Next up on the essays shelf:
The Fun of It: Stories from The Talk of the Town, edited by Lillian Ross
The Fun of It is a collection of “The Talk of the Town” pieces in The New Yorker, grouped by decade, which is a lot of fun because you can see how the “voice” of the magazine developed, and how “The Talk of the Town” has grown and changed over the years.
To Elvis fans, this essay is well-known because anything ever written about Elvis is well-known.
The “David” in the title refers to David Cassidy.
So let’s break it down.
Elvis burst onto the national scene in 1956 after becoming a regional phenomenon the year before. After signing with the Colonel (it was more a handshake-”you’re-my-guy” than a signing), Elvis started making television appearances. First came a series of spots on The Dorsey Brothers: these were Elvis’ first moments before a national audience. He’s wild in those spots. Much more wild than he would be only a couple of months later when he appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show. After The Dorsey Brothers came his infamous appearance on The Milton Berle Show which really started all of his trouble. He gyrated like a maniac at the prolonged half-time ending of “Hound Dog”, and the shit hit the fan. He was denounced from pulpits, from op-ed pages. Cops threatened to shut down his show in Florida. Riots broke out at shows. Elvis was forced to hide in the backstage restroom after a show in Florida, but the girls found him there anyway and began to tear his clothes off of him. All of this spooked Ed Sullivan. It spooked Steve Allen, too, who – notoriously, awfully – had Elvis on his show and proceeded to make a mockery of him, dressing him up in a tuxedo and forcing him to sing “Hound Dog” to an actual hound dog. Nobody knew what to do with Elvis. Well, the girls knew. They always knew.
In June of 1972, Elvis Presley returned to New York after a nearly 20-year hiatus (and he didn’t tour there originally, he appeared on TV shows there) to play Madison Square Garden. He played four sold-out shows, breaking the record at the time. After a decade of not touring in the 60s, he opened at the International Hotel in Las Vegas in 1969, which would become his home away from home until he died in 1977. People made pilgrimages to Vegas to see him whenever he played there. He always returned. Starting in the 70s, Elvis began to tour constantly. He would take a month off, and then go back on the road again. He played small towns, big ones, and re-traced his steps through the South and South-East, where he had made his initial impression on young audiences. But playing New York? That was a different thing altogether. (And we shouldn’t forget that playing Las Vegas was also daunting to Elvis. He had had a brief gig there in 1956 which did not go over well. The middle-aged high-brow audience sat back and clapped politely when Elvis was used to mayhem. He walked the streets at night in despair. He couldn’t win them over. They didn’t like him! All is lost!! Returning to Vegas in 1969 was a way to slay that dragon of memory. Elvis never forgot a slight. He had a long long memory.) And New York was the place that had welcomed him in 1956, including him on the big variety shows, but had also humiliated him (phone call for Steve Allen). He was condescended to in the press, sneered at, held in contempt. That was in 1956. And if you think that wasn’t still on Elvis’ mind in 1972 when he returned, then you don’t know your Elvis!
Interestingly enough (and Conan O’Brien and Peter Guralnick cover this in their conversation), it was only when Elvis became a national phenomenon that his problems with public-image began. All those snooty Northeast elites treating him like a hick from the cow pastures, a perfect example of the “tolerance” of liberals who don’t hesitate to sneer at those with Southern accents. Tolerance, my ass. Elvis was very aware of all of that, and over the years his accent slowly disappeared, or at least lost its chewy edge. The overriding feeling in 1956 was: “Well, of course the hicks and hillbillies love you, you’re one of them, but this is New York, son, we have higher standards up here.”
It’s all rather gross and disheartening and still goes on, to some degree. Elvis was a flashpoint for all of that regional and class prejudice (not to mention race prejudice).
In some ways, this Talk of the Town piece, from June, 1972, detailing two concerts which occurred in New York City almost back to back (Elvis at Madison Square Garden, and David Cassidy at Nassau Coliseum), is about how Girls Know a Good Thing When They See It.
