Sex is just a distraction from what was really going on, from what he was really about. By distraction I don’t mean for him on the ground, in his real life dealings with lovers and girlfriends, although I suppose a case could be made for that as well. It is a case I am not interested in making. I am not so much interested in biography or psychology. I am interested in art and myth, and how an inchoate longing for communication could somehow have transformed itself into the biggest star of the 20th century. You won’t find the answers in the biography. The details will always elude. Because of that, and because it is still somewhat taboo, the sex continues to act as a magnet, drawing all conclusions and theories towards it. And it is true that “the sex thing”, as I call it, was quite acute, shall we say, with this particular individual. Not all sex drives are created equal, and it cannot be denied that “the sex thing” was the powerful basis from which he operated.
Critics and followers continue to be drawn into the sex, because sex is something we all understand, long for, love, and it’s cathartic to see someone who obviously loved sex so much be so damn open about it. It also crossed the all-important and ever-elusive gender line. Women wanted to fuck him, men wanted to fuck like him, and while there were certainly some bumps along the way, with angry boyfriends and husbands punching him in the face after shows because of what he was doing to “their women”, girls and boys loved him from the start. Martin Sheen remembers it being the first time in his life that boys and girls really went for the same music. Keith Richards says that Elvis “turned everybody into everybody” (blacks, whites, teenagers, middle-aged people, girls, boys …) Sex is the great equalizer. No matter who you are, no matter how celibate, repressed, or disapproving, we are all human and sex is part of being human. This young man, a minor when he got started, and most probably a virgin when he did his first major show in Memphis at the Overton Park Shell in 1954, reducing the crowd to a quivering pulp with his nervously wiggling leg, understood that, somehow.
What is interesting is that he wasn’t coming from a particularly knowing sexual place at the beginning of his career. He was only 18. He wasn’t an emissary from the world of hot loose women and tons of sex and breaking the rules although that was what he symbolized almost instantly. But he wasn’t that at all. Not then, and not ever, really. His rebellion as a teenager manifested itself in sideburns, ducktail, and pink pants, which certainly got him attention, but it wasn’t on the level of racing hot rod cars and drinking moonshine and taking his girlfriend to have an abortion in a back alley or having knife fights at Griffith Observatory. His rebellion was a surface rebellion. He lived with his parents and was dating a nice Christian girl, and the two of them had pledged to be pure until they got married. That was where he was at in his life at the time of his first show in 1954 in Memphis. That makes him even more unusual. A lot of the other musicians around him at that time cutting records for Sam Phillips were wild men, who were really “walking the walk” of their songs. This young man wasn’t. He had never had a drop of alcohol. He thought about being a preacher. He went roller skating with his girlfriend and attended church with her.
Elvis and Dixie Locke, his girlfriend from 1954-1955
But beneath all of that was an understanding on a cellular level that something needed to be released in him, in the culture itself, and that the only proper time to release all of it was when he was up in front of a crowd. This would continue to be true for the rest of his life. His personal life was often quite boring. Read Elvis Day By Day to get a glimpse of the monotony. Except for the gold records and being a huge superstar, the day-to-day reality is almost numbing in its sameness. He was spending his time as a 40-year-old man doing the same stuff he had liked doing as a 20-year-old man. He wasn’t jetting off to Monaco. He vacationed solely in Hawaii, Vegas, and Vail. Once he went to Bermuda. He wasn’t particularly adventurous socially. He wasn’t attending art openings and going to Andy Warhol’s silver-lined factory and trying new things. He did the same things for pleasure, receptively, obsessively, for years. He ate the same thing every day. He was having touch football games and dangerous firecracker wars on his lawn for twenty years. He was going to the movies, and throwing water balloons. It’s all rather boring, when you read it all out, although I’d rather have a water balloon fight with Elvis than jet off to Monaco with anyone else. It makes sense, his career was so intense, of course he would find comfort in doing the things that gave him peace, that he found fun. He was adventurous in his music and in how he spent his money, but other than that, it was pretty much same ol’ same ol’ for 20 years.
So at the start, this sweet polite innocent teenage boy becoming a symbol of the degeneracy of rock ‘n roll was ironic in the truest sense, an irony not lost on the young man himself. Despite the rabid criticism, he continued to insist that there was nothing evil about what he was doing. He had seen the ecstasies in church, he had seen the egalitarian acts of healing and worship in service. He had experienced that oneness at a very young age, with his mother, sitting in the pews, and it gave him a peculiar and individual outlook. In that context, it was only a short leap from God to Sex. This is a topic that is still resisted, and in that way, as in so many other ways, he was ahead of not only his own time, but ahead of ours. Given the right circumstances, there is nothing more Divine than sex. He always insisted he wasn’t trying to be vulgar. He spoke the truth. While he cannot have been innocent about what he was “doing” onstage, and while some of his comments defending himself may be a tad disingenuous, I think a deeper comment is there underneath his spoken denials, one that showed him as a true radical, then and now. Those calling him vulgar were missing his unspoken and yet implied point. It’s not that what he was doing wasn’t sexual, it’s that vulgarity and sex do not necessarily have to go hand in hand, and it was sex as freedom and release and fun that he was handing to his audience in the package of himself. Now that’s radical. That’s a revolution. Those who see any sexuality as vulgar will always miss that point. How could what he was doing be vulgar when sex came from God? How could anything made by God be vulgar? He didn’t waste time with such intellectualizations, however. He just continued to insist that what happened between him and his audience was innocent, and “no one was getting hurt”. Sex is pleasurable and for a couple of moments you release yourself from being a regular everyday person with troubles and struggles. So before he even knew what he was doing, before he even knew the vast possibilities that sex would end up providing him and how easy it would be for him to get laid in a mere matter of months (his friend Red West recalls that Elvis was such an innocent at the time that it was actually a revelation to Elvis when he discovered that women loved sex as much as men did – like, this was a surprise to Elvis, he had had no idea), he started providing that release. And once he knew what he was doing, once he understood the doorway that he had wrenched open for other people, well, he kept on opening it. Sex was how he did that. He made it seem friendly and fun. He made it seem like we could have that for ourselves, too. And of course we can.
It was the sex that got him notoriety. It was his movements onstage, and those baggy trousers that made it seem like, in the words of his guitarist Scotty Moore, “all hell was breaking loose under there”. He allowed people to feel things, to live vicariously, to project onto him what they wanted to see. He was seen as a corruptible influence. He made girls melt. If girls start melting willy-nilly without pre-approval from the establishment, then where will we be? It was a matter of great national concern.
As you can see, the sex is a distraction for me as well.
But if there’s one theme I detect in his work, if there’s one underlying thing that was really driving him, it’s not sex. Sex was how he got a lot out, that’s true. Sex was how he expressed himself. Shy people are often exhibitionists. His girlfriends report that he was very shy one on one, and many of them never even saw him naked, even though they were sleeping with him. He was modest. Shy. This has been spun by people who wish him ill as a calculated move on his part, that his deferential manner and shyness was a way for him to get what he wanted. I don’t think that is entirely untrue, although there is certainly no need to be cynical about it. His mother had instilled in him good manners, knowing that her son, growing up in poverty as he was, was going to need every leg up he could get, and having good manners is a way to get respect from others by showing respect. Having good manners opens doors for a person, no matter what lowly station one comes from. The fact that everyone who ever met him (this is not an exaggeration, and the few exceptions to this only prove the rule) remarks upon Elvis’ good manners shows that it was a deeply engrained way of being in him.
