ALWAYS ON OUR MINDS Elvis Presley Pt. 1

33 years after his
death, there’s still no getting away from The King…

 

BY GILLIAN G. GAAR

 

Elvis is working the streets. Everyone knows him of course,
and few seem surprised to see him hanging out on Las Vegas Boulevard; indeed,
the people passing by often shout out “Hey Elvis!” and rush over to say hello
and ask if he minds if they take a picture with him. Of course he doesn’t mind.
Elvis is jovial, but he really beams when people tip him a dollar after the
pictures are taken: “Hey, thanks a lot. Appreciate it.” This Elvis is actually
Billy Gouvier, who’s also appearing in the impersonator show American Superstars up at the
Stratosphere, alongside replicas of Michael Jackson, Britney Spears, and Tim
McGraw. But Gouvier only works a few shows a week, and in order to generate
more income is forced to hang out on the Strip snagging tourists for photo ops.
You know times are hard when even Elvis has to hustle for spare change.

 

“We will never agree on anything the way we agreed on
Elvis,” Lester Bangs wrote in his memorial piece on Presley after Elvis’ death
on August 16, 1977. But what exactly is it that we agree on? The scope of
Presley’s legend seems far too broad to allow us to come to any consensus about
what Elvis “really means.” Was he a musical innovator? A racist? A God-fearing
patriot? A washed-up junkie? Elvis is now all things to all people, less an
artist and more of an idea, a concept, a blank façade onto which people project
whatever they want to see.

 

But this was apparently always the case. “He was like a
mirror,” Marion Keisker, record producer Sam Phillips’ assistant, said in Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley.
“Whatever you were looking for, you were going to find in him… He had all the
intricacy of the very simple.” The only thing that remains unchanged about our
perception of Elvis, especially in his posthumous life, is that what was once
seen as scandalous is now conventional. What once pushed the envelope is now
comfortable and safe. And therein lies the debate that continues to this day,
between those who take him too seriously and those who don’t take him seriously
enough.

 

Elvis Presley Enterprises (EPE), which runs Graceland and oversees the marketing of Elvis’ image,
naturally wants you to take Elvis seriously. They’ve been criticized for
sanitizing his image, not officially releasing the TV special Elvis In Concert on video or DVD, for
example. Filmed in June 1977, and aired the following October, two months after
Presley’s death, the show all too clearly captures the King in sad decline. But
in this regard they’re no different than anyone else looking after the estate
of a posthumous icon. The Doors don’t focus on the bloated, drug-addled Jim Morrison,
but the glory years of the leather-clad Lizard King; reissues of the Beatles’
records occasionally airbrush cigarettes out of the Fab Four’s hands.

 

Instead, recent releases have emphasized the durable nature
of Elvis’ work. The excellent four CD set Elvis
75
(2010 would have been the year Elvis turned 75) is a judicious mix of
Elvis’ best songs, whether hits or non-hits. It’s a “serious” retrospective;
there’s no room for overly lush production numbers like “The Wonder of You” and
“You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me,” despite the fact that both were hits at
the time of their first release, and there’s nary a whiff of kitsch (with the
possible exception of “Bossa Nova Baby”). Instead, you’ll find such treats as
Elvis’ exquisite cover of Bob Dylan’s “Tomorrow Is A Long Time,” originally
hidden as a “bonus” cut on the 1966 Spinout soundtrack. The set even pulls off the remarkable feat of finding the wheat
amongst the chaff of the post-1970 years (in some ways, more of a musical
wasteland than the movie years were), with poignant versions of “Always On My
Mind” and “Good Time Charlie’s Got The Blues,” and rockers like “Promised Land”
and “Burning Love.” (See the BLURT review the RCA/Legacy box set here.)