Guralnick and O’Brien did not touch upon my theory that much of the dismissiveness and condescension that Elvis still receives critically is due to the fact that his core audience was screaming women. Women just don’t seem as “serious” as men, it’s all rather silly, what women do when they go crazy for a star, isn’t it, tut-tut … if only men were also fans, then he could be seen as serious. (Of course Elvis had male fans, he always had, but the girls made more noise.) Now, granted, some men have a blindspot about such issues. The male experience is seen as The Default in our culture. It just is. But when women decide to love someone? They can move mountains. They can make people stars. Get out of the damn way.
Obviously, David Cassidy’s solo star did not shine as brightly as Elvis Presley’s. There are many many many stars who blaze across the covers of Tiger Beat for a season only to disappear when their fan base graduates to 9th grade. He was one of those. Although he did come back to Broadway to star in Blood Brothers, with his brother Shaun Cassidy and Petula Clark – and my aunt Regina was in that show! I met the Cassidy brothers! And Petula Clark. So he’s still out there. Nostalgia will carry him a long way. Interestingly enough, I Googled to check out any reviews of that Cassidy concert at Nassau Coliseum and the first thing that came up was an essay by my old blog-buddy Michele Catalano (she who organized the Sacks for Sandy wrapping party I attended). Michele Catalano was remembering her first concert, which was, unbelievably, that David Cassidy concert. I love her memory of it, how she tried to remain distant and “cool”, only to find herself screaming like a banshee.
Elvis’ return to New York was a major media event. Of course there were no personal interviews with The King (there never were), but he did hold a press conference which has to be seen to be believed. WORK that crowd, country boy. He looks amazing, he’s funny, he’s intelligent, and in a couple of more awkward moments (when reporters ask him about the Vietnam War or his opinion on the women’s movement) he gently steers them off that course: “I’m an entertainer, honey,” he says to one woman. Brilliant.
You’d never know that that man at that press conference was terrified, terrified of being rejected and sneered at. Well, we all know what happened. He was a triumph. Not just with fans but with the press, many of whom were getting their first look at him live, ever.
Recently, a box set called Prince From Another Planet was released, with re-mastered great-sounding recordings of all four shows Elvis did at Madison Square Garden. Of course, tracks had been released before, but the sound here is now pristine. You feel like you are at the concert. Elvis sounds incredible.
And he looked amazing too.
The “Talk of the Town” report on these two concerts – one from a guy almost 20 years into his stardom, and one from a guy just hitting it big – is very interesting. During the David Cassidy section, the author says that Cassidy doesn’t seem to take it all too seriously, and neither do the girls in the audience. That’s what these serious worry-warts don’t understand. Stop condescending to girls about what they choose to love, and how they choose to express their passion. Stop worrying about what it all means. These figures are fantasy-figures to girls, and girls love to let those fantasies out, love to scream and go mad. People still worry about the downfall of society when girls, en masse, decide to love something.
At the start, you can see some of that New York attitude in evidence (although the comedian who opened for Elvis did bomb, that’s a fact). There is some confusion about Elvis’ gigantic operation, the orchestra, the chorus, all that. This was common for many of the members of the press, who had memories of Elvis on the Ed Sullivan Show with two or three guys behind him, and that was it. Who was this new Superman-figure, with a cape, and glitter, and a horn section?
What I love about this excerpt, though, is the comments included by the author’s “companion”. And there are some very interesting observations here about Elvis’ conscious manipulation of his own persona, his awareness of what was expected of him, and his sense of humor in offering it up (or not offering it up). Elvis knew what he was doing. I sense a tone of surprise in this line: “it became impossible to avoid the conclusion that he is a consummate professional”. Again, that has to be taken in context. Of course Elvis was a professional, Jeez, right? But if you think of 1972, if you think of the fact that Elvis was relatively new to the concert-touring circuit, if the majority of regular people out there knew him from his movies and the soundtracks … then yes, a feeling of surprise of how in CHARGE he was makes a lot of sense. Remember, the Beatles were out there in the world, the Rolling Stones were out there in the world. Elvis had been confined to the drive-in movie screens for almost 10 years. And unless you made the trek to Vegas, how would you ever see the guy? This is pre-Youtube-clips. In 1972, Elvis’ status was unquestionable, but seeing him live had to be absolutely overwhelming.