Those who see this overwhelming gracious automatic Southern politeness as contradictory, or somehow incompatible with his bad-ass leather-clad self, again miss the point, and in so doing miss the enormous appeal of the man. One of the things he brought to the table, over and over again, was that yes, there are contradictions, but no, these contradictions are not incompatible. Contradictions are part of the human fabric. His sweetness as a man is what allowed the leather-clad bad-ass to operate onstage. He would be nothing without those contradictions. The divine and the earthy, God and the Devil, the aspirational and the guttural, both were given equal sway within him. He needed no segue from one to the other. A great example of this is: He performed “Peace in the Valley” during his third Ed Sullivan appearance in January of 1957. That performance was at the height of the controversy surrounding him, a controversy which raged in the pulpits and on the op-ed columns across the land, and it got so hot that he was filmed from the waist up on the Ed Sullivan Show, just to keep that damn pelvis out of view because who knows what it would do. In the middle of all of that, Elvis, 21 years old, chose to end his appearance with a heartfelt earnest gospel song. And that song went to #1, which just goes to show you that from the get-go his fans always accepted the contradictions. Critics and parents and preachers blustered: “The bad-boy rock ‘n roller singing gospel now?? This is outrageous!” But the fans just poured into record shops across the land to buy the single, en masse.
While the sex he provided as a performer was tremendously appealing, it wasn’t the only thing he offered. The fans didn’t want him to do only one thing. They would follow him wherever he wanted to go. Gospel? Why not. If they had only wanted him for the Sex Thing, they would have rejected “Peace in the Valley”, but they did not.
All of this, though, again, eludes the main point.
What I feel, underneath all of his work, is not the sex drive. Nor is it the love of God, although you can feel both of those things, sometimes in the same moment.
What is really there, underneath it all, and what it is really about, is loneliness.
The loneliness is almost existential in its vastness, and he reaches about, graspingly, for relief from that state of being through connection with others. You can see it in the flickering of his eyes, going up, down, out, in his live performances. He does not look straight out at an imaginary single audience member. He always seems to be searching, searching for someone in particular, looking for a face, a glimpse, a look, something to latch onto. This is one of the reasons why girls in the audience always felt that he was singing to them and them alone. He was looking for them. He needed them. They sensed it.
His entire career could be seen as a giant exercise in staving off loneliness, a loneliness that had to be so huge it was at times unbearable. The loneliness was so huge that the fame had to be huge enough to combat it.
I am not solely talking about biography here when I talk about loneliness, although there were certainly events in his life that dug him in deeper into his natural state of loneliness.
It is true that his divorce in 1972 left him shaken. He missed his wife, and he missed his daughter.
It is true that his mother’s death in 1958 was a blow from which he never recovered.
It is also true that the death of his twin brother marked him. While Elvis obviously wouldn’t remember the circumstances of his birth, and while he obviously wouldn’t remember his time in the womb, it cannot be denied that he was there, that he lived through it, that he spent nine months curled up next to his dead sibling. As gruesome as that might sound, that was the context of his entry into the world. There have been studies done about twinless twins, especially those who have lost their twin before birth, and these people often report feeling an ache for something that should be there, like something is missing from their lives, although they can have no conscious memory of their sibling. Elvis’ mother obviously fostered in him a love and respect for his dead twin. The death of Jessie was not an event that was pushed under the carpet in the Presley family. They talked about him all the time, they honored him, they prayed to him. Elvis had conversations with his dead brother. He was a presence in Elvis’ life.
Elvis himself was open about that missing place in his life. He had some feelings of guilt. Why did he survive? Did he somehow receive the strength of his dead brother? Is that why he was “chosen” to be who he was, is that why he was plucked out of obscurity? He felt that he had the power of two men, and so his twin haunted him.
But again, one cannot rely on biographical details alone to “explain” Elvis Presley. The truth of the matter is not there.
What does a 19-year-old boy, surrounded by his mother’s loving embrace, and a busy social world with a girlfriend, and a couple of good friends, and supportive bosses, know about existential loneliness? I have always sensed that the loneliness at the heart of who he was was not pinned on a specific event, although circumstances exacerbated the loneliness that was already there, that was always there. Fame exacerbated it. He wasn’t a member of a band, like the Beatles, where the stress of fame could be distributed equally between the members. He was by himself. But that’s not the loneliness I am talking about, either. That came after. The loneliness he had was something he was born with, I believe, and it is that that keens through every one of his songs, even the hardest rocking ones. There is no other way to explain how he could tap into the eerie loneliness of a suicidal man in “Heartbreak Hotel”, or his swoon of transcendent emotion that sounds like the beginning of the end in “Blue Moon”. The interesting thing is to hear the alternate takes of those songs, to hear him laughing or giggling before going into “Blue Moon” again, a perfect example of the artistic process. He wasn’t a gloomy boy. He wasn’t a tormented intellectual. He was actually kind of sunshiny, to be honest, a nice kid, with an exuberant laugh.
But there he is, in “Blue Moon”, wailing and cooing in a creepy wandering falsetto that makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up every time I hear it.
I have written before about Elvis’ “suggestibility”, and in his case I mean that as a great compliment. It was his suggestibility that allowed him to tap into whatever emotion a song required, with something that always sounds like ease. It was his suggestibility that allowed him to be a quick learner on a movie set, and to never make the amateurish mistake of trying too hard. It was his suggestibility that, to go back to the Sex Thing, allowed him to tap into that energy force before he had even had sex himself. (Of course, any adolescent understands the sex drive. You don’t need to have had sex to know what it feels like to want to have sex. But the songs themselves, those early songs, “I Got a Woman”, “Good Rockin’ Tonight”, “Lawdy Miss Clawdy”, “Money Honey”, “Baby Let’s Play House”, come from a knowing sexual place. Men live with their women in the songs, men bitch about how their women are unfaithful, one man sneaks off with his girl for some “good rockin”, one man sings about his fuck buddy “way across town” who’s good to him, one man sings about his money woes and hiding from his landlord, one song is about shacking up with someone without getting married. This was not Elvis’ actual world. He was a teenager. He lived at home. He drank milk shakes. He did his best to not worry his mother. The songs were a couple steps ahead of Elvis in terms of his literal experience. He had no literal experience! But his suggestibility makes all of that irrelevant. The songs suggested to him how to sing them, where to come from, what to draw on, and while that transfer may be a mysterious one, there is no doubt that it took place.)
His suggestibility is what separates him from some of the other artists at Sun at that time, guys who were equally as hungry, guys on the same track, but guys who were a bit more limited in their ability to go wherever a song needed them to go. Plenty of guys can sing “I Got a Woman”, but fewer guys can pull off “I Got a Woman” and “I Was the One” in the same show, and be equally as convincing in both. It was Elvis’ suggestibility (not to mention his vocal gift) that allowed him to go where he went, musically. His sensibility was flexible, he could pour himself into the container of a song. He could modify himself, transform himself, he could be “any way you want me”, like the song says.
There is nothing on earth like “Heartbreak Hotel”, and the song still barely makes sense, at least in context of what was going on with Elvis musically at that time. The song is so well-known now, that you have to squint through the mists of time to see what a huge risk it was, how odd it was and still is (remember that Elvis was rocking out in his other songs, or singing pleading ballads – nothing prepares you for “Heartbreak Hotel” in anything he was doing at that time). The song is terrifying, the images bleak and surreal, there’s a soft burlesque quality to the beat, there’s minimal orchestration, and his echoing voice moaning the lyrics above it all. He is only 20 years old. It makes no sense. It makes perfect sense.
His loneliness would become more explicit in his later years, and then he began to devote himself to the ballads. They are cries of pain. His sex drive plunged underground. You can hear it in the music. And, as my friend Kent pointed out, you can see it in the cars he bought in the mid-70s. The disappearance of his sex drive was due to the drug addiction, of course, but also the disorientation following the breakup of his marriage, and his knowledge that somewhere, along the way, he had fucked it all up. He was self-pitying, sure, and there is some self-pity in the 70s songs, but I hear more the legitimate cries of pain and loss, the loneliness that is now an affliction, an ongoing condition, something he can neither run from, nor escape.
