Douglas Bastard's Rants of Rage

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This article was written on 15 Mar 2016, and is filled under Uncategorised.

The demented love of Elvis Presley

It was the winter of 2000. My wife at the time was in the first, agonising throes of what would later be diagnosed as bipolar disorder and I was into my first few months as a freelance writer, alone with her and an illness that would take a terrible toll on both of us. I owed the Inland Revenue £2783 in back taxes, an amount I can remember only too well because I printed it off and put it over my desk to motivate me, and to cap it all, the boiler had broken, meaning that we had no hot water or heating. Life was losing some of its lustre. But then something happened.

There were a couple of Elvis CDs on my shelf that I’d paid halfhearted attention to, seeing myself as more of a fan of rock and roll generally. Elvis seemed impenetrable and almost obscene in his excess, so I’d always avoided getting too invested in him. One of these was the second half of what should have been a four CD set in the Platinum Collection. It comprised two discs of out-takes and seldom heard versions of songs he’d sung during the later stages of his career – the other set had the earlier recordings – and when we were married, we’d sung one of the songs from it as a hymn. I put it on one, bored day, and had a listen.

I was transfixed, pinned to the wall by the power and subtlety of a voice I’d never really heard before and never taken seriously. The song I remember most is ‘American Trilogy,’ a medley of three songs that were spliced together by the composer and which became a staple of Elvis’ live performances, the third section in particular delivered with the bravado of bombast, a glorious and excessive paean to a fervent faith. Other people might have done this ironically, but not Elvis. For those moments in time, he was completely invested in what he was singing.

So that I understood the music better and didn’t lose my bearings, I bought a small guide to his albums and singles. Then I bought Peter Guralnick’s ‘Last Train to Memphis’ about his early life. And then I bought ‘Careless Love,’ by the same author about Elvis’ life after the US Army.  And for each purchase, I bought a slew of new albums.

Any music fan who discovers an artist with an extensive back catalogue may do what I did, which was to focus with the forensic detail on the period of his career which I felt spoke to me the most. I’d decided I wanted to be expert in the era towards the end of his ill-starred film career at the end of the sixties and the concert film ‘That’s The Way It Is,’ recorded in 1970. His voice, it still seems to me now the passion has cooled, had grown deeper with time but it was an instrument over which its owner had full control and could use to express a million shades of meaning with a million different tones.

The two albums I used to punt me down the deep dark river of Elvis’ voice were ‘Suspicious Minds’ and ‘Tomorrow Is A Long Time.’ The first of these was another double album that appealed to my sense of budgetary responsibility in straitened times and which took Elvis’ 1969 seasons from American Studios in Memphis as its subject, featuring all of the definitive versions of the songs as well as, yes, that word again, some outtakes. I remember hearing ‘Long Black Limousine,’ still my favourite of all Elvis’ recordings, for the first time and shivers running down my spine. Listening to those outtakes showed producer Chips Moman carefully layering the sound around Elvis’ vocal track, his voice made rougher by a recent cold, until it was a piece of genius.

If Suspicious Minds had been an LP, I’d have worn it out, listening to Long Black Limousine and my other favourite, ‘Any Day Now’ over and over and over again until it snapped in half. It felt odd and, perversely, for a record that was completed four years before I was born, new. The picture of Elvis on the front cover, with his quiff lying flat in white stage gear, seated with a guitar, felt like a long way from what his image had once been and I suppose the music did as well, as he reinvented himself for an audience more attuned to the White Album than ‘Wooden Heart.’

The context to this reinvention was provided by ‘Tomorrow Is A Long Time’ which took the non-film songs from the preceding years and spliced them into an album that swings from the braggadocio of ‘US Male’ to the naked human need of ‘I’ll Remember You’ by way of Jerry Reed’s scorching guitar picking on ‘Guitar Man.’ I loved this album and the bridge between the two is provided by Elvis’ dramatic TV appearance in 1968, known as ‘The Comeback Special.’ It was hard to get every segment of this on CD at the time, but I tried, amassing about five albums that included the full TV show spliced together from stand up, rehearsed performance elements and a sit down show that anticipated MTV Unplugged by about twenty years.

