by W. A. Harbinson, Custom Books Publishing, Great Britain, 2011, Soft cover & Kindle, ISBN-13: 978-1466237230 / ISBN-10: 1466237236, 255 pages.
Reviewed by Nigel Patterson, July 2012
The fictionalized first-person narratives of ICONIC VOICES, all based on facts, are those of ELVIS PRESLEY, MARLON BRANDO, NORMAN MAILER, JOHN LENNON, and ANDY WARHOL. The lives and works of these five people were interconnected in intriguing ways. All of these people are now dead.
ICONIC VOICES is a blackly satirical, devastatingly funny recounting of their colorful lives, from the rock 'n' roll explosion of the 1950s (Presley), to the rebelliousness of the 1960s (Presley and Brando), the social upheavals of the 1970s (Brando, Mailer and Lennon), and the ruthless commercialization of the arts in the 1980s (Warhol, but also relating to the other four).
In other words, a comprehensive, irresistibly entertaining picture of the past four decades and their growing obsession with 'celebrity' culture.
W. A. (Allen) Harbinson is the man behind one of the biggest selling Elvis biographies of the 1970s. In 1975 Elvis Presley An Illustrated Biography reached #1 on the New York Times bestseller list. Far from resting on his laurels, Harbinson followed up Elvis Presley An Illustrated Biography with several other Elvis titles (see the synopses following this review).
After a hiatus from things Elvis and occupying himself with a myriad of books on other subjects, Harbinson has returned to the Elvis world in 2012 with a very different type of book release. In Iconic Voices, the author inhabits the spirit of not only Elvis, but several other notable celebrities: Marlon Brando, Norman Mailer, John Lennon and Andy Warhol, and in so doing, offers a fascinating fictionalised biography interlaced with dark humor and incisive observation around the tumultuous social change each of his five protagonists was part of.
The book itself is split into five (one for each icon) self-contained, but interlinking chapters.
Harbinson chose his five icons as they were key figures, loosely connected, in the socially changing and turbulent times they lived in:
An underlying theme of all five parts of Iconic Voices is, not surprisingly, the cult of celebrity.
- Elvis: the rock ‘n’ roll explosion of the 50s
- Elvis and Brando: the rebelliousness of the 60s
- Brando, Mailer and Lennon: the social upheaval of the 70s:
- Warhol: the ruthless commercialisation of the arts in the 80s
Writing in the ‘first person’, the author has taken well known (and some not so well known) incidents from the lives of his five iconic celebrities to weave a wryly funny, at times irreverent and always interesting biographical pastiche. Given the writing device, it strikes me that the song Walk A Mile In My Shoes seems apt when considering Iconic Voices.
As a device, writing in the ‘first person’ is an interesting and clever one. That it works is testament to the author’s intellectual and written language skills.
Some criticise the use of 'first person' narrative by a third party for its potential to color or skew the narrative based on the author’s preconceived ideas about the subject, rather than necessarily reflecting how the subject actually felt. In a sense they see the attribution of views and feelings to the central protagonist as being misleading.
I do not accept this criticism, as the same issue affects any biography, albeit in a different sense. Whether an author writes in the first or third person is irrelevant, any bias or preconceived views of the writer will still manifest themselves in the written word. (I also note that the concept of bias can be leveled against autobiography). While the context is somewhat different for a book written in the ‘first person’ but by a ‘third person’, the knowledge that the author is not the person he/she is writing about surely flags that context and counteracts the criticism.
Some readers will quite rightly view Iconic Voices as a postmodern take on celebrity and social change while, as noted above, others may question the validity of some passages due to the author creating a reality based on his own, internalised preconceptions. The determination of objective truth as against subjective reality has long been a dilemma in our 24 hour wired, tabloid driven and gossip fueled world (and my earlier comments stand).
The author offers his interpretation of the Presley life. The introspective insights we gain are most interesting:
Yet just as it had been with June Juanico, what I loved most in women wasn't always something I could easily live with.
There is no doubting Harbinson is an accomplished author. His ability to transcend the mundane, to take the reader to new places and to challenge preconceived ideas by presenting them as fictionalised fact
Yeah, I’ll admit it: I always had to be in control. I mean, my mama loved me obsessively and thought I was God-given, perfect, beyond criticism, so naturally I expected the same attitude in my girlfriends.