 

Other official releases this year have been hung on the
anniversary hook. The 40th anniversary reissue of the live-in-Vegas On Stage album (packaged in a two CD set
with the 1969 Elvis In Person At The
International Hotel
album as a bonus) looks back at the period when Elvis
still found performing in Vegas enjoyable. Two new DVD box sets repackage
Elvis’ movies (the one aspect of his career that’s long overdue for a good
critical assessment), each tied in with his 75th birthday. And this
October will see the RCA/Legacy release of a lavish box set entitled The
Complete Elvis Presley Masters
, a 30 CD box set featuring master recordings of every song
Elvis released during his lifetime, along with rarities and a 240-page book
with an essay by noted Elvis historian Peter Guralnick, all of it “housed in a
stunning, limited edition display case.” Undoubtedly to the consternation of
fans everywhere, the initial run of the set is limited to 1000 numbered copies,
and caries a hefty price tag of $750.

 

In
contrast to his obvious recording achievements, the release of the 1972 concert
documentary Elvis On Tour on DVD, the
last of Elvis’ original films to appear in the format, offers a more sobering
portrait of the King. It captures Elvis on the cusp of his fall; his face is
pudgy, and his athleticism in concert is noticeably muted, but he’s not yet the
tragic figure he later became. Still, it’s clear that things have started to
slide. Mid-way through the film, clips from his September 9, 1956 performance
on The Ed Sullivan Show are shown,
and the contrast is startling – Elvis is vibrant, alive, exuding an energy that
he clearly can’t muster two decades later. His voice still has impressive
power, as revealed on songs like “Never Been To Spain” or “You Gave Me A
Mountain.” But the frenzy of the shrieking audiences has him playing up style
over substance – the increasingly lavish jumpsuits, the ritual dispensing of
kisses and scarves. When the Beatles got tired of playing to screaming fans,
they simply stopped touring. Other groups, like the Rolling Stones, began
making the kind of music teeny-boppers weren’t about to scream at. With Elvis,
it’s as if he grew up, but his fans didn’t. Fatefully, instead of seeking out
newer pastures, Elvis opted to stay where he was the most comfortable.

 

And
it’s the fans that have kept Elvis from really leaving the building, at least
in spirit (though a reported 7% of Americans believe that Elvis is in fact
still alive). For Elvis fans, the High Holy Days are during “Birthday Week” in
January, the month of Elvis’ birth (Jan. 8, 1935), and “Elvis Week,” held the
10th through 16th in August, the month of his death. Fans
from around the world descend on Memphis to tour Elvis sites, purchase Elvis
memorabilia, meet those who once crossed paths with Elvis (many of whom now
have their own books or souvenirs to promote), and pay homage at Graceland,
both Elvis’ home and his gravesite; August 15 is “Vigil Night,” when the faithful
solemnly walk by Elvis’ grave, next to his house, from 9 pm until the early
hours of the morning, passing the innumerable elaborate flower tributes from
fans that line the long driveway.

 

The
August gathering is an especially intense experience, further heightened by the
punishing Memphis
weather (temperatures are routinely in the 90s, with the accompanying
humidity). The diehard fans who attend speak of their love for Elvis in the
same way they’d talk about the love they have for their spouse, or children.
And it’s this emotion that the impersonators (or Elvis Tribute Artists – ETAs
in today’s parlance) tap into. It’s the one setting where they truly make
sense, for the fans that need an outlet to express their heady devotion readily
find it in the impersonators. Even EPE, with a “if you can’t beat ‘em, join
‘em” attitude, finally began offering their own official “Ultimate Elvis
Tribute Artist” contest in 2007. So you’ll find impersonators in droves during
Elvis Week; you can barely get around the tourist hotspots of Graceland
or Beale Street
without tripping over one.

 

Tomorrow: Part Two of our
Elvis tribute. Meanwhile, check out author Gaar’s photo gallery of assorted Elvi and Elvis-related happenings right here.

 

***

 

Gillian G. Gaar is the
author of
Return of the King: Elvis Presley’s Great Comeback, out now from Jawbone Press. (Read more
about the book here on the BLURT website.) She will be doing a reading and
book signing Monday, August 16, at Seattle’s Café Racer for Elvis Tribute Night
& Karaoke Party
, and then the following evening, August 17, she’ll be at
the Feedback Lounge (also in Seattle), signing books and co-hosting a rock and
Elvis trivia contest.

 

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