Elvis Presley Enterprises annually celebrates it’s namesake’s death date with Elvis Week. Why the death and not the birth? Because Elvis died in the Summer and was born in the Winter, and it’s much easier to pack in a tourist trap like Graceland in the Summer months. This small fact tells us a whole lot about the ornately controlled legacy of the one called, against his will, “The King” (Elvis was known to say “Christ is King. I’m just a man.”) At any rate, the week is upon us, and I’ve elected to take all the pontificating I would like to do about the erstwhile Memphis Flash and concentrate it into one week long burst. I’ll start of by sharing my own story of becoming a fan, or perhaps more accurately a disciple, of the human being who became a cultural icon.
One of my earliest memories was of my dad pointing at his Marantz receiver -which I now own- and saying “You hear that? That’s The King of Rock & Roll.” I was hearing Chuck Berry for the first time. This would be the first time music drilled into my Soul. Not too long after that I saw Great Balls Of Fire, the movie about Jerry Lee Lewis. I was a kid in grade school, but I was a Rocker already. I knew who Elvis was. Mainly that his movies on WDRB, the local UHF station, were stupid and that fat people look bad in white, but most importantly, that my dad didn’t like him.
In middle school I made off with the Old Man’s Beatles tapes. I got into Queen really heavily just before Wayne’s World hit, and I spent a couple years and a lot of my allowance getting all of their albums on cassette.
I saved for last the Flash Gordon soundtrack because I knew that it wasn’t so hot, and so the summer between my Freshman and Sophomore year of High School left me hungry for something to get into. I wouldn’t have to wait around for long.
Robert Rodriguez did a made for Showtime movie called Roadracers. It was the first thing that had Salma Hayek, and it was before anybody knew who Rodriguez was. It’s a dumb but endearing movie about a Greaser called “Dude” fighting The Man and raising Hell. He was a for real Rocker, and he hated “Sock Hop Soda Pop Shit.” To my pubescent mind it was Citizen Kane, and set an example to be followed.
This was in no small part because of the music in it. Link Wray’s Rumble weaves a mighty spell, and although Gene Vincent wasn’t in it, his song Race With The Devil was. I had to have this stuff. The end credits said there was a soundtrack available, but there wasn’t. I searched hard for it. Or as hard as you could in a small city with a handful of music stores before the Internet. I didn’t find out until much later that it never actually existed in the first place.
Now I consider it very fortunate that I couldn’t just buy one easy CD that summed up my new obsession in a perfect square. Since I couldn’t, I had to go looking. I had to research and hunt, and conjecture and imagine. Around the same time I discovered The Sex Pistols and Punk Rock, and a book called England’s Dreaming by Jon Savage. I bought it from a book store with 20 bucks in quarters I had laying around. It has a discography in the back that lays out the subversive music of the 20th Century like a road map. Here, I was forging an identity.
This was the height of Grunge and Alternative, which looking back, that was a very vital and healthy time for Popular Music. So many different bands and different kinds of bands. But none of them really spoke to me at that time. Still, it may’ve been the wide open Pop Culture of that moment that allowed me to go to school the first day of Sophomore Year with a black leather jacket in 80 degree weather and my hair all slimed up, looking like the Fonz.
I didn’t want to look like the Fonz, mind you. Or one of the guys in Grease, West Side Story, or -God Forbid- Elvis. Nothing kitschy, campy, or corny. Nothing safe. But I looked way more like the above than the following: Brando in The Wild One, pulp novel covers about Wild Teen Gangs, or Dude from Roadracers. I looked clean and wasn’t a badass. I grew up happy and well looked after. I didn’t project the danger and tragedy of Ducktailed teen Warriors from poverty and broken homes that I was romanticizing and emulating. I would deeply resent when someone would make a crack in my direction about Elvis or Danny Zucco. But resent it was all I’d do, I didn’t ever hit anyone with a wrench or try to run them over in the Hot Rod I didn’t have.
But I was still an Angry Young Man. Mainly because I had stupid teachers. I would like to now reflect back as an adult and say they weren’t bad, but in fact, they were probably worse. I spent a lot of time in trouble because I resented authority. There was a particular incident in a psychology class that summed things up well.
Teacher: Who can tell me who invented Rock & Roll?
Me: Rock & Roll’s not like a light bulb, it’s not something that can be “invented.”
But most historians agree that it was Ike Turner producing a single called Rocket 88.
Teacher: No. It was Little Richard.
Me: So you saw a thing on PBS where Little Richard the piano player said that he invented an entire genre of music. Only you and Little Richard believe that.