Loneliness had dogged him from the beginning. He was born into it. Maybe it was the ghost of his twin, embedded in his DNA, maybe it was something else, the yearning to connect, to be a part of something, to belong, to speak, to be heard. Who knows. Loneliness had always been something he feared, and did whatever he could to fight against. He hired his friends, so they could be together all the time. He spent hours on the phone with his girlfriends, every night. He wanted everyone to be together. Always. He couldn’t stand people leaving him. His girlfriends say that they would get up to go to the bathroom and he would say, “Where are you going??” You had to ease into any separation with Elvis, even one that would last only five minutes. Walking away from him, no matter for what reason, was abandonment to him.
These things were in him before the trauma of his mother’s death, which certainly changed him irrevocably. But this sort of inability to be alone, and nervousness about people leaving him, was there in his earliest relationships, both platonic and romantic.
Entelechy is one of my favorite words and concepts.
n. pl. en·tel·e·chies
1. In the philosophy of Aristotle, the condition of a thing whose essence is fully realized; actuality.
2. In some philosophical systems, a vital force that directs an organism toward self-fulfillment.
The entelechy of an acorn is a giant oak. There is something here that relates to Elvis. Within him, he knew how bad loneliness could get. He knew it intuitively. As a child, he saw his mother’s drive to make good, he saw his mother’s courage in the face of her husband’s brief imprisonment. He experienced the abyss poverty created. He understood shame. He understood fear. He understood the need to protect. He understood that it was him and his mother against a cruel world. He understood all of this young. Despite his later devotion to esoteric topics, Elvis didn’t think in abstractions. The full-blown scope of his loneliness was there, in the pit of him, early, he knew it like he knew the back of his own hand. Where did it come from? Why had he been given it? What was he to do with it? He worked hard to keep loneliness at bay.
His whole drive to become a star could be seen, then, as the determined erecting of the ultimate barrier against the void inside of him, beckoning to him already.
The loneliness made him an odd and eccentric young man, shy, with a stutter, yet somehow bold enough to dress in kelly-green bolero jackets in high school, for God’s sake. Dave Marsh says that one of the main drives in this man was to be “unignorable” and there is a lot of truth in that. If you are unignorable, maybe you will never be lonely.
Elvis backstage at his first show ever at the Overton Park Shell in Memphis, July 1954.
When he first walked into Sun Records in 1953, he could have no way of knowing where he was going to go. He just knew he wanted to communicate. He knew he had to communicate. What it was he needed to ‘say’ may not have been clear, but that didn’t stop him. Whatever was inside of him was so imperative that I can imagine him lying awake in bed at night, eyes wide open, staring at the ceiling, aching to be heard, to connect, to get ….. there. It had to happen for him. He had no Plan B.
While he couldn’t have known how famous he would become, I do believe that he had the entelechy of it in him from the start. And I believe he sensed it. He sensed the oak in the acorn.
Perhaps we all do, but we dismiss these things as pipe dreams, fantasies, or pleasant ways to pass the time in daydreams. But to Elvis, they were real, grasp-able, something to reach for, a brass ring in the sky above him. In those beginning couple of years, he would say, on occasion, that he wanted to be a country and western star like Ernest Tubb, or he wanted to be an actor like Marlon Brando, or he wanted to be part of a gospel quartet. All of these were true dreams for him. But there was more. He wanted to be all of those things. He wanted to rise to a level of universal belovedness, he wanted to entertain the world, not just the folks in honky-tonks in his area, not just the folks on the C&W circuit. I am only guessing here, because there’s no real way of knowing. He says that he walked into Sun records to cut a song to give to his mother as a gift.
That’s the official story.
Well, of course that’s what you would say if you actually had dreams inside of you, at age 18, of being the biggest star the world has ever known. And of course that’s what you would say if you were Elvis, growing up in a staunch matriarchy. Of course it was for his mother. Of course that would be the official line. Why would you openly express what you could see in your mind’s eye if worldwide eternal fame is what you saw? Why would you say, “I have visions of screaming millions of people who love me”? You can’t let people in on something like that. You must hold it close, close, close. Because it’s sacred. And because it is sacred, it is fragile. Best to just say he wanted his Mama to hear him sing. That keeps us all safe from the implications.
To quote my sister Jean, when I was talking to her about all of this: “That’s a hell of a secret to keep from people.”
Isn’t it though?
A secret like that, burning inside him, forcing him to overcome his shyness and to keep “dropping by” Sun Records until they gave him a chance, is a lonely place to be. Having dreams is lonely. Having a dream like that is even lonelier. That is why I say that Elvis’ loneliness is separate from biographical details that may “explain” his loneliness. His loneliness was actually alone-ness, a true solitary nature, intensified by his superstar status and the isolation that that necessarily created. But on that other level, the level of art and myth, it was something he was born with, something he played with and expressed, even in songs that weren’t about loneliness. He didn’t have to grow into anything. He was one of those rare artists who emerged already in full bloom. He was the pampered son of a loving mother who kept his plates separate from the rest of the family’s because he was finicky that way, and washed his underwear for him, and made his bed, and hovered around him listening to him, loving him, touching him, supporting him. He loved her. He called her every day. But even his mother couldn’t touch that core of alone-ness, that private and fiercely guarded secret of where he wanted to go, and what he saw for himself. Once his dreams started coming true, his loneliness intensified and you can sense it in the sometimes disoriented interviews he gave during those early years of 1955, 1956, before the Colonel Clamp-down was in full effect. He talks about everything being like a dream, he talks about being afraid to wake up, he talks about not being able to understand what has happened because “it all happened so fast”.
He had his backup band, Scotty and Bill and DJ. That’s true.
But he was front and center. By himself. Where he had pictured himself, where he knew he had to be. It was what he wanted. It was what he had seen and dreamt of and yearned for and pictured. It happened.
In September of 1956, he recorded something called “The Truth About Me”, which was released as a 45, and included in Teen Parade magazine. He answers the questions about himself, and speaks in an unguarded and seemingly spontaneous manner, with that gentle stutter showing up from time to time, making the whole thing feel strangely intimate and off-the-cuff. While all of this is obviously part of a huge promotional push for Love Me Tender, it doesn’t feel like a canned statement. There are a couple of moments that are startlingly revealing. He is 21 years old.
I guess the first thing people want to know is why I can’t stand still when I’m singing. Some people tap their feet, some people snap their fingers, and some people just sway back and forth. I just sort of do them all together, I guess. Singing rhythm and blues really knocks it out. I watch my audience and listen to them, and, and, I know we’re all getting something out of our system and none of us knows what it is. The important thing is that we’re getting rid of it and nobody’s getting hurt. I suppose you know I’ve got a lot of cars. People have written about it in the papers and a lot of them write and ask me why. When I was driving a truck, every time a big shiny car drove by it started me sort of daydreaming. I always felt that someday somehow something would happen to change everything for me and I’d daydream about how it would be. The first car I ever bought was the most beautiful car I’ve ever seen. It was second-hand but I parked it outside of my hotel the day I got it and set up all night just looking at it. And the next day, well, the thing caught fire and burned up on the road. In a lot of the mail I get, people ask questions about the kind of things I do and all that sort of stuff. Well, I don’t smoke, and I don’t drink, and I love to go to movies. Maybe someday I’m gonna have a home and a family of my own and I’m not gonna budge from it. I was an only child but, uh …. maybe my kids won’t be. I suppose this kind of talk raises another question. Am I in love. No. I thought I’ve been in love but I guess I wasn’t. It just passed over. I guess I haven’t met the girl yet, but I will, and I hope it won’t be too long because I get lonesome sometimes. I get lonesome right in the middle of a crowd. I’ve got a feeling that with her … whoever she may be … I won’t be lonesome no matter where I am. Well, thanks for letting me talk to you and sort of get things off of my chest. I sure appreciate you listening to my RCA Victor records and I’d like to thank all the disc jockeys for playing them. Bye-bye.
