, anything — and so far, well, it just doesn’t get it. The four men cool it for a moment, frustrated, talk music, blues, Crudup, ever hear that, who you kiddin’ man, dig this. The kid pulls his guitar up clowns a bit. He throws himself at a song. That’s all right, mama, that’s all right … eat shit. He doesn’t say that, naturally, but that’s what he’s found in the tone; his voice slides over the lines as the two musicians come in behind him, Scotty picking up the melody and the bassman slapping away at his axe with a drumstick. Phillips hears it, likes it, and makes up his mind.
They cut the song fast, put down their instruments, vaguely embarrassed at how far they went into the music. Sam plays back the tape. Man, they’ll run us outta town when they hear it, Scotty says; Elvis sings along with himself, joshing his performance. They all wonder, but not too much.
Get on home, now, Sam says. I gotta figure what to do with this. White jocks won’t touch it ’cause it’s nigger music and colored will pass ’cause it’s hillbilly. It sounds good, it sounds sweet, but maybe it’s just … too weird?
Sam Phillips released the record; what followed was the heyday of Sun Records and rockabilly music, a moment when boys were men and men were boys, when full-blown legends emerged that still walk the land.
It was an explosion, and standing over it all was Elvis. In the single year he recorded for Sam Phillips, 10 sides were released; about half derived from country songs, the rest took off from blues. The blues especially have not dated at all. Not a note is false. Nothing is stylized. The music is clean, straight, open, and free. Rockabilly was a fast, aggressive music: simple, snappy drumming, sharp guitar licks, wild country boogie piano, the music of kids who come from all over the south to make records for Sam Phillips and his imitators. Rockabilly came and it went; there was never that much of it, and even including Elvis’s first Sun singles — all the rockabilly hits put together sold less than Fats Domino. But rockabilly fixed the image of rock and roll: the sexy, half-crazed fool standing on stage singing his guts out. It was the only style of rock and roll that proved white boys could do it all — that they could be as strange, as exciting, as scary, and as free as the black men who were suddenly walking America’s airwaves as if they owned them.
Elvis’s rockabilly (the blues of “That’s All Right” and “Mystery Train,” the country of “You’re A Heartbreaker,” and the others — the music he left behind when he moved to RCA) deserves close attention not simply because it represents all that Elvis and those he has sung for have lost — youthful exuberance, innocence, haven’t we tired of that story? — but because this is unquestionably great music. It is emotionally complex music that can return something new each time you listen to it. What I hear, most of the time, is the affection and respect Elvis felt for the limits and conventions of his family life, of his community, and ultimately of American life, captured in his country sides; and his refusal of those limits, of any limits, played out in his blues. This is a rhythm of acceptance and rebellion, lust and quietude, triviality and distinction. It can dramatize the rhythm of our own lives well enough.
Too much has been made of Elvis as “a white man who sang black music credibly,” as a singer who made black music acceptable to whites; this and too many whites trying to do the same thing have corrupted any sense of what Elvis did do, of what was at stake in his personal culture. Most white blues singing is singing at the blues; what comes out is either entirely fake, or has behind it the white impulse to become black: to ask for too much without offering anything in return.
Real white blues singers make something new out of the blues, as Jimmie Rodgers, Dock Boggs, Elvis, and Bob Dylan have; or, they sing out of a deep feeling for the blues, but in a musical style that is not blues — not formally, anyway. For Elvis, the blues was a style of freedom, something he couldn’t get in his own home, full of roles to play and rules to break. In the beginning the blues was more than anything else a fantasy, an epic of struggle and pleasure, that he lived out, as he sang. Not a fantasy that went beneath the surface of his life, but one that soared right over it.
Singing in the ’50s, before blacks began to guard their culture with the jealousy it deserved, Elvis had no guilty dues to pay. Arthur Crudup complained his songs made a white man famous, and he had a right to complain, but mostly because he never got his royalties. Elvis sang “That’s All Right” and “My Baby Left Me” with more power, verve, and skill than Crudup did; his early records topped the rhythm-and-blues charts; but still the implication, always there when Crudup or Willie Mae Thornton (who made the first version of “Hound Dog”) looked out at the white world that penned them off from getting anything for themselves, is that Elvis would have been nothing without them, that he climbed to fame on their backs. It is probably time to say that this is nonsense; the mysteries of black and white in American music are just not that simple. Elvis drew power from black culture, but he was not really imitating blacks; when he told Sam Phillips he didn’t sing like nobody, he told the truth. No white man had so deeply absorbed black music, and transformed it, since Jimmie Rodgers; instead of following Rodger’s musical style, as so many good white singers had, until it simply wore out, Elvis followed Rodgers’s musical strategy, and began the story all over again. His blues were a set of sexual adventures, and as a blues-singing swashbuckler, his style owed as much to Errol Flynn as to Arthur Crudup. It made sense to make movies out of it.
