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Mixed Notes - August 17

By Rich Heldenfels Published: August 16, 2012


Listen for me this morning at about 9:10 a.m. on WAKR, talking with Ray Horner about Elvis Presley. It's the 35th anniversary of Elvis's death. And at the end of this post I have pasted a column I wrote in 2002, on the 25th anniversary of Elvis's passing.



Last night I saw the new "Sparkle" and will have more to say about it later. For now, here's a look back at the original "Sparkle," including my great appreciation of Lonette McKee.

This week's mailbag is here.

 That 2002 column:

"I'm so tired of being Elvis Presley."
-- Elvis Presley, 1976
Well, who wouldn't be tired of being Elvis? Dead 25 years, he has never escaped public scrutiny.
Not even Elvis really wanted to be ELVIS. He would have been happy as Steubenville's Dean Martin -- hugely talented but casual in his craft, beloved without ever breaking a sweat. Look at Elvis' joking in his 1968 comeback special, or the sloppiness of his later concerts. Elvis was doing Dean.
Like Elvis, Dean squandered his talent on indifferent recordings and so-so movies. Unlike Elvis, Dean was able to maintain an emotional distance from his art, to take the rewards it offered without suffering to achieve them.
That was not possible for Elvis. Like Frank Sinatra, something in his soul drove him at least occasionally to prove his greatness. Unlike almost anyone else, the stardom that overtook him was too enormous to escape.
"Sometimes, he confided to his audience, he wished he could just go out there and do his show in the relaxed manner of Dean Martin," biographer Peter Guralnick wrote of the 1970 Elvis. But audiences expected him to "get it on."
"So," Guralnick said, "he got it on."
And endless nights of getting it on, whether in front of an audience or in his private hells, wore Elvis down. Ernst Jorgensen, author of a comprehensive book on Elvis' recording sessions, notes that in 1976, Elvis tried to cover a Tom Jones song but "could no longer compete. ... He could neither hit the notes nor convey the feeling."
He could still summon a little power. Later in that same session, Elvis turned it up for a cover of the pop chestnut Hurt. Jorgensen calls it "probably the most convincing recording of Elvis' twilight career."
But the energy was fading, and he would die on Aug. 16, 1977. (Dean, born almost 18 years before Elvis, outlived him by another 18, dying in 1995.)
So if Elvis alive in almost any form is preferable to Elvis dead, then fans today might settle for a 67-year-old singer, tuxedoed, floppy bow tie untied, singing standards in Vegas -- or hosting a TV variety show.
Then, at least, we could hope that he would break free, like Bobby Darin, to pursue another muse -- perhaps to shock the world the way he did with his '50s recordings, to reassert his primacy the way he did with his 1968 comeback special.
Of course, an Elvis who could settle for being a lounge icon is not the Elvis of myth and music history. But if he made that accommodation, he might have had the kind of peace still missing from his dramatic arc even a quarter-century after he left this mortal building.
You can still find people who insist he is not dead. WJW (Channel 8) has hit ratings gold, and gotten national attention, with its is-Elvis-alive stories. His recorded work, spanning 24 years, continues to be reconfigured and remixed, to feed ancient fans and entice new ones.
In his 1975 book Mystery Train, rock-music analyst Greil Marcus summed up Elvis as well as anyone has before or after 1977. "Elvis has emerged as a great artist, a great rocker, a great purveyor of schlock, a great heart throb, a great bore, a great symbol of potency, a great ham, a great nice person, and, yes, a great American," Marcus said.
Still, Marcus was unable to let Elvis go. He wrote two more books about the King, one a rumination on the ties between Elvis and Bill Clinton. And those are just a small part of the total Elvis library.
So there should be no argument that Elvis still matters. Television certainly thinks so, with news reports on Elvis throughout the past week.
The morning-show wars used Elvis as cannon fodder on Tuesday. Today touted a new interview with his ex-wife Priscilla, while Good Morning America ran clips from an old Priscilla interview by Barbara Walters. On Monday night, E!'s Rank series took on "everything Elvis." (Top of the list, which replays at 5:30 and 10 p.m today: His recording of Hound Dog.) And the weekend will have still more examinations of Elvis.
Yet, every time I think that Elvis' place in American culture is secure, I also see him reduced to a brand name and a joke.
Proof that he matters: Bill Clinton's Secret Service nickname was "Elvis.''
Counter-proof: Much the way Elvis learned the wrong lessons from Dean, Clinton symbolized the worst part of Elvis, the uncontrollable appetites which tarnished his reputation much the way they did the King's.
Proof: Michael Jackson, wanting to cement his place in pop history, married Elvis' daughter, Lisa Marie.
Counter-proof: Lisa Marie may well have been using Jackson, too, since her famous blood line had not been enough to jump-start her own musical career. (Even weirder, Lisa Marie last weekend wed Nicolas Cage, an actor who more than once has paid big-screen tribute to Daddy.)
Even in the '70s Marcus wrote of an Elvis "left with no musical identity whatsoever" -- merely someone who "has dissolved into a presentation of his myth."
If it is music, not myth, that makes us cling to Elvis, then our grip is sometimes loose. Much of it is garbage. Some of the most famous numbers have been played and replayed so often, they have lost their impact.
And when he was good, sometimes he was not as good as the people he borrowed from. Yes, he transcended Junior Parker's Mystery Train. But his covers of songs by Clyde McPhatter and Ray Charles, among others, pale next to the originals.
Still, Elvis himself remains THE mystery train -- rolling along, picking up and discharging ideas that the culture imposes on him, yet elusive because Elvis the person seemed not to deserve the honor and weight of Elvis the myth.
That said, he indeed helped create that myth. He synthesized the threads of American music -- bland pop, rhythm and blues, country, the nascent form of rock and roll -- into something that can still sound remarkable almost half a century after he stepped into a recording booth in Memphis.
Although his face is so familiar that it, too, is a cliche, a fresh look at his movie work can still startle. Revisit the juke joint scene in Loving You, the early Elvis movie NBC is replaying at 8:30 p.m. Saturday.
Working through Mean Woman Blues, Elvis is young, he is beautiful, he is primal force unleashed. You can see the object of women's desire and men's envy -- and that he is utterly aware of the effect he is having.
But there is usually a price to pay for such a gift. Elvis paid it in his life, and we pay it in his after-life.
It's tempting to imagine what might have been if Elvis had one more comeback in him, if he found his way past the demons and excess that brought him down in 1977. But a longer life could have left him like, say, Chet Baker in his later years -- face and art ravaged by time, dissolution and waste.

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