Here’s an excerpt.
The Fun of It: Stories from The Talk of the Town, edited by Lillian Ross; ‘Elvis! David!’, by Hendrik Hertzberg
A lot was wrong with Elvis Presley’s first-ever New York appearance, at Madison Square Garden last weekend. Somebody in the Presley organization misjudged the desires of the crowd, and as a result Elvis was preceded by a standup comedian called Jackie Kahane. No doubt Mr. Kahane’s patter knocks ‘em dead inVegas, but New York is not Vegas and the Garden is not a night club. “Kids today …” said Mr. Kahane gamely, and lamely, as the audience clapped in unison. “I have a kid. Everything this kid eats turns to hair.” He was finally booed off the stage. There was fault to find with Elvis’s own performance as well. Instead of a rhythm section to back him up, he had a twenty-three-piece orchestra, a six-man rock band, and an eight-member chorus – a bit too much insurance, even for the Garden. The program was rigidly arranged and planned, allowing for little in the way of spontaneity, and it consisted largely of romantic ballads and sugary, easy-listening songs. The classics that most of the audience had come to hear – “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Don’t Be Cruel,” “Hound Dog” – occupied only fifteen minutes of a fifty-minute program. The blandness was conceptual as well as musical, as when Elvis sang a non-controversial medley of “Dixie,” “All My Trials”, and “Battle Hymn of the Republic”. The gyrations that made the man famous were seldom in evidence. Instead, he offered a repertoire of stereotyped actions and heroic poses.
Oddly, none of this made any difference. The audience was ecstatic throughout. (It would have been ecstatic even if Elvis had sung nothing but Gregorian chants.) During the intermission before Elvis’s appearance, our companion, a young woman who still has her Elvis scrapbook packed away in a trunk somewhere, told us a story that made it all quite comprehensible. “When I was twelve years old,” she said, “I was riding in the car with my mother and brother, and a song called ‘I Want, I Need You, I Love You’ came on the radio. I immediately felt a certain twinge. My mother said, ‘This is that Elvis Presley they’re all talking about. I don’t see what all the fuss is about.’ My brother said the same thing. I just sat on the back seat and didn’t say anything. You see, I did know what all the fuss was about.”
The lights went down, the orchestra struck up what used to be called “Thus Spake Zarathustra” and is now called “The Theme from ’2001,’” the audience began a full-throated scream, and Elvis appeared. He looked magnificent. His coal-black hair was fuller and drier than in days of old, and he wore a fantastical white costume studded with silver. He strolled back and forth on the stage, accepting the plaudits of the crowd like a Roman emperor. He looked like an apparition, and this was appropriate, because he has been a figure of fantasy for seventeen years. As the performance went on, it became impossible to avoid the conclusion that he is a consummate professional. He never cut loose, but he did not have to. The slightest gesture of his hand, the smallest inclination of his head set off waves of screams from the favored direction. The greatest ovation, except for the one that attended his initial appearance, came when he went into the first of his old songs, “Love Me.” “Treat me like a fool,” he sang. “Treat me mean an’ crool, but love me.”
Throughout, Elvis maintained a certain ironic distance from it all, sometimes engaging in a bit of self-parody. At the beginning of “Hound Dog,” for example, he posed dramatically on one knee, said, “Oh, excuse me,” and switched to the other knee. But he manifestly enjoyed the audience’s enjoyment, even as he indicated with a smile here and a gesture there that it all had less to do with him than with their idea of him. On our way out, we asked our companion if she had liked the show. “It was bliss,” she said. “I haven’t felt so intensely thirteen since – well, since I was thirteen.”