Almost exactly 20 years later, in December of 1976, when Elvis had less than a year left to live, he lay in his bed in his palatial suite at the International Hotel in Las Vegas. He wrote the following note on a piece of paper which was later found crumpled up in the wastebasket:
I feel so alone sometimes. The night is quiet for me. I’d love to be able to sleep. I am glad that everyone is gone now. I’ll probably not rest. I have no need for all this. Help me, Lord.
As Seal wrote, “It’s the loneliness that’s the killer.”
It was the loneliness that made him want to reach out and communicate with thousands, not just with one or two. Only thousands (and then millions upon millions) would help him feel less alone. He “always felt that someday somehow something would happen to change everything for [him] and [he’d] daydream about how it would be.” The loneliness was in him and made him wise beyond his years (just listen to his “Blue Moon” again to get a sense of that). Perhaps it came from his early striving towards God, his longing for communication with the Creator. Perhaps it came from his lowly economic status, highlighting the isolation of poverty and the “have-nots”. But perhaps it was just part and parcel of his character, a vein of melancholy self-awareness that made him able to tap into loneliness before he had actually experienced it to the degree that he experienced it at the time he wrote that despairing note to God in 1976.
Sex is a great way to feel less alone. We all know and understand that. It can be used as a crutch, sure, but the drive to connect is in all of us, and it’s a good thing. This teenage boy launched himself into that expression, letting out his need to connect, his need to communicate, and his audiences got the message loud and clear. He put it out there, and their screams of release let him know, night after night after night, that he had been heard. That his needs were their needs. That he was not alone. At least for that moment in time, he was not alone.
The sex is still a magnet. It is still what we talk about when we talk about Elvis.
But it’s the loneliness that is the whole shebang. You’ll be so lonely you could die.
A remarkable essay, it gets right to the heart of the Elvis conundrum. Everyone is lonely at some time or another, and that’s certainly part of the appeal – a shared emotional connection, real or not. I think a lot of great artists are essentially lonely, whether they would admit it or not. Projection is the two-sided one-eyed jack – they project their longings as art, we project into their offerings our wishes for relief from similar longings. Elvis was a world of pain’s ease for a lot of people; unfortunately, not for himself.
So much of all of this is projection, Vanwall, you are so right. I have a little theory – I remember talking with Siren about this one night – that the greatest stars have a certain blankness to them, a blankness that allows for that projection. It’s not that they aren’t specific as artists, it’s not that they are hollow nonentities – it’s something else. Hard to define. But I think all the great iconic stars have that blankness – which, in actuality, is a huge SPACE that allows for us to do our work on them, to project our stuff onto them.
And yes, I imagine that being one of those people who have that quality – could be extremely lonely. And of course no one wants to hear about the loneliness of big stars. The general response is an unsympathetic “Boo too”, something I don’t agree with at all. These people are like astronauts. Very few people have gone so far as to actually look back on the earth in its entirety. Very few people reach such heights in their careers that they become a projector screen for multiple generations. These people are interesting in their isolation, they have news to tell us, they can actually try to describe what it is like for them. Because none of us will ever know.
Thanks for reading.
“Vulgarity and sex do not necessarily go hand in hand”
So true. And the inability to understand that is what created so much of the distrust of Elvis from both the conservative church and the liberal academy. He also got attacked a lot (and still does) for “hypocrisy” on this whole sex/god divide. A lot of people have trouble making the distinction between contradiction and duality, which is a whole other kettle of fish. I think that duality was what gave Elvis his unique ability to be completely inside and completely outside a performance at the same time. Yeah “Heartbreak Hotel” is scary…and it’s also a goof. That’s often been read as a lack of commitment (of the sort expected from say, blues or gospel or hard-core country singers). I’d say it’s actually a whole other level of commitment. Duality has to be held in an extremely delicate balance–else you’re likely to be seen the lonely person’s worst nightmare, which is a public fool and embarassment.
I like your thoughts on duality very very much.
Yes, another thing is: he never made a big deal out of anything. He was not self-indulgent that way.
BTW Sheila, I’ve started a series on Elvis’ unique crossover appeal in the fifties which I’m titling “The Threat” (all the Elvis posts are collected under the “Concerning Elvis” title under categories). Hope you’ll get a chance to peruse it at some point and let me know what you think.
Awesome, I will go check it out!
After stumbling on Sheila’s site about Elvis, I was lead to your blog as well. I do enjoy your articles on Elvis, particularly today’s entry. The excerpt from Peter Guralnick is an often thought about quote about those ‘culled girls swooning’.
I have read Mr. Bangs on several occasions and can never figure out if he truly respects Elvis or if he was just nuts from the drugs he took.
Lester Bangs gets Elvis on a deeper and truer level than any other writer out there.
Those who are TOO protective of Elvis and try to paint him as all-good (and there are many of those) are also missing the point. Lester Bangs didn’t do that. And, best of all, he grapples with him personally in his writing. He does not pontificate from on high. He has all of his own struggles in the writing.
Him and Dave Marsh and Elaine Dundy are my favorite writers on Elvis. Peter Guralnick can take a hike, as far as I’m concerned.
Well then I must be a complete dope because I don’t get Bangs. I have read some of his Elvis rants with the understanding that he was THE premere writer for RS and was respected. He doesn’t come across to me as being anything less than disrespectful and crazy.
I don’t think Elvis should be treated with too much respect and reverence. I’m bored by that. He’s down in the dirt with Elvis’ art. He thinks he’s the greatest performer who was ever born. And he also drove him CRAZY. Frustrated him. He loved him so much he fantasized about exhuming him and eating the rotting drugs from Elvis’ carcass. Just so he could BE Elvis for 24 hours. It’s honest.
But I know Lester isn’t for everybody. But I love him. I wish I could write like him! He inspires me!
Do you think that most of what is generated today as so called biographical recollections is nothing more than revisionist history? At the time of his death, it was thought of much much differently than today where his reputation seems to be somewhat restored. Goldman didn’t help this reformation of his legacy, but much of what has been written has been more sweetly (for lack of a better word at the moment) rather than what was told and retold during the 70’s and on.
That was beautiful, Sheila. Recently I read something Larry Geller wrote about a conversation he had with Elvis sometime after his divorce. Elvis talked about his desire to find a soul mate; Geller said he believed Elvis’s true love affair was with his fans. Elvis agreed, but said he’d paid a high price for it. There’s that loneliness thing again — “existential longing,” in Geller’s words. It was there in 1956’s “The Truth About Me” recording, which I’ve heard and find utterly endearing and, as you said, quite genuine in spite of being publicity for a film. God knows it was there in that wrenching 1976 note begging the Lord for help. I can’t even read what Elvis wrote then without crying.
And yet in spite of (or because of) his bone-deep loneliness, he was able to connect in such a meaningful way with SO MANY PEOPLE. To this day, almost 35 years after his death, he’s still connecting through his music, his movies, and who he was as a person and performer. That has to make him one of the greatest communicators of all time, in spite of being personally shy and not a deep intellectual. I just find him so fascinating.
As do you, obviously! I love your essays about Elvis and get positively giddy when a new one appears on my blog reader. They’re always so perceptive and make me think about Elvis and his work in new and interesting ways.
//And yet in spite of (or because of) //
I would say that that one phrase could encapsulate Elvis as a performer, Melissa. The contradictions, the duality, the either/or erasure that makes him who he is.
I always thought that the most important relationship Elvis ever had was with his audience. That is why his biography, while interesting, is never “the thing” for him. Because his everyday life doesn’t matter, essentially. It’s not “the thing”. It explains nothing.
But put him in front of people, boy? Wow. That was where he said everything he needed to say. The truth is in the work. End-stop.
It’s what continues to make him so mysterious. Because we want more from him, we want an explanation. But he steadfastly refuses to give it. I love how you can feel, in the 68 special, that his bandmates are trying to lead him down Memory Lane – and he pretty much refuses to go there. Smart. He would not BE a novelty or nostalgia act.
The only thing that matters is NOW.