On Tickle Me he observes:
There is also a wonderfully expressive and visually evocative comment on Elvis’ co-star in Tickle Me, Jocelyn Lane. As EIN has a number of younger readers, I cannot reproduce it here.
There are several very funny passages in Iconic Voices and the narrative is dotted by Harbinson’s wonderfully dark, wry sense of humor. On the historic summit meeting with the Beatles in 1965, Harbinson comments:
By 1965 I was reduced to making movies like Tickle Me, which was produced so cheaply we did it in ten days and didn’t even have to pay for any original songs because the Colonel, in his infinite wisdom, decided that we could save even more money by raiding my back catalogue. (This did, at least, raise the quality of the songs on offer).
I mention only John and Paul in this context because although I was known to loathe drugs (I only took medication), the tall, lanky one, George Harrison, was clearly stoned out of his skull and promptly disappeared into the back garden to continue taking whatever he was on.
Paul McCartney was a charmer. He soon made me feel at home, even though it was my home, and he made sure not to play his borrowed guitar better than I was playing mine, which was not very well.
The segue from the opening chapter on Elvis to the chapter on Brando has a resonant dissonance which symbolises the skewed and self-centred nature of our feelings and how at odds they can be with the feelings of others. That Elvis revered his brief encounter with the acting legend, yet Brando, at least initially, viewed it with some disdain, is telling. Very quickly this dissonance is replaced by the more balanced perspective which comes with age, as Brando reassesses the encounter and sees a commonality in the predicaments Elvis and he found themselves in:
I should never have said what I said about Elvis. I was just being flippant with that Playboy interviewer, Lawrence Groebel. We were talking about celebrity in general and I described Elvis as a bloated, over-the-hill adolescent entertainer who had nothing to do with excellence, just myth. It was a really cruel thing to say........
Of course in the end Elvis was bloated and over-the-hill, but then so was I, so maybe I was just criticising myself.
Non Elvis books by WA Harbinson
see Amazon for many more titles
Elvis appears elsewhere in Iconic Voices
. In the chapter about John Lennon, the "summit" is replayed again, this time from Lennon's perspective; while Lennon's famous quote "Before Elvis there was nothing" receives value-added treatment:
I was mad about Elvis. As far as I was concerned, before Elvis there was nothing. (Bill Haley, the fat baboon, didn't even get a look-in with me.) When Elvis sang Heartbreak Hotel, I got shivers down my spine.
On his destiny to become a rock star, Harbinson inhabiting Lennon, reflects with a not so subtle dose of humor:
I knew I was born to be a rock 'n' roll star when I sat O-levels in seven subjects and failed all of them.
Prior to this reflection, Lennon/Harbinson provides a colorful account of the impact of Rock Around the Clock:
Yes, life was pretty boring in the fifties, until a little old fat man called Bill Haley, sporting a kiss curl on his forehead, changed the world with 'Rock Around the Clock', which, when played on the soundtrack of the 'teenage delinquent' movie, Blackboard Jungle, led to teenage delinquency all over the country, including Liverpool, with both sexes going berserk in the cinemas, shouting and shrieking hysterically while ripping the fabric out of their chairs, then either dancing in the aisles or storming out into the streets to brawl with each other. Groovy!
For obvious reasons I have concentrated on the Elvis content in Iconic Voices. However, the other four chapters are equally entertaining, equally humorous and equally impressive.
For instance, Harbinson's rich blend of fact and dark humor is nicely on display in this passage from the final chapter about visual arts icon, Andy Warhol:
Naturally, this open-door policy also brought in some dangerous nutters, such as Valerie Solanas, a woman who'd authored the S.C.U.M. (Society to Cut Up Men) Manifesto, a nutty feminist attack on males (men are SCUM, geddit?), and had a brief appearance in one of my underground movies, I, a Man, and so, feeling outraged because she'd been turned away from the Factory after asking for the return of a film script that she'd given me and I'd lost, came storming into my office in June 1968 and shot me, nearly killing me, while I sat at my desk minding my own business. I wouldn't have minded so much if I'd gained something from it, such as Life putting me on their cover, but Bobby Kennedy was shot dead the next day, while I was being treated in hospital, so Life put him on the cover instead, relegating me to the inside pages.
