Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Ladies and Gentlemen, August 16, 2007 marks the 30th anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley. I do not mention it much in this blog, but I am a big Elvis fan. I might not be one of the people descending on Memphis for the festivities this week. I own very little Elvis memorabilia. I am very difficult to engage in a debate on Fat Elvis vs. Skinny Elvis. But nonetheless, I am an Elvis fan.

I love his music, especially songs that never topped the charts but still showcased his incredible talent. My favorite song of his is his version of Gentle On My Mind. I think the Memphis sessions from 1969 are one of the most underrated in Rock and Roll History. The same session produced In the Ghetto, Suspicious Minds, Don't Cry Daddy and a number of songs that you might have to get up at 8 on Sunday morning to hear on Oldies 103's Elvis Only hour like Long Black Limousine, True Love Travels on a Gravel Road, Only the Strong Survive, Gentle on my Mind, Inherit the Wind and more.

When people tell me that Elvis "raped" black music, it bothers me. Elvis didn't sit down and make a calculating decision to co-opt African American culture for profit. Instead, he found songs that spoke to him and recorded them in ways that made them his own. For every song like Hound Dog, which was a cover of an African American woman's original recording, there are any number of others like Don't Be Cruel, Love Me Tender, All Shook Up and a bunch of others that are far more heavily influenced by country music than anything from the African American tradition.

Believe it or not, when Elvis was serving with the Army in Germany, he wrote home to his people to have them write English lyrics to the Italian standard "O Sole Mio." They thought it was a bad idea, and tried to talk him out of it. They were not successful. The song, "It's Now or Never," went on to top the charts. But all he did was rape black music? If the same could be said of a Beatles' tune, it would probably be hailed as the greatest artistic achievement in music history and the thing that will eventually end the civilized world's war on poverty.

But that's one of the strange things about Elvis, and something that bothers me about a lot of fans and detractors alike. They don't really know Elvis; they know what they want to know about Elvis. It's nonsense like that that fuels the fat Elvis vs. skinny Elvis debate and comments like Elvis raped black music.

For instance, A Little Less Conversation was not a good song when it was released. It was a B side from an album that went nowhere. And it was a good thing that album went nowhere, as its failure helped trigger the 1968 comeback special. But because some tool threw a little club mix on it and the morons who run Nike's ad campaigns threw it into a commercial and all of a sudden it took off. The fact that the song's lyrics are childish and the singer himself never seems too impressed with the song can't possibly matter once a Fortune 500 company puts its imprimatur on it by throwing it into a 30 second designed to dupe fat people into buying running shoes, right?

But that gets me to tonight's point. What bothers me most as an Elvis fan is the manner in which those who have inherited his legacy have behaved. I don't mean a metaphorical legacy, but the tangible assets he left behind. I am continually scandalized by the lengths to which his survivors will go to profiteer from their connection with him. The tacky merchandise was one thing. I could stomach the remixes. But now they have gone too far.

If you haven't heard, Lisa Marie Presley has cut a duet with her deceased father's image. They will be singing In the Ghetto for the laudable end of raising funds for those residents of New Orleans who are still suffering from Hurricane Katrina. But at the end of the day, it would probably have been far better had Miss Presley simply written a check from the vast fortune she has accumulated from her father's estate over these last 30 years. Then the tragic victims of the storm could have been served without destroying one of her father's best records.

The first aesthetic problem is that this genre, if you will, of daughters singing with digitally regenerated fathers has been done to death. Natalie Cole sang with her father like 15 years ago now. I imagine it would be a very simple Google search to find out the exact figure, but strict accuracy isn't the point at the moment. Rosanne Cash sang a posthumous duet with her father Johnny Cash not too long ago. I don't recall hearing the world clamoring for a third run at the these roses.

But the major aesthetic problem is that Lisa Marie Presley is not good at anything. If she were, her albums would be played on the radio or purchased by customers and not used to shim unruly shelving displays at the local Best Buy. Her lack of musical ability has, in the main, been overshadowed by her uncanny knack for choosing the least suitable matches and then marrying them, like Nicolas Cage or Michael Jackson. That doesn't change the fact that she can't sing a lick. Do you know any one who owns one of her records?

I wonder now, whether any one will dare criticize this little venture as I have. Wrapping herself in the mantle of Katrina relief will make it difficult for people to criticize her. At least until the requisite 12 hours have passed. That's just enough time for VH1 to round up enough half-assed pseudo-celebrities to have their one millionth pop culture fest show.

Before I sign off, I feel compelled to mention one more thing. Tonight, I was driving in suburban Boston. And a guy walking his bike crossed the street as I was stopped at a stop sign. Over his shoulder, he carried a tote bag. And in his tote bag was a live chicken. It might have been a rooster, I don't know much about poultry, at least not until it gets to the meat counter at the supermarket, anyway. But he was crossing the street with a live chicken. In 2007. If that's not a bad omen for the week to come, I don't know what is.


Alan said...

Very nice post (despite being slightly marred by the swipe at the Beatles).

thecincinattikid said...

The Beatles blow.