Thursday, August 16, 2007
Still Dead Not Fat Elvis
You see them at every Tennessee Titans game. Every Vegas shindig. Every Halloween and costume Karaoke. Fat Elvis.
He's iconic in that iteration. You could draw it from memory unless you've been under a rock for thirty years -- the white spangled jumpsuit, the prop guitar, the greasy piled-up pompadour and the sideburns. Glasses that could stop gamma rays with frames that could stop a sequin bullet--and have. It's been odd to see that version of Elvis become the default, because I was alive back then, a little kid watching him on TV in the late sixties and early seventies, sweating gravy and mumbling a handful of lounge numbers while doughy matrons with bad teeth and beehive hairdos in some Vegas audience threw their granny panties at him. He was a joke. A bad joke. And when he finally died, his heart hopping out of his chest after only forty-two years, bloated and drugged in his bathroom, I figured he'd go away and stay there. Wrong.
The Fat Elvis costume has become as recognizable as Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. Hell, Uncle Sam. It screams: AMERICA. And not fussy America, or political America, or The New York Times Book Review America, either. He's strip mall/chrome fin/corn dog/hayseed/ghetto blaster/swimming hole/fried chicken/AM radio/concrete block church/Vegas whore America. He's the whole ball of earwax in Jesusland.
But I knew Elvis because I knew rockabilly. Elvis Presley arguably invented it; at the very least he personified it before he went Hollywood. He was the sun around which Sun records revolved in the fifties. Long before Elvis become the guy that showed up in adjustable waistbands and spangles, and was Elvis, he was great. Not just great. Important.
I knew those records, right from That's All Right. Scotty Moore's clean and nimble guitar, Bill Black's percussive upright bass -- it was the most maddening and infectious beat I ever heard. Real rockabilly beats send everyone to the dance floor, where they look at each other and wonder what the hell happens now. Country bumpkins knew because it was cooked up in the hidden still of their culture. Elvis was great, and a good singer, and an important synthesizer of a new style. But he was much more than that, long before he became a caricature of himself. He didn't start out a caricature, but a comic book super hero, simultaneously absurd and wonderful. He was vital then.
I got Image/SOFA Entertainment's 3 DVD set of Elvis' appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show, and it's wonderful. I began watching it thinking it would be a kind of dumb fun -- the best kind-- but I realized I was watching something else too; something that I never would have seen because I wasn't alive yet. I saw America's, and the world's odometer turn over.
The DVDs are the whole shows. Three of them, from late 1956 into 1957. It's fascinating stuff, even the dreck, because it's the context. It's the whole America-centered world as it sat-- confident, salubrious, muscular, on the go, the engine of the world with the Marshall Plan and Soviet containment carried lightly on its back. At first Ed Sullivan assembles it willy-nilly and points a camera at it. Then Ed rolls an Elvis grenade into the middle of it.
There's a long succession of artists and performers you can point to that encapsulate the zeitgeist of their times. Their replacements show up long before they're ready to leave the spotlight, generally, and they hang around long after they're hip. They become... well, Fat Elvis. I remember disinctly watching the Beatles on Ed Sullivan when I was a child, and I imagine Elvis knew that he was good for broads and booze and pills and Vegas shows and B movies until the day he died, but he wasn't the lead dog anymore. He knew it because he had done it to others himself.
You watch the luminous black and white TV dubs of the shows, and you're struck by the encyclopedic nature of the proffered fare. Ed is a newspaperman still, jarring in itself -- TV is second fiddle! -- and like some bizarre librarian in the school of uncool. He's the Noah of TV, rounding up a couple of everything, and floating it on the public.
It's all there, all the things that faced Elvis like a wall to get over: vaudeville acts; European music hall ginks; Broadway singers and ballet dancers; dogs and ponies, lounge singers and clowns; eccentric actors; semi-exotic performers from anyplace that didn't have the big red boot on their face. If it wasn't hackneyed enough, there was half a dozen assorted acts straight from the circus, and the circus is entertainment straight from the middle ages.
The artist of the age that superseded the middle ages carved his David, to tell the Doges the world belonged to man. In 1956, our own hillbilly David climbed down off the pedestal and sent his ration of squares to oblivion. You've heard so much about Elvis and the frenzy he engendered, but when you see him there, in front of a phalanx of Jordanaires in checked coats, Elvis seems like everything and nothing. You can't tell if he's so self assured he's bulletproof, or so self-conscious he can't get through the song without laughing at himself. He tosses that impossible shock of a shock of hair, the girls scream, and he laughs -- at himself, at them, at the whole damn thing -- but he's as serious as a heart attack about the thing too. He seems to be all glass, like a windowpane, but he's a deep pool somehow, instead. You don't know why he's all that. You wonder if he does.
I pictured the Conn and Mack tap-dancing duo watching Elvis from the wings for a while, and then going out in the alley to find a pay phone and see if their brother-in-law still had a job opening or two at his dry cleaning store.
Get Elvis - The Ed Sullivan Shows, and watch empires crumble into the sea when Elvis twitches.