I haven’t been able to listen to Elvis all year until this week.
Not even a little.
It wasn’t that he was irrelevant to the unfolding disaster befalling the American Experiment–a disaster which has nothing to do with the outcome of the election, that being just one more mile marker on the road down, though I’ll buy that it’s potentially a sign-worthy milestone at least. It was more that he was too relevant, too near, too obviously nagging the national consciousness, even as the fragile coalition between Appalachia’s version of the Celtic Imagination and the Delta’s version of the African Imagination that formed in his head in the mid-fifties and brought the Promised Land heaving into view off the bow, finally sank beneath the waves without anybody bothering to mention his name over much.
Maybe I wasn’t the only one who couldn’t listen.
Anyway, this week I started again and I started with the Fifties. Figured I’d just get the The Complete 50’s Masters out and let it roll over me, night after night.
Since this was probably the longest stretch I’ve gone without listening to any serious Elvis since the late seventies, re-engaging was an experience….like recovering a lost memory.
Along the lines of, “Oh yeah. That guy.”
I forgot how improbable it all was.
You tend to, if the music isn’t right there in your ear.
Anyway I do, what with all the white noise the world can make crowding in, day after day.
Toward the end of the second disc, just when I thought I couldn’t possibly be gobsmacked any harder, I ran into these three, right in a row:
Elvis the doo-wop singer, who, if that was all he had been, would have been in the conversation with Clyde McPhatter and Dion DiMucci as the greatest of all. (An amazing number of his records would fit the category if they had been recorded by some soundalike and been a career maker, the way “Be Bop A Lula” was for Gene Vincent, or “It’s Only Make Believe” was for Conway Twitty, to take only the most obvious examples.) This, the purest example, might not have become a hit for that imaginary soundalike. But it would have become a collector’s item, which, in doo-wop is maybe more to the point.
Followed by Elvis, the off-hand rockabilly, too smart to compete with Little Richard directly (though he could have, listen again to “Jailhouse Rock” or “Santa Claus is Back in Town” some time), too committed to treat it less than seriously…and a reminder that it was always the off-hand part that made Elvis the first and greatest rockabilly singer…
Followed by Elvis, the white gospel singer, who, if that was all he had been, would have been in the conversation with Jake Hess and James Blackwood as the greatest of all.
It’s been almost a given among the crit-illuminati, ever since his existence increased their value to the Overlords a thousand fold–made them not merely convenient but necessary–that “rock and roll” would have been just as big a deal, just as important, and moved to the center of the culture for three decades just as surely, if Elvis had failed to slip the noose and stayed a truck driver. (I created the “Stupid Stuff People Say About Elvis” category to give just a small taste of their willful ignorance.)
All you ever have to do to make nonsense of that is listen to the actual records and ask yourself, “Who else. then?”
Who else covered that much territory with so much fluidity and ease that it seemed “natural.”
No one else.
The one cold comfort that will be available to the future is the assurance that the boot-lickers, having played their role all too well, will be going down with the rest of us.
The Overlords, too.
As Elvis, the inveterate Bible reader, might have told them:
For whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.