With Neal’s encouragement, I’ve updated/revised my “Stupid Stuff People Say About Elvis” posts and integrated them into a new series on Tell It Like It Was.
Even those who have read the original posts here will find some new text and, I hope, new insights. It turns into another story when you put them all together.
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It’s nice to see the traditions are being sustained. I don’t know anything about Tom Beihan, but he’s clearly on the youngish side of Elvis Stupidity. In addition to having absorbed most of the Old Stupid, he’s managed to fully integrate it with some New Stupid. Self-retarded minds are notoriously hard to read, but I’m pretty sure he’s the first to suggest “Suspicious Minds” is camp and mean it.
In keeping with the “values” of our wretched new century, he loves it for that very reason.
Elvis just bulldozes the [sic] way through the song, submitting it to his will. On a song about a relationship falling apart, Elvis sounds delighted hamming it up over that great baritone guitar riff and those swelling strings and horns. The whole nature of the song changes. Elvis is telling this unfortunate woman that he’s not cheating, but he’s lying. She knows it, and he knows that she knows, but he still trusts his otherworldly charisma to carry him through. And he’s probably right. This f***er just won’t lose. He’s not caught in a trap at all.
If any man was ever caught in a trap and unable to walk out, it was Elvis. “Suspicious Minds” was a warning shot, the first public evidence in his career–perhaps his life–that there were doubts, within and without, which would not be resolved, even by Death. The only question left for us to ponder is whether steadfast refusal to grasp this on the level Tom Beihan displays here is a sign of stupidity or malevolence. (Hint: That bit where he complains about it going on too long might be a hint–the sound of someone digging in affects the camp mind the way crosses and sunlight affect vampires.)
Not that the two can’t ride together.
But, hey, listen again, and make up your own mind…
UPDATE: Somebody asked me to highlight the stupidest part of the quote above. I highlighted it.
Haven’t done one of these in a while. One has to take a break sometimes…but, as the world insists on turning round and the sun insists on shining, so, too, do the crit-illuminati continue in their ceaseless quest to rearrange reality…Ergo:
Elvis might never have been born, but someone else would surely have brought the world rock ‘n’ roll.
No such logic accounts for Bob Dylan. No iron law of history demanded that a would-be Elvis from Hibbing, Minnesota, would swerve through the Greenwich Village folk revival to become the world’s first and greatest rock ‘n’ roll beatnik bard and then—having achieved fame and adoration beyond reckoning—vanish into a folk tradition of his own making.
(J. Hoberman, “Like a Complete Unknown: I’m Not There and the Changing Face of Bob Dylan on Film” Village Voice, November 13, 2007)
Now that, “never been born” bit is maybe a touch too illuminating. It trades the subtler forms of thought control for wish fulfillment.
But as the world’s foremost interpreter of crit-illuminati speak, let me translate the whole thing for you.
Elvis is not one of us. (If we can’t make him go away, we can at least make that point perfectly clear!)
Bob Dylan…he is one of us!
See how simple that is?
One thing I’ve never been clear on is whether there is some sort of entrance exam required for either entry to crit-illuminati circles or promotion therein.
If there is one, I’m pretty sure extra credit must be given for being able to say stupid stuff about Elvis and Bob Dylan at the same time.
What I can’t understand is why Blacks can’t achieve royal status when it comes to forms that they have largely created? I mean there’s a White King of Rock n’ Roll, there’s a White King of Jazz, how come we can never achieve titles of royalty in these fields we are supposed to prevail in? They held a so called Rock and Roll Hall of Fame the other night, where White judges credit people who resemble them with the invention of Rock and Roll. I didn’t even see Blacks in the audience.
There would be no Rock and Roll without Ike Turner, James Brown, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Allen Toussaint, etc. Fake ghetto books and fake ghetto music. Elvis Presley, whom they idol, is merely a karaoke makeover of James Brown and Chuck Berry.
(Ishmael Reed, interview with Counterpunch, March 15, 2008. Interview can be read here.)
I’ll set the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame jibe aside, except to note that all of the men Reed mentions had been inducted into the Hall years earlier. That’s just standard public intellectual ignorance.
And we’ll leave Paul Whiteman and the tendency of marketing departments to equate royalty with sales out of this.
As to the Elvis part:
Reed is, perhaps unwittingly, using a classic propaganda technique: criticizing fake narratives by utilizing a fake narrative.
I say perhaps unwittingly, without putting any percentages on it, because, like most fake narratives, this one is rooted in ignorance born of emotion. Reed wants what he says to be true, therefore it is true. Or will be, if enough people just keep repeating it.
As to facts? Those stubborn things?
