There are the famous pieces everyone knows. Lester Bangs’ piece about James Taylor which is actually about the Troggs (and, as per Bangs’ usual style, about so much else). His awesome piece on The Clash which manages to be laugh-out-loud funny and searingly moving, all at the same time. His elegy for John Lennon. His famous elegy for Elvis Presley (which reaches a pinnacle of this whole “talking about Elvis Presley” mountaintop everyone seems to be climbing). I am making my way through Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung: The Work of a Legendary Critic: Rock’N’Roll as Literature and Literature as Rock ‘N’Roll, edited by Greil Marcus, which puts all of the big pieces together, as well as various fragments and notes.
Lester Bangs can be problematic, especially when you read some of the pieces and realize he was only 22 when he wrote them. Problematic meaning it can make you lose confidence. He stands as a crazed messy beacon of articulate raging fandom in an indifferent world – but hell, anyone can do that. But can you WRITE about it? He had an uncanny gift for realizing what was happening in the culture while it was happening. You may disagree with his conclusions, but you had better have a good counterargument. He wrote from the heart. His raging contemptuous and ultimately heartbroken obituary for Elvis Presley, published only a week after Presley died, is a testament to the immediacy and accessibility of his great gift with language. He didn’t need time to percolate. He exploded in immediate aftermaths.
Elvis Presley looms so large on the landscape that it is difficult for anyone to get a handle on him, and so they break him down into manageable parts. Oh, there were the Sun years. There was his time in the Army. His years in Hollywood. Let’s talk about his gospel singing. No, let’s talk about his country roots. Let’s talk about him as an R&B singer. Let’s come up with themes and then have every event dovetail into that theme. Let’s focus only on the dirt we can dig up. Let’s talk to every woman he fucked. (That’d be a long book.) Let’s pathologize/psychologize him. And what the hell was going on with his mother? Camps are set up, wars are waged between opposing sides. You have to have a “take” on Elvis Presley. You have to come in, guns blazing, and say, “NO. THIS IS HOW IT IS.”
Hell, I’m doing it too. But I just happen to be right, that’s the difference.
All of this is, of course, only indicative of how huge Elvis Presley was and is, and yet nobody (or – very few – let’s give credit) seems to have a handle on why. There always seems to be some important element missing from the dialogue, because not everything adds up. There is still something about him that cannot be explained.
All great and world-shifting icons have this elusive quality. There is something in them that resists easy explanation and so we keep coming back to them, curious, a little bit scared, trying to figure out what it is they are NOT giving us. They act as mirrors to the culture. But they also create the culture. The second they arrive, they seem inevitable. We realize how much we have missed them, in the time before they arrived. How on earth did we manage to get along without this person?
The post-death mania about Elvis which has, if anything, intensified over the years – only magnifies the mystery. Why him? Why him? He asked himself that question while he was alive, and this is what led him down some pretty out-there paths of religious exploration. He was obsessed with it his whole adult life. He was a true believer in God. And so he had clearly been chosen. But why? And what was he to DO with it? It can’t be enough that he just show up, can it? There had to be more to it. This questioning attitude is what gave him his vast humility, remarked upon by everyone who knew him, but also, on the flipside, gave him a tremendous sense of entitlement.
This is also connected to Gladys, his mother. Elvis, unlike many very famous people, was not born into a family where love was lacking. The Presleys lacked everything else, but Elvis was cherished and loved and hovered over incessantly by his mother even before he was famous. He was that kind of son. Perhaps this set up an expectation that the world would love him, too. He was right. When he stepped onto the stage for the first time, then, he stepped onto it knowing he was loved already. He was, essentially, whole. At a very young age. Most people have to acquire self-love after many adult hard knocks. They come to it backwards. Elvis eased right into it when he was still a young boy. He wasn’t trying to fill some vast aching internal abyss, which is a great driving force for most people who eventually become famous. Very few famous people had happy childhoods. Of course he was haunted by his twin brother who had died, but that is more a matter of family mythology than anything else. Elvis had a firm foundation of being adored from the moment he arrived on this earth. It gave him something special. Unshakable confidence in himself.
