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The Mirror

(Pictured: the King, 1968.)

Here’s the third and final part of something I wrote in 1997 after touring Graceland. As we walked through the house, I thought not just about Elvis the man but the multiple Elvises that made up his legendary career, and what they mean to us now.

We imagine a mansion as having thousands of square feet of living space, airy rooms, swimming pools, tennis courts, and scenes of grandeur. We expect to find that kind of mansion at Graceland, but what we actually find is different. It’s a lovely home, but small—almost too small for the legend we picture prowling the Jungle Room. Even the Meditation Garden, which we have seen on TV and expect to be large and lush, is small, awkwardly tucked away off a corner of the house, and near the front. Whenever Elvis relaxed there, alone with his thoughts, the traffic on the street that bears his name was only a few hundred yards away.

When we compare our expectations with the reality of Graceland, we gain a bit of insight into Elvis Presley’s character. If, as the Graceland story goes, Elvis wanted only to be rich enough to buy a nice house for his mother, he succeeded. If, as the story goes, Elvis remained at heart a country boy with a fondness for simple pleasures, the public face of Graceland seems to confirm it. While it is certainly true that the place conceals almost as much of the private Elvis as it reveals (and keeping the upper floor closed to the public makes this easier), what it reveals is surprising enough: Graceland’s hagiography may tell a story more truthful than fictional.

All four Elvises live on at Graceland. Graceland celebrates Rockin’ Elvis first and last, and just in time for the 20th anniversary of his passing, a brand-new collection of previously-unreleased demos and works-in-progress has just been released. It’s the latest in a collection of CD boxed sets released in recent years which have done more to restore Elvis’ reputation as an artist than anything since his death. (It is, of course, available in the gift shop).

Graceland is also a monument to Movie Elvis. In his early films, he was nothing short of beautiful—a realization which strikes both women and men even now. Then and later, movie viewers saw him as a giant presence in the dark and could not ignore him…

Graceland speaks of Fat Elvis in whispers, the Elvis with an insatiable appetite for prescription drugs, whose peculiarities were indulged and encouraged by his “friends,” whose livelihoods depended on pleasing him. These friends have chosen to remember him as a saint. But if that is untrue (and it surely is), the other extreme—Elvis as debauched monster—must be equally untrue. Graceland is of two minds about Fat Elvis—unable to deny the historical record, but unwilling to explore it in any detail.

Graceland does far more to perpetuate Dead Elvis than its keepers might wish to admit. While it attempts to hold the worst excesses of the Dead Elvis phenomenon in check—no velvet paintings are officially licensed by the Presley estate—700,000 visitors a year make Elvis wealthier dead than he ever was alive.

Finally, the biggest surprise about a visit to Graceland is how hard it is to leave. You may even go back a second time, just to look at those famous gates and up the hill at the mansion, to take one more picture.

And as you drive back down Elvis Presley Boulevard, you realize that Elvis is more than a rocker, an actor, a fat guy, a pet rock, a ghost on the fringes of popular culture. Elvis is an American type, a person we recognize as the embodiment of one or more of the things we are as a people—a mirror and ideal.

Here’s why. America encourages dreamers, like the young Elvis, because we believe that anyone can become famous beyond his wildest imaginings, like Rockin’ Elvis and Movie Elvis did. We see in Movie Elvis’ 1968 abandonment of Hollywood and return to his rock and roll roots something of our own continuing desire to get back to the basic values we believe in most. We see in Fat Elvis our own predisposition for overindulgence and laziness, our own tendency to stray too far from what made us great in the first place. We see in his too-young death the price that can be paid for going down a bad path. Dead Elvis shows us something of ourselves as Americans too. We cannot escape our history, but no matter how fat, silly, decadent, and lost we may become at times, America’s greatness still endures, contradictions and all.

That’s a lot to put on the shoulders of our different Elvises. Still, it fits. If he were anything less, his legend would not endure and continue to grow. Every society needs a mythic figure—a mirror and ideal. Twenty years after his death, the greatest tribute we can pay to Elvis Presley might be that if he had not existed, it would have been necessary to invent him.