Sorry, but once in a while, we have to slog back through the actual record, tiresome though the march may be.
Of the five men he mentions, only two of them had made a record before Elvis made his first.
Of those, Ike Turner was a band leader and session man who was indeed repeatedly ripped off by white business men (mostly Sam Phillips and the Bihari brothers, for whom Ike later claimed to have written more than seventy hits they copyrighted under their own names, which is probably even more tunes than Don Robey stole from Bobby Bland**) throughout the early and mid fifties. He did in fact lead the band for this enormously influential record:
The record was written and sung by Jackie Brenston. But Ike played the galvanizing piano part, which was a straight cop on the other man Reed mentions, Fats Domino.
Fats Domino, who had his first big hit in 1950, was the actual and undisputed King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, at least in the sense he and Elvis understood the term before Elvis exploded the original definition into smithereens.
The way I know this, besides having ears, is Elvis said as much.
He said it at an obscure little international press conference forty years before Ishmael Reed (who, unlike Elvis, doesn’t know his history on this subject, and, unlike Elvis, clearly relates to the very specific “black people” he mentions as something other than people) got Fats mixed up with a lot of other guys because he was giving an interview in which he spent the bulk of his time criticizing (rightly, it should be said) a lot of other people for getting things mixed up.
And then he let what he heard somewhere and never bothered to check up on for himself rule his thinking.
Of course, most of what Reed says in his interview is true or at least plausible. I encourage you to follow the link and read the whole thing.
But a lie never does more damage than when it’s surrounded by truth.
Makes it seem, you know, credible.
Nonetheless, Elvis made this..
…and a lot of other “rock and roll” records before Chuck Berry or James Brown (the only person not in Elvis’ inner circle who was allowed to spend time with his corpse and who later wrote in his autobiography, “I wasn’t just a fan. I was his brother.”) ever made it to a recording studio.
Funny, it’s never occurred to me to accuse them of doing a “karaoke makeover” of Elvis just because they likely (in Chuck Berry’s case), or certainly (in James Brown’s case), heard him before he heard them.
And why not?
Because that would make me look stupid?
Yeah, that’s part of it.
But the main reason is this little creed of mine:
When the house is on fire, don’t strike a match.
Not even a little one.
No matter how good it makes you feel.
(**NOTE: Neal U. makes a good point in comments that theft in the record business was not limited to white businessmen ripping off black artists. He covers the main points in his comment which I encourage you to read. I’d only add that black businessmen ripping off white artists was uncommon because the dynamic just didn’t occur that often. With every other racial combination, copyright theft was rampant.)
[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.
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:
(5) The Jacksonian, written by Beth Henley, directed by Robert Falls, the New Group, Acorn Theatre, New York (November 5–December 22, 2013). A hotel drama set in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1964, with Ed Harris as a disgraced dentist, Amy Madigan as his disgusted wife, and Juliet Brett as their miserable teenage daughter, and featuring Bill Pullman as what Elvis would have ended up as if “That’s All Right” had never gotten out of Memphis: an alcoholic bartender with a thing for jailbait who has no problem shooting a woman for a ring he doesn’t even want and letting a black man go to the electric chair for it. “I was a performer for a while,” he says under a huge pompadour, sideburns snaking down the sides of his face, but now his whole life is stage fright.
(Greil Marcus, Real Life Top Ten, The Believer, March/April 2014)
I’m trying to imagine:
Bob Dylan if he never made it out of Minnesota. John Lennon if he never made it out of Liverpool. Mick Jagger if he never made it out of London. Bruce Springsteen if he never made it out of New Jersey.
Now, with all that fixed in my head, I permit myself to wonder if Marcus–or any other member of the crit-illuminati–would ever dream up some other life where any of them just naturally become a vicious, racist murderer and then try to pass if off as a compliment?
I mean, Jerry Lee Lewis maybe. Or Johnny Burnette. Or Billy Lee Riley.
After all, we all know what those working class hillbillies from the mean streets of somewhere or other are down at the bottom.
Especially the ones who never bother to respond to any potential crushes that might develop among the pundit class (as Dylan has to Marcus himself, Lennon and Jagger to Jann Wenner, Springsteen to Dave Marsh, etc., etc., etc.)
Bear in mind that, among the taste-mongers, Marcus counts as one of Elvis’ principle defenders (and interpreters). A lot more than once I’ve seen him described, by folks who are very comfortable with the idea of Elvis-as-racist-murderer, as an Elvis “apologist.” (If you want another fun exercise, try and imagine Bob Dylan or John Lennon needing any such thing.) Such are necessary with Elvis, of course, because we all know that he–unlike so many of those others whose careers he made possible–needs apology.