Verdict: Iconic Voices is a deliciously robust, biographical account of Elvis, Brando, Mailer, Lennon and Warhol, including their part in the tumultuous social change that transpired from the 1950s to 1980s. The narrative is wonderfully infected by the author's observational prowess and wry humor, making the story a great read which both enlightens the readers knowledge and uplifts the readers spirit.
Iconic Voices is available in soft cover and ebook (including Kindle) formats; the five chapters are also available individually in Kindle format.
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Coming in August 2012: W. A. (Allen) Harbinson talks to EIN!
W. A. HARBINSON was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in 1941. Leaving school at 14, he became first, in Belfast, an apprentice textile engineer, then, in Liverpool, England, an apprentice plumber and gas fitter. At 19, he emigrated to Australia and enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), serving as a medical clerk in Australia, Thailand, and Malaysia. Returning to London six years later, he became the Chief Associate Editor of a variety of men's magazines and then began his long career as a freelance writer.
His published works include a Number One US bestselling biography, THE ILLUSTRATED ELVIS (1975); two bestselling novels, GENESIS (1980) and REVELATION (1982); and a British bestseller biography, EVITA: SAINT OR SINNER? (1996). He is the author of the epic 'Projekt Saucer' series of novels, which remained in print for most of the 1990s. The five novels in the series are: INCEPTION, PHOENIX (nominated for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, 1995), GENESIS, MILLENNIUM, and RESURRECTION.
Harbinson's early Australian novel, THE RUNNING MAN (1967) was turned into a feature film, THE CITY'S EDGE. He has also written for radio and adapted various film scripts into book form.
Harbinson's autobiographical works include THE WRITING GAME: RECOLLECTIONS OF AN OCCASIONAL BESTSELLING AUTHOR, and ALL AT SEA ON THE GHOST SHIP.
Most of Harbinson's works are now available both as POD books and Kindle ebooks and can be purchased from Amazon and other book-selling Web sites.
W. A. Harbinson has two grown-up children, Shaun and Tanya. Now divorced, he lives alone in a townhouse in West Cork, Ireland. He continues to write.
Visit the W.A. Harbinson web site
Other Elvis books and articles by W. A. Harbinson
(synopses sourced from Elvis in Print: The Definitive Reference and Price Guide):
ELVIS A TRIBUTE TO ELVIS, KING OF ROCK: W. A. Harbinson, Grosset & Dunlap, Inc., USA, 1976, Soft cover, 96 pages, Illustrated, ISBN: 044814638X.
ELVIS PRESLEY - AN ILLUSTRATED BIOGRAPHY, W. A. Harbinson, Michael Joseph Ltd, England, 1975, Soft cover, 160 pages, Illustrated, ISBN: 0718114310 / Ace Books, USA, 1975, Illustrated, ISBN: 0441365175.
Synopsis: Well regarded biography with solid, emotive text interspersed with more than 400 photos. Reached the #1 spot on the New York Times bestseller list of October 1977. Some fantastic 1950s shots and several with Elvis in black karate outfit from his first Las Vegas stint in 1969. Unfortunately the photos tend to dominate the text which is meritorious by itself:
The films continue to come out at regular intervals, each one worse than the last. Elvis sings in settings made of cardboard and plastic, he plugs a morality that went out ten years earlier...a true outmoded beach boy
Issued a year later as ‘The Illustrated Elvis’ in the USA and also as ‘(Elvis) A Tribute to Elvis, King Of Rock’ (USA) and ‘The Life and Death of Elvis Presley’ (England).
(THE) ILLUSTRATED ELVIS, W. A. Harbinson, Grosset & Dunlap, USA, 1976, Hardback/Soft cover, 160 pages, Illustrated, No index, No bibliography, ISBN: 0448125722/0448126410 / Tempo Star/Ace Books, USA, 1977, Soft cover, Unpaginated, Illustrated, No index, No bibliography, ISBN: 0441365140.
