July 6, 2018
Thanks to Matt Phillips, a 2018 Harrison Middleton University Fellow in Ideas, for today’s post.
This April, HBO premiered a new, two-part documentary about Elvis Presley. Directed by Thom Zimny and produced by John Landau and Priscilla Presley, Elvis Presley: The Searcher offers an intimate portrait of the man behind the universal icon. While the film provides new insight into Elvis and his life (and presents previously unseen footage, photographs, and recordings), it somehow leaves the attentive viewer with a striking sense of wonder.
The temptation with icons is to dismiss their artistry, to see them as symbols or relics rather than as artists or masters of craft. The icon’s cultural image, whatever it is, supersedes his/her practice. Image, sadly, often eclipses craft. Call this a symptom of the mass media barrage or the shortsighted collective memory of the masses.
Call it unfair, if you like.
Take, for instance, the image that is Elvis Presley.
We know him as “The King of Rock and Roll.” We know him as the teenager who made a million girls swoon. Think about Elvis Presley for one moment. See his pearly white teeth, those eyes dashed in dark wonder, those hips moving back and forth. Those lips. And see him in his later years, an irreducible showman slowly expanding into his white, bedazzled jumpsuit.
And that’s the problem—we only see him.
Think, too, that Elvis must have known he was being seen and that, inevitably, he would continue to be seen. I find it hard to believe that Elvis was unaware of his own power as image. According to the documentary, after his initial touring years and TV appearances through the 1960s (until the ’68 Comeback Special, in fact) Elvis primarily acted in films, most of which were vehicles for his sex appeal and—if Colonel Tom Parker had anything to say about it—selling ‘merchandise.’
Whatever that means.
Roland Barthes says in Camera Lucida that, “[V]ery often (too often, to my taste) I have been photographed and knew it. Now, once I feel myself observed by the lens, everything changes: I constitute myself in the process of ‘posing,’ I instantaneously make another body for myself, I transform myself in advance into an image” (10). When I ‘see’ Elvis, I can’t help but imagine how conscious he was of the lenses pointed at him. How much of Elvis—as great an entertainer as he was—is a separate body from the real Elvis, a kind of corpus-facade assembled by the psyche, fear, and (un)willingness of the artist? I do not claim that our collective image of Elvis reveals less than we think it does (or should?), but rather that this image reveals something different from the real—it is a question of different, but not more or less.
Lately, I’ve been listening to Elvis Presley. I spent the majority of my twenties burning through Springsteen, The Doors, all the classic rock that sprang from Elvis’s early recordings at Sun Studio in Memphis. Later, into my thirties, it was the bluesmen and obscure rock—now, I’m a folk and country lover. I never understood how large Elvis Presley stood in relation to my own tastes. Above and beyond them all, in fact.
His first recorded album—Elvis Presley, released in 1956—is a stripped down and skeletal work. It feels like a simple capture of sound. That is to say it doesn’t sound (or feel) over-produced. The musicians and producer avoid the trap of chasing perfection. And that, I argue, is what makes it authentic. In these songs we have an Elvis who has yet to experience the pressures and necessary compromises of fame. In short, the album was made without expectations—this freedom may have made room for Elvis’s creation of a new music: rockabilly. Contrary to popular belief, the documentary makes it clear that Elvis sought out Sam Phillips and his recording studio. Phillips, in fact, claims that Elvis drove his truck—he was working as an apprentice electrician—back and forth in front of the studio before finally getting up the guts to walk in and ask to record. Elvis’s immensely famous rendition of “That’s Alright” was impromptu, a recorded jam session instigated by the singer. My favorite song on the album is “Trying to Get to You,” a slow plodding showcase for Elvis’s soulful voice. The brief guitar interlude is just that—an interlude to serve the song rather than a grandstand to steal the spotlight. I like to think this song is a microcosm for how Elvis existed both within the universe of a song and the physical universe. His voice is so dynamic that it seems—for a minute or two—as if he’s the only man in the world who dares or knows how to sing.
Twelve years after this recording, after a stint in the army and a largely disappointing sojourn into show business, Elvis Presley did a music special for network television (otherwise known as the ’68 Comeback Special). The circumstances of how this show was arranged are detailed fully in the documentary, but one result was an informal, backstage jam session with Elvis and the original members of his band. The entire set is energetic and passionate—it shows Elvis at his best. He’s stepped back into the role of a singer in a band, and he’s singing the songs he loves in the most simple, powerful way. The rendition of “Lawdy, Miss Clawdy” features a sweaty Elvis Presley clad in black leather banging out rhythm guitar and singing at the top of his lungs. But in this particular performance it’s not the sound that matters. Here, we see a young rock and roller free to do what he’s always wanted to do. He’s singing a great song for a few folks in a small room—and he’s doing that with all the passion he can muster.