A Regular Guy in His Regular House

(Pictured: Graceland. It’s a nice place.)

Here’s the second part of a 1997 piece I wrote about Elvis after a visit to Graceland.

“Sure we’re going to Graceland,” you say. “Gonna have a fried peanut butter and banana sandwich in the Jungle Room.” You’re prepared for a pop-culture hoot primarily because of the cheesiness of Dead Elvis, and at the start of your tour, you see nothing to dissuade you from that notion.

Graceland is located on Elvis Presley Boulevard, a busy commercial street in Memphis. You park the car and buy your ticket: $10 to tour the mansion, $18.50 if you also want to see Elvis’ cars, airplanes, and an exhibit of his personal effects. You get a tape player and cassette, and hop on a tour bus for the ride to the mansion itself. The tour is narrated on tape to accommodate the dozen or so languages most visitors might understand. It makes for a rather weird effect—visitors walk silently, not speaking to one another, listening carefully on headphones.

The first rooms you see are the formal living and dining rooms. The living room is the kind you’d see at a maiden aunt’s house—plush furniture, white carpets, a big piano, a TV in the room—which is never used for living. The dining room is set as it would be for a typical dinner. On the tape, you hear Priscilla Presley waxing nostalgic about dinnertime at Graceland, when Elvis and his friends (at Graceland they’re always referred to as “friends,” where elsewhere they’re called “the entourage” or “hangers-on”) would engage in good-natured fun and eat wholesome, down-home cooking.

You move next into the kitchen. It’s large and functional, filled with 70s vintage appliances in avocado green and harvest gold, which were used until 1993 by Elvis’ elderly aunt, who lived upstairs at Graceland until her death. From there, it’s downstairs to the TV room, painted a loud blue-and-gold, with a bank of three TV sets and Elvis’ famous slogan and symbol, TCB, on the wall. TCB, and the lightning bolt logo which accompanies it, referred to “taking care of business in a flash.” As you are constantly reminded, it’s what Elvis and his friends did for one another, and for others.

Next it’s the pool room, walls covered entirely in fabric, dim lighting, the felt of the pool table displaying a tear where one of Elvis’ friends supposedly tried a trick shot that failed. The tour narration reminds you once again that Elvis was just a regular guy with regular friends who did regular things in his regular house.

From this point, you go back upstairs to the famous Jungle Room. You have always imagined this room was in a secluded part of the house behind an unmarked door, but it’s right on the other side of the kitchen, no more than ten steps from the foyer. It features a small indoor waterfall and rustic furniture that looks as if it were hewn directly from fallen trees. The room is carpeted, floor and ceiling, in an unforgettable multi-tone green shag. You want to linger here; this is where the Elvis of legend is easiest to picture. But you are hustled out the back door. (The upper floor of the house, including the bathroom in which Elvis died, is not part of the tour.)

From the Jungle Room on, there’s a sense of anti-climax. You see the office where Vernon Presley managed his son’s personal affairs, the pasture where Elvis kept his horses, and the “Hall of Gold,” a converted outbuilding filled with gold records, awards, and other memorabilia. You spend more time in this building than any other on the tour, until the parade of honors becomes mind-numbing. From there, you go to an indoor racquetball court which is being remodeled into another gold-record display and where, you are told, Elvis spent the last night of his life playing racquetball and later, singing gospel songs with his friends. And finally you go outside once again, to the Meditation Garden, where Elvis, his parents, and his grandmother are buried side-by-side. “Elvis loved the garden,” Priscilla says in your ear. “It was his place to relax and think.” Then it’s back on the bus. You turn in your tape machine and are disgorged in front of the souvenir shop.

A few minutes later, you sit on a bench writing the postcards you bought, with the famous photo of Elvis meeting Dick Nixon. You start thinking about the different Elvises and how they intertwine, and the conclusions you reach surprise you.

Said conclusions in the next installment.

The Four Elvises

(Pictured: the hearse bearing Elvis Presley’s body leaves Graceland, August 18, 1977.)

