Q. This is semi-random but did you see the Elvis movie? [The hit movie “Elvis,” directed by Baz Luhrmann and starring Austin Butler as Elvis Presley. from this year?]
A. Yeah. I was confused by it. Elvis is my hero. There was an aspect to the story of his later years that is almost religious to me. NY Times
First of all, a journalist should not be telling Nick Cave that the movie is “a hit”. What is your point? That it was popular and successful? [Well, pardon me– but, as if to prove me right, he didn’t say “hit movie”: the NY Times website attached a note to the article that my copy somehow picked up.]
I take it Cave was confused because Luhrmann, striving for some kind of credibility, I suppose, ended up allowing some ambiguity in the film as to just how “heroic” Presley was. He clearly refused to stand up to his manager, “Colonel” Tom Parker, who made so many bad decisions for him, and Elvis’ greatest success came in Las Vegas– a cesspool of kitsch– but he is worshipped by the credulous American public who can’t believe that someone that rich (he wasn’t, really– Parker took most of the money) isn’t also virtuous and deserving.
Firstly, I know someone reading this will, sooner or later, leap up and shout “but he had a great voice”. Yes he did. So does Celine Dion and Michael Bublé and a hundred other irrelevant “artists” who merely produce pleasant-sounding confections.
Is there anything more bereft of artistic merit than a Michael Bublé song?
As another aside: the film could have done one brilliant thing to lift itself above the messy contrivance that it is: it should have contrasted Elvis in Vegas– and his audience– to the nascent punk movement in London and New York, and their audiences, just to clue the audience in to just how far from “shocking” Elvis had become and how much he had become, instead, an establishment icon.
It means very little to me, who would rather hear Bob Dylan sing one verse of “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” or “Tambourine Man” or Leonard Cohen croak his way through “Famous Blue Raincoat” or Tom Waits wail “Cold, Cold Ground” than an entire concert of Elvis.
There is a reason Elvis impersonators are so popular. What Elvis produced is easily imitated. It’s all surfaces and gloss. It’s that warble in his voice, the breath, the thirsty lips. It’s audio scenery.
I won’t hide my crushing disappointment at hearing Nick Cave admit he admired perhaps the most corrupt and conformist rock-pop artist in history. Elvis was always only ever about getting rich. Okay– yes, he was a white artist doing black music in the 1950’s. What did that mean to him? That he was progressive or activist or even liberal? He “shocked” the establishment. Into what? Hurling their panties onto the stage in Las Vegas?
And gosh, yes indeed, he was very attractive to girls– because, one suspects– he was a girl. He was definitely a mama’s boy who couldn’t bear to have sex with his wife after she had become pregnant.
He was also a credulous believer in old time religion, producing several albums of the most banal, conventional gospel tunes imaginable (he made Tennessee Ernie Ford look positively conscious). He used his money to build himself a playground at Graceland and surrounded himself with men who were willing to act like kids and horse around and eat too much and keep real people away. He begged a fat old Dutch hustler with the cultural palette of Gumby to please, please take 50% of all of my earnings because I am too dumb and too weak to get myself a lawyer– without your permission– and challenge you on any point on any issue including those monumentally stupid movies you signed me up for. This was no “shock” to the establishment: it was a slobbering wet kiss to everything the white patriarchal society represented at the time.
Elvis joined the army.
Seriously– Elvis never, in his 20’s, a powerful (in terms of potential earnings power) celebrity, never challenged Parker’s control of his career, of his social life, of his engagements, his politics, his clothes? Just how gutless exactly was the man? Regard the Beatles, who exploded into four solo-careers, fired their manager, hired and fired lawyers and accountants, started a company, bankrupted the company, promoted new artists, demonstrated for peace, and so on, and so on, all while Elvis was sitting on a toilet in Las Vegas. (It has to be noted here that the Beatles, too, admired Elvis, and the Beach Boys. But they were more influenced by Bob Dylan.)
That’s not merely weird. It’s nauseating.
Nick Cave says:
The final Las Vegas concerts were the Passion of crucifixion and redemption and resurrection.
Nick Cave– do you even know what Las Vegas is? Have you ever been to Vegas? Have you toured the hotels, the strip malls, the casinos? What is there about this place that doesn’t strike you as hell?
There is a man who’s suffering on such an epic level to be onstage and to perform and to live.
No, there is a man who didn’t have the backbone to make any decisions for himself for his entire life. You admire him for it?!!
I have always found Elvis repellent for the same reason Cave says he admired him: he played Vegas.
Growing up in the 60’s, my generation had the courage (for better and worse) to begin to think independently of the established pro-war, pro-growth, anti-sex, anti-drugs culture and strike out boldly with new values and ideas and lifestyles. Sure, a lot of it went off the rails, and a lot of it did not endure. But think of the environmental movement, the feminist movement, civil rights, and the antiwar attitudes that do still prevail. Elvis had nothing to do with any of it. It was a conscious decision, made for Elvis by the “Colonel”, to never, ever have an intelligent opinion about any of these raging issues during the entire decade.
What was Elvis doing, during the time of “Ohio”, “The Times They are a ‘Changing”, “For What It’s Worth”, “Eve of Destruction”, Woodstock, Kent State, Viet Nam, Love Canal, etc., etc., etc.?
A medley, arranged by the great songwriter Mickey Newbury, of “Dixie,” “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “All My Trials” that Presley frequently used as a centerpiece of his later concerts.
