Monday, January 08, 2007

King of the Whole Wide World

January 8th is the birthday of Elvis Presley, which is always cause to celebrate! The Hillbilly Cat, The King of Rock & Roll is a personal hero, and making him relevant to our humble blog, a teriffical movie and TV star to boot! Presley achieved what few artists are able and to what so many aspire. He demonstrated unprescedented ability of a popular artist to subversively transform world culture, and left behind an enormous body of work for fans, scholars and critics of all stripe to pore over. Presley's music, films and life continue to be relevant, fascinating, worthy of our attention, not just for his groundbreaking alteration of the pop music landscape in his lifetime (which is still a singular achievement), but because through that work, we see the entire history of American music, from pre-Colonization to the mid-'70s... and perhaps beyond. Elvis was a critic himself, a deft, playful interpreter of music, dance, costume and culture. He paid hommage and drew attention to art he loved; he used his pop God status not to co-opt black music, but to explain it, interpret it, and expose it to a newly willing audience. He synthesised, subverted, twisted and invented. While the Beatles opened their big fat mouths and got in trouble and onto J. Edgar Hoover's shitlist, in "Too Much Monkey Business," Elvis flat-out called the Vietnam war bullshit. If you think Elvis swiped black music and gave nothing back, check out the "Crawfish" musical sequence in King Creole as his rich hillbilly crooner barritone mingles and joins African-Americans in sexy, mutually enriching grandeur. Elvis was an artist of expansive vision and spirit. What a cool guy!

These are glittering generalities, so if you get in the mood for some Elvinalysis to sink your teeth into, I suggest running out and finding the fine and fun In Search of Elvis: Music, Race, Art, Religion (1995, Westview Press). The book is a collection of scholarly essays and not-so scholarly readings on the topics listed in the title and more, heartening because they do not try to pin down and diminish this slippery icon, but view a figure of infinite facets through each author's area of expertise and interest. Worth the entire cover price is rock & roll-loving Goan literature and African-American studies scholar Peter Nazareth's "Elvis as Anthology." That cryptic title opens up easily and beautifully, as Peter outlines Elvis' strategy of "twinning" himself with other artists, myth figures, himself, so on and infinitely, possibly sparked by, and certainly following the trail of the loss of his brother, Jesse Garon. The exciting idea at the core of this essay is that Elvis transformed himself into a limitless pantheon of personas which continue to inspire and intrigue us as they resonate in mythic fashion through religion, culture, and all history. I was privliged to take Peter's class of the same title at the University of Iowa, in 2000 and one got the sense that many in attendance found Peter's critical anaylsis far-flung and slightly crazy, but for me it was a turning point as a writer and an artist as well. I will never forget a breathtaking lecture in which Peter traced Elvis' journey through recording "Return to Sender," located a moment in the celebrated "Million Dollar Quartet" recordings, in which Elvis gushes to Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash about an even better version "Don't Be Cruel" than his own record. The recording in question was by Jackie Wilson, though Elvis seems unable to remember the fellow's name who impressed him so much, but sings like Wilson on "Return to Sender" and in the film Girls! Girls! Girls!, moves like and has costumed himself like Wilson. After Wilson's 1975 heart attack, Presley assisted in paying the brilliant soul singer's hospital bills. As Peter demonstrated in practical terms how Elvis had simultaneously inspired, been inspired, reinterpreted, and given massive props to Jackie Wilson, even the most skeptical young student's head must've been spinning with such wide-ranging, free-spirited scholarship, expertise, and big-hearted insight. For sheer attention to detail, and inventive, but fully supported resistant readings of marginalized texts, I consider Peter Nazereth one of my great personal teachers. If Peter Guralnick is our finest Presley biographer, and Greil Marcus the most astute at placing Elvis in a broader cultural context, Peter Nazereth worms so far into the details that he comes out the other side, in a huge, brave new higher plane of consciousness, with Elvis as our guide. I wish he had the time and support to write entire books on Presley, but "Elvis as Anthology" is a bang-o way to open your eyes to Elvis' multitudinous personalities. As Peter has said, "Elvis had plasticity, but he was not plastic." Do the same with your critical thinking about pop culture, and watch the world grow!

Peter takes special delight in detailing how Elvis used tiny opportunities in his most denegrated work -- the series of 31 movie musicals in the 1960s -- to pay tribute to other artists, resist the Hollywood claptrap that tried to entomb him, and deepen his relationship with historical and pop mythological ("except for one," he once said, "I could never find anything in Tickle Me ). One of my New Year resolutions to spend a little time with each of these films. Today, take a look at one of the most interesting sections of Elvis Presley's 1968 NBC television special. Popularly known as the "Comeback Special," Elvis used the opportunity to reinvent himself, and expose in a national forum a world of spiritual music and culture buried inside the pop goop of the decade. I'll try to discuss this unique segment later this evening when I have time to focus. In the meantime, enjoy the spectacular Gospel production number from the '68 Special, in this highly illegal YouTube video. In the middle of arguably his greatest musical triumph, Elvis steps out of center stage, to give it up, give way, and give himself over to his favorite music:

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