The week after Elvis Presley died, he did not get on the cover of People magazine. In fact, it wasn’t until three issues later, the one dated September 5, 1977, that his name was even mentioned, and even then, there was no picture on the cover. (That honor went to Dan Rather, and a story about the possibility he would be Walter Cronkite’s heir.) While this seems absurd to us now—and the magazine’s founding editor called it the biggest mistake the magazine ever made—it made sense then. Celebrity culture was not the all-consuming monster it is now; People in those days preferred to put women on its covers; Elvis was perceived (rightly or wrongly) as a regional star, more popular in the South than in the North.

When Elvis died, fans came from across the country, joining the throng of Memphis locals at Graceland, the church, the cemetery. Vendors sold memorabilia in the streets. Some TV coverage of Presley’s mourners took a mildly critical tone, but only because nobody had ever seen a display quite like it. Old-timers compared it to the death of movie star Rudolph Valentino in 1927. Here in 2015, it looks completely normal to us. Just as Elvis was a pioneer of rock ‘n’ roll, he pioneered the fan response to celebrity death.

In 1997, The Mrs. and I visited Graceland. Before we’d gotten back to the parking lot, I started composing the following piece in my head. When I got home, I sold it to the newspaper in the town where we lived. I’ve never posted it at this blog, so here it is. Because it’s really long, I’m splitting it into three parts. Part 1 is on the flip.

Continue reading →

How Do You Like Me Now?

(Pictured: country star Toby Keith, early in 2002. The flag-themed guitar and FDNY hat were no accidents.)

Time to piece together some leftovers from my draft file. I started and never finished a couple of country-themed posts, so here goes.

On the drunken, violent, disorderly crowds at large country music shows:

It’s been widely reported how the subject matter of mainstream country music has changed in recent years. Where country was once highly personal and grounded in universal experience, a significant percentage of its most popular songs trade on a handful of the same tropes, repeated over and over. Songs of love and loss are outnumbered by party anthems drenched in moonlight and moonshine. Cornfields, bonfires, trucks with tailgates down, and everywhere people drinking, dancing, and hooking up without conscience or consequences.

It’s hard not to draw a line from these songs to the behavior of some of the people who like them. After all, since the invention of the movies a century ago, Americans have learned how to behave from various forms of pop culture—but most of us also recognize that the world in which we actually live has different rules from the world pop culture portrays.

The best discussion of these two interlinked subjects—the behavior of crowds and the transformation of mainstream music—comes from Saving Country Music, a site that is harshly critical of mainstream country. But even accounting for that editorial viewpoint, “From Checklist to Bro-Country: the Subversion of Country Music” is an excellent analysis of how the changes in country over the last several years have been accomplished, and how those changes fuel the mayhem visited upon many country shows: the abuse of alcohol, disrespect for women and for property, and outright violence.

Another excerpt from a country music post that fell apart, about an artist who’s capable of better, in a couple of different ways:

Toby Keith came right out of the chute in 1993 with a #1 single, “Should Have Been a Cowboy,” and hit the country Top 10 with his next six singles. His best stretch started in 2000 when “How Do You Like Me Now?” hit #1. Twelve of his next 13 singles would reach #1. One of those was “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue.” Subtitled “The Angry American,” it was written in the wake of the September 11 attacks, went to #1 in 2002, and stands as one of the most awful artifacts of that terrible time. It’s a flag-waving, chest-beating, patriotic anthem that basically says “mess with America and we’ll kill you for sport.” (Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks famously called it “ignorant.”) In the post-9/11 climate, such sentiments didn’t hurt Keith’s career one bit, as he continued to rack up #1 hits. Another patriotic record, “American Soldier,” was one of them, in 2003. Keith was one of the most notable celebrity supporters of the Iraq War when it began, although by 2004 he was claiming to be a John Kerry supporter.

