I missed the dawn of Elvis. I was just a bit too young, only four years old in July, 1954, when the King recorded “That’s All Right (Mama)” for Sun Records and, as Bobbie Ann Mason writes, “it was as if the nebulous, unformed kid was a genie let loose from a Coke bottle.”
By the time I became aware of the world outside our family home in Chicago, Elvis was a major fixture in the American culture. Rock ‘n’ roll was already established.
I heard stories of how shocking Presley had been, arriving on the scene, but that was old news. He was a name, like Ike and like Mickey Mantle, that everyone knew. He was — in that alchemy of celebrity — part of my life and the lives of everyone else.
Mason’s short biography Elvis Presley, part of the Penguin Lives series, was sort of remedial reading for me.
Mason, a Southerner, is a novelist and short story writer, and she spends her book looking at how it felt like Elvis, how he arose out of the fabric of the South, how his personality was formed by poverty and crushed by the expectations his talent and success unleashed. Like genies out of a Coke bottle.
“Risk and trembling”
For me, growing up, Elvis was simply Elvis. Mason explains what it meant for those who experienced him as a new phenomenon:
Elvis swept up marginal groups of people with a promise of freedom, release, redemption; he embodied a yin and yang of yearnings; he took people close to the edge and brought them back again; with his stupendous singing talent, he blended all the strains of popular American music into one rebellious voice; like Walt Whitman, he was large — he contained multitudes; he created a style of being that was so distinctive it could be made into an icon; he violated taboos against personal expression and physicality; he opened the airwaves to risk and trembling.
Elvis exploded the past, broke down walls. He was the epitome of the rebel. But Mason notes that he wasn’t radical in the way most of his listeners were.
Though supercharged with riotous energy, he was not resisting the same things his new fans were. He rebelled against poverty, not affluence. He wanted acceptance, not alienation….Elvis wasn’t in the beat tradition and he wouldn’t be in the next wave: the hippies. He was a representative of the marginalized who fight their way into the harbor, not the disaffected who jump ship.
Indeed, Mason makes clear that Elvis was “a fearful person by nature,” afraid of the dark since childhood, who “lived his life as if he were hiding in a storm shelter, surrounding himself with people who could protect and insulate him.”
“The way life was”
One of those people was Colonel Tom Parker, the confidence man who wheedled himself into the good graces of Elvis and his family and became the singer’s manager for the rest of his life.
What’s striking about the story Mason tells is that, unlike Bob Dylan or the Beatles (or many other cultural leaders), Elvis didn’t have control of his career. Throughout much of his career, his musical genius was tamped down and squelched by Parker in order to make a quick, safe buck.
Who knows what sort of music we lost because of that? And, yet, it seems apparent from Mason’s book that only someone who wasn’t Elvis could have broken away from Parker’s clutches.
The Presleys knew they needed a guide, someone of their own kind who could maneuver among the bankers, lawyers, company executives — none of whom were to be trusted. The Presleys probably considered themselves lucky to find a con man who could challenge the big dudes, because they knew the big dudes would just stomp on them. That was the way life was.
Once the Colonel was in charge, Elvis saw him as his boss and also the man who was negotiating contracts that would bring the King unheard of riches — $150,000, for instance. Elvis didn’t know, and had no one around him, that he could have made tenfold, a hundredfold, that with better business and music advice.
Elvis behaved like many other poor Southerners, accepting the heel of oppression when they should have been thinking more radically. This is characteristic Southern passivity and fatalism, which often belies an inner fire — a rebel sneer, at least.
“The life force”
Several times in this biography, Mason describes Elvis as expressing and/or epitomizing “the life force.” There was something primal about his music and performances (discounting the tame and tepid movie soundtrack albums).
Here, Mason describes the reaction of the public to his early recordings:
People didn’t know if it was rhythm-and-blues, country, or what. Whatever it was, listeners clamored for it. Many people said Elvis sounded black, like the sounds of the race records. In an era when daytime radio was dominated by tepid crooning, quirky novelty, and chirpy innocence, here was a record [“That’s All Right] — by a white boy — that had the flavor of juke-joint music. It had the thumping abandon, the driving energy, of the life force itself — a thrusting and writhing and wallowing and celebration.
Yet, how does a mere mortal cope with being the bringer of the life force — with being the life force.
I suspect that John Lennon and his bandmates, that Dylan, that others shackled with the celebrity they sought, learned how to keep their fame from swallowing them whole by watching Elvis — by watching how he got it wrong.
For Mason, the tragedy of Elvis’s life “arises from the earnestness of his endeavor to be the superhero he believed he was supposed to be.”
Who could ever be that superhero?
Yet, Mason writes, Elvis tried. “He was addicted to being Elvis.”
Patrick T. Reardon