Rant ‘N’ Roll: I Am Elvis

It’s true. I’m really Elvis. He resides within me, alive and vibrant. Just like he resided within Andy Kaufman (1949-1984), the comedian, performance artist and wrestler. When Kaufman, most known for his Latka character on TV’s Taxi sitcom, did Elvis, that essence was revealed. It was no comedy bit. He truly was Elvis. So am I. So is Springsteen and so was Lennon. They’ve both said it. There’s just something about Elvis that lends itself to fanatical devotion. And the fact that Elvis himself stopped being Elvis towards the end of his life just makes his story all the more poignant and sad. That story can be read best by the two volumes of Peter Guralnick—Last Train To Memphis: The Rise Of Elvis Presley (1994) and Careless Love: The Unmaking Of Elvis Presley (1999). No other books are needed, and there are hundreds. I remember almost crying on a bus while reading the latter book.

Elvis Country: Legacy Edition has just come out (RCA/Legacy). These two 1971 albums, now packaged together, has an Elvis finally freed from the horrible soundtrack albums that his awful manager Tom Parker legally bound him to. True, Parker was great in getting his client famous, but if any artist ever outgrew any manager it was Elvis and Parker. Too bad Elvis had a misplaced sense of loyalty.

After his 31st movie wrapped (Change Of Habit with Mary Tyler Moore playing a nun), he was finally free to tour again and record what he wanted. Elvis Country and Love Letters From Elvis, both slanted towards Nashville instead of Memphis, and are both filled with gems (and also a few clunkers). Unfortunately, the former has the irritating “concept” move of inserting a few seconds of “I Was Born About 10,000 Years Ago” after each of the 12 tracks. I’m not sure what the producer intended, but it’s annoying as hell. Still, Elvis really throws himself into covering such country legends as Bob Wills, Hank Cochran, Ernest Tubb, Bill Monroe and Willie Nelson. Willie, in fact, was finally able to afford that new tour bus he always wanted as a direct result of Elvis covering “Funny How Time Slips Away.” The one clunker, Anne Murray’s “Snowbird,” is complete with trendy sitar. The two obvious highlights of Love Letters From Elvis have him wailing—and I mean, positively rejuvenated!—on the 1957 Muddy Waters hit “Got My Mojo Working” and the 1953 Tony Bennett hit “Rags To Riches.”

Whenever I listen to Elvis—or any tormented legend like Edith Piaf, Billie Holiday or Johnny Ray—I try to unearth clues as to their state-of-mind at the time of the recording. Elvis being so damn soulful on Dallas Frazier’s “There Goes My Everything” hits home hard on the line “There goes my reason for living.” Could he have been thinking of Priscilla, the wife who left him for karate instructor Mike Stone? (If any wife ever had reason to leave a husband, it was she, but we won’t get into that now.) Elvis put his heart on his sleeve (as the saying goes) and this poignant country song of lost love is as sad as it gets.

There used to be a show on Channel 9 in New York called Million Dollar Movie. On Sundays, they would repeat the movie over and over again throughout the entire day. I must have watched Elvis’s greatest movie, King Creole (1958), a dozen times. I memorized the scene when he fought with his father. Those who denigrate his acting should revisit this film. Adapted from Harold Robbins’ first novel, A Stone For Danny Fisher (1952), Elvis plays the title role, but instead of a Brooklyn boxer, he’s a New Orleans singer.

The movie contains the greatest rock ’n’ roll moment in Hollywood history: Mobster Walter Matthau walks into a bar with his moll Carolyn Jones. Elvis, the busboy, makes the mistake of saying hello to the mobster’s girlfriend. “I saw him sing, that’s all,” she pleads. “Hey busboy,” shouts the gangster. “Get on stage and sing us a song.” Boy, does he ever. It’s “Trouble,” and when he finishes, Matthau just says, “Okay, kid. I got a dirty mind. You’re a singer all right.”

Scenes like that are etched in my brain and have become part of my DNA. Yeah, I’m Elvis. And I’ll sing you a song anytime you want.