Sheila – I love everything you write about Elvis. For someone who didn’t know him personally & wasn’t around him your views & observations are so thoughtful and insightful it’s almost as if you were one of his confidantes or knew him intimately. Your style of writing manages to be both tender & in your face; persuasive yet polemical but above all, as Melissa says, it is perceptive.
This time you have absolutely nailed it. Elvis was sex on a stick. You didn’t need to perform a grubby sex act though to get off on him. It was Tantric, magical; it happened by osmosis! It wasn’t just his stunning good looks – and as you have previously written he was a beautiful man – it was his charisma tempered by a supreme ability to interpret any song & render it meaningful. Some of the material he worked with was mediocre (O.K. crap!) but he somehow manages to infuse nearly every lyric with sincere passion, sensuality and/or deep raw sex. I believe despite his religious upbringing and all the other factors which shaped him as a (good) person he had a dark side too out of which came, for example, his addictive and obsessive nature. This darker persona could have spawned a sexual monster too but it didn’t. His “sex thing” was not manufactured or laboured: it was natural, it was instinctive, it was pure animal magnetism. You capture his attraction beautifully. Well done.
Dicky – thank you so much for your beautiful and really insightful comment!
I’ve been working on something that has to do with “the sex thing”, but I keep getting bogged down in it. I showed my friend a clip of Elvis – and she’s not a huge fan, and not familiar with him in the way I am – and she made a couple of observations about his sexuality that I thought were so fresh, so interesting – coming from a total outsider’s perspective. So that was what got me thinking more specifically about it. Because plenty of people are sexy – but he was on some whole other level.
You are capturing something very important in your comment and I thank you for sharing it.
Basically her observation was that even with as sexy as he was – his sexuality seemed to be more about receiving than giving. Unlike other more aggressive male rock stars, who put their sexuality out there with no interest in what they get back – it’s more of a cock-swinging type of thing – EP was always more of a two-way channel – that his sexuality existed in relationship to his audience, as opposed to being isolated and something he gloried in all by himself.
I think that’s part of the key – because whatever it is he was doing leaves vast amounts of ROOM for us out there watching him. This is not the case with some other blatantly sexual creatures, who perhaps are more narcissistic about it.
It’s similar to your “tantric magical” observation, which I really really like.
And yes: having such power could have turned him into a monster. It didn’t.
This is interesting, Sheila, and seems very accurate to me. I think it’s part and parcel of Elvis’s overall humility, openness and generosity — just part of his character. As you talked about in your Marion Keisker post, he offered a friendly and sincere kind of sexuality. His sexiness in performing is about intimacy and fun, and getting something out of our system, as he said in ’56. He wasn’t marking territory or proving what a big sex symbol he was — it’s much more mutual than that. There’s a lot of vulnerability in what he makes us privy to about himself, and there’s something so appealing about that.
I think that’s why it doesn’t strike me as at all skeevy to see him kissing woman after woman in the audience in That’s the Way It Is, whereas if some other rock stars had done it, it might’ve seemed so. In spite of his insane level of hotness, there’s nothing tawdry about his displays of sexiness. There was always a core of sweetness beneath it all. That may sound sentimental or hokey, I don’t know, but that’s definitely the vibe I get from him.
Melissa – yes, and women always got that about him. The sweetness. The generosity.
But it was all in this insanely hot package – as you say – and he let the tiger out of the bag.
That’s a hard balance to get – sweetness and sheer sexual power – and I’m thinking that amateurs need not apply! You HAVE to be sincere to pull that off. That was just who he was – and his audiences sensed that. Nothing more attractive than honesty.
“insane level of hotness” is about the best line I have read in a long time. I can never understand how someone could possess such a sexual swagger and still be so innately sweet. Being impossibly beautiful combined with the insane level of hotness is quite a package.
I just stumbled across your blog site, and I’m now wondering where you’ve been my whole life! An Elvis fan since the age of eight (1976), and as woman who has spent the last 10 years putting my feelings (our shared feelings) about Elvis into words and stories (Eternal Flame and Dream Angel), I may have just found a kindred spirit here, with you. Thank you for celebrating with words what may just be the greatest love story ever told in the history of music.
Hello, kindred spirit!! Love meeting other Elvis fans. They’re such a friendly loving bunch.
As long as he lived Elvis sent reports to the world from the inside. It’s all there in his music. Very nice Sheila! A summation from your peak. Your summit.
Kent – your comments always make me cry. It is a summit, and yes: I put my flag on this summit and call it mine! Ha!
and yes: it is all there. that’s what’s so great about him, he who wasn’t a songwriter, but one of the best interpreters there was.
Working my ass off on my summit project which you know about, and this was spill-over. I missed Elvis. Had to get him up here again. xoxo
I’m reading Under The Banner of Heaven right now, and Jon Krakauer is striving to explain what made Joseph Smith so utterly appealing as a prophet and religion founder. The only way I can get my head around it is that it was like the Elvis effect.
He was so magnetic that he would say to a friend, “Why don’t you leave your whole life and career and come work for me?” and more often than not, they would. He was so magnetic that people just wanted to be near him. Even with the bullshit and the hassle, and even with how difficult he could be … they would rather be near him than away from him.
He also was relentless – relentless – in getting what he needed. He wouldn’t take No for an answer. He was persuasive. He could sell snow to Eskimos. Again, this is sometimes spun in a cynical light. I don’t see it that way. That’s why he was a great star. And that’s why people are still loyal to him to this day – why Ann Margret has never spoken about him, why people are still reluctant to throw him under the bus – those who loved him. He could be tough, boy – his girlfriends would say they’d be hanging out with him and they’d get up to go to the bathroom and he’d say, “Where are you going?” Like, even leaving him for 5 minutes had to be prepared for, and eased up to. He couldn’t take it otherwise. June Juanico tells a very interesting story about a long conversation they had once where he couldn’t express what he was feeling but he had something to say – he had a need – and he was embarrassed by it and didn’t know how to put it – but eventually what came out was, “I need you by my side all the time. I don’t want to look for you, and not find you there.” They were both kids, really, but she said to him, “I’m not like those other girls, Elvis. I am not just going to hang around next to you – I love you – but I need to be able to do my own thing, too.” He wasn’t angry or petulant – he was more anxious with her in the conversation. Tender and worried that she didn’t love him. He always wanted her in his sights – because if he looked around for her and she was off talking to someone else, he’d be totally adrift. Again, there’s that loneliness that was always with him. I am not interested in pathologizing him for that – it’s just who he was. And so he found the people who could “take” that, and who loved him anyway. He was very smart that way, like a child is smart, in terms of survival.
I really like June Juanico. She had a lot of spunk and was great about standing up to Elvis — in a kind, loving way — when she wasn’t happy about something. Even at that young age, she seems to have been pretty mature. Her book is a favorite among the ones I’ve read. She does a great job at vividly describing who Elvis was at that particular time, when his life was changing so dramatically.
That book is a heartbreaker. It really captures young love. I love the two of them together. She had spunk. I love the night when Elvis took her over to Dewey Phillips’ house and Dewey pulled all the guys away to show a skin flick, and June burst into the room, having NONE of that. hahaha and poor Elvis was so embarrassed and pissed – “I don’t want you seeing this shit, June!” and she was like, “THEN GET ME OUT OF HERE.”
Yes! Or when she told him about walking in on Red West in flagrante with some random girl and was so revolted and ticked off. She had a lot of fire and independence, and it seems like she was really good for Elvis. She didn’t put up with much crap.
Her recounting of the time they almost went all the way is so sweetly hot, and also hilarious, with Elvis’s mom knocking on the door and warning them about having babies. Can you imagine? Just goes to show what an amazingly close relationship Elvis had with his mother, that she would both trust him to sleep in the same bed with his girlfriend under her roof, and be so cool-headed (especially for the time and given her religious beliefs) about what they were doing in there.