But given all this artistry, I feel the most accurate image I have of Elvis Presley comes from his country album, Elvis Country (I’m 10,000 Years Old). Cut in 1970, the album is a comprehensive journey through country music and its many nuances. In the original Rolling Stone review from March 1971, the critic Peter Guralnick says of the album, “[I]t’s the singing, the passion and engagement most of all which mark this album as something truly exceptional, not just an exercise in nostalgia but an ongoing chapter in a history which Elvis’ music set in motion.” No song displays Elvis Presley’s skill and artistry more than “Tomorrow Never Comes.” The song begins with the tender touch of a ballad, but within the first minute, the skilled balladeer seizes the song, the lyrics, the music, the tempo, and takes them for his own. As the song climaxes with a frantic plea of “Yeah, you tell me, you tell me you love me, yeah, baby,” it’s as if Elvis is singing into the abyss. This is a performance of genius, desperation, kindness.
But given all this, I ask myself: Is sound always more authentic than image? I tell myself it is, that sound doesn’t lie because it’s so difficult to create (and recreate), but we can’t forget that the recording studio itself—all the wires and mixing boards and padded rooms—likely encourages a certain performance. Is this self, the willingly recorded self, more authentic than the self that is willingly made into an image? I’m not so sure. But I am sure that the willingly recorded self is far more authentic than the images of a self made without permission. Perhaps Elvis is implicated, along with the audience, in the creation of himself as an icon (or is his image a false idol?). After all, it is Elvis acting in those films, smiling boyishly in those early television appearances, and using his body—how obscene!—to hold our ears hostage. And it is we, the audience, who worship the body of the man, who reach out with an unquenchable desire to touch, touch, touch. When, in contemporary popular culture, has there been a single body more desired, more leveraged for profit and gain? Certainly Elvis contributed to his own iconography; this is true even if his contribution was consent. But I wonder, does the icon give perpetual license to his image, to the making of his image, or to the interpretation of his image?
To all? To neither?
Thinking deeply about the combined sounds and images of Elvis leads me to the concept of duende. In Edward Hirsch’s book on the subject, The Demon and the Angel, he writes, “The duende, then, is a vehicle for surpassing the ego, the rational or day mind. It gives us access to another force within us, the deep or night mind” (94). Hirsch is attempting to describe how an artist (in this case, a poet) can transcend their ego to reach a heightened state of creation, a kind of demonism. His assertion is that the rising of the duende kills the ego. In other words, the greatest artists reach a state of death when they are at the height of their powers. If we reduce the scope of excellence to a simple number, I’d wager that Elvis Presley reached a state of duende, or touched the duende, more times than any other musician I’ve ever heard. What I’m saying then is that Elvis Presley—before his death—may have died a thousand deaths. Or ten thousand. And all this in the service of artistry.
Elvis Presley: The Searcher also discusses the complicated relationship Elvis had with his manager, Colonel Tom Parker. Of all the interpretations possible, the film leads me to think that Elvis’s image, his sounds, and his artistry were co-opted—for a time, at least—by a snide purveyor of ‘merchandise.’ It’s true, though, that Elvis may not have reached the level of icon without this man’s business sense and help (if we can call it that). What is that saying? One hand washes the other, I think it is. Still, part of me wishes Elvis Presley had said something uncouth to the Colonel now and again: I wish Elvis had grabbed his crotch, squeezed, and said, “I got your merchandise right here, buddy.” But then again, someone might have captured that on film.
And then where would we be?
Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. New York: Hill & Wang, 1981. Print.
Hirsch, Edward. The Demon and the Angel. New York, San Diego, London: Harcourt, 2002. Print.
“Elvis Presley: Elvis Country (I’m 10,000 Years Old).” Rolling Stone, 4 March 1971, https://www.rollingstone.com/music/albumreviews/elvis-country-im-10-000-years-old-19710304
Elvis Presley: The Searcher. Directed by Thom Zimny, Home Box Office (HBO), 2018.
Elvis: ’68 Comeback (Special Edition). Directed by Steve Binder, NBC, 1968.
Presley, Elvis. Elvis Country (I’m 10,000 Years Old), RCA, 1971. Spotify, https://open.spotify.com/album/5nFIESxbIeBxoREzNMzzbN
Presley, Elvis. Elvis Presley, RCA Victor, 1956. Spotify, https://open.spotify.com/album/7GXP5OhYyPVLmcVfO9Iqin