“American Soldier” was the followup single to “I Love This Bar,” another #1 hit that Keith uses as the name for a chain of restaurants he owns—a chain that makes him one of the highest paid musicians in America year after year. And the drinking songs have continued apace: “Get Drunk and Be Somebody,” “Get My Drink On,” and beginning in 2011, six out of his seven chart singles were drinking songs of one sort or another. In 2013 and again in 2014, he appeared on stage visibly drunk, causing fans to ask for their money back.

We get trapped in what we allow ourselves to become. Toby Keith became a right-wing patriotic totem and had to remain one even after his personal politics changed. And now it’s as if he’s become the official performer of the over-served.

There is nothing about “How Do You Like Me Now?” that isn’t insanely great: the setup and the story; the video; and one of the best fist-in-the-air singalong choruses you’ll ever hear, any genre, any artist, any decade, capped off by a taunting little guitar lick that’s perfect. Even if you don’t like country, you’ll like this.

I couldn’t make you love me
But I always dreamed about
Livin’ in your radio
How do you like me now?

A Summer in Six Songs

(Pictured: Starbuck, whose clothing and hairstyles are a greatest-hits package of their own.)

I had a CD full of summer 1976 songs on in the car the other day, and it occurred to me that it’s possible to describe that summer with six songs. I don’t kid myself that the list is definitive; just as each of us lives our lives differently, each of us hears our songs differently (and I bet I could write the same damn post with six different songs). As it happens, these ran the charts at approximately the same time, peaking early in August, and they’re in no particular order.

“Tear the Roof off the Sucker”/Parliament. Disco was starting to happen in 1976, but as I have often noted here, disco in the pre-Saturday Night Fever days had far more in common with old school R&B than what came later, when the beat became mindless and the music lost its soul. “Tear the Roof off the Sucker” grooves with a purpose. (If you have never heard the full-length version from Mothership Connection, click it now.) It’s also on this list because it’s so odd, evidence of the glory of the AM radio era, when any damn thing could become a significant hit.

“You’re My Best Friend”/Queen. The formation of the Clash and the release of debut albums by Blondie and the Ramones make 1976 a pretty good starting point for the punk-rock era. Mainstream rock seemed tired (few critics liked the Stones’ Black and Blue or Led Zeppelin’s Presence, both released that year, and the year’s top album was an Eagles compilation), and a lot of performers seemed primarily interested in spectacle. Queen’s A Night at the Opera is definitely a spectacle. But the punk revolution was happening out of sight of most Midwestern teenagers, so “You’re My Best Friend” sounded like the best of all Queen singles in its time, and it still does.

“Love Is Alive”/Gary Wright. Where Queen proudly proclaimed “no synthesizers” in the liner notes of A Night at the Opera, Gary Wright was a one-man keyboard army, and if we define the 70s in part by their un-60s-ness, that was a very un-60s thing to be. That’s one reason why “Love Is Alive” is on this list, but not the only one. Any artifact purporting to symbolize a place should transport us back to that place in some fashion. “Love Is Alive” is summer nights when the light goes but the heat of the day still lingers. In memory, it comes blasting out of AM radios, standing for all of the jocks and jingles that were as ubiquitous as wallpaper during a teenage summer in the 1970s.

“Got to Get You Into My Life”/Beatles. But it might not be correct to define the 70s entirely by their un-60s-ness. Looking back was already fashionable, as “Got to Get You Into My Life” proved. Although it had been on Revolver, it managed to be uniquely 70s thanks to its blasting horn section—it was unlike any single the Beatles released in the 60s. It ran the charts at almost precisely the same time as the Beach Boys’ cover of Chuck Berry’s “Rock and Roll Music” (which the Beatles had also done way back when), and both records reached the top 10 at the same time, the first time both bands had been there together since 1966.

“I’m Easy”/Keith Carradine. In the 70s, a remarkable era for the movies, audiences expected to be spellbound by plot and character development instead of being dazzled by CGI and explosions. Let “I’m Easy,” a gentle song from Robert Altman’s Nashville, stand for the bygone days when movies were made for adults by adults, and only children cared about Marvel comics.