And, the flip side (there is always a flip side), an expectation that of course he would be the center of attention. Of course all of his friends would live with him at Graceland. Of course he would be the leader. Stars are different from regular people. That is why they become stars. But … but … he was good at it, too. He honestly worried about how everyone was feeling, and how to please everyone. He couldn’t bear anyone being angry with him, ever, he walked around in a state of anxiety that everyone around him was having fun. Perhaps to a neurotic degree, but whatever, if you’re going to have a neurosis, you might as well have that one. All of this is to say is that Elvis Presley became a star very young, a star beyond not only his own wildest dreams, but the culture’s as a whole, and one of the things that makes him unique and strange is how privately worried he was about it, and how he did his best to be worthy of God’s blessing. That’s what had happened. He was sure of it. At the very end, the final years of his life, when he was starting to become ill, he seemed to actually begin to accept the reality that everyone else already knew: that he had been chosen. That’s where the capes came from.
All right then, I’ve been chosen, and you keep coming to see me … and so … here I am, I’m gonna give you a show, and mythologize myself. It was a logical step. Of course Elvis would wear a cape. (I’ve said it before: those who are embarrassed by his jeweled jumpsuits in the 70s clearly were not paying attention from the get-go. The boy was wearing a head-to-toe gold lame suit at the age of 20. The jumpsuits and capes are just part of that Elvis Continuum of Flash.) He also loved comic books and loved the thought of all-powerful alter egos. He became his own alter ego. And it happened to him young. If he had lived, he would have found other creative ways to embody his own myth. It was bound to happen. The jumpsuits would have given way to something else. Maybe he would do acoustic sets wearing black leather again. Maybe he would have done a Woody Allen film in the 80s or a biker movie with Dennis Hopper and found himself on the movie map again. Maybe he would have done a world tour, and realized, somehow, that the love he had engendered in his fans was well-deserved. That perhaps asking why he had been chosen was no longer the proper question. Maybe he would have relaxed a bit. Who knows. But I have no doubt that something interesting would have happened. He was Elvis Presley, for God’s sake. Of course it would have been interesting.
Lester Bangs, in his obituary for Elvis, gets the fracturing of our culture on such a deep level (and he had already been writing about it for years), and in Elvis he saw the embodiment of our wholeness. And that is really what we lost when we lost Elvis. He saw Elvis in his entirety, in a way that many (most) rock critics were unable to do, then and now (although Dave Marsh gets it). Rock critics like only certain sections of Elvis’ career. They are baffled by the gospel. They are upset by the crooning. They dislike the Vegas years. They despise the movie soundtracks. If rock critics had their way, Elvis WOULD have been a flash in the pan, and would have only been hot for 3 years before he disappeared into the service.
They wish he had remained pure. (ie: the Elvis THEY loved.) It is this attitude that helped kill Kurt Cobain, by the way.
If there is anything I am trying to attack, and I am trying to attack it, it is this attitude. This was a man who lived on our planet for 42 years and was famous for more than half of that time. His career was unprecedented in its fame, yes, but also in its financial success. The money-making aspect of Elvis’ career has always been looked on with a bit of suspicion, but that is just the ever-tired dark side of the American dream, where you are supposed to strive for financial success, but once you get it, God help you if you change, or get uppity, or try to get MORE. It has only gotten worse since the 70s, and you can see the agony in Kurt Cobain, for example, at the thought of him “selling out”, that he has somehow betrayed his art by making a buck. And Nirvana was only hot for a couple of years. Imagine having to deal with that kind of contempt for 20 straight years, as Elvis did. (There’s that great anecdote about Elvis being asked, early on, why he didn’t walk away from his movie contract and go back to live performing. Elvis was 24, 25 when he was asked that question, and all he said in response was, “‘Spect you’ve never been poor.”)
