Book Review:

Treat Me Nice:

Elvis, His Music and the Frankenstein Creature

by Howard Jackson

Treat Me Nice Elvis, His Music and the Frankenstein Creature, Howard Jackson, Anchor Print, 2011, Softcover and Digital editions, 386 pages, Not illustrated.  ISBN: 978190754079

Reviewed by Nigel Patterson, October 2011

From the publisher: 

‘Treat Me Nice’ remembers not only the influential black musicians that emerged before and after Elvis but also Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, Herman Melville and Isaac Newton. Key figures in the doomed events are examined and Elvis is compared to other musical talents to reveal a clear view of his merit and importance.

Inspired by ‘Frankenstein’ author Mary Shelley, who warned against our lack of respect for uncouth creatures, ‘Treat Me Nice’ confronts traditional views and explores the contradictions within Elvis. It will be enjoyed and debated by Elvis fans but will also appeal to those who enjoy popular music.

EIN's Review

I never cease to be amazed at the eclectic and bewildering themes contained in books around Elvis.  From the uplifting Elvis Was My Speech Therapist by James Bradley, Christopher Byrnes Matthews obtusely challenging three volume set, The Name Code: The God of Elvis and Isabelle Tanner's new age Elvis A Guide To My Soul to the politically motivated invective of Albert Goldman in his strident biography, Elvis and the sad ramblings of James Denson in Elvis Through My Eyes, the Elvis library is one which can easily enthrall, confuse or anger the reader. 

At the extremes there are two categories: books which challenge the reader in a serious way and books which are so ludicrous you cannot help but laugh at their ridiculous premises and sloppy presentation.

Howard Jackson’s Treat Me Nice Elvis, His Music and the Frankenstein Creature falls into the first category.  It is a cogently written and totally absorbing 386 page analysis of Elvis and his importance, framed in the light of Frankenstein author Mary Shelley’s warning against society’s lack of sympathy for uncouth creatures. 

Metaphorical in nature and raising the challenging theme that Elvis (a flawed genius of considerable contradictions) was a "victim", with similarities to Shelley’s Frankenstein creature and, fatefully, both were doomed because they horrified their creator.  Primary characters in the story are the Colonel as Frankenstein and Elvis as Frankenstein’s creature. 

Jackson’s insights are many as the following examples suggest:

Musicologists, whenever possible, are keen to point out the similarity of arrangements in his gospel music to the originals but, inevitably, Elvis moves beyond white gospel because of his always insistent, vocal identity.

But the career of Elvis Presley, for all its achievements, marvellous moments and continuing longevity, is a tragedy of unfulfilled potential, wasted opportunities and embarassing baggage.

Parker, like Elvis, was a sleepwalker but, unlike Elvis, he had a professional, psychiatric illness...... ……Despite major errors in his early life, Parker, like Frankenstein, was an unreliable narrator who misinterpreted everything.

At one point the author even explores how Elvis would have reacted had he been born one musical generation later in the era of the singer-songwriter.

Opposite: Howard Jackson

Treat Me Nice is effectively two books in one, for as much as Jackson traverses complex psychological and metaphorical territory he also provides a strong perspective on Elvis’ musical canon, both its zenith and its nadir:

Jackson writes lucidly about one of Elvis’ highlight albums, Elvis Country:

Despite the traditional emphasis, the album is remarkable for its radicalism and the bold way old, country classics are redefined.  

Jackson goes on to explore Elvis’ version of the Ernest Tubbs classic, Tomorrow Never Comes.  Revealing his strong grasp of musical structure, composition and feeling and obvious respect for Elvis as an artist, Jackson writes:

Elvis gives the song an ascending arrangement so that it climaxes in a spectacular chorus.  Done this way, it sounds like a march.  The drumming emphasises this aspect.  Ultimately, it succeeds because Elvis sings it so dramatically and fearlessly…….The passion increaes until the glorious end when one is tempted to cheer.  If it had been performed in concert, it would have had everyone on their feet, crude, definitely, but irresistable.

On I Washed My Hands In Muddy Water, Jackson notes how biographer Peter Guralnick compared Elvis’ version to that of his Sun Studio contemporary, Charlie Rich.  Guralnick observed that:

Both versions are fast and excellent but there are differences.  The version by Charlie Rich rolls like a blues whilst Elvis is more frenetic and closer to rockabilly.

At the opposite end of the Elvis musical spectrum Jackson observes:

Is the rubbish important or can it be safely ignored?  Elvis has to be judged by his achievements and, as they are impressive, this has to be acknowledged.  The achievements exist as an explanation of why so many think he is great and are still loyal and curious.  The dross reminds us that he was flawed and badly managed and that his career had disastrous elements.

The author also includes an intriguing  chapter The Lists – The Neglected Legacy in which he examines various recordings and albums, rating each song.

In Treat Me Nice, Howard Jackson presents a formidable treatise, a rich tapestry of insight, analysis, comparison and acute commentary.  With particular aim at the shortcomings of the Colonel (who quickly was out of his depth in promoting an artist whose talent was effectively in a universe far, far away from the outdated country carny culture Andreas van Kuijk occupied; a universe the Colonel was unable to recognise or adapt to.

Jackson's passing observations are insightful ( musically 'soulless producer Chet Atkins') and his analytical dissections of politically or philosophically flavoored works, such as the Albert Goldman and Peter Guralnick biographies, enlivening!

In considering the Guralnick two volume biography set, Jackson acutely observes that Guralnick's biography, while rich in detail, is essentially procedural, and for this reason it fails to discover "the inwardness of what happened".

Jackson also comments on Guralnick's apparent underlying thematic conception of what Elvis represents:

The lonely individual, who possessed to paraphrase Shelley a heart fashioned to be susceptible to love and sympathy and to vice and hatred when wrenched by misery, was not the hero Guralnick wanted.

Treat Me Nice is not for those readers who want a straightforward and easy to digest biography of Elvis. This book is for those who want to stretch their thoughts and imagination, for those who want to explore and contemplate previously unrealised concepts.  Essentially it is for those who want to challenge, learn and redefine the life and musical legend (and legacy) of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. 

Treat Me Nice also comes with a bonus CD: Elvis - Gothic Loner.  The disc features 18 early Elvis recordings including Is It So Strange; Love Me, He Knows Just What I Need, Reconsider Baby; One Sided Love Affair; I Got Stung, Blue Moon and When It Rains It Really Pours.  The song selection provides a nice portrait of the diverse musical influences which help shaped Elvis, both as a man and as an artist with amazing stylistic abilities.

Verdict: Treat Me Nice Elvis, His Music and the Frankenstein Creature is recommended reading for those who want to be challenged and expand their understanding of Elvis Aaron Presley!  Howard Jackson has written a fresh, complex and highly satisfying work which lingers in your mind long after you have read, digested and reflected on its intriguing subject matter.

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