There is a deep need to see Elvis (or any part of American culture one cares about) starting out in a context of purity, outside of and in opposition to American life as most of us know it and live it. Even RCA first presented Elvis as “a folksinger,” and it is virtually a critical canon that Elvis’s folk purity, and therefore his talent was ruined by (a) his transmogrification from naive country boy into corrupt pop star (he sold his soul to Colonel Tom, or Parker just stole it) (b) Hollywood (c) the army (d) money and soft living (e) all of the above. But when Elvis left Memphis to confront a national audience as mysterious to him as he was to it, he had to define himself fully, and he did it by presenting his authentic multiplicity in music. I am, he announced, a house-rocker, a boy steeped in mother-love, a true son of the church, a matinee idol who’s only kidding, a man with too many rough edges for anyone ever to smooth away.
Inevitably, his multiplicity opened up the possibility that he could be all things to all people, but his eagerness to prove it, with records like “Something for Everybody,” destroyed his ability to focus his talent. He wound up without a commitment to any musical style; his music lost that dramatic shape Sam Phillips helped give it. And his ambition, the source of so much of the intensity and emotion he put into his early music, plainly outstripped itself. Two years after making his first record he had won more than anyone knew was there; he had achieved a status that trivialized struggle and made will obsolescent. His success turned his life upside down; from this point on, he would have what he set out to get, but he’d have to reach for the energy and desire that made his triumph possible.
These days, Elvis is always singing. In his stage show documentary “Elvis On Tour,” we see him singing to himself, in limousines, backstage, running, walking, standing still, as his servant fits his cape to his shoulders, as he waits for his cue. He sings gospel music, mostly; in his private musical world, there is no distance at all from his deepest roots. Just as that personal culture of the Sun Records was long ago blown into something too big for Elvis to keep as his own, so the shared culture of country religion is now his private space within the greater America of which he has become a part.
And on stage? Well, there are those moments when Elvis Presley breaks through the public world he has made for himself, and only a fool or a liar would deny their power. Something entirely his, driven by two decades of history and myth, all-live-in-person, is transformed into an energy that is ecstatic — that is, to use the word in its old sense, illuminating. The overstated grandeur is suddenly authentic, and Elvis brings a thrill far beyond anything else in our culture.
At his best Elvis not only embodies but personalizes so much of what is good about this place; a delight in sex that is sometimes simple, sometimes complex, but always open; a love of roots and a respect for the past; a rejection of the past and a demand for novelty; the kind of racial harmony that for Elvis, a white man, means a profound affinity with the most subtle nuances of black culture combined with an equally profound understanding of his own whiteness; a burning desire to get rich, and to have fun, a natural affection for big cars, flashy clothes, for the symbols of status that give pleasure both as symbols, and on their own terms. He has long since become one of those symbols himself.
Elvis takes his strength from the liberating arrogance, pride, and the claim to be unique that grow out of a rich and commonplace understanding of what “democracy” and “equality” are all about: No man is better than I am. He takes his strength as well from the humility, the piety, and the open, self-effacing good humor that spring from the same source: I am better than no man. Elvis Presley’s career defines success in a democracy that can perhaps recognize itself best in its popular culture: No limits, success so grand and complete it is nearly impossible for him to perceive anything more worth striving for. But there is a horror to this utopia — and one might think that the great moments Elvis still finds are his refusal of all that he can have without struggling. Elvis proves then that the myth of supremacy for which his audience will settle cannot contain him; he is, these moments show, far greater than that.
All in all, there is only one remaining moment I want to see; one epiphany that would somehow bring his story home. Elvis would take the stage, as he always has; the roar of the audience would surround him, as it always will. After a time, he would begin a song by Bob Dylan. Singing slowly, Elvis would give it everything he has. “I must have been mad,” he would cry, “I didn’t know what I had — until I threw it all away.”
And then, with love in his heart, he would laugh. ♦
This piece is condensed from a 25,000 word essay on Elvis Presley from “Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music,” to be published May 8 by E. P. Dutton and Company.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on June 26, 2020