June’s stories of seeing Elvis in the ’60s and talking to him on the phone after Hurricane Camille are so touching. She always loved him. I mean, of course she did. She knew him at such a special time in his life — “in his innocence,” as Dolores Hart called the years when she worked with him.
June’s book also made me absolutely hate Nick Adams. The other day when I watched Pillow Talk for the zillionth time, all I could think when I saw him on screen with Doris Day was what a creep he was to June and what a two-face he was with Elvis.
Elvis has taken over everything, Sheila! LOL.
Oh Nick Adams was a total creep. Get away from Elvis. Get away from him, you leech.
and yeah, Gladys just wants to know that June is 19 before they fly to Houston so Elvis won’t be escorting minors across state lines.
Yeah, Gladys knew the score. Pretty realistic about sex. I mean, you can see her sex drive, speaking of which, in the early marriage photos with Vernon. She’s got her arm flung around his shoulder, in a proprietary hungry way – they’re startling photos. Not polite “newlywed” photos, but “we’re rutting in a bed and we’re having a blast” photos. At least that’s what I get from it. But then, I have a dirty mind.
Also – Elvis shouting back to his mother knocking on the door, right as he and June are about to have sex, “Don’t worry, Mama – June’s a virgin and she’s gonna stay that way until we’re married.”
Haha, yeah. She wasn’t just a cherry, after all, she was the whole pie! Oh, that June. She was a pistol.
Also when she cuts her hair off. He looks at her, and then says, comfortingly, “It’ll grow back.” hahahaha How dare she cut her hair without checking with him first??
Another beautifully written article with so many keepers by not only you, but those who regularly contribute to your Elvis Essays. I think “insane level of hotness” has absolutely made my, otherwise, boring day one to remember. After explaining the existential loneliness that was such an integral part of his makeup, I am still at a loss to explain his extraordinary charisma, incredible musical talent, natural native intelligence (and that 6th sense he always seemed to possess),his insane beauty and hotness. The list is only a partial list of his incredibleness. OK, maybe a person could possess one or maybe two of these unique qualities or abilities, but to not only possess them but to have such a naturalness about these abilities, to seize them and make them part of his eternal legend?
The whole sex thing is like the elephant in the room that is taking up all of the oxygen and space, but no one wants to say anything about or call attention to. Me reading about Elvis in my personal time and space is one thing, but to have a verbal conversation with someone about him or watch on him in a movie or on tv with someone else in the room — the ENTIRE sex thing is just rushing forth, but nary a word is uttered, but ohhh, its so palpable, so blatant.
but to have a verbal conversation with someone about him or watch on him in a movie or on tv with someone else in the room — the ENTIRE sex thing is just rushing forth, but nary a word is uttered, but ohhh, its so palpable, so blatant.
It’s funny that you say that, because a few weeks ago a good friend from out of town visited for a few days, and one evening we had an Elvis night, watching “Viva Las Vegas” and parts of the ’68 Comeback Special. My friend and I are both serious introverts, not given to a lot of hooting and hollering over such things, but I don’t think there’s any way to hold back when watching the sit-down sessions. When Elvis came out and stood there in his black leather suit (the wristbands, the eye makeup, those cheekbones, OMG), hands on his hips, taking in the audience and looking so damned sexy, we just stared at each other in awe, like “Good Lord, is this for real?” Every time he sang “Baby What You Want Me to Do,” I’m pretty sure we were both tempted to tell him.
If we weren’t thirtysomething women who didn’t want to seem like complete goofballs in front of each other, we’d have been squealing just like the girls in the audience. As it was there was a lot of chat about the Sex Thing, as Sheila calls it. He just brings that out in even the most demure person. Speaking for myself, anyway. ;) Really though, you ain’t seen nothing until you’ve seen 1968 Elvis on a big HDTV screen. Gorgeous doesn’t even begin to describe it. He was a sexy beast during that show, and the animal magnetism fairly leaps off the screen.
I try to be objective and semi-intelligent when talking about Elvis, but I must admit that quite often my thoughts on him devolve into little more than fangirl swooning over how freaking hot he was.
Sheila — I can’t thank you enough for giving me somewhere to do that fangirl swooning. ;)
Oh Melissa, are you kidding?? I love to fangirl swoon myself – it’s one of my all-time favorite pastimes!
And yeah, his hotness is actually ridiculous in that 68 special. Like, for real, dude? How do you even LIVE with yourself?
I love the armband with the watch-face in it.
I love the armband with the watch-face in it.
Ooh, me too. There’s something about those leather bands that make me nuts! It’s just the perfect badass touch to the outfit, I guess. He looks surreal in the ’68 special, especially sitting there amongst all the clearly very 1960s musicians and audience members. He looks startlingly modern, like he came from the future. I love it.
Like, for real, dude? How do you even LIVE with yourself?
Haha! “Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful.” ;) The night I watched it with my friend, she commented that you could tell he knew he was looking FINE when he walked out there. I mean, he was a nervous wreck too and almost refused to come out, but he surely had to have also known that he looked fantastic. Something about the way he stood there with his hands on his hips, looking around as the women screamed. He was a rock god in that moment. Rowr indeed!!
If you don’t already have Steve Binder’s book on the ’68 Special (’68 at 40 Retrospective), you should really track it down. You’d love it. It’s so interesting and is full of the most beautiful photographs.
Melissa – I love that moment, too, when he just stands there, as people clap, and his hands are on his hips – He knows his own hot-ness, for sure, but he also needs to be loved – he needs to be recognized for it. That’s that two-way channel thing – he stands there and receives their love and the women’s screams – It’s very moving to watch. He doesn’t stalk out there in his own fever-dream of how awesome he is – he actually allows himself to NEED his own audience.
In that way, he’s like Judy Garland. That kind of need comes across to an audience. It is very very rare.
I have often wondered if he knew the hold he had over people – the incredible beauty (I mean, if throngs tell you this day after day, do you begin to believe it?), his unrelenting charm and charisma and his phenomenal talent – all in ONE remarkable HOT package – Did he realize his effect on the female sex? Speaking to a personal female (non-sexual) friend, she says no, he really didn’t understand it, but its astounding to me and probably many others that he didn’t realize what he could do to the female sex. Yes, in ’68, he was incredible HOT! HOT! HOT!, but I wonder if he really knew just how much so.
Oh yeah. He knew. But he was humble about it. He was gifted from God. Killer combo.
But as I said in this piece, I think his sexiness is a distraction. It was set up that way – by him. To throw us off the trail of the real story, which was his loneliness.
In that way, his sexiness was an act of will, an act of generosity as well as selfishness. He needed to put that out there – to get what he needed – company, love, acknowledgement – whatever – that impulse in him as a young man to reach out and COMMUNICATE – and that need to communicate came from his existential loneliness that was with him from the start. It’s that tension that makes him interesting. He NEEDS the audience. All of the great iconic performers do.
So I’m not actually interested in the Sex Symbol Elvis, although I certainly acknowledge his sexiness. it’s undeniable. But plenty of people are sex symbols.
It is what is underneath that makes him interesting.
’68 Comeback Special (more specifically the 1st sit-down show) is without a doubt, THE sexiest he has ever been on record! Elvis in black leather singing “one Night”……. I (being a silly 42ish girl) am ALWAYS in awe of his incredible talent and whatever it was that Sheila described when he gets across to his audience.
// no one wants to say anything about or call attention to. //
We must be reading different commentary! Even people who don’t know anything about Elvis know about his Sex Thing. Incidentally, I think that makes him easier to dismiss, in certain critical circles. The Sex Thing, yes, takes up all the oxygen and space – because it is incredibly compelling and still palpable- but I wouldn’t say at all that “no one wants to say anything about it”. In fact, the opposite is the case. Everyone gets so caught up in the Sex Thing that they often miss the whole shebang. They miss what was really going on.
But then, I said what I had to say in the piece about that.
Thanks for reading and commenting, as always. Good discussion!