Teacher: I was there. It was Little Richard.
Me: You have no idea what you’re talking about. And I do, on this subject. I can only imagine what you’ve been telling me about psychology is also wrong.
I recently talked to a mom and her son, who had been screwing up in school. I said to the kid “Being an adult means you’re free from being told what to do by losers who can’t do, so they instead teach and get their kicks pushing kids around and trying to break their spirits. You have to play the game somewhat to get out from under them. And once you’ve done that, you don’t have to do anything you want. I could go rob a bank and then drive my car to Mexico. But then tomorrow, I’m a wanted fugitive in Mexico and once I get locked up, I’ll be back getting bossed around all the time by stupid people.”
My mid to late teens were well served by my often mean spirited and self righteous routine, which had a perfect soundtrack in the Rockabilly and Punk Rock cocktail I was drunk on. These were Good Days. I had fun. I was pissed off and moody, but that just meant nobody was getting the best of me. I was emerging from childhood as a person that I liked.
Maybe a little bit too well.
Pulp Fiction came out the same year as Forrest Gump. If you were square you liked Gump, if you weren’t square you knew somebody else wasn’t either if they were into Pulp Fiction. In Pulp Fiction, Tarantino said (through Uma Thurman as Mia Wallace) that you are either a Beatles person or an Elvis person. You can like them both, but one or the other is going to be the greater symbol of who you are. At the time I would’ve said Beatles man for sure, but now I know that you don’t really have to pick. But also that I’m tied to Elvis like a hook on a lure. Luckily, I learned to like it.
Now, I am Rocko. Rocko Jerome, and I could be nobody else. And I’ll tell you what that means. I’m a grown man. I like flashy clothes and pretty girls. That I’m a big guy who eats alot of fatty food, much of it fried. I’m sorta whacked out, so I take pharmaceuticals to keep the edge off. I’m un-self consciously heavily into Black Culture. Especially old stuff. More than any other white person I know. Music. I Live by Music. I love to perform. But when I made Music, it never came out the same as the way I heard it before. I make corny movies. I love Captain Marvel since childhood. I use a whole lotta slang. People look at me when I want them to. And I want them to.
First time I went to Memphis, I didn’t go to Graceland. I went to Sun. And that was Mecca. Went by where Stax had been, at that time it was a big pile of rubble. My heart broke a little bit. All these tourists going by the busload to the place where Elvis croaked on the bathroom floor and gawk at his backyard grave while the whole rest of the city runs backwards. Saw a statue of Elvis and imagined a much larger one of Howlin’ Wolf, perhaps even a giant robot, with his giant metal foot hovering over the head of the white dude, about to crush him into rusty dust.
See, I resented Elvis. It’s not hard to, if you love all the characters that withered and died in his shadow. Jackie Wilson is buried in a grave with no marker someplace. He lived about 10 years in a coma before that. He’s one sad story in an encyclopedia full of others. Carl Perkins was in the hospital when Elvis did Blue Suede Shoes on Ed Sullivan, where it forever became an Elvis Song.
But Elvis died way before Carl, and I got to meet him. Right around the time of Pulp Fiction. He had a book out, and me and my dad went to see him. I was real excited to meet him and not paying attention to the other people there. They all just seemed to want to ask about Elvis, anyway. I tuned out, but Dad didn’t, and he heard someone say something about a shop called C’s Records.
I guess I was 16 at the time, as I recall we first went to C’s as a driving lesson, me with my learning permit behind the wheel of the wine colored Plymouth Reliant that did well by me for some wild years. Looking back, Dad could probably sense that I was getting the itch to kick up dust and knew that musical pursuits would put traction under my ass and cut down on the chances substantially of me getting my young dumb ass killed. Young men survive ages 15-25 by the Grace of God anyway.
Clarence Lidster was a real folksy guy. He kinda looked like Paul Sorvino, who was Pauly in Goodfellas. He had a small shop, but it was loaded with crazy looking CDs filled up with Rock & Roll. They looked oddly homemade, but they’d be loaded with tracks that weren’t usually anywhere else to be found. I’d soon figure out that these were Imports. Cats in foreign country love American Music more than most Americans do. The Germans are keeping the Johnny Burnette catalog afloat where American labels would’ve crashed it out long ago. This is true of many more, too voluminous to list. But if you know, you know.
