STUPID STUFF PEOPLE SAY ABOUT ELVIS (Quote the Seventeenth)

[Program Note: Neal Umphred and I are scheduled to continue our Elvis discussion over at his place some time in the next few days. I’ll link over when it begins and periodically when we update. Meanwhile….]

“But my modest suggestion is that this may be where the first wave of rock broke and fell back, why in its first great push it never quite reached the shore to cover the earth; there was no unifying talent complete and obsessive enough to work the transformation it made its fan desire.

“Its geniuses could not do all it took. Elvis was early rock’s godhead and figure of broadest appeal; though his audiences remained segregated, he was the first to suggest such a broad comity of taste among people who presumably had nothing to say to one another. But from the start there was lard at the heart of his judgment (the ersatz jazz of “Heartbreak Hotel”), schmaltz in the boil (“Love Me Tender”), and aside from two aberrant skirmishes with need and doubt in later years (his 1968 comeback music, side one of How Great Thou Art) he did not extend his pioneer moves into music of psychological complexity.”
(Source: Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History, Devin McKinney, 2003)
 Let me start with a little disclaimer. I think I’ve made the point before, but “stupid stuff” said about Elvis isn’t always said by stupid people. Frequently, it’s said by very smart people, Devin McKinney being a prime example. I’m about half-way through this book and I was led to it by McKinney’s more recent book on Henry Fonda, which is excellent and which I reviewed here.
On top of all that, Magic Circles, being about the Beatles, is mostly superb, and always provocative, when it sticks to the Beatles. I’m sure I’ll have something extensive and every likely quite positive to say about it when I’m finished.
That said…
There’s a style of rock criticism (I’d call it the dominant style) which feels the need to slay the Elvis Dragon so that the Beatles-as-God-Theory-of-Everything might live. This style, unsupported by evidence or rationality, has lasted so long, acquired so much real depth and nuance, and taken such deep hold on so many fine minds, that it should probably be labeled a syndrome and have its own pseudo-scientific name. I’m not in a creative mood right now so I’ll pass on the opportunity but if anyone else wants to jump in with a suggestion, feel free.
One element of the syndrome–if syndrome it be–is that the Beatles were somehow “bigger” than Elvis, here exemplified by phrases like: They “covered the earth”  (as he did not). They were “a unifying talent complete and obsessive enough to work the transformation,” i.e., the transformation the syndrome deems valuable (as he was not). And while “His audiences remained segregated”….theirs did not.
And, oh by the way, (merely implied here but made explicit in the main text of the book) they were unquestioned musical geniuses with real vision.
His music and vision were suspect “from the start.” Any  later, lasting, achievements were, of course, “aberrant.”
(Yes, this is all old stuff around here, but there’s a twist: While McKinney expends the most print on Elvis, he is even more dismissive of the other fifties’ giants. At one point he describes the Everly Brothers–the most important harmony singers of the twentieth century and, oh-by-the-way, the most significant specific musical influence on the Beatles after, you know, Elvis–as “minor.”…but we’ll leave that for another day.)
For the record: 
There’s no objective evidence that the Beatles were “bigger” than Elvis. What we can say with certainty is that they held much greater appeal for the intelligentsia.
Outside of academia and its attendant, late-sixties, branch-n-root in the counterculture, there’s no part of the earth he didn’t cover that they did cover. One rather significant part of the earth that he reached and they did not was Black America, which rejected the Beatles completely, (that is, if we’re to go by the only somewhat objective measure we have, which is the record charts, where they never placed a single record on any R&B chart, while Elvis, somehow appealing to his segregated-in-southern-concert-halls audience, was the second ranked R&B performer of the fifties’ after Fats Domino, who, as it happens, McKinney also thinks was no big deal). Another rather significant part of the earth he covered quite a bit more thoroughly than the Beatles was Hillbilly America, which at the time, was still quite a large chunk of the population and the culture, but we’ll give that a flyer, since Elvis had the distinctly unfair advantage of being one of them.
Later in the book, McKinney has to strain quite a bit to give the Beatles some relevance to black people and the civil rights era and I mention it only because, once his false premise is out of the way, he doesn’t strain much. Basically his argument there amounts to the Klan outright despising the Beatles, especially after John Lennon’s “we’re bigger than Jesus” moment (which, ironically enough, McKinney writes about with real verve and insight).
Upshot: they were important to Black America even though, on the evidence, few black people bought their records and they weren’t prone to demonstrating much public zeal on the matter.
The logic, so far as I could follow it, is that the Beatles had to be important to the burning issue of the day because…well, because they were the Beatles. And hence, by definition, way more significant than Elvis, a product of the segregated south who had smashed the race barrier ten years earlier in an unprecedented and wholly unpredictable, but nonetheless absent-minded and rather accidental fashion, which didn’t require any “music of psychological complexity,” then or later.
Or something like that.
To which I can only say, yet again, that among the people who realized there were no Beatles without Elvis were, you know, the Beatles.
From Liverpool, England.
A part of the earth the lard-hearted Elvis had evidently covered after all.
You don’t even need John Lennon’s “Before Elvis there was nothing,” to prove it.
You could just go with this:
“I didn’t have any. The only root I can think of is one day riding my bike down a street in Liverpool and hearing ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ playing out of an open window.”
(George Harrison, asked about his musical influences in George Harrison: Living In the Material World, 2011)
 Or maybe this:

 

 

8 thoughts on “STUPID STUFF PEOPLE SAY ABOUT ELVIS (Quote the Seventeenth)

  1. JOHNNYBOY

    You really need to compile these STUPID STUFF PEOPLE SAY ABOUT ELVIS pieces into a book!

    REALLY!!!!

    There is sooooooooooooooooooooo little intelligent conversation of this kind about the never-ending downplaying of Presley’s accomplishments and importance by writers who don’t even get it that they haven’t gotten it.

    I long ago outgrew the need to denigrate others to make my faves look bigger and it’s off-putting to read something like the above from a man that you state knows a thing or two about the Beatles.

    For me, based on this piece, I don’t even want to know what McKinney has to say about the Beatles.

    Oops, now it sounds like I am denigrating McKinney when all I really want is for you to make a book.

    REALLY!!!!

    Sith agus Slainte bah!

    THE ROCKAHULA BABY

    PS: One of the problems with the critics that you discuss is that they don’t seem to believe that a non “intellectual” like Presley could make music that was intellectually stimulating. Unless of course the non-intellectual is an old, impoverished black man from the south who was ripped off by some white man looking to make a buck . . .

    • Actually the thought has crossed my mind. My fear is that if I spend that much time on it all at once I’ll drive myself over the edge into true manic-depression!…Still, if I don’t sell my novel this year, it might be my next project!…Good point that last, incidentally. And I don’t think the people who prove it have any idea of just racist THAT is! Because, for them, it’s just another way of saying black people “feel” things differently…I’m put in mind of Wynton Marsalis’ quote about white critics who said Louis Armstrong was and “instinctive” genius. Marsalis rightly de-coded that as meaning “another way of saying he couldn’t think.”…Applied to Elvis you can multiply that factor by about a hundred.

  2. Dear Johnny, please write the book on ‘Stupid Things They Say About Elvis’…Great idea that! A thought for a label for the ‘Syndrome’……’Another Beatle Juice Goose’! TCB!

  3. I would buy that book!

    This McKinney fellow makes me tired. He pulled out that trusty nugget “ersatz,” which I remember from another Stupid Stuff post. Oh, and “schmaltzy.” Hilarious. If he doesn’t know how important Fats Domino and the Everly Brothers are, how can he presume to write about anyone? He reminds me of the people my age who say, “I was a Beatles fan,” when asked if they liked Elvis, as if it is strictly either/or. “Beatle-Mania Syndrome” comes to mind.

    A high school acquaintance who writes a music blog recently wrote that the Beatles are overrated, but not as overrated as Elvis. I can’t begin to explain the world to him. So tired.

    Thanks for keeping an eye on them!

    • Thanks Peggy! Yes, the “either/or” thing is rather strange. And it seems to come mostly from Beatles’ fans for what that’s worth. Maybe a touch of insecurity there! It’s really too bad in this case because McKinney’s an excellent writer and this premise is just a little poison pill that casts a pall over the whole affair.

      And for what it’s also worth…don’t give up on your young acquaintance. Until my senior year I didn’t like Elvis or the Beatles either….Mostly because EVERYBODY ELSE DID. That’s a very high school thing to do but there’s always hope that the light will come on with maturity!

      Hmmmm…BMS…we’ve got a little competition here! lol

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