“‘‘I Got a Woman’ appeared on Elvis Presley’s first album,’ Fagen says in a tiny but packed essay about Ray Charles. ‘Elvis wasn’t the white Ray Charles, though. Tennessee Williams, maybe, comes closer.’ Are we still producing musicians who can think and talk like that?”
(Nick Hornby, reviewing Eminent Hipsters, a memoir by Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen, in The Believer, March/April 2014.)
I could be snarky and suggest that admitting the white guy who was completely full of himself did indeed have more in common with the black guy who was completely full of himself than the white guy who was a truly restless seeker and a truly artful dodger had in common with either is maybe not the precise combination of praise and put-downs Fagen intended or Hornby salutes.
But why get complicated?
This thing’s juicy enough on its own. It’s certainly the first instance I’ve come across that could fit equally well in the “Stupid Stuff People Say About Elvis” and the “It Isn’t Only Elvis They Say Stupid Stuff About” categories.
And it’s also the first instance–in either category–where two men are struggling for the right to have their names entered as permanent additions to the “Stupid Stuff” file and I find myself struggling to choose between them.
Well, Fagen is “that guy from Steely Dan,” and they always were patting themselves on the back for squaring and cubing things that would have otherwise been completely beneath them. (That’s the long way of saying they were jazzbos, though I hasten to add they were also the kind of jazzbos who were way too smart to play, write, arrange, produce or sing like jazzbos until they had made a run of brilliant albums, a name for themselves and a boatload of dough–naturally they called this integrity.)
So I gotta give him the upper hand.
Okay, listen. Ray Charles was a genius. Tennessee Williams was a genius. Elvis was a genius.
None of them ever remotely tried to be–or remotely wanted to be–any of the others.
In point of fact, the only one who ever really tried to be somebody else at all was Charles, who started his career by trying very hard to be Nat “King” Cole, most especially the Nat Cole who appealed most readily to White America (and he was, incidentally, pretty darn good at it).
He gave that up soon enough, though, and went on to be something even better than a first class Nat Cole imitator or maybe even better than Nat Cole–which was, you know, Ray Charles.
After that (though before Charles began to appeal so readily to White America himself) came Elvis–who never tried to be Ray Charles or anybody but Elvis.
Before that came Tennessee Williams, who also never tried to be Ray Charles (not even all those years later, when he had actually heard of Ray Charles) or anybody but Tennessee Williams.
So the only remaining question–besides why Fagen is making such an ass of himself in the first place by acting as though he, “a musician who can think and talk like that,” really can’t think or talk at all–is why Tennessee Williams is “maybe closer” than Elvis to being “the white Ray Charles” rather than the other way around?
I mean, since Williams had already written the plays for which he is most remembered well before Ray Charles even got to the point of trying to be the new Nat Cole, why doesn’t Fagen ask whether the Ray Charles he is referring to–the one who did eventually become both himself and a genius–is “maybe” the black Tennessee Williams?
Is it maybe because then he would not only be a guy being praised–by the likes of Nick Hornby–for making stupid assumptions rather nakedly rooted in the notion that the black genius (more by dint of his blackness than his genius) must have been inherently superior to any white genius who walked the same turf (only with the distinct disadvantage of being white), even if the white guy walked it much earlier and it wasn’t even really the same turf at all, but also be a guy in danger of being accused of being, well, a racist or something?
Could that be it?
Well, he is Donald Fagen.
And he does like to cube things so that he won’t be caught looking down.
In this case he cubed himself into a corner–the corner where the benighted liberal intellectual makes curious assumptions which, under the surface, where it counts, are hardly distinguishable from those of the white (or black) supremacist.
Fagen’s statement–meant to assure us that he’s living up to the title of his book–is actually a return to the most primitive of the primitive basics–to the notion that race comes first and foremost in all considerations that seek to codify human character and (by extension) genius.
The sort of thinking, in other words, that the revolution Elvis led, Ray Charles sort of reluctantly (though also brilliantly–reluctance was his signature) participated in, and Tennessee Williams never really knew quite what to make of, sought–however naively, given the vicissitudes of human nature–to challenge and overturn.
That was the thing about jazzbos.
They always thought rock and roll was somewhere underneath them, when really they should have been looking up.
Case in point below…(Nice lyrics, though–and, hey, notice who constitutes his own category):
“It was while overseas that Elvis also met a nymphet named Priscilla Beaulieu, whom he would make the mistake of marrying in 1967 (a mistake because Elvis never wanted to behave as anything but a bachelor).”
