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Several years ago a friend of mine set out to assemble a tape of Elvis Presley songs under the title "Good Elvis/Bad Elvis." The idea seemed simple: For side A, he planned to compile the finest pieces of Presley; for side B, the worst of the worst--ditties guaranteed to clear a room faster than a gas leak. But Elvis proved too knotty and unpredictable a subject for this concept. My friend soon discovered that a good many of the tracks he thought were unimpeachable proved quite goofy upon further examination, while a like number of those he regarded as dreck struck him as perversely amusing after repeated listens. When it comes to the King, he finally decided, there's no such thing as Good Elvis or Bad Elvis. There's only Elvis, period.
Unfortunately, revelations of this sort seem beyond a disturbingly high percentage of pop-music journalists, many of whom exhibit an unseemly defensiveness regarding the very stuff about which they write or comment. It's likely that these critics are first attracted to rock and roll and its innumerable offshoots for a lot of the same reasons that appeal to the average listener: its vitality, its brevity, its sass, even its air of planned obsolescence. But once they devote themselves to the championing of the form, they become unable or unwilling to acknowledge that these qualities contribute to the joys of the genre. Instead, they spend their time and energy maintaining that rock at its finest is not just art, but high art--an endeavor that should be judged by the same standards applied to civilization's finest efforts in literature, painting, sculpture and the like.
Truth be told, some pop platters do deserve to be measured by such a yardstick. Others don't, but this failing alone doesn't mean they lack worth. In fact, many of them are of value precisely because they couldn't be further from prototypical masterpieces. Convincing insecure music scribblers to admit as much is quite another matter, however. They seem congenitally unable to keep praise in perspective, and when they allow their prose to float into the stratosphere, the consequence is the critical inflation and distortion of music that doesn't need to be puffed up to sound good. In short, such pomposity misses the entire point of rock and roll.
Which brings us to Elvis: Walk a Mile in My Shoes--The Essential 70's Masters. A five-CD set released by RCA, Elvis is the third of three massive collections intended to document Presley's work respectfully, and it's the one most likely to test the patience of even true believers. Why? Hits appeared with less frequency and made considerably smaller impacts during the period covered by the collection (roughly 1970 to just before Presley's 1977 death). Moreover, the evolution of Elvis's music mirrored the changes in his body: It became heavier, slower, less lithe, more turgid. By the end, Presley was seen by an entire generation as a joke in bellbottoms, and while this view is too harsh (it suffers from a distressing humorlessness), it's not without its merits.
As a result, conceding this point, or at least grappling with it open-mindedly, would seem a requirement for anyone hoping to put Presley's Seventies sounds into a historical context. But that's not what those who put together 70's Masters had in mind. Dave Marsh, a thoroughly blinkered Elvis commentator, wrote the enormous essay that dominates the set's accompanying booklet, and his goal is unapologetically revisionistic: He wants to demonstrate that recordings from Presley's final years are every bit as substantial and significant as those made in the King's Fifties heyday. His best Seventies cuts, Marsh writes, "establish two things. The first is that Elvis continued to be a great popular singer, able to tackle all manner of songs...The second is that as he matured, Elvis's music became more and more personal and revealing, so that even while he seemed utterly immune to any influence from the personalized and confessional approach of rock singers like John Lennon and Bob Dylan, he managed in his own fashion to use the additional artistic space their work opened to expose deeper and more intimate parts of himself."
Even Marsh seems to recognize that hooey like this can't stand alone, so he pairs it with intellectual esoterica: quotes from author Barbara Kingsolver's Animal Dreams ("What keeps you going isn't some fine destination but just the road you're on"), painter Pablo Picasso ("I put down on the canvas the sudden visions that force themselves on me"), poet Eileen Myles ("My art can't be supported until it is/Gigantic, bigger than/Everyone else's, confirming/The audience's feeling that they are/Alone...") and others. But the harder he tries, the more the absurdity of Marsh's goal becomes unavoidable. Reading these items while looking at booklet photos of a chipmunk-cheeked Presley posing in rhinestone-clad jumpsuits is altogether kooky. Doing so while listening to these discs is even more ludicrous, and not only because such a wide gulf exists between the tunes and Marsh's ostentatious descriptions of them. Presley's last hurrahs are so singular, and they say so much about what we in this country consider diverting, that they render these grandiose musings entirely insignificant.
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