Synopsis: One of the original photo journals. Good for its time, but better design of releases since has overshadowed it. The Tempo Star/Ace Books release was an ‘abridged edition’. Released outside the US as ‘Elvis Presley: An Illustrated Biography’.
ELVIS, William Allen, Smithmark Publishing Inc., USA, 1992 & 1994, Hardback, 192 pages, Illustrated, ISBN: 08313727551 / Coombe Books, USA, Hardback, 1994.
Synopsis: ‘Coffee table’ size biography with good illustrations. Reissued in 1997 as ‘20th Anniversary Tribute’. The author is actually W. A. Harbinson, author of the well received: ‘Elvis Presley - An Illustrated Biography’.
ELVIS 20TH ANNIVERSARY CELEBRATION, William Allen, CLB International, USA, 1997, 192 pages, Illustrated, ISBN: 1858336694 / Bhb International Inc., USA, Hardback / Ken Fin Books, Canada, 1997, 192 pages, Illustrated, ISBN: 1875973826.
Synopsis: Essentially this is another large-sized Elvis book with good use of photos. Doesn’t add much to the story but a solid seller around August 1997. Originally released in 1994 with the title ‘Elvis Presley’
Read EIN's review of Growing Up With The Memphis Flash
GROWING UP WITH THE MEMPHIS FLASH, W. A. Harbinson and Kay Wheeler, Tutti Frutti Productions, Holland, 1994, Soft (flexi) cover, 223 pages, Illustrated, ISBN: none.
Synopsis: 60,000 words and 125 pages of never before seen photos - this Rijff release is as hot as his others if somewhat different. Telling the story of Kay Wheeler, the founder of the first (?) Elvis fan club it is much sought after by collectors. Originally came with free 14 track CD. Some references list the authors as Ger Rijff and Kay Wheeler and the release being in hard back format (which it wasn’t). Rijff is the man behind the one-man publishing company ‘Tutti Frutti Productions’.
PRIVATE ELVIS (Elvis In Germany - The Missing Years), Compiled by Andreas Schroer, Michael Knorr and Oskar Hentschel, Boxtree Ltd, England, 1993, Hardback, 160 pages, Illustrated, No bibliography, No index, ISBN: 1852838183.
Synopsis: Well researched book of Elvis’s time in Germany. Ghost written by W. A. Harbinson, author of the #1 best selling “Elvis Presley: An Illustrated Biography”. Many rare photos of Elvis in combat gear and also pictures from that infamous night with the hookers and strippers at the Moulin Rouge. As a focus on a particular period in Elvis’ life the authors provide a detailed account of what transpired in Germany from maneuvers to girlfriends. The book also provides a revealing picture of how the media reacted to Private Presley:
Unfortunately, stories about Elvis carrying out humdrum tasks like any other soldier do not make exciting copy and reporters often spiced up their stories with wild accounts of girls trying to break into the base, wriggling under barbed wire fences trying to get to Elvis. The truth is that security at the base was too tight for any such adventures.
Many of the chapter titles are titillating: ‘Presleymania’, ‘Foreign Affairs’ (and you know what sort of affairs the authors mean): ‘Priscilla and the Pills’ and ‘On the Loose for the Last Time’. Comes with a 32 minute CD featuring interviews and live tracks circa 1954. Recommended.
IT’S ONLY ROCK & ROLL, W. A. Harbinson, Fort Baxter Productions, Israel, Soft cover, 1995, 28 pages, Illustrated.
Synopsis: Harbinson, author of ‘Elvis: An Illustrated Biography’ (see that listing in Part A), provides this involving essay which came as a booklet in the unofficial 4cd box set ‘a profile The King on Stage’. The author tackles the Elvis story in the context of the Official British Fan clubs excursion to the US in 1974 to watch the King live in Vegas. Full of wit and perception, Harbinson weaves an engrossing tale of kitsch, somewhat obsessed fans and the Big E:
...still looking super and only starting on the downward slide, Elvis never failed to send shivers down my spine with the opening lines of something as banal as ‘It’s Midnight’, which he sang with a masterly blend of romantic pleading and sexual threat.
The booklet is not available individually and the limited edition box set (which originally cost around $100) is (in Elvis terms) ‘Sold Out’.