James Wolcott (Source: “King of Kings” Vanity Fair, November, 2001)
Then, for comparison’s sake:
“No one had more freedom than Mackenzie Phillips, now 42, sober and acting again. At 13, after running away from her mother’s house, she showed up at her father’s Bel Air mansion, where he was living with his third wife, Genevieve. In step with the latest trends, John Phillips answered the door wearing a floor-length, tie-dyed Indian caftan and a Jesus beard and smoking a joint.
“‘Dad, I’m moving in–could you pay for the taxi?’ Mackenzie remembers saying
“‘Sure kid, come on in.’
“‘What are the rules?’ Mackenzie asked.
“‘Well, let me see,’ he said. After a moment of heavy contemplation, John replied, ‘You have to come home at least once a week. And if you come home from going out the night before and it’s light out, always bring a change of clothing, because a lady is never seen during daylight hours wearing evening clothing.’
“She walked in to say hi to Dad’s friends–Gram Parsons, Keith Richards, Donovan, and Mick Jagger, most of whom she wanted to have sex with. Her little girl’s dream came true, when, at the age of 18, she found herself over at Mick’s place making tuna sandwiches with her father. John left to go get mayonaisse, and ‘Mick turned around and locked the door, and looked at me, and said, “I’ve been waiting to do this since you were ten years old,”’ Mackenzie recalls. ‘My dad is banging on the door, “Mick, be nice to her! Don’t hurt her.” And I’m going, “Dad, leave us alone. It’s fine.” And we slept together.’ The next morning Jagger gave her a beautiful robe and fed her tea, toast and fresh strawberries.”
Evegenia Peretz (Source: “Born to be Wild” Vanity Fair, November, 2001)
Laying aside whether James Wolcott (or anyone) could know how Elvis Presley (or anyone) “never wanted” to behave, I do think it’s kinda’ creepy to say anybody else’s marriage is a “mistake” unless they themselves say it first (which I don’t believe either Elvis or his “nymphet” ever did).
I mean, I wouldn’t even say that about the multiple marriages of John Phillips or Mick Jagger, neither of whom–in keeping with a rather normal, albeit distasteful, standard for celebrity males which Elvis hardly challenged, let alone exceeded–ever gave any convincing impression of wanting to go about “behaving as anything but a bachelor” (at least not until age or infirmity slowed them down).
But then again, I doubt James Wolcott would say such things about Phillips or Jagger either. There’s no way to prove that, of course, but I’ve certainly never seen the slightest bit of evidence that he finds them to be what he clearly considered the un-marriage-worthy Elvis–namely, the wrong sort of people–or that he could continue being published in any periodical as swank as Vanity Fair if he did.
No need to speculate either, about what Elvis himself might have done if he had lived a bit longer and somehow found himself in a situation where Mick Jagger (or anyone) was jumping Lisa Marie’s eighteen-year-old bones on the other side of a locked door, though I’m guessing he wouldn’t have plaintively begged Mick not to hurt her and then doped and raped her and forced a ten-year incestuous affair on her, as Mackenzie would later reveal (or, if you prefer, claim) her own father had done, beginning a year or so after the charming incident related above.
For that you need the right kind of people.
On that cheery note, I’ll leave you with the old Japanese proverb, which is one thing that applies equally to even the crit-illuminati‘s definition of wrong and right sorts of people
“In the beginning the man takes the drugs. In the end, the drugs take the man.”
And proof of how far the fall can be, even for the right sort:
Elvis Presley. If we put aside the posthumous madness, Elvis had a pretty tenor voice and a distinctive way with ballads, but his rhythmic sense was often clumsily ersatz, and even within the idiom that declared him king, he is less inventive, daring, and satisfying than Little Richard, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, and others.”
(Source: Gary Giddins, American Heritage Magazine, May/June 1998)
Gee, you might have been thinking that purely gratuitous Elvis-bashing did not reach into scholarly history magazines. That there might be some limits to the crit-illuminati’s insidious reach.
It’s hard to know where to put the focus, actually. I could mention that idioms do not make declarations. “Rock ’n’ Roll”–the “idiom” in question, did not declare Elvis king of itself, the RCA publicity department did. Quite a number of people (not Elvis) did and do accept this–but, of course, they are dismissed as being prone to “madness.”
Hey, what else could it be? These illuminati fellows are nothing if not thorough.
So should we go with any of that?
I think I’m gonna focus on that bit about his rhythmic sense being “often clumsily ersatz.”
And then I’m gonna narrow it down further to that qualifier: “Often.”
I mean, “clumsily ersatz” brings a smile all by itself, but….Often?
That slays me.
Just for fun, here’s E being pretty typically “rhythmic.”
These are things that each of us, I suppose, must decide for ourselves.