When the full concert film ‘That’s The Way It Is’ was screened in Soho, I went to see it and fell properly, asexually in love with Elvis. It’s hard to explain this without sounding like a pervert who doesn’t own any genitals, but I wanted to bask in whatever it was that came off the man up there on the screen. It seemed like an affectionate, gently teasing charisma, all the more seductive for being surrounded by the fashions of the first year of the seventies, opulent and confident and speaking to a time when it seemed like life was only going to get better. I loved him with a fierce and rather odd energy, pretty much from that moment on.

It was while I was slowly buying up all his albums that a colleague contacted me. He’d been asked to write the Rough Guide to Elvis and knew that I was a fan. Would I be interested in helping him out? Why, yes. Yes, I was. Mostly, it involved research and writing about stuff based on no more than my own knowledge, but then the chance came up to interview Elvis’ first guitarist, Scotty Moore, at about three in the morning. We spoke for an hour, for which he’d been paid $100, which felt a tiny bit grubby, particularly since I’d never been party to paying for an interview before, and he said pretty much the same things I’d seen him say before, but still. Scotty Moore.

Then things got a bit darker. I spoke to one of Elvis’ friends whose contribution to humanity was that he helped him put his clothes on before concerts, and then to the man who was supposedly one of Elvis’ best friends. Both were, again, paid $100, but the last one is where it gets really dark. The interview consisted of saying ‘no’ to repeated attempts to sell me things that Elvis had owned, from his remote control to, bizarrely, his pipe. There comes a time when you’re digging and digging down into a major story that you finally arrive at the dark heart of it. Well, I was there.

For much of his life, Elvis, who was almost terminally insecure, surrounded himself with paid friends who became known as the Memphis Mafia. These last two were from among that number and I’d be hard pushed to find two people who gave me more cause to fear for the future of humanity than them. Guralnick’s ‘Careless Love’ was full of stories of how they’d meekly line up to be given their financial bonus by their boss each Christmas and how their lives eventually came to depend on anticipating his moods and keeping him happy at all costs. When you have a goose who lays golden eggs, you end up prioritising goose food.

So here I was at the dark heart of what was publicly known as Elvis and I didn’t like it. Although I still bought the CDs, I no longer has the appetite to learn more than I already knew about his life and no longer wanted to hear about the human effluent who made up the Memphis Mafia. In time, my ardour cooled and I started to realise that, for all that I loved Elvis, it was his music that held me. I’ve since had chance to talk to people with a similarly sharp interest in one person or one period of time and it seems that, like others who had gone before, I had taken the pain that was my wife’s illness and sunk it all into one, major distraction activity because the totality of what I was dealing with dwarfed my ability to comprehend it. I know one person who, facing similar trauma, set herself the task of becoming Bettie Page. There are other examples.

For all this, I don’t regret my flirtation with fandom, because it provided me with a few, brief moments of transcendent humanity. There was listening to his music, which remains as his final and most perfect testimony, but there’s also standing, arm in arm with other men at an Elvis concert, where the man himself was projected onto a huge video screen using footage culled from his concerts, his band playing live beneath him, while we sang at the top of our lungs. Once you brush past all the scummy hangers-on, the clothes and the dietary excess, there’s something there, in the story of a boy who was dirt poor and managed, through vast talent, to conquer the world only to have his poverty return to haunt him in his need for ostentation, that is horribly, fully human.

There’s one moment that explains why, sixteen years on, Elvis still has my heart. In his last concert, body bloated by pharmaceuticals, hair dyed an unearthly shade of black and face distorted into a mask that parodied everything he was, he sat at the piano to sing one last song. His voice was shot, but it still had some of the old power and, in a moment of the song when the backing singers normally stepped in, he looked across and nodded that he had it, singing out the final section of the song, of his life, proudly alone, bruised and scarred, but unmistakably Elvis. At a time when he is at his most unreal, he is paradoxically at his most human and I find that my heart goes out to him the most fully. I am there with him, willing him on and, for want of a better word, loving him.

And I wouldn’t miss that, or want out of it, for all the world.

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