There are many elements to Elvis Presley’s character that are not only not understood, but seen with scorn and dismissal. His passivity, his willingness to just go along with things, his obedience. How does this jive with the King of Rock and Roll who unleashed the screaming orgasms of an entire generation? Well, it doesn’t jive… and it also does. On the deepest and most profound level, his “willingness to just go along with things” is what made him so accessible as a talent, a sponge of learning, a free-spirited wild man when people were doing what he felt they ought to be doing, which was looking at him. But it was his passivity that made him such a vessel. It was his passivity that made him a great learner. He learned from everyone. You can hear it in the almost 5-minute monologue about Jackie Wilson’s version of “Don’t Be Cruel” on the Million Dollar Quartet tapes, where he goes on and on and on about Wilson’s version, doing imitations for the other guys, going back to it again and again. And then, a week later, in December 1956, he gave a performance – which was taped (it’s included on the Young Man With the Big Beat box seat) – and he does “Don’t Be Cruel”, and I’ll be damned if he isn’t doing Jackie Wilson’s version. His phrasing, his intonation, his pronunciation (there’s a funny moment in the Million Dollar Quartet monologue, where he kept imitating how Jackie Wilson sang, “then please please telephone” – he loved it: Wilson said “telephone” like “tellyphone” – and you can hear Elvis, in an aside, say, laughing, “He was a Yankee, you know.”) And there it all is, a week later, in the performance in Louisiana. Stealing? Hell, no. A tribute. Jackie Wilson took the song to another level, a better level, and Elvis recognized that and tried to enter that interpretation. That takes a certain passivity. By passivity I really mean: openness and accessibility, not insisting that your way is the right way. That passivity made him a brilliant and exciting performer, always changing things up, riffing, fooling around, going deeper. He didn’t hold onto things tightly. He let it go. Every second, every second, Elvis Presley was letting things go. When in the business realm, this “passivity” is not understood. Why didn’t he fight about the movies he was being forced to make? And a gospel album? Really?
Presley’s religious roots gave him a deep framework from which he operated. Sin was a given. But humility before God was a must. All of that is evident in his work, sometimes in the same moment. If it was all just sin, then he really would have been a flash in the pan, and everyone would be saying about him now, “Wow, member that Elvis Presley guy in the 50s who was so scandalous? I wonder what ever happened to him.” If it was all just humility, then we would have not had the fire, the drive, the ambition to be the best, dammit, to have everyone talking about him always.
Lester Bangs got that side of Elvis. Bangs was ambivalent about that side, and probably had contempt for such qualities when he encountered them in real life, but recognized that that was what made Elvis so …. Elvis. Nobody was like him, goddammit, and now we will never have him again, and now we will be lost … is what Lester Bangs’ obit says.
But there’s another piece about Elvis in the book I am reading right now, and the piece is so damn weird you have to read it to believe it. Bangs was working on a book review of Peter Guralnick’s Lost Highway, about the musicians circling around Sun Records and Sam Phillips. He got himself together to write a proper review, which is actually quite positive, but he also took reams of notes, and the notes are also included in the compilation. Reading the actual review back to back with his notes for said review is evidence of how out-there Bangs was, how in the zone he was when he was writing, and how crazy talented he was. But also how bizarre. The actual review could be published anywhere. It’s not filled with expletives, it’s three pages long, it’s obedient. But the notes! The notes!
To give you just a slight idea: His notes start off with some observations about Sam Phillips and about Peter Guralnick’s obvious hero worship of the man. He critiques Sam Phillips, but also gives him his due. He is clearly wrestling with what to write. Then Bangs comes to Elvis. And you can feel the pull, as though Elvis is a magnet as large as planet earth, and he cannot resist him. Lost Highway is not only about Elvis. But Bangs can’t help it. He begins with a long (as in three pages long) rant about Elvis, which is complex, confrontational, and celebratory, all at the same time, and then he goes off the freakin’ deep end. He imagines exhuming Elvis Presley’s corpse to examine the contents of his stomach, and then swallowing whatever decaying pills were still found in Elvis. A psychedelic trip of some kind begins because he has “eaten Elvis”. Lester Bangs then actually BECOMES Elvis, only he is still Lester Bangs, too, so he has some awareness, some vague awareness, that what is going on is not actually, you know, real …
… which, when you think about it, had to be a little bit what it must have been like for Elvis, too.
