Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Elvis Presley's Greatest Album Has No Music On It

It's odd, in a way, that I am so fascinated by the career of Elvis Presley, because apart from his Sun records singles that launched his career and maybe the first album he did for RCA, I'm not a big fan of his music. Nonetheless, I've read a few books about him, because I am a rock-star biography junkie -- I even read one about the Grateful Dead, who I consider literally the worst band ever to get famous -- and I find his story enormously interesting. The rise, the fall, everything in between -- the path this guy followed from weaponized sex symbol to torpid caricature is just endlessly engrossing.

I particularly recommend the oral biography "Elvis and the Memphis Mafia," written by three of his closest confidants. His exploits in the '60s, when he was making movies more than music, are unbelievable. He got into some truly demented stuff -- Scatter the pet chimpanzee comes to mind -- and that era is woefully underexplored and could make a really, really great movie just on its own. But having said that, I have always had a morbid fixation on the '70s era, when Elvis quit making crappy movies and returned to touring with a great enthusiasm that soon devolved into total boredom and self-hatred.

This boredom was largely the result of an increasing, well-documented opiate addiction, but there were definitely other factors. Much has been written on this topic. Entire books have been written on it. But if you want to know how Elvis really felt about his lot in life, circa 1974 (which is the same time he started blowing up like Violet Beauregard), the best source of insight is the man himself.

Now, Elvis granted almost no interviews, and famously limited his personal interactions to an inner circle of guys he went to high school with and a parade of starlets willing to indulge his fascination with white cotton panties. He did his best to keep a stiff upper lip for the public, to maintain a wall of mystery and the distance of a true star, but he did let his true feelings out on occasion. And, oddly enough, the person most invested in maintaining this code of silence, Colonel Tom Parker, was the one who made it public.

By 1974, Colonel Parker -- who was not a Colonel in any army, and had invented the name "Tom Parker" -- had an insane stranglehold over Elvis' business.  As his manager, he had kept a 25% stake of Elvis' earnings from the beginning of his career -- much more than the traditional manager's cut of 15% -- and in the '70s renegotiated that deal up to a 50/50 split of Presley's pre-tax, gross earnings. But somehow, this was not enough for the Colonel, and he devised various side deals, merchandising arrangements, and other ways to cash in on Elvis' name. One of these was Boxcar Records, a label that Parker set up himself, even though he had no rights to any of Elvis' music. (Despite his oft-professed business acumen, he had sold all rights and royalties on Elvis' music to RCA. This of course had deep financial ramifications for Elvis, but that's another story.)

So what do you put on your record label if you only manage one artist and you don't have the rights to any of his music? Having Fun With Elvis On Stage.

A shameless cash-in designed to exploit the many people out there who would buy literally anything with the word "Elvis" on it, Having Fun With Elvis On Stage is, as advertised (in small print) on its sleeve, "A Talking Album Only": An amateurishly assembled set of short clips of Elvis' remarks between songs during his concerts. '70s Elvis, lingering north of 220 lbs, tended to get a little winded between songs, so while he caught his breath he would wander the stage handing out scarves (each blessed with a single dab of sweat from his forehead) and kisses to the hysterical female fans in the front rows. He would also talk. And talk. And talk. A few themes emerge from these ramblings: Theme #1: Elvis feels old, and he's bored. At one point he mentions that he made his first record in 1927. He tells the audience that he has 228 songs left to sing tonight, and says so with the weary resignation of the seasoned clock-puncher. He remarks several times that people are freaking out when he really isn't doing anything at all to earn it. As the crowd goes wild, he says "If that's all I gotta do, I got it made." After taking the world by force twenty years prior, it had to be kind of weird to know in his heart that he was putting on crappy shows and the audience didn't care. Theme #2: Elvis thinks he's funny. His jokes are terrible, but after years of being surrounded by sycophants howling at his every word, he thinks he's hilarious. His favorite joke, done in various ways on this record, is his response to the many requests being shouted at him from the audience: "I can do that one, and that one, and the other one. You know what I can't do? (Cue descending staccato piano figure, ending with snare hit) All three of them at the same time." Or how about this one: "I'd like to do a medley of my biggest records for you. Actually, all of them were about the same size." Theme #3: Elvis really doesn't want to sing. I'm not quite sure what it is he does want to do  -- though my guess is that a tub of ice cream would probably be involved -- but he doesn't want to sing. Over and over, he sings "Well...." as though about to start a song, but just keeps repeating "Well... well well well well well we-e-ell..." before going right back to talking to the audience. Theme #4: Elvis is losing his grip on reality. "You didn't know you were coming to see a crazy man, did you?" It's hard to get this aspect of the record across with a quote -- it's more a vibe that pervades the whole record. Theme #5: Elvis is a slave to his female fans. He hands out scarves and kisses to the women in the front row, who can be heard practically ordering him around. "Just a second" is one of the most used phrases on this record, along with "I'll be right there."  "Where's granny?" begins one of my favorite passages on this record. "Hang in there, granny." The greatest sex symbol in the history of anything, reduced to pecking grandmas on the cheek in hotel showrooms. It would be sad if it weren't so funny. Or maybe I have that backward. PS: When I first read about this record in one of those biographies, I found its existence so fascinating that I read the passage about it aloud to my wife, who promptly went to a then-new website called eBay, found a copy, and gave it to me for my birthday. I listened to it a whole bunch of times and found it very weird and funny and fascinating. (My wife, on the other hand, almost immediately regretted buying it for me, as she finds it insufferable.) But I soon found another way to listen to it that was much more fun, which was to play it simultaneously with some other record, preferably a long instrumental. "Thank You For Talking To Me Africa" or "Sex Machine" by Sly and the Family Stone are great for this, as is "Got To Give It Up" by Marvin Gaye, but just about any record with not a lot of lyrics will do. What's amazing is that, no matter where you drop the needle on Having Fun With Elvis On Stage, it seems to sync up with whatever other music you've got on. Try it yourself: play the above YouTube embed along with the song of your choice (again, it's best if it's an instrumental) -- it seems like a deliberately produced remix or something. It's true of just about any spoken-word recording -- human speech has a natural rhythm that matches up well with music, even when the speech and the music have nothing at all to do with each other -- but it's more fun with Elvis. Enjoy!

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