Me and C got to talking. “You like Rockabilly? I like Rockabilly too.” From there, we went on and on with it. Dad left to go up the road and do an errand, came back, we were still at it. This song, that singer, record labels, timeframes. Who did what, what came first. He got me, after several weeks of pestering, a Gene Vincent box set. Gene was my favorite then. He had Evil to him, as I imagined I had to me.
I’d spend many more hours and days at that shop. The thing that was challenging was that Clarence really loved Elvis. by this time I had a collection of the Sun Records stuff, and as a young knowitall, I’d conjectured that this was the only good stuff. Authentic. Then I actually heard Heartbreak Hotel in it’s entirety someplace, and bought the CD that had his first singles collected on it. OK, this was better than the Sun stuff, even. I felt like I’d betrayed Chuck to even think for a moment that this was great, but it was. Luckily, as the Legend has it, Presley wilted from there. He was a “Sell Out.” He was wild and young but gave it up to be a movie star, then got old and fat and died.
I had a lot to learn. About Elvis, but also about the World, Life and how to live it. But most of all, about myself.
John Lennon said “I didn’t want to even say or think anything against Elvis Presley, even in in my mind.” I sort of encountered the opposite. Think about Chuck Berry and my Dad and the Marantz, don’t think about Elvis.
So I got the Sun sessions and the 1956 compilation, and said this is it. This is all the good stuff. Then I finally got around to talking myself into asking Clarence for the complete 50’s box set. He pulled it up from under the counter. “It’s been down here waiting for you. It’s next to a 45, I wasn’t sure which one I was going to have to pull out first. And I don’t mean a 45 record.” I found that I was best served to skip the covers that had stolen the thunder from other Rockers and focus on the songs that were written for him in those days. Which were usually ballads or very showbiz tracks, like the stuff from King Creole. These were things that were not Wild and Furious, then my bread and butter. I felt conflicted. I surmised that it was joining the Army that had put him away.
It felt oddly subversive to be getting into Elvis. I wanted to sort of keep it undercover. People talked to me about Elvis all the time, because I was a teen in the 90’s dressed like a teen in the 50’s. I had to object on principle. I’d say Elvis was OK, but there were others I liked much more. Howlin’ Wolf or Johnny Burnette or Billy Lee Riley or Gene Vincent or Link Wray, I was on to something else. Music and musicians who never received their due, and never will, who never turned their back on wreaking havoc and Teen Drama, never betrayed The Spirit of Rebellion.
I should now say that to me and people like me, there is no greater line to a Higher Power than Music. Churches and religion are constructed by humans and based on dogma, but sound is something we can only harness like Fire. It can always get away from us, it tends to choose us instead of the other way around, It speaks of things we cannot quite touch, it communicates and amplifies every feeling we can have. This is all stuff to take very seriously.
But not too seriously. As young men tend to take themselves.
I met other people after High School who loved old Rock & Roll like I did. I discovered that without my knowing it while isolated in my small city, I was part of a subculture fixated on the same sounds that sent me. It was even a “lifestyle.” This was when things got interesting, and when I started to really get into some serious shit.
I started a band and sang Rock & Roll. I put my issues into the music and Exorcised some Demons for live audiences. Having done that, and having learned the machinations behind the magic trick of a Rock & Roll band and grew a bit wiser and finally more mature, I found a warmer home with Soul Music. Singers like Sam Cooke and David Ruffin painted with a wider palette than what I’d been immersed in for years. By the time I was 20, Rock & Roll started to mean less and less to me. It seemed like a creative trap, or like children’s music.
Without marketing, “Rock & Roll” is just meaningless words. It was first used as a way to dilute what had been called Rhythm & Blues and sell it to kids. Particularly white kids. As this dawned on me, I started to get a new perspective. I might’ve been losing my Religion. Or at least, it was changing.
Clarence and I probably discussed this as just abstracts. It’s only looking back that I can see it this clearly. It was in this time that C took the opportunity to sell me Elvis Is Back.
This was the record Elvis produced and recorded after his stint in the army was finally over. He’s smiling and glowing on the cover, looking very safe. This was what I would’ve recoiled against as a 15 year old. But 5 years later was another story, and I found that this was my favorite yet from the guy. It wasn’t the crazyass stuff that made me want to kick down doors. But I didn’t need that anymore, so my ears tuned in differently.
However, I wouldn’t think of any of this again for another 5 years of adulthood. On another trip to Memphis I practically got dragged to Graceland. I enjoyed everything inside the house, but once out of it and where they’ve buried him, I started to feel sick to my stomach. It’s all just tasteless exploitation. You can never come to grips with Elvis until you make peace with that.