(Another note from the NY Times referring to a segment of the documentary, “This is Elvis”. )
Suffering? Elvis wanted the worship, the attention, the money, the corrupting lifestyle, the entourage, the limousines, the bullshit. It is what he lived for.
That changed my life as an artist. It was the most stirring thing that I’ve ever seen musically. There was something that was happening at those shows that I’ve never seen anywhere else.
Well, that part is right. You watched a generation of obese, self-satisfied, smug, contemptible Las Vegas consumers wet their panties over a vacuous washed-up celebrity icon. This wasn’t a crucifixion, and it certainly wasn’t redemption (Elvis had long ago lost the younger generation: he was now appealing to the teenagers of the 1950’s, who were now middle-aged and settled into their suburban homes) and Elvis wasn’t courageous or innovative or inventive or noteworthy in any artistic sense at all, aside from the fact that he was a white man performing black music. All that blather that you read about his “come-back” is from a bunch of hacks being overwhelmed by Elvis’s popularity and coercing themselves into sucking up to the myth.
What, really, at this point in his career, was the difference between Elvis and a mediocrity like Engelbert Humperdinck? Not much. Elvis was louder.
We are told that Elvis died on the toilet. Elvis lived on the toilet, on the Las Vegas of culture, literally: trashy spectacle and banal confections.
The only thing that could be more disappointing than Nick Cave’s admiration of Elvis would be Eric Clapton finding Jesus and becoming an anti-vaxxer or Van Morrison comparing Covid restrictions to slavery.
And yeah, Eric Clapton found Jesus and is now a pro-Trump anti-vaxxer and Clapton and Van Morrison compare Covid restrictions to negro slavery.
Has Clapton changed?
In 1976, Clapton said this, publicly:
Onstage, Clapton told his audience that it was important to “keep England White” and that “the Black wogs and coons and Arabs and f—ing Jamaicans don’t belong here.”
You might say, and I might say, that an incident that happened 45 years ago should be forgotten. I would strongly agree, if it was an “incident”, like groping a groupie, or stealing your best friend’s wife (yes, he did). But it wasn’t: it was Clapton inadvertently forgetting to hide his opinions from the public. Clapton, who made a career playing the blues, a style created by black musicians, has never played a role in any protest or civil rights movements. He has been conspicuously silent on those issues. He choice to not publicly support those movements is, in fact, a statement in itself.
When he appeared in photos with Greg Abbott in Texas, one can’t doubt that that too was Clapton lettings his opinions slip into the public stream.
Now he complains that his old friends don’t call.
I was curious.
Articles on the web defending Elvis seem to think there is a constituency out there that thinks Elvis is racist. I never thought that. I don’t know of anyone who does. Then I realized— that’s the strawman. Prove that Elvis wasn’t racist and you have therefore salvaged his reputation from allegations of triviality and irrelevance– the kind of stuff I am asserting here. So there are numerous articles on line showing that Elvis had many black musician friends and none of them thought he had any racist attitudes. He grew up in Tupelo, Mississippi, a mixed race community. I’m fine with that.
However, I thought it was interesting that so many sites felt the need to make that defense. In any case, I was curious: did Elvis agree to play for segregated audiences? The Beatles refused. Did Elvis refuse?
The rider for the September 11 concert “explicitly cited the band’s refusal to perform in a segregated facility,” writes Kenneth Womack at Salon. When concert promoters pushed back, John Lennon flatly stated in a press conference, “We never play to segregated audiences, and we aren’t going to start now. I’d sooner lose our appearance money.” From Here.
It’s easy to find references online of the Beatles refusing to play segregated audiences. The Rolling Stones are known to have recorded songs by obscure black artists as b-sides to their hit singles, to give them some income.
Regarding Presley’s first hit, “That’s All right Mama”:
Arthur Crudup was credited as the composer on the label of Presley’s single, but despite legal battles into the 1970s, reportedly never received royalties. An out-of-court settlement was supposed to pay Crudup an estimated $60,000 in back royalties, but never materialized. Crudup had used lines in his song that had been present in earlier blues recordings, including Blind Lemon Jefferson’s 1926 song “That Black Snake Moan”. (Wiki)
It is hard to believe that there would not be a record of it– as of the Beatles– if he ever had. There is a clear record about one thing: Elvis virtually never stood up to Tom Parker (can we all please STOP calling him “Colonel”: he was never a Colonel anywhere) and challenged any of his decisions, and Tom Parker obviously didn’t give a fuck about civil rights.
There is a video— by “fans”, of course– that claims that Elvis performed a beautiful, powerful song (“If I can Dream”) about truth and beauty and justice and brotherhood at the end of his 1968 NBC TV special. But the song is anodyne at best, banal, and unspecific, and safely generic. Not a single line that even approaches “battle lines being drawn” or “tin soldiers and Nixon’s coming” or even (of course) “Imagine there’s no country”.
People love Elvis. I never have. The people who love Elvis will twist themselves into a pretzel to find some way to rationalize that love, to find virtue in the man that is commensurate with their esteem. That esteem is a reflection of ourselves, our good taste, our own virtue, but not of the reality of fat , sweaty Elvis leaning in and kissing the women taking a break from the slot machines in the front rows of the International Hotel ballroom.
Pretty Good Discussion of the Racism