Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer The Hits Keep On Coming

By James Busbee

AUGUST 11, 1997:  Not long after I moved to Memphis four years ago, I began getting calls from old friends. They wondered if everyone here was "into" Elvis Presley, the way a crack addict is "into" smoking the rock. The truth, I found, is that much of the city either disdains or actively dislikes Elvis -- or, more specifically, the aura that surrounds him. It's the image of Elvis that the locals loathe, the idea of our representative to the world as pill-popping, meatloaf-gorging idiot savant, dead on his throne.

RCA, the King's record company, can't much like that image either. Dead fat rhinestone-clad white trash doesn't exactly have marketing cachet. So RCA has spent the last few years trying to steer the public's focus back to Elvis' music with a series of major re-releases. Now, just in time for the big 20th-Anniversary Death Celebration, comes Elvis Presley's Platinum: A Life In Music, yet another retrospective of the King's career. The four-CD package includes a thick booklet of photographs and liner notes documenting each song's origin and circumstances surrounding the performance.

It's a very pretty package, with a fine selection of songs, but why in the world do we need another Elvis retrospective? Anticipating this criticism, Platinum begins with a justification of its existence, never a good sign for a collection. Its purpose "is to complement, not duplicate, previously issued retrospectives," according to the liner notes. The hook here is that Platinum contains a number of "unreleased performances," primarily live versions or alternate takes of well-known songs. Wring the Presley estate hard enough, apparently, and hey presto, out pops an early version of "Suspicious Minds" or "Heartbreak Hotel."

Listening to Platinum, I found myself wondering what Elvis himself would have thought of this practice. The King was a master craftsman in the studio, working tirelessly to capture on tape the vision of the song he held in his head. The "alternate takes" of songs in Platinum and other collections are alternate, yes, but they're also castoffs, often unacceptable because they lacked the heart, soul, or muscle of the version of record. The "Suspicious Minds" included here is a plodding shadow of the "real" version; the production here on "Burning Love" is unbalanced, the vocal forced and almost tentative.

That said, this is Elvis we're talking about here. When he was on his game, there was no one better. His grace and inventiveness behind the microphone, particularly in the early days, were beyond compare, and this collection shows that range. Platinum's liner notes, with the benefit of hindsight, document the King's influence across the spectrum of popular music.

But Elvis was no child prodigy. He worked for what he got. Platinum's version of "That's All Right" shows a very young Elvis and his band working through the song in fits and starts, finally locking into the song's signature groove. "How Great Thou Art" is a magnificent, openhearted testament to faith, while "Blueberry Hill" seethes with raw sexual passion.

In the end, Elvis's tragic flaw was self-indulgence, the evil twin of passion. The longer he lived and the richer he became, the more he created his own private world. Graceland is nothing if not an arrested adolescent's version of how an adult should live. Elvis' desire to challenge himself musically waned as he grew older, and much of his Seventies material is so overproduced and melodramatic as to be unlistenable. This is where Platinum's live takes serve a real and necessary purpose. Audiences charged up Elvis, and forced him to hold himself to a higher standard than he did in the studio. A version of "An American Trilogy" recorded onstage in Hawaii rises above mere jingoism here. Platinum's "Steamroller Blues" was recorded at the Mid-South Coliseum, and Elvis plays to and preens for the home folks with evident affection.

No true collection of the King's could ignore his slow musical decline, but Platinum manages to contain it. Execrable nonsense like "In The Ghetto" is present, as is silliness such as "Release Me," where Elvis spends almost every moment between verses chittering into the microphone like a drunken gorilla. For the music's sake, perhaps Elvis should have flamed out young like James Dean, Buddy Holly, or Kurt Cobain, before he had a chance to embarrass himself. But then, he'd just be an icon, not a demigod.

Bottom line -- Platinum is great stuff, but it's nothing new, and in too many cases not at all necessary. It also perpetuates the disheartening trend of plundering the vaults of the dead for every last musical nugget. One wonders what sort of "new" releases will arrive next anniversary -- Elvis singing "Don't Be Cruel" in the shower? Crooning "Hound Dog" on the Colonel's answering machine? Belching out "Can't Help Falling In Love" during a sound check? Call it a day, RCA, and let the King rest in peace.

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