Thursday, August 16, 2007

Last Train to Memphis

Americans are notorious for their ignorance of our own, shared past. As a result, modern history has become a blur for millions of Americans, punctuated only by "Where Were You?" moments that recall momentous events. Using that approach, the last 70 years are often defined by the Attack on Pearl Harbor; the JFK assassination; the fatal shootings of Robert Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King; the Challenger explosion, and of course, 9-11. It's a lazy--but distinctively American--approach to our history.

Another one of those "Where Were Moments" happened thirty years ago today, with the passing of Elvis Presley. For me. the recollections of that day are crystal clear. I was a 19-year-old college freshman, working a summer job as a fill-in DJ at a radio station in my home town, not far from Memphis. After subbing on the midday shift and recording a couple of commercials, I headed home, with vague plans for the evening.

Rolling along the highway, I switched the radio to WREC in Memphis. Back in those days, WREC was a "middle-of-the-road" (MOR) station, playing Sinatra, Doris Day and other artists that weren't exactly my cup of tea. I was looking for an updated weather forecast that would follow CBS news at the top of the hour.

The network's 4 p.m. newscast began with the usual, electronic "sounder, " followed quickly by the opening lines of Love Me Tender, and the anchor--I believe it was David Jackson--announcing that Elvis Presley was dead.

I remember pulling over on the side of the road, stunned at the news. He was only 42, far too young, larger-than-life and seemingly indestructible. But my own grief was measured; in those days, I wasn't much of an Elvis fan. With his lapse into self-parody at the end of his career, Elvis was (seemingly) irrelevant, both as an artist and a cultural force.

Even in his hometown, Elvis had become a target to lampoon and ridicule; a Memphis DJ named Rick Dees had a recurring bit called "Pelvis Live from Waistland," featuring a distracted Elvis who "ate too many jelly doughnuts" and literally exploded. It was a crude metaphor for what happened on the afternoon of August 16, 1977. To his credit, Dees stopped playing the spoof when Elvis died, but the image of a bloated, drug-addicted Presley persisted, a symbol of celebrity excess and self-destruction.

Fortunately, history has been kinder--and more balanced--in its treatment of the King. The early, tell-all biographies and record sets were followed by more serious (and scholarly) dissections of Elvis's life and music. For members of my generation--who rejected him as anything but hip--the turning points came with the compilation of his early recordings for Sun Records and Peter Guralnick's masterful, two-volume biography, Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love, published in 1994 and 1999, respective.

Collectively, the Sun Sessions and the Guralnick biography were--and are--revelations; the Sam Phillips-produced recording sessions (available in various forms since the late 70s) have been described as the "big bang" of rock and roll. Elvis wasn't the original rocker, but he was the first to synthesize bluegrass, R&B, rock, gospel and rockabilly into a seamless, searing package. Not long before Elvis visited Phillips's recording studio for the first time, the #1 song in America was Patti Page's (How Much Is) That Doggie in the Window? an obnoxious song that epitomized pop music's stagnation in 1953. Within three years, Elvis would change music--and the wider culture--forever, and the transformation began his recordings at Sun.

Similarly, Guarlnick's books present a man who is infinitely more complex--and compelling--than popular stereotypes. Far from a singer who merely "covered" black artists, Elvis had an encyclopedic knowledge of multiple music genres, and openly ackowledged the influence of black artists like Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup, Rufus Thomas and B.B. King. It was Presley's impromptu take on Crudup's (That's) All Right Mama which convinced Sam Phillips that his "discovery" had a future as a recording artist. And, as Mr. Guralnick noted in a recent New York Times op-ed, Elvis understood the potential impact of his celebrity--and his music:

It was what he believed, it was what his music had stood for from the start: the breakdown of barriers, both musical and racial...Asked to characterize his singing style when he first presented himself for an audition at the Sun recording studio in Memphis, Elvis said that he sang all kinds of music — “I don’t sound like nobody.” This, as it turned out, was far more than the bravado of an 18-year-old who had never sung in public before. It was in fact as succinct a definition as one might get of the democratic vision that fueled his music, a vision that denied distinctions of race, of class, of category, that embraced every kind of music equally, from the highest up to the lowest down."

Guralnick's writings--along with those memorable Sun sessions--celebrate the Elvis that should be remembered (and revered) on this 30th anniversary of his passing. Sadly, they've been all-but-forgotten in this week's media coverage, which has focused on the familiar aspects of his life.

Last night, for example, CNN devoted an entire hour to a "guided tour" of Graceland, featuring Larry King and Elvis's ex-wife, Priscilla. It was a bizarre event; reading from his note cards on camera, it was painfully obvious that King knew nothing about Presley. As for Priscilla, she repeatedly pointed out renovations that occurred after she divorced Elvis, creating the impression that her husband celebrated her departure with a major remodeling job. Interspersed with those segments were exterior shots of the annual, candlelight vigil outside the mansion, thousands of faithful Elvis fans wilting in a stifling, Memphis heatwave.

Of course, there's nothing wrong with visiting Graceland and paying your respects. But Elvis is much more than the original rock icon who suffered a sad and startling decline. Leonard Bernstein described him as "the greatest cultural forces of the 20th Century," and that may not be an exaggeration. But appreciating Elvis Presley, both as an artist and a man, is an individual discovery, or perhaps, rediscovery. It was only years later--and after his passing--that many of us began to recognize his astounding talent, and the revolution he ignited in the 1950s.

If you're so inclined, find a copy of the Sun Sessions for your CD player, or pick up a copy of Last Train to Memphis. Then, sit back and marvel at what once was--and will always be.


JJ Joseph said...

My favorite story about Elvis was the one that recounted his conflicts with "Colonel Tom Parker" (born Andreas van Kuijk), his Dutch promoter. Elvis was always a Christian music singer, but Parker wanted Elvis to be something more decadent. Elvis was not happy. My favorite Elvis 2-CD pack, naturally, is "Amazing Grace", and I can still watch his Christian concert videos endlessly. Later generations, as we all know, finally killed off all pop Christian music. "Colonel" Parker would be pleased.

Walter said...

So - you are 2 years younger than me OldSpook. I never would have guessed it.

(aka 3dc)