What makes Elvis great?

Notes on the Big E with a focus on the 68 Comeback Special.

The question is heavily rhetorical ― to me it’s self-evident, redundant. But for my many colleagues past who’ve heard me warbling about Charlie Hodge and Cadillacs and blue Christmases, or who think he’s a kitsch joke in a gawky suit, I always like to run through a little pop-list of angles on the Big E. 

He is beyond pisstake. E took his own piss too ― but his timeless accessibility means he is greater than a singular phenomenon or passing fad. E soaks up all trend and cliché. E is both myth and beyond myth and bigger than any single idea or reductive observation.

Take the myth of youth and dying young; a talent so reckless in size it could afford to squander and waste ― that was part of its greatness. It’s Byronically impossible to waste and squander well into old age. This is fairly generic now but it ties in all the other popular myths of E.

Elvis IS America. Self-consuming. Restless. Excessive. Conser-vative. Prejudiced. Born of multiple roots. Contradictory. Vegas. And all in the name of Fame, Success, Beauty, Youth. To me the ultimate expression of this is E (very high) meeting Nixon (very low) to become an honorary cop. One of the few supremely American moments in the culture.

Greatness itself. Even when phoning in a half-baked effort, E can pull off a killer performance because his voice was always in gear. And remember his peculiar combination of country and rockabilly wouldn’t have come about in anyone with a different voice. The voice was the magic, the Midas key to the kingdom.

And not since the Middle Ages have the people wept so generously and piteously for their departed monarch; never before have we so propagated his likeness. I’d say it’s statistically possible that a genuine Church of Elvis will arise in the future ― by virtue of the groundwork and iconic dissemination carried out in the 20th century. E always worked on the grand scale, whether nationally broadcast, for the biggest audience, the biggest casinos and fees. A whole new big-ass scale of greatness that cannot shrink ― only warp and transmogrify and revive over time.

And remember E pretty much invented the pop-youth demographic and truly atmospheric scales of success.

He was a great physical comedian ― as though his body was the conduit for all that attention. Hence the clownish, mumbling persona, but also the hip-thrustin, body-swingin, karate-choppin action man.

The sadness of simplicity. Though great in expressive genius, in other ways E can seem uneducated ― his intelligence was of an unconscious or physical kind, embodied on stage and in performance, not in verbal discussion or smart talk and chat. He was exploitable, for sure ― by self and others, Colonels and sycophants, while he just wanted to sing songs for his momma. But he was aware, conscious of everything he did, intelligent in ways we don’t have names for. I don’t think anything could phase him.

The deeper sadness ― of the boredom, meaningless gifts & gestures, the banality of success and Cadillacs and rednecks feeding off his fame; of that last solo performance of “Unchained Melody” (“I did it!”); or the fact that anyone could’ve so obviously intervened but didn’t, entranced by the spectacle ― even if only to finish him off earlier.

He shot TVs.

The fat period. Like choosing between two stamps, there’s an E camp that won’t countenance the era of the Peacock/Sequined/Rhinestone Suit. But I think that the 70s period brought out one of the primary qualities of E ― that he always performed the material he wanted to play, and the way he wanted to play it ― even if it verged on opera. I like it because the 70s tours, for all their boredom and drug wolfing, became a mix of royal pantomime and big-ass gospel trilogies. His heart and hunger was in gospel.

He is the subject of infinite impersonations and rebirths. Though the latter mainly through biographies, memorabilia, reissues and tabloid headers of the triple-alien-lovechild variety. And, with the first sampled dance remix [which to me only proves the power of the original] ― E is truly infinitely remarketable, recontextualised and repackaged, a symbol become pure commodity. A phenomenon penetrated so deeply in pop culture commercialism it’s just rude.

That by expanding his persona to the heights of godliness, he would forever dispel (to us in the miasma of pop culture) the reality of his own person that wasn’t expressed on record. He explored the vacuum of Celebritism with a casual depth and ease and even excess of personal boredom. And that this perverse ideal or extreme expression of our culture has somehow become the most sought-after state to be, when E knew it was futile ― because excessive, contradictory; and unresolvable, doomed ― that is his pathos. He ceased to exist long before he died ― everything else we know as “Elvis” had already taken over [Thankyou, Greil Marcus]. And there was no precedent for this in the modern world ― except maybe in myth.

That when E really tries, really puts himself into the full length of a performance, he is awesome, peerless, almost savagely good. He can sit with a guitar and make those two chords move. He can drive his voice hard and use it to reach beyond generic meaning and sense. He could switch it on like a snap of the fingers; and the jump could be radically extreme.

And finally, everything that makes Elvis great is encapsulated in the DVD reissue of the ’68 Comeback Special. It’s one of the great transition & recapitulation moments in Rock and Roll, and some of the most singular rock music ever ― one man with the voice, power and looks. By this time E was used to dealing with the empty spaces and endless waiting and run-throughs of filming a production (suggested book title: 29 Pictures); and his quiet patience when most other rock stars would’ve walked off and insulted the director is interesting ― indeed with almost every take involved in the 50-minute special presented here (surprising to see how many takes and scenes actually go into it); you get every boring, waiting minute without a single tantrum. E manages to pull of exponential, seismic shifts in energy, to unleash hoards of energy through his voice ― the various takes of “One Night”, “Lawdy Miss Clawdy”, “Trying to Get to You” are just amazing. Within the space of a second he racks up the highest intensity. It’s almost voyeuristic to see a single performer put so much energy into a televisual performance; you look around to see if it’s really possible. And despite all the waiting and expected attention during the solo numbers (E is no MC and doesn’t care), he always puts in an on-performance ― the three takes of “If I can Dream” are intense, committed, never fluffed. The only downers are the production numbers with the dancers and bordello scenes and neon streets ― these are dated and shockingly archaic. For our jaded media eyes, the wholly lo-cal variety production concept (the dancers, the dancers) smacks of cheap TV and saccharine mediocrity. If it had been just E doing rhythm & blues and gospel tunes this would’ve blown the world away. It aims at slickness but ultimately comes across as cornball camp, or merely competing with Ed Sullivan (send in the circus and magic acts). With the squared-in stage for the stand-up show, E looks caged and jaunty, but he slowly starts playing to the audience, busting a move, taking it in and testing the waters after 29 pictures, limbering up to performing again and hence there’s a sense of personal turning point, a sense of return to real audiences and immediate jubilation. And he did it by his vocal performance alone, not moves ― this is some of his most committed singing. Considering the ease with which E could sing, and the boredom and laziness he wallowed in if allowed, this is probably one of the few live moments where the vocals mattered most, and after days of intense singing he hardly even loses his voice.

The screaming girls are almost unnoticeable now (call it the Nicholas Cage effect). And Charlie Hodge is conspicuously annoying.

But have you ever noticed how every man looks ugly around E..?

This essay is also available in the collection Song Logic.

Author: Rino Breebaart

Editor. Writer. Secret bass player.

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