“Moonlight Feels Right”/Starbuck. This is a remarkably cheesy record, with some painful lines (“ain’t nothing like the sky to dose a potion” and “me and moon are itchin’ to play”), and it has a marimba solo where other bands might have put a guitar. And yet it might be the single song that best encapsulates the summer of 1976. The 60s are over; we’ve survived the Nixon years but we’re dubious about what might be next. Pop music does not so much reflect the world as it offers escape from it. And what’s a greater escape than a sui generis record about a hot girl on a summer night, slickly insinuating itself into to the heads of listeners like only 70s pop music can, so that years later it becomes impossible to imagine 1976 without it?

Adventures on the B-Side

(Pictured: Boston on stage in the late 70s.)

Ultimate Classic Rock wrote about B-sides recently—specifically, non-album songs that found their way to the back side of famous singles. Certain artists made a regular practice of this: most famously Bruce Springsteen, who had enough stuff in the vaults to stash songs as good as “Pink Cadillac” on B-sides. Even “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town,” which had been released on a children’s album that came and went in 1982, saw its first major release in 1985 as the flipside of “My Hometown.”

In college, we’d put a handful of quarters into a barroom jukebox and play nothing but good-quality B-sides, but that’s because some of us were B-side aficionados of long standing. Shortly after Christmas 1970, I turned over Neil Diamond’s “Cracklin’ Rosie,” one of the first singles I ever owned, to find “Lordy,” a rough and rockin’ song that sounds like little else in Diamond’s catalog. In the summer of 1971, the flip side of Tommy James’ “Draggin’ the Line” was the marvelous “Bits and Pieces,” which I liked every bit as much as the A-side. That same summer, I listened to the Stones’ “Bitch” as often as to “Brown Sugar,” although unlike the others, “Bitch” was getting airplay on WLS.

A few years ago, I did a bit of research into B-sides, compiling a list of famous classic-rock songs that found their way to the back of successful 45s. Some notable ones follow, in no particular order.

“You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)”/Beatles. The B-side of “Let It Be,” “You Know My Name” is part parody of the British music hall style and part drugged-up nonsense. It remained highly obscure until the CD era, when it was finally released on the Past Masters compilation.

“Fortunate Son (live)”/Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band. The B-side of the 1986 single “American Storm,” this is a cover that had to happen. No other performer was better suited to capture the almost physical anger in CCR’s original.

“I Saw Her Standing There (live)”/Elton John. Another live rarity stashed on a B-side, this is the smokin’ version with John Lennon recorded during his famous last appearance on stage in November 1974. It, too, was hard to find until the CD era.

“Ol’ 55″/Eagles. The B-side of “Best of My Love,” “Ol’ 55” is easily good enough to have been an A-side.

“Cocaine”/Eric Clapton. The B-side of “Lay Down Sally,” which is also good enough to have been an A-side. On FM radio, it was; “Sally” got only a fraction of the airplay “Cocaine” did.

“Ziggy Stardust”/David Bowie. Similarly, I suspect that “Ziggy Stardust” got more airplay in the long run than A-side “The Jean Genie.”

“’39″/Queen. The B-side of “You’re My Best Friend.” Brian May was about as likely to get a vocal on an A-side as John Oates or Andrew Ridgeley. If forced to choose, I might pick this as the best thing Queen ever recorded.

“Reason to Believe”/Rod Stewart. Another ringer of the “Bitch” variety—this got radio play right along with A-side “Maggie May,” and in fact, it appeared on the Billboard Hot 100 before “Maggie” did.

“Hey You”/Pink Floyd. Another classic-rock radio favorite, this was the B-side of “Comfortably Numb.”

“Foreplay”/Boston. Here’s a real oddball, from the B-side of “Peace of Mind.” “Foreplay” is best known as the instrumental introduction to “Long Time” from Boston’s debut album, and there’s not a classic-rock radio station on Earth that doesn’t play the whole eight-minute thing. But “Foreplay” alone was chosen as the “Peace of Mind” B-side. (The B-side of “Long Time” was “Let Me Take You Home Tonight.”)

If you have a favorite B-side, please share it in the comments.


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