And then, under the influence of Elvis Presley’s decaying drugs, scooped out of Elvis’ rotting guts, Lester Bangs lives out Elvis’ life, step by step, and tries to imagine what it would have been like. It is totally uncanny, and of course just a guess at what it must have been like to actually be Elvis Presley (because, as Lester Bangs said in his elegy for John Lennon: “He was just a guy.”) – but in so doing, Lester Bangs reveals the magnitude of the myth of Elvis Presley, how difficult it is to even talk about the guy (and make sense at the same time), as well as grappling with the reality of what that fame must have been like for the very real man who had experienced it, and how … unreal it must have all felt at times. There are sentences that go on for a page and a half.
Reading it left me breathless.
And these are just his “notes” for the polite nice book review he wrote about Lost Highway.
I happen to be a bit partial to Lester Bangs, because his vision of Elvis Presley often dovetails with mine. Or, at least, at LEAST, he gives the man his due. He doesn’t take anything for granted. He knows that there has GOT to be a way to talk about what happened, and he keeps trying. This was never a man at a loss for words. But even with Elvis, he draws a blank. A blank that goes on for ten fascinating wrenching pages. The only thing to do, then, is to exhume Elvis’ body, swallow the cornucopia of pills left there, and do your best to enter into the man’s actual experience. Because the myth can’t win the war. Because then … what about the music? What about the fans? What about the impact he had? If we are just left with the myth, we miss the man.
Elvis Presley himself worried about this. Constantly.
Some of the opinions here may raise hackles. That’s okay. That’s actually the point. Elvis Presley is not safe. Things will be destroyed. That’s what happens when you’re that big. Lester Bangs also wrote like he was attacking the entire world. He HAD to make dismissive comments about the current Gods in order to make his points. It’s the only way to be (if you’re Lester Bangs, that is).
The piece is too long to excerpt in its entirety, but it is just one of the many “must-read” pieces in Lester Bangs’ resume as a rock critic. What I love most about it is that it seems to take him where it wants to go. Now, granted, this was not a piece for publication. They were Lester Bangs’ own private notes. The shit he had to get out of the way in order to actually write about Lost Highway.
And Elvis needed to be gotten out of the way.
Bangs couldn’t write the review before he had exhumed Elvis’ body and eaten the pills left in Elvis’ stomach, basically – that’s how strong the pull was.
I’ll excerpt a bit from the beginning, before Bangs goes down the rabbit hole.
Guralnick then spends the better part of a long paragraph stressing how much value Sam puts on the individual, how he loathes conformity, replete with quotes like “You can be a nonconformist and not be a rebel. And you can be a rebel and not be an outcast. Believe in what you believe in, and don’t let anybody, I don’t care who it is, get you off that path.” Surely this is Sam Phillips buying his own myth, if not his own hype. It’s interesting stuff, especially the part about how you can be a nonconformist without rebelling and a rebel without getting blackballed, but it’s also a lot of windy rhetoric with which basic sentiments we can all agree – pure schtick on one very real level, it goes so perfectly with the Moses mane and the beard of the prophet. I mean, fuck it, who’s to say what Sam Phillips’s “real” motives were? Might they not have been as confused and unplanned and even self-contradictory as anything else anybody thought and then went and did some other time some other place? I mean, does everybody always sit down with this slide-ruled plan and a ten-point moral code on the wall behind ‘em and then go into battle for the clear-cut Cause with all this pat as that and never deviating? I don’t even know why I’m writing this many words when I’m supposed to be handing in a fifteen-hundred-word book review, so I can sort of begin to imagine how easy it must have been for Sam and everybody around him to get just a wee bit spacy when it became obvious that Elvis Presley was gonna be the single biggest human being to hit this planet since Jesus Christ.