They had rebuilt the Stax building by this time and made it into a museum. This was what I really found exciting. But on the tour, there was a spot where I learned that Elvis had recorded at Stax. This was revelatory. How many people know that?
I was embroiled in Darkness at this time in life. There was no time that music spoke to me more than this, but I was not well. It’s all blurry. Looking back, I was struggling to not spiral out of control. These weren’t bad days, but they were dangerous ones. I fell out of touch with Clarence, as well as mental stability. The bottom would eventually fall out, and before my Demons could get the better of me, I figured out how to think my way out of my troubles. With a little help from my Friends.
It was around this time that I saw what has come to be known as the 68 Comeback Special. It was a Revelation.
The 68 Comeback Special is legendary, and it moves plenty of units. It shows Elvis do something I’ve never seen anyone else do in any capacity ever. He stands on a small, square stage with an audience surrounding him and a band behind that audience, and he sings his ass off. The band is large and lush. There’s horns and back-up singers. Far from the dirty and wild sound of the bars and Honky Tonks where Rhythm and Blues used to roar and stomp. This was something else, something more refined. Something nobody ever bothered to break off into a subgenre to try to describe it and capture, thus capitalize on it. Unless, then again, we called this genre “Elvis.”
EPE (Elvis Presley Enterprises) as an entity does not care if you ever figure out that Elvis recorded his strongest album in 1969 as a grown man in his thirties. It’s a Soulful, adult piece of work, full of lush instrumentation and depth. It’s called From Elvis In Memphis. It’s frequently out of print, depending on whether or not EPE wants you to know about it right now, so that you can buy it under the auspice that it’s “new.” They also don’t care if you ever learn that although he had worked hard and had often produced his own recording sessions to that point, he was widely disdainful of most of them. He particularly felt that way of the primitive Sun Records. Because even before there was a thing called “Rock & Roll” or “Rockabilly” it already wasn’t really that big a deal to Elvis. The first famous thing he ever said was “I don’t sound like nobody.”
You also wouldn’t have been likely to know that in 1969 when Elvis went to the International Hotel in Vegas to do a run of shows, he personally put his large band of All Stars together. If you heard this huge band and separated Elvis himself from it, you would have to be amazed by it’s artistry. Also, and this is important, he orchestrated every sound the band made. He built a band and a show that would build and expand as it progressed, and touch on and blend all kinds of music into one Epic Show. I know this because they filmed it and I saw it. But not in the film release documentary called That’s The Way It Is that the footage was filmed for. Instead, I saw him goofing off and a bunch of scary, scary Elvis worshipers saying creepy things, distracting you from the songs they showed clips of in between.
I saw a photo of EP from this period when I was in my teens. I didn’t recognize him at first, but he looked cool. When I realized it was Elvis I was looking at, I was confused and disappointed. It meant I might have had to start liking him, I guess. I had to work pretty hard at it until I realized Chuck Berry didn’t care who I was.
Elvis Presley the Legendary Icon cast a long shadow. Not least of all over himself. As a man, an artist, and an entertainer. Fame and adulation smothered and killed him. There are few people who ever lived who demand your attention and almost certainly some strong reactionary opinion. And ironically: He is entirely misunderstood. By almost everybody who knows his name.
Rock & Roll isn’t a place or dominion. It’s certainly not a hierarchy. It’s not the invention of a “creator” or an “architect.” There is no King. All of this is just publicity. And none of it truly matters, it’s just static that distracts you from the Real Deal. From hearing the stuff that mattered.
And I’ll tell you what the Real Deal was. Elvis was a famous boy who grew into a man. He liked flashy clothes and pretty girls. He was a big guy who ate a lot of fatty food, much of it fried. He was sorta whacked out, so he took pharmaceuticals to keep the edge off. He was un-self consciously heavily into Black Culture. Especially old stuff. More than any other white person. Music. He lived by Music. he loved to perform. But when he made Music, it never came out the same as the way he heard it before. He made corny movies. He loved Captain Marvel, straight from childhood. He used a whole lotta slang. People looked at him when he wanted them to. And he wanted them to.
I went out to see Clarence one more time before he closed his store. I run my own store now, using much of what I learned from him. Particular things about music, but mainly just observing how he worked. I went to buy a bunch of records from this new period of Elvis that I just discovered. “Bless your heart” he said. And then told me to put my wallet away.
The last time Elvis came up when my Dad and I were talking, I told him “I’ve heard things you never have.” He nodded.
His mom, my grandma, loved Elvis. Maybe it just skips a generation.