Monday, August 17, 2015

The Politics (and trials) of Presley

“Don’t be a stingy little mama, you ’bout to starve me half to death; You can spare a kiss or two and still have plenty left; Oh no no baby, I ain’t askin’ much of you; just a big a big a big a hunk o’ love will do.”
--“A Big Hunk O’ Love,” 1958

As fans gather in Memphis for their annual pilgrimage to Graceland, the entire spectacle is becoming ever more bewildering to generations of young people who weren’t around when “Elvis left the building” on that hot August afternoon almost 40 years ago today. For those of us who were around, the shocking demise of the King of Rock ’n’ Roll at just 42 remains a defining moment in music history.

It’s true — you either “got” Elvis Presley or you didn’t. I can recall an acquaintance inquiring derisively after listening to one of the King’s extraordinary covers: “Is that all Elvis did was sing songs written by other people?” I explained that it was all anyone did — Sinatra, Bennett, Martin — before the Beatles came along. But, I was quick to add, few did it better.

To be sure, Presley’s musicianship will never be confused with that of Lennon or McCartney, but consider what John Lennon himself said about the influence of the self-described “shy, young country boy”: “Nothing really affected me until Elvis. … Without him, there would be no Beatles.” Paul McCartney would later concur: “Elvis has always been on top. … His records always made me feel good. I thought the Beatles had gold records, until I had a private tour of Graceland. … The Hall of Gold says it all. … Elvis has the most gold, platinum and multiplatinum sales of all of us. … Amazing man … simply amazing.”

Indeed, as far back as 1982, the Washington Post reported that Presley was the only artist to have sold more than a billion records worldwide. His success in blending rock, gospel and — perhaps most important — the blues so dominant in black communities across the South catapulted the singer to the top of the charts on Billboard’s country, R&B and pop charts. “Elvis claimed the number one spot in the U.S. for 24 weeks in 1956, only to top that the following year with 26 weeks — half of the year. He managed another 15 weeks at number one in 1960, upon his return from the army,” wrote Ernst Mikeal Jorgensen in the liner notes for “ELV1S 30 #1 Hits.”
Ironically, it was at the height of his popularity when Uncle Sam came along and Presley, ever the patriot — answered the call. In fact, it’s fair to say that his gun-toting brand of politics would shock the conscience of today’s entertainment cognoscenti. Joe Esposito, tour manager and confidante from their time in the Army, once told me in an interview at Graceland several years ago that “Elvis was a strict conservative.”

But Presley possessed something far more unique when it came to his personal political views — restraint. When pressed to comment on the controversial antics of Vietnam-era activist Jane Fonda in 1972, Presley disarmed his female inquisitor: “Honey, I’d just as soon keep my own personal views about that to myself. I’m just an entertainer, and I’d rather not say.”

Patriotism notwithstanding, by most accounts Elvis disliked the Army. Fortunately for his career, RCA Records had a stockpile of recordings ready to turn into hits while he was serving in Germany. Unfortunately for his personal life, it was in the service, while battling severe insomnia, that Presley started down the road to a drug dependency that would eventually consume him.

Yes, critics to this day point to the paradox of the would-be FBI narcotics informant strung out on prescription drugs; of the religious Southern gentleman raised to love his mother cursing on stage and womanizing off it, and of the entertainment role model posing with President Richard Nixon whose inexplicable lifestyle would ultimately lead to his ignominious death on a bathroom floor in Graceland.

But it’s worth remembering that there have always been two types of sinners: those whose image says one thing while they do another — of which Elvis was at least subconsciously guilty — and those who deny the reality of sin as a convenient way of justifying their own wayward impulses. Both are equally hypocritical.

Yet for all of Presley’s self-induced troubles, none compares with the litany of physical ailments that left the singer in near-constant pain. Records show that he suffered from asthma, atherosclerosis, diabetes, gastric ulcers, megacolon, glaucoma, lumbar disc protrusion, jaundice, prostatitis, vertigo, fatty liver, emphysema, anemia, migraines, chronic hepatitis, and cardiovascular disease. Whether the King died of a cardiac arrhythmia due to an enlarged heart (the official story), an acute drug overdose (which is doubtful given how quickly he died) or even “chronic constipation” (as his controversial personal physician, “Dr. Nick,” contends) from a colon twice the size of the average adult — it has all, at one time or another, been fodder for the cynics.

Right up until you consider that the singer’s trauma was apparently so severe that he “constantly complained of aches and pains on stage and off. Elvis was heard to say on many occasions, “Oh, God, I hurt,” according to Dr. Forest Tennant, a pain-management specialist who theorized that Presley suffered for years with a serious autoimmune disorder.

He also suffered greatly from an almost palpable case of career mismanagement by Col. Tom Parker. For some inexplicable (if not nefarious) reason, Elvis was never allowed to perform overseas — thus forgoing a lucrative market of millions of dollars. Moreover, it’s been widely reported that Barbra Streisand wanted Presley for the male lead in 1976’s greatly anticipated remake of “A Star is Born” — but Parker nixed it even though he had consigned Elvis to a string of formulaic movies beforehand.

Nevertheless, Presley’s uncanny ability to rise to the occasion continued to propel his career. His sold-out performances at Madison Square Garden in summer 1972 set records, and his January 1973 “Aloha from Hawaii” concert (the first delivered “live” via worldwide satellite) was notable on several fronts. Esposito divulged that Presley actually let his “Memphis Mafia” pick out the playlist — which differed significantly from his extant tour set. Even more revealing, due to the satellite’s “window” (after which the broadcast immediately goes “dark’), Elvis had to deliver the show exactly on time to the second. As Esposito remarked: “He nailed it — never missing a beat,” and the show turned out to be the apex of one of entertainment’s most enduring musical comebacks.

Of all the creative arts, music is surely the most evocative — which helps explain the connection Elvis still has today. But only partly. Perhaps Presley continues to resonate, at least on a subconscious level, because after all these years he remains the epitome of a classic American dream: a rags-to-riches hero whose life wasn’t nearly as easy as it looked.

 As published in the Star Tribune 16, 2015.

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