"If you're an Elvis fan, no explanation is necessary; If you're not an Elvis fan, no explanation is possible."

(George Klein)



"History has him as this good old country boy, Elvis is about as country as Bono!"

(Jerry Schilling)






Redefining Elvis


"There's nobody like Elvis. He gave us that. I think he would have been better off if he didn't." Bobbie Ann Mason, author of Elvis Presley

One of the things about Elvis that struck Bobbie Ann Mason was the first home he bought for his parents, a ranch house on Audubon Avenue in Memphis. The family was poor, acted poor, felt poor. But suddenly they lived in a house with all the space, comforts and conveniences of those who had made it in '50s America -- such as twin state-of-the-art wall ovens, two tiled bathrooms and Danish modern furniture. The Presleys were stunned.

"I can feel what it was like for them to go into a comfortable house with a nice kitchen and a nice neighborhood," Mason says. "His parents didn't know what to do with themselves."

Mason suspects it was the emotional pinnacle of Elvis' life. "That story is about innocence and about things going downhill then." In a career marked by dramatic extremes, she thinks, Elvis was never to have that same feeling again.

Mason's book, one of the Penguin Lives series (Viking Books, $19.95), isn't an exhaustive tell-all. Rather, it's about defining moments in Elvis' brief life. "I tried to portray these things not in terms of ideas or conclusions you could draw, but more in terms of emotions and the textures of his emotions. ... In each chapter, I try to get at a certain moment that draws together a lot of experience.

"I didn't write about what Elvis did to us. I wrote about what we did to Elvis, how did he experience his fame." She sympathizes with the pressure of a very mortal man trying to simultaneously define and live up to the Elvis legend.

Elvis was, Mason notes, simultaneously delighted and haunted by his own popularity, asking himself whether he was a godlike figure or possibly even another Christ. And then, after Elvis' death in 1977 at age 42, his fall from grace was just as dramatic. He was savaged.

"After his death, everybody blamed him -- for being poor, country, for singing black songs," Mason said. "People even thought he was odd because he was devoted to his parents. So he ends up being a caricature." Mason thinks that's unfair to Elvis' complexity, his constant attempts to reinvent himself even in the face of opposition from his family and assorted hangers-on at his attempts to expand his artistic horizons.

Elvis got tired of being Elvis, but he loved being Elvis. His reading was guided by a hairdresser, then stymied by his wife. He was devoted to his mother yet all too aware of all the things she thought he couldn't do.

One photo that strikes Mason is of the Presley family in Germany during Elvis' stint in the Army. Elvis' mother, Gladys, had recently died, and the Presley family is gathered for breakfast -- in a strange country, without the family anchor, trying to re-create a down-home breakfast complete with McCormick's pepper in its signature can.

Despite Elvis' loyalty to some of his poor rural ways, he nonetheless nurtured "a sense of cultural inferiority" that limited his career: Not expanding his musical style to include "highbrow" elements. Not taking riskier parts in movies such as Midnight Cowboy instead of the pap formula films that are now almost unwatchable. Mason used to think Elvis had a weak character. Now she doesn't.

"I think he was struggling heroically to deal with everything that had been handed him. ... He tried to live up to the image, and that proved impossible." She's also touched by Elvis' attempts to educate himself, "in his own way, he's trying to expand his horizons and learn." But he has no guide among his cronies, and his reading veers into strange metaphysical directions.

Wife Priscilla initiates a book bonfire. And Priscilla is not the only one at odds with Elvis' strivings. Mason says his manager, Colonel Parker, had "no aesthetic sense ... no interest in Elvis' artistic inclinations, his genius in shaping and interpreting a song."

Still, Mason says, "my understanding of Parker and the Presley family is that they were made for each other." Parker was "a familiar type of person" to the Presley family, "a Southern trader." That Parker had little real taste and no expertise for re-inventing Elvis in artistically riskier ways apparently never bothered the family.

Still, Elvis left a legacy: The Elvis songs sung in that Elvis style, a driving mix of blues, gospel and rock 'n' roll that would never be duplicated.

"He was driven to make music," Mason said.

"He had it in every nerve of his body."

(Spotlight/Article, Source: MiamiHerald.com)

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Elvis Odd Spot (updated 17 Nov 2004)