I am not saying that his sexual thing is felt on many levels, because oh, it certainly is. And much has been written about his sexuality in terms of his swagger and exuding it onstage when he performed. There is no lack of evidence to the contrary. I think what I am expressing is that speaking of his blatant sexuality is something a bit mysterious and I don’t often find myself sitting around with my friends or family talking about this palpable vibe that he emits. Maybe its ingrained in my mind after 12 years of Catholic school (post Vatican II) that says we shouldn’t be talking (or thinking) about such things.
The vibe certainly there!!!! It will never be mistaken for anything else than what it is. It still never fails to take my breath away!
Yeah, he’s a vessel – a vehicle – a projector screen for people’s fantasies. Still!
One other thing I read comes to mind. In Joe Esposito’s book, he quotes Elvis as saying (while in Germany, after his mother died) in relation to his loneliness “Sex is the easy part. I just want someone who will listen.” If Elvis said this or something close to it, I think what you’ve written pretty much sums up his feelings.
It’s such a touching element to EP – that comment to Joe encapsulates it – and I think that is what people pick up on in him – the sex is so blatant with him, just so out there, but that all comes from a drive to communicate – which is what made him so dynamic as a performer.
Yeah, I love George Klein talking about how he would pick out girls for Elvis – once EP became too famous to approach them himself – and Klein knew the “type” Elvis liked, as in the body type, hair color – but it was really more about the personality because EP wasn’t a “put another notch on the belt” guy (and thank God, because he must have lost count by, oh, 1957). But he was never into that – he wanted to chill, he wanted someone to hang out with, and Klein knew what EP liked. He introduced him to Linda after all!
I guess when you have girls literally throwing themselves at you every single day and night, every single where you went, in all manner of speaking…..I guess notches in the bedpost was not necessary. lol One can only imagine the offers he got!
There is a strange documentary from a Chicago D.J. about The demise if Elvis that come out in the 90″s. There is also a prequel (sort of) from Jean Shepherd making fun of the 4th of July. Matt Damon was in it. For some reason none of these tapes will be made public – (oh- the Bleacher Buns as well). Chicago and SCTV had a lot of projects shelved before their time. People would be shocked to see them.
James Hillman wrote a book called “The Soul’s Code” and this post makes me want to go back and read it again just to understand Elvis more. In it he describes a famous bullfighter who, as a child, never left his mother’s apron strings, almost literally, until he was around ten. As if he knew his entelechy was driving him to be in the ring with bulls. I think you’ve nailed the “code” of Elvis’ soul. Great writing.
David – I so remember that fascinating bullfighting story. I haven’t read the Soul’s Code but I heard it from Hillman’s protege in that great book you recommended 100 Years of Psychotherapy. It is an incredible concept and I think really helps to shine a new light on these strange astronaut-like creatures who go farther than anyone else has gone in their chosen field.
That’s why I think Elvis had to know, and YOUNG, where he was going. Granted, he was young when it all started happening for him, but that makes him even more extraordinary. The quote about how he would drive a truck and “daydream” about how things would change for him. That represents less than a year of time in his life. He wasn’t “daydreaming” for 15 years about how things would change – which is often the case with people who make it big later, who have more time in the trenches.
Elvis daydreamed, and it came to fruition in about 11 months.
What was that experience like for him?
Exciting, sure. But I hear so much more than just excitement in his own comments. I hear disorientation, exhaustion, gratification that he now can take care of his mother, and a lonely sense of the howling space around him, how far ahead of the pack he suddenly was – and he LOVED that pack. He LOVED all of those artists he left in the dust when he was only 18 years old.
With Elvis, and with other such artists (and there aren’t many), we have to enter the realm of magic. I think that’s why we keep going back to them, trying to figure them out. That’s the fun of it.
When Elvis was given an opportunity to shine – he went from acorn to oak in less than 24 hours. You can HEAR it in the session that “That’s All Right Mama” came out of. He recorded 3 other songs that night. You can HEAR him emerge, fully formed. It’s fucking incredible.
No wonder he clung to his mother. Same as the bullfighter. He would need that comforting maternal love, more than most. He knew where he was going.
I just love your illustration of ‘an acorn to an oak in less than 24 hours’. Such an apropos when you think of how much he did in such a small window of time. I agree that he dreamed his dream and made it happen, but I have always wondered how he knew to dream this dream given his limited exposure and poverty. Yes, Memphis offered him a glimpse of a life that was new and different, but still, to be able to put all of the pieces together and make his impossible dream something attainable is still difficult to comprehend.
You are doing such a beautiful job of reassessing his incredible history. THANK YOU AGAIN!
I think his dream came directly out of his poverty. There was no space for anything else BUT dreams.
And, of course, there’s magic. I leave a lot of space for that.
I think Elvis was “touched”. Like Judy Garland was “touched”. He also was very fortunate (I would say “blessed”) in the beauty department. It automatically separated him. Elaine Dundy has a whole great section in her book about what Beauty like that does, and how kids can sense it very early … that may have been one cause of his isolation. He may have been scrawny and pimply but he was flat out more beautiful than anyone else – and that “differentness” isolated him. It wasn’t his fault – it was a genetic thing – he was just born with that beauty in him.
All of these things dovetailed so when Opportunity knocked – out came the oak tree. He needed no gestation period. He was ready. Early.
And you are most welcome. :) My pleasure.
Wow Sheila.. I hope you read this..This is truly remarkable. You are right on every level. We are all distracted by that handsome face and hip swivelling that we end up missing the whole point of it. What I find most interesting about the man that it goes beyond the music and appeal, it’s the man HIMSELF. I stare out my window at night and look at the stars and wonder, how I still can’t believe or comprehend how such a human being even existed. It’s like having some unbalanced atoms, everything would fall apart. How could this poor mamma’s boy from “nowhere” (Tupelo is a place, it would be disrespectful to say it wasn’t) possessed the ability to become an “astronaut” and reach a place no one has ever been before and never will. It’s like he’s a dream. Entelechy? Truly a beautiful word. You’re right, Elvis somehow knew he could go somewhere, of course he didn’t know where but deep inside he knew had the power to be truly great. It’s like feeling something but not being able to describe it. That’s how I feel sometimes. I feel I have potential but still…Oh, and the Sex Thing, it seems everyone is distracted by it that they’re missing the point. It goes beyond his looks and talent. Elvis was truly otherworldly, haunting and mysterious. He was a true force of nature, nothing and no one could stop it, not even himself. That’s why he dropped by Sun Studios in 1953, he FELT it, didn’t know what it was or how to describe it but it was their in his heart, burning like fire that he got consumed by it (that probably brought the lonely-ness). I can already picture a young Elvis in his room staring at the ceiling, dreaming and dreaming…Oh how simple his desire must’ve been when he walked through that door in 1953… Nothing could have stopped him, it was inevitable, it was set before he was born. He was truly “touched”. Elvis can NEVER be fully explained and that’s what’s so interesting about him. I know this might sound silly but I see a lot of similarities between him and Superman. I see Elvis as a creature from outer space who possessed these “powers” but at the same time he looked just like us human beings. That’s why he was able to “fit in” with the rest of us but the burning sense of loneliness, of being different from everyone else, was always present. Thank You Sheila!
Johnny – Thank you so much! We are very much in sync on our feelings here – especially the otherworldly aspect – which goes a long way to describing what Elvis, a mortal man, was able (and willing – let’s not forget that – he was willing) to tap into.
I actually find the Sex Thing to be extremely important – and too often dismissed by the mostly male critics who think that screaming girls are somehow not serious enough for the musical icon they adore. My view is: there ain’t NOTHING more serious than throngs of screaming girls – and if critics would stop making fun of them and just follow the sound … they may find that the girls are “onto” something. They usually are. Being repressed sexually and socially means there’s more to “let out” – and those screams of catharsis that Elvis brought on and encouraged – in such a friendly way – was HUGE for our culture. It changed everything.
