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LADIES AND GENTLEMEN,
ELVIS HAS JUST LEFT THE BUILDING

by Polar Levine 7/9/01 for popCULTmedia

"Ladies and gentlemen, Elvis has left the building," CNN attributed this statement to a member of the demolition team seconds before the Market Square Arena in Indianapolis was vaporized on July 8, 2001. The Arena was the site of the last performance of Elvis Presley which proceeded his death by two months. That the destruction of the building merits CNNs attention in its war against Murdochs FOX News Network for our hearts and minds tells us just how much cach Presley has in our imaginations.

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I figure for around 98-point-something percent of the American public, recorded music serves as a cultural accessory or aural wallpaper. And thats ok as far as Im concerned. Im the same way about cars and food. I dont give a shit whats under the hood as long as it gets me to where I point it. As long as dinner has lots of fiber and ingredients I can pronounce -- Ill chomp like a happy puppy.

No doubt, theres music out there for the curious seeker of quality, creativity and realness but you gotta look real hard for it. As corporatocracy becomes more entrenched as our prevailing political ecosystem, the search becomes more time and energy consuming.

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In our corporatocracy the job of politicians is to distill corporate desires into legislation, more or less, depending on which party has the key to the still. I think corporatocracy as a system sucks -- that is to say -- it sucks the life out of everything it touches. Dont get me wrong -- its a lot better than a theocracy or a monarchy. Just not as good as a democracy.

But what does this have to do with Elvis?

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I recently got around to reading both volumes of Peter Guralnick's massive Elvis bioLAST TRAIN TO MEMPHIS and CARELESS LOVE. The first volume covers his early life up until he booked for the army in 1958. CARELESS LOVE picks up from his discharge to the sorry end.

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Guralnick has a way of bringing home this guy's bizarre life. Reading about his last four years made me feel like a month old tuna sandwich. Apparently his daily menu of speed to get him through the night and downers to lure the sandman (he was a chronic insomniac) eventually rotted out his wiring and brought on what sounds like a full-out bipolar descent into hell.

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Who knows how much of this was caused by some insanity that was swimming around in his genepool, or maybe the incredible volume of pills he deposited. It could have been the spiritual rot of boredom brought on by his innate loneliness, lack of challenges or a handler who made sure he would never be bothered with the stresses of creative input and output. What is clear is that Elvis Presley was an astoundingly creative young guy. But creativity unfed and unpursued will eventually rot like a gangrenous foot -- but it's a gangrene of the soul. The crutches of choice are often drugs and suicide. An effective prothsetic device has not yet been developed.

I have to say I considered him to be nothing but a clown from 1958 until his death in 1977. But the books got me to pull out everything I had on him in my collection and lock myself up in the studio for awhile. Having emerged from the lab I have to report that he was probably the most amazing natural talent I've ever heard for those years between '54 and '58. Does that mean I believe him to be the KING of anything. Maybe the King of Pain. He wrote not a single song and played no instrument with any skill. At the same time Ray Charles and Chuck Berry, aside from great singers, were great composers and instrumentalists.

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But Elvis, as a singer in those years between 1954-58, had IT. Listen to that stuff again (some of the '58 recordings were released after '58). Ray Charles and Jackie Wilson had better chops but neither had his sense of dynamics and play. Charles developed it soon enough. But not by '58. Elvis had this voice in his lower register that was constantly playing off a totally different character in his high register (though he lacked a good falsetto). Those 2 voices worked each other like Abbot and Costello, Ali and Frazier or Marshall Mathers and Slim Shady. He would bubble down to a whisper then suddenly rip. And most of all -- aside from James Brown -- I've never heard a singer with as deep a sense of the pocket (the rhythmic feel of a song). Those extra vowels he'd tack on to each word ("oh wone-a ya please-a please-a love-a mee-a too-AH beg of you.") was like an extra instrument pushing the rhythm section. The way he mashed the sounds of the words to fill in all the subtleties of the groove transformed a lot of musical kiddy drool into undeniable life force. And the Jordanaires formed the perfect glue that tied the lead voice to the timbre of the instruments. They were both horn section and vocal backdrop.

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As for Elvis military career, Guralnick suggests that Presley's career-long manager Col. Tom Parker saw an ever-expanding market out there beyond Teenville. He wanted Elvis out of the light for a while to re-emerge as a cleaner more parents-friendly all-American boy type. He assumed the kids were going to grow up and switch to Perry Como. So when Parkers boy returned with his dreamy uniform he started recording those soapy "Italian" melodies that were the depth of kitsch. There was no longer any play in his singing or much of a pocket to ride. He chose no material that would inspire it. But if you can sit through a verse of "Surrender" and "It's Now or Never" you'd hear some pretty amazing singing. Full throttle intensity and true commitment. But a single verse of that stuff is all I can stand. And then came the post-"Jailhouse Rock" movies. ETC.

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What's most interesting about the Elvis story, though, is how it shapes up as the perfect analog for what happened to music and the arts in general in America. You have, in one corner, the born Artist. A natural. He had the creative curiosity that any great artist has (or at least starts out with). Then you have The Colonel whose only understanding of music was its many appendages that could be pulled and twisted to generate more and more profits.

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The Colonel set up publishing deals that gave Elvis (and The Colonel) a cut of the publishing and copyright of any song he recorded. Actually this was a pretty common form of thievery and, in Elvis case, a legitimate scam since anyone who got a song on an Elvis B Side would be making money. But this deal precluded Elvis from ever hearing any material that didn't come out of HILL & RANGE, the publishing company that was set up as a cash cow. This means he didn't get a crack at songs that he could work out on. He briefly worked with Leiber and Stoller, the brilliant pioneer rock composing duo famous for Hound Dog, Charley Brown, Yakkety Yak, etc. They provided Elvis with, what I consider to be, his best song, Youre So Square (Baby I Dont Care). But The Colonel soon kicked L & S to the curb when they started getting too close to the plumbing of The Elvis Machine. Elvis was effectively quarantined from all creative people.

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It goes on and on but you get the script.

What makes the story so compelling is what the corporate takeover of the entire musical apparatus in our culture has done. The stuff that causes us to hear God, herself, crooning in our ear has been turned into a paradigm for selling units of product.

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For me, the passing of this sad "king" over tweny years ago was a non-event. But as Napster and much of the anarchistic spirit of the internet goes south, I really feel a sadness in my guts that Elvis has truly left the building.

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Polar Levine
Editor, popCULTmedia