But what I didn’t see was that Sam was talking about Elvis: “You can be a nonconformist and not be a rebel. And you can be a rebel and not be an outcast.” In another part of the book Guralnick remembers himself and his friends (a) waiting to see what Elvis was gonna be like when he got out of the army, and (b) having to watch and listen to what Elvis was like when he got out of the army. When they shoulda known by the attitude with which he went in. Just imagine if that’d been Chuck Berry instead: “All right, motherfuckers, you can cut my hair but you in for it now!” or Jerry Lee: “Sure, draft me, what the hell, I kin kick ass good as the next SOB.” One thinks of the famous picture from the late forties of Robert Mitchum getting busted for grass. The army? Big fucking deal. Life’s fulla little pains in the ass, this is two years of bullshit, what the hell, I’ll still be a star when I get out, oh, well, let’s stay drunk till boot camp … Not Elvis. Elvis was a momma’s boy! Elvis was dutiful! Elvis was a clod, always. But he had something, something at once physical and mystical, that put him in the realm of the beyond, automatically, far beyond any of his contemporaries, much less a Mick Jagger, who from the beginning worked so damn hard at being outrageous it was a little exhausting just watching him. The Beatles were four yobs, or rather three yobs and a librarian named Paul. Watch A Hard Day’s Night on TV now and it’s obvious how worthless that whole business was when removed from its immediate context of hysteria. Fuck the Beatles, fuck the songs, fuck the cute direction and Marx Brothers comparisons: it’s BLATANTLY OBVIOUS that the most rock ‘n’ roll being in the whole movie is the fucking grandfather! That wily old slime of Paul’s! He had more energy than the four moptops put together! Plus the spirit! He was a true anarchist!
The Beatles were nothing. The Stones were something, still are I think, Dylan, well, but rock in the sixties in general was just plain overrated. In fact, the sixties were overrated. The Sex Pistols were a hundred times more of a kick in the ass of a sagging culture than the Beatles. But Elvis – the only credible explanation is that Elvis was from another planet, like in Superman or the New Testament. Elvis never even had to move a muscle, not even in his face – he always, from day one up till almost the very end, had that glow.
There was always something supernatural about him. Elvis was a force of nature. Other than that he was just a turd. A big dumb hillbilly a couple points smarter than his mule who wandered out from behind his plow one day to cut a record for his sainted mother and never came back, which he probably woulda forgot to even if he hadn’t’ve been whisked up. Why shouldn’t one physical corpus be capable of containing these two seeming polarities simultaneously? Especially if it’s from outer space. Without even trying to or knowing he was doing it, Elvis caused more trouble, raised more hellfired ruckus than the Beatles and Sex Pistols all put together. Because of this, some people came up with the not altogether mistaken notion that he was subversive. He was, but like Burroughs’s Nova Police his motto coulda been: “We do our work and go.” I mean, suppose he’d come outa the army and immediately started trying to be a badass again? Wouldn’t he have ended up a pathetic old self-parody like Jagger? Most assuredly. In terms of sheer offensiveness and bizarritude, he was way hepper singing “Do the Clam.” I mean, that ranks right up there with Sid Vicious’s version of “My Way”. Well, actually, you can’t play it as often, but it sorta comes from the same place: nowhere. But nowhere is unassailable. Nowhere is Zen. And Elvis, like Sid in his way, was perfect. It was perfect he came outa the army to record a new version of “O Sole Mio” in much the same way that it was perfect the Sex Pistols should break up at the end of their first American tour. Both stances show great and similarly grounded integrity: we do our work and go. Having submitted to cryogenics the minute he entered the army, Elvis proved himself smarter than any of us had ever given him credit for being: he became Forever.