Wednesday, 12 September 2012

The Charity Shop Book Review III

Yes, you just can't keep me out of a good charity shop - those musty repositories of used clothing, broken toys, VHS tapes and, of course books...
I'm an Elvis fan. I know, shocked and stunned eh? - maybe not; let's say you were. This makes this review A; Nearly impossible and B; Probable blasphemy for Elfans everywhere (For the record, tape and DVD, I am not an Elfan, it just conjures up images of people meeting at seedy clubs to dress in green – I can't stand the word. So, I'm an Elvis fan...)

WARNING: Contains graphic references, opinions and revelations (If true) about the life of Elvis Presley – don't read if easily upset. I don't want to burst anyone's bubble, seriously this is not my intent.

Albert Goldman's 1981 book 'Elvis' is possibly the most notorious biography ever written, a scathing expose of a drug-ridden perverted recluse with alarming tendencies towards homicidal mania surrounded by brown-nosers and... well, it goes on.
The book itself – mine's the paperback edition – weighs in at an impressive 720 pages, covering – you guessed it – the birth, life and death of Elvis. Well written, often brilliantly so, this is an in-detail no stone unturned piece of journalism (Wait for it...) that was compiled over the course of some six hundred interviews, the copyright notice listing Kevin Eggers and Lamar Fike – the latter of Memphis mafia fame. As a work of journalism, this book is stunning – even down to Fike's calling Colonel Parker up to challenge him on the issue of his nationality – it really is comprehensive in it's scope and sheer hard work. The first problem?; the journalism is overshadowed by opinion – Goldman really comes across as hating his subject, he sneers and scoffs his way through the whole thing, only really crediting Presley for his earliest works at Sun with a hastily-tacked on paragraph at the very end. Having spent several trees' worth of paper and a barrel of ink slating the man as a bloated retarded junkie he then expects us to buy that he believes the man was trying to break free of the chains of his image and we should be exhilarated somehow.

So why am I suggesting this is worth precious shelf-space in your home? - it really is brilliant; Chapter 7, 'Hoot 'n' Holler offers a marvellously atmospheric descriptive of the Memphis music scene at the very dawn of Rock n' Roll – the sounds, the characters and the way it all conspired to form the firework that had Elvis as it's bursting star and teenagers as the fuse. The fact that the 'new' phenomenon of the American teenager was post war cash-rich and waiting for an outlet to express the verve and energy of their repressed youth is portrayed clearly and vividly. I don't usually read books over seven hundred pages long, but I made time for this one!.

The descriptive power is there in unpleasant force in Chapter 2, too. The View from the Imperial Suite describes the pre-show routine of Elvis at his heaviest in the later Vegas days. He was reclusive, exhausted and burnt out. Heavily addicted to drugs he couldn't tolerate even the warmth of the Sun, preferring air-conditioning and artificial light. Now divorced, the King grimly forces himself to take the stage. I found this chapter mesmerising – I make no bones about my musical taste; I love The King's music and always have. Even a book that drags his reputation through the gutter can offer nuggets of gold to a true fan – if they can accept that their idol was made of flesh and prone to the same weaknesses as other men. I particularly liked learning the facts I hadn't known; stuff about Graceland, the King's taste in food, women, clothes and, largely, vehicles. Elvis was a 'petrol head' to shame even myself (And I just got back from a trip that included a day out at the National Motor Museum, Beaulieu – ask my wife, she nearly had to drag me away from the James Bond cars.) (She's a Lotus fan, if anyone wants to know.)

Back to the book – the central theme is underpinned by the recurring refernce to 'The Myth' – i.e. the Myths around Elvis. How many times have you heard; 'He loved his mother' / 'He gave so much to charity' / 'Priscilla broke his heart' etc etc?.
Goldman takes these myths and contrasts them with fact – at least a version of fact. Another problem I have is with Fike; I believe the man was bitter about Elvis and had an axe to grind. They spent many years together, Fike being a central member of the famed Memphis mafia; this guy saw it all. I have no problem believing Elvis liked several girls at once, but I do wonder about some of it – some of the sexual imagery here is, frankly, unprovable. Using the word 'pervert' may be acceptable in America, I don't know the severity of its use there – but I'm English, call a man that word here and you'll find out if he can punch. Incidentally, when does being a voyeur become perverted?; I'd say when it's outside a primary school, certainly not on a massive round bed in a Bel Air mansion when two showgirls are playing around... (I think I need to get out more. Sorry). Come on; Mick Jagger's having to eat the Mar's bars before they melt and Elvis with two or three girls is off the chart?.