But the Sex Thing is used as a way to dismiss Elvis – and in a way focusing on the “vulgarity” is yet another way to avoid the larger implications of what he represented. He didn’t have a message, not really … but that secular/divine thing he had going on – from the very START – was as clear a message as any. Our culture still can’t incorporate those two poles of expression. Huge resistance to it to this day.
Sex is both secular and divine – a lot of the guys who came after him, the powerful rock sex gods like Jim Morrison or Mick Jagger – were purely secular. Totally of the earth. Dionysian. Elvis brought that other element to it – the spiritual, the universal longing for some kind of group catharsis – and of course it was because of Elvis’ breakthroughs in that arena that made people like Jim Morrison and Mick Jagger possible. Elvis made it possible for other men to use themselves in a purely sexual way – to offer themselves up as objects – something that really wasn’t going on (at least not in the mainstream) before EP.
But besides all of that: I totally agree that the mystery of Elvis – that blankness of his desire, so huge he could never put it into words (he didn’t need to – it’s all in his music) – the loneliness that was his birthright, a loneliness so acute that it gave him a sense of urgency – all of that somehow mixed together to make him the astronaut that he was.
Very very few people can sense their own entelechy within them. Many people have vague ideas about it, and spend a lot of time hoping to bring the oak tree out of that acorn. Elvis didn’t hope. Or at least that’s not what I get from him. He basically made his own dreams come true. he flat out believed in his dreams more than other people do. I am basically re-stating Dave Marsh’s whole thesis in his great book Elvis – but his words really inspired me to think about Elvis in a new way, to remove the biography as much as possible – because it is irrelevant.
It may be interesting, but you won’t find an explanation for Elvis in there.
Anyway – my deepest thanks for your careful reading of this piece, and your very thoughtful comment. I appreciate it very much!
And, you know … I keep coming back to that recording of “Blue Moon.”
Other tracks from that year can be explained – or at least understood. There is a continuum. And the sound is unique, but you can feel the same sort of energy coursing through all of it.
“Blue Moon” stands alone. There’s nothing else quite like it. Everything Elvis did was self-assured – everything – once he found his spot, he did not falter. But “Blue Moon” is the real weirdo of the bunch.
It floats, unconnected … a swooning strange rendition with the clip-clop of the horse hooves and that falsetto … You listen to it (or I do) and I think: “How could he DARE???”
It’s so HIM, and yet it still resists classification or explanation – and I absolutely love that.
Thank you for taking your time to read my comment Sheila, I appreciate it! I was quite surprised by the amazing articles you’ve written and the way you look at Elvis which is very different from the general public. You’re right, screaming teenage girls are never taken seriously but they did scream for a reason.. Oh and about what you said about Elvis TRULY believing in his dreams, Bruce Springsteen said it best: “he came along and whispered some dream in everybody’s ear and somehow we all dreamed it”. I can’t overemphasise the fact that Elvis is the biggest thing to happen. It’s a shame people don’t recognise that.
About his physical appearance, the man was truly one of a kind. People who know who he is will probably say he was handsome but those who have seen countless pictures know that handsome is an understatement when talking about Elvis. Can you imagine a 17 year old boy walking around with a ducktail, sideburns and eye makeup in the conservative 50s? It’s like, how DARE you?
I love the comments from other musicians when they first met him. Carl Perkins meets him, shakes hands, they’re all professional, “Oh I love your work” “I love yours too” – Elvis moves on, and Carl immediately says to Scotty Moore: “That’s the best-looking man I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Or Jerry Reed (just posted a clip of him today!!) observing after meeting Elvis for the first time that Elvis was more beautiful than any woman he had ever seen.
The looks are positively overwhelming. It’s all just too perfect. And it HAD to be that way. The person who cracked open our culture – and also helped blur the boundaries between musical genres/the sexes/everything – HAD to look like that. It might not have happened otherwise. Star appeal. That mysterious thing.
It’s all extremely improbable and impossible when you try to look at it directly!!
It’s funny because I always go back to Heartbreak Hotel. It’s a really strange song, very haunting and gloomy. His voice is truly otherworldly during the solo! I was also surprised when I read that the producers initially hated the track, they described it as a horrible mess. Yeah right.. little did they know.
What do you mean by the resistance of the two poles?
Elvis was basically one who opened the door to sexuality, individuality and freedom. Better yet, he IS the door. I use the present tense because he’s still the one who is responsible for it.
I do believe that the circumstances in his life (pre-fame) like the death of his brother, his father’s imprisonment and the poverty affected him in a way. It made him lonelier then he really was. I think it’s a shame that people don’t mention Vernon as an influence on his son. Yes, Elvis was closer to his mother but I believe that the fact Vernon wasn’t as influential as he was supposed to be affected the young Elvis.
Elvis is and will always be the true mystery that will never be solved. It’s the reason why you and me, after 30 years since his death, still talk about him so deeply. He’s immortal Sheila.
Johnny – I guess what I mean by “resistance” is that our culture still has a vested interest in keeping those two poles far far apart. And so the “vulgarity” stands on one side, and the “divinity” stands on another – Elvis always blended those two things, bringing the passionate expressiveness of the Pentecostal preachers into his sexy songs, and bringing the macho confident earthiness to his gospel stuff. And that blending was resisted at the time – and it is still resisted. In many ways it’s even worse now. But Elvis’ religious upbringing as well as his poverty background made him more of a realist about these things than people who come from other more upper-class faiths – where APPEARING holy is the most important thing. Pentecostals didn’t waste time with that stuff. They were too poor. Religion was a place where they could let go, make some noise, feel safe. And there WAS a sexual component to that. There IS no contradiction. From the get-go, Elvis was interested in bringing forth ALL that he had to share. NOT just the sex stuff. The fact that he would perform Peace in the Valley on the Ed Sullivan Show speaks volumes. Of course that was a smart marketing move, too – Elvis was getting terrible press at the time – but it was also as true an expression of who Elvis was as the bump and grind.
The critics at the time did NOT understand this. Critics today understand more – although I still think some of the Baby Boomer male critics are a little annoyed at the screaming-girls – that it somehow doesn’t seem “serious” enough for a musical icon of Elvis’ stature. They still dismiss those screaming girls. I mean, not everyone, and I don’t want to paint with too broad a brush.
Elvis’ sexuality WAS important and the reaction he got from his audiences was insane -(male, female, and gay boys – I remember John Waters saying in an interview that he realized he was gay (or different) when he saw Elvis on the Ed Sullivan Show when he was a kid. That’s the power of what he was doing!!)
Like you said: Elvis WAS the door.
And yes, “Heartbreak Hotel” stands out. It still doesn’t sound like anything else.
I remember that great quote from George Harrison in an interview late in his life. He was asked what his “musical roots” were. He said he had none. The only thing he could think of that was a “root” was the memory of riding his bike down a street in Liverpool as a kid and hearing “Heartbreak Hotel” from out of an open window.
That sound changed the world.
It’s fun talking about Elvis with you, Johnny! I am glad you showed up here.
Thank you very much Sheila. It’s refreshing to see how you look at Elvis unlike other people. They take him for granted you know? Man what I would give to have met him before the fame. I can’t imagine what went through Gladys’s and Vernon’s head during the early 50s. They must have thought that their lives would never change for the good, Vernon would have to work back-breaking jobs and Elvis.. well Elvis…Little they did know..
While reading your other articles I never knew Elvis had poor hygiene like that. I did read once that their was a period where he refused to shower due to the state of the public bathroom he had to share with his neighbours. Poor guy. His long greasy hair didn’t help either.
I’m still baffled by the fact that despite having no experience in sexuality or heartbreak he still sang those songs as if he knew everything about them.
I’m straight Sheila but boy o boy was Elvis good-looking. Did you see those eyes? What the f!?
Thanks again Sheila, I wish there was a easier way to contact you since I bet there’s lots of stuff we could talk about! Cya!