It’s been 25 years since Elvis died on the toilet, a big fat freak of 42. He was an old man, but two years younger than I am now. Think about this: Elvis has been dead longer than his career lasted, and I’m including the crappy 70s. Yet the King remains as popular as ever (to the tune of $37 million last year). I would say that the real Elvis has been lost under the tidal wave of Elvis-the-cultural-icon, but that isn’t really true because people still listen to his music, and his music is the REAL Elvis.
In the car I was listening to NPR’s tribute to Presley (they have an excellent page with a wealth of audio and textual resources) in a somberish mood. The Elvis story always makes me melancholy: the revolutionary music with Sam Phillips, the meteoric rise, the “commercialization,” the dead period of bad movies in the 60s, the comeback, the decline unto a pathetic death. But then going into the break, they played an extended portion of “Suspicious Minds,” and I remembered how – for all his otherwordly gifts – charmingly real and fragile Elvis was, and this was as big a part of his appeal as the wondrous voice and the animal magnetism.
Elvis KNEW his movies were mostly shit, his music in the middle-60s shlock, and by the time of his comeback TV special in ’68, he was insecure and unsure of his ability to deliver anymore. But deliver he did and the joy of that connection, or rather reconnection, was truly lovable. His best music undoubtedly came from the ’50s and early-60s, but the best Elvis was the magical return to grace in ’68/’69, capped by the Memphis glory of “Suspicious Minds,” his first #1 in seven years and the last #1 of his life.
Hearing the stark soul groove highlighted by Reggie Young’s curling guitar and Gene Chrisman’s light but insistent backbeat, and Elvis’s restrained/powerful/yearning vocal – living the lyric, loving the music – almost brought a tear. At that point in his life and career, Elvis and his fans needed each other equally: you can sense the energy flowing both ways, restoring Elvis and rewarding his fans for their faith and support. That moment of equilibrium is the Elvis I love best.
Mike Hendrix loves Elvis too:
- In the picture Elvis is 21 years old. It’s hard to even imagine what could be going through his mind. The sheer excitement, energy, and also stark terror of that moment must have been nearly overwhelming. And it was just the beginning, a mere light breeze when compared to the hurricane that was coming. One of the attendees of that show, sixteen-year-old Jack Baker, who had lived next door to Elvis only nine months before, had this to say: “There was this keening sound, this shrill, wailing, keening response, and I remember thinking, ‘That’s an amazing sound.’ And then I realized I was making it too.”
….Even as a kid of 19 or 20, working in the studio with seasoned pros from New York, LA, and Nashville, Elvis ran the show, no ifs, ands, or buts. When he recorded “Hound Dog” the day after the Allen show, he insisted on doing take after take, and the song evolved throughout from the bluesy grind of Big Mama Thornton’s version into the rollicking, savage romp we all know now. A tired and somewhat exasperated Steve Sholes (producer on the session) said after the twenty-sixth take that he thought they had it, but Elvis once again insisted that they keep rolling tape.
A friend of Mike’s visited Vernon Presley at Graceland a year or so after Elvis’s death:
- He goes into a small room, and there Vernon sits, with a half-eaten breakfast on a TV tray pushed off to the side. It just so happens that an Elvis movie is on TV. I can’t remember which one, but I think maybe it was either “Loving You” or “King Creole;” one of the good ones, anyway. They chat a bit about this and that, and then the conversation flags a bit as both men turn their attention to the movie. Vernon then said, “This was always my favorite one” and Mike agrees, and the next thing you know Vernon has burst into tears, the grief over the loss of his son still as fresh as a bleeding wound. Mike is touched and a bit overwhelmed by the overall situation and ends up hugging Vernon, both men crying on each other over a loss that each felt in very different ways.
There’s nothing like the loss of a child, even if that child is Elvis Presley, and reading that from Mike really did make me cry.
- there really is only one voice in the whole cacophony of opinion about Elvis that really counts, as Peter Guralnick says at the end of his incredible Elvis bio. And that voice is the one that leaps off the old Sun .45’s, full of vitality and eagerness and fresh, wild exuberance, the one that started a musical revolution the likes of which the world has never seen before, and never will again.