Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Is Elvis Cool?

Two Flyer columnists debate the essence of the E-Factor.

By Susan Ellis and Jim Hanas

AUGUST 11, 1997:  To be an Elvis fan in this building is to be a pariah. The only truly bitter argument I've had with a coworker, a tie-dyed-in-the-wool Grateful Dead fan, was over who was the greater rock entity, Elvis Presley or Jerry Garcia. For both of us, the answer is glaringly obvious, beyond discussion. The final word for me was that Garcia never, ever in his life looked good in a full leather suit.

It was a ridiculous exchange, to be sure, but frustratingly typical. Since moving to Memphis in 1991, I've encountered a number of natives, mostly young, who would rather admit to a fondness for Milli Vanilli than give even the tiniest amount of credit to Elvis. It's flat-out Elvis Denial.

Elvis, for these naysayers, is like having a geeky friend in high school. This friend somehow shades their own characters; therefore the only recourse is avoidance. Yet it's impossible to avoid Elvis in Memphis. He's everywhere, all the time. Unlike the macarena, Elvis never fades. His presence becomes wearing and annoying, so that mustering up acknowledgement is difficult.

But Elvis was a great man and performer, and the reasons why are simply too vast to delineate practically. At the most basic level is his music. The argument that Elvis didn't write his own music, a point purists are quick to bring out, is valid, but ultimately one that overlooks how Elvis had his way with a song -- from down-and-dirty rockers to heartfelt gospel ballads -- and made it his own. I've never heard a non-Elvis version of "Jailhouse Rock" that didn't sound stupid, a sham and a shame.

Then there's Elvis' far-reaching influence. I'm always dumbstruck when people like my Garcia-worshipping coworker denounce this. It's trite now to quote John Lennon's "Before Elvis, there was nothing." It's not true, for music historians have long since noted that Elvis looted his blues and R&B surroundings to his advantage. But Lennon's point is one that all music lovers, who surely give an easy nod to the Beatles, should consider. It's your core Platonic argument: The Beatles were great. The Beatles were influenced by Elvis, therefore

Some Elvis Deny-ers will offer up a little charity by saying that he did have something going in the beginning of his career, but that he lost it when he went into the Army, that his movies, his Vegas act, his last bloated years and tragic early death, and later the Graceland tourism boom only have kitsch value. Maybe, just maybe, they'll have a good word for his "68 Comeback Special," or a particular song like "Suspicious Minds."

Appreciating Elvis is a package deal. From his poor-boy-done-good story and his Cadillac-giving sprees to the Elvis-as-alien tabloid covers and the Lisa Marie/Michael Jackson wedding -- they're all part of his ongoing, expanding legend. It's undeniably fascinating, and any analysis of this phenomenon can only scratch the surface.

There are countless people whose lives Elvis touched. There was the teenager who had a brush with history when his neighbor Elvis, just an up-and-comer then, used to come over to borrow his family's phone. There was the couple on a blind date at an Elvis concert, who've long since married. There was the little girl, now an office worker, whom Elvis singled out in a crowd and wished Merry Christmas. It goes on and on.

Nowadays, the Elvis legacy continues through jelly-doughnut jokes (some of them are pretty funny), super-serious impersonators, Platinum Tours, academic seminars, and a seemingly unending supply of people who come out of the woodwork to make all kinds of claims. Next week, an estimated 50,000 people will descend upon Graceland for Tribute Week, marking the 20th anniversary of his death on August 16th. A good number will be there to earnestly honor him, and a good number will be there just to witness the spectacle. And it doesn't really matter why they come, just that they do.

It's corny to say, but what Elvis did and continues to do is bring people joy, whether it comes from loving his music or mocking his eccentricities. It's why Elvis was and will always be cool. -- Susan Ellis

Since Elvis collected more than 90 gold singles and more than 40 gold albums in his career, it would be silly to suggest that Elvis isn't popular. Given the hundreds of books and thousands of articles that have been written about him since his death, one would be likewise hard-pressed to argue that he hasn't been influential. And looking at the thousands of mourners who flock to Graceland each year to honor his memory, there can be no doubt that he is revered.

But does that make him cool? In short, no.

While flashes of cool can be found throughout his career, they only occur with regularity early on, before the Army. The Sun sessions, for example, sound undeniably cool; but hell, so does the whole Sun catalog, which suggests that it's probably just Sam Phillips' coolness you're hearing there. After that -- save his proto-punk seizures in Viva Las Vegas and that smooth leather get-up he donned during his comeback -- it's all downhill.

In other words, eight million Elvis fans can be wrong. Let's consider some of his uncool attributes:

  • Songwriting. Or, rather, the lack thereof. Although Presley is listed as co-writer on several of his hits, including "Love Me Tender," "All Shook Up," and "Heartbreak Hotel," the conventional wisdom is that Presley didn't write any of his songs. Instead, Colonel Tom Parker had his name added to them for the sake of prestige and -- more importantly -- money. Plagiarism might be one way of describing the deception, although it's not necessary to go that far. There's a name for acts that perform songs they didn't write. They're called cover bands and, while sometimes entertaining, they are almost never cool.

  • Being Micro-Managed. Speaking of Colonel Tom, the thumb he kept the King under raises serious questions about the latter's coolness. Elvis missed the chance to star in the successful remake of A Star Is Born and got shorted tons of money in royalties by listening to Parker. Coolness traditionally requires making your own decisions, even if they're stupid. For example: Moving your teenage girlfriend into your house until she's old enough to get married while your manager concocts some story about her being a ward of your parents is sheepish and lame. On the other hand, marrying your 13-year-old cousin and flaunting it in front of the press despite the advice of your handlers -- while ill-advised and potentially career-ending -- is pretty damn cool in a devil-may-care sort of way.

  • Drugs. Prescription drugs, that is. Now I'm not going to tell you that drugs aren't cool. Look at Keith Richards. But prescription drugs are for adolescents sneaking around their parents' medicine cabinet on bingo night, not for big grown-up rock stars. Of course, the drug issue is only exacerbated by the King's meeting with . . .

  • Nixon. What could be more uncool than toting your pill-bloated ass into the office of the most infamous U.S. president to date and receiving -- of all things -- an honorary DEA badge.

  • Las Vegas. His cool gyrations in Viva Las Vegas notwithstanding, Vegas hadn't been cool for at least a decade when the King started swinging there regularly. Instead, it had already become a life-savings-blowing destination for people hungry for a taste of even simulated coolness. Which is exactly my point.

  • Jumpsuits. Anybody? Anybody want to defend the jumpsuits?

  • Death. Uncool in its own right, it can be salvaged if done properly. Wrapping your Porsche Spyder around a guard-rail will do the trick. On the other hand, riding the . . . well, you know the story.

    And when you go like that, there's nothing anybody can say or do that will make it turn out cool. -- Jim Hanas


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