Oh yes, that Myth thing; Elvis loved his Mother, but you need a context; these were extremely poor and not especially sophisticated folks – Dad Vernon did three years for a piece of forgery that I'd have laughed at aged seven (Sorry, Mum, but certain school reports threatened my freedom as they stood.). These people were Hillbillies – yokels, country bumpkins. The fact that they scraped enough money together to buy their son a trike (Which he gave away) tells you he was loved, but it was Gladys who wore the trousers. Elvis' mum was extremely clingy and over-bearing, this can't be overstated – it shaped his view of women and meant that he was, in today's terms, dysfunctional.
Priscilla sent him mad – the 'Wives don't go on tour' rule meant he had plenty of girls, but a lonely and disillusioned girl, Priscilla had an affair with Karate instructor Mike Stone (Elvis was famously 'into' Karate, to the extent that, although certainly capable, he effectively bought his black belt. His stage act was the main beneficiary, his flashy moves suggested danger – his timing was spot-on, too; this was the era of the Bruce Lee craze) and the marriage fell apart. Driven up the wall by his sense of outrage, spurred on by the effect of drugs Elvis brandished guns and called his estranged wife to plead for her return or threaten her if she did not. The singer came within a whisker of ordering Stone killed. By the real Mafia. Thankfully, he saw sense in the end.
Charity; well, I'd call giving Cadillacs to strangers charitable, but the truth is, as with everything in his life, Elvis was not conventional. Rather than build a hospital or school, Presley played some charity gigs in Hawaii. Why not more?; this is a man who was known to stop a concert to hand out diamond jewellery, certainly a man not famous for his meanness... which neatly brings us to one who was never known to be otherwise – and the real villain of the piece.

Born in Breda, Holland the young Dries van Kuijk was an illegal immigrant in the USA. He served with the US military on Hawaii for two years from 1930. Changing his name to Tom Parker, the rest is history – the carnival midway barker that went into music management and winded up signing the young Elvis Presley. There were always rumours, mainly that Parker's 'cut' was fifty percent rather than the usual ten (Parker always claimed as Elvis was his sole client, this was justified.), that his gambling debts had gotten so bad only a lengthy and soul destroying series of Elvis appearances at Vegas could repay them. Only after Presley's death when Probate lawyers got wind of the Colonel's (He was an honorary Colonel, one of those 'Southern' Colonels as with Colonel Sanders.) shady dealings that the scale became clear; at the end, Elvis only got fifteen percent!.
Although an extraordinary man, Parker was a small-time carny, a hustler - rather than putting the World's hottest ticket into Shea Stadium or touring abroad – even to the point of turning down millions of dollars for a single show in the Middle East – Parker kept his property churning out ever staler formula movies. By the end, a Presley movie was made in seventeen days, with the reluctant star doing his vocals alone to a tape of the music. So old-fashioned was Parker's taste that had it prevailed, the legendary Singer Special wouldn't have featured sexy Elvis in his black leather playing around and showing he still had 'it', but an Elvis-by-the-Christmas-tree-knitted-sweater rehash that would have had Perry Como's lawyers reaching for the phone. Sadly, Parker's presence was everywhere – which is why it amazes me so much that Elvis managed to pull off the impossible.

Las Vegas – the town Elvis came to hate. Well, despite the Colonel getting him stuck in this rut, Elvis was enough of a professional by now to know how to pull off what I call 'The Vegas Job' – he went to the International Hotel Showroom and saw straight away the problem; it was a massive impersonal space. Parker wanted Elvis and a five-piece band on a stage built for a chorus line – the stage that Streisand had just bombed on. Elvis got his costume designer Bill Belew to produce stage suits based on the Karate gi , with macrame belts. He worked up a new arrangement influenced on his recent friendship with the young Tom Jones, whose act had enthralled him – including the dramatic 'freeze-poses' at the end of songs. To fill the stage, Elvis hired fifty singers and musicians – and smashed all records.

Well, I'm out of time – really I could go on all day here; o.k. This book is not for most Elvis fans; it shatters illusions, some of the assertions (i.e. Elvis made his own porno tapes on video) are frankly trashy sensationalism. I always go by the maxim; Believe nothing that you hear and only half what you see. Perhaps I should add only half what you read – but with the life of Elvis Aaron Presley, half of the truth is still well worth knowing.

I'll sign off with a heartfelt apology to anyone offended by my review – I consider myself an appreciative fan of the World's Greatest Entertainer, a man gifted with a perfect voice and the talent to convey the feeling behind his music to a level not seen before or since. Rest in peace, Elvis.

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