By Brad Lopez
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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.
In 1970 Presley's film career was, for all practical purposes, over, yet he didn't attempt to fill this vacuum by transforming himself into a studio perfectionist. His one major effort in this arena (1969's From Elvis in Memphis) was spectacular, but it required more patience than Presley could muster on a regular basis. He recorded a great deal as the end neared, but there was seldom an overarching vision at play at his sessions. He came in, cut whatever songs had been lined up for him with whatever musicians were around at the time, and then headed off in search of the nearest fried peanut-butter-and-banana sandwich. As Marsh notes, Presley had more to say about the tunes he covered during the Seventies than previously, but his instincts were far from infallible. Some of his choices were decent ("Always on My Mind" and "T-R-O-U-B-L-E," on disc two), some were abominable (disc one's "An American Trilogy," disc four's "Snowbird"), yet most shared a common bond: melodrama.
This virtue was a necessity, because Elvis had returned to the stage with a vengeance, and the routines he developed for the crowds who flocked to arenas and Las Vegas casinos to see him combined old-fashioned theatrics with a distinctively American predilection for the garish and the gargantuan. There was little that was subtle about Presley on stage, and he displayed absolutely no sense of shame. He would use every stratagem in the canon to reach his audiences, no matter how hoary or brazen, and he didn't seem to care that plenty of these ploys were looked down upon by the rockers who once followed in his footsteps. "Let It Be Me (Je T'Appartiens)," "The Impossible Dream (The Quest)" and "Unchained Melody" (on disc five here) recall Mario Lanza and Enrico Caruso more than they do any of the King's contemporaries, because while delivering them, Presley wails for the balconies with the exaggerated tones of a hayseed Don Giovanni. Elsewhere, on studio efforts and live recordings alike, Presley piles on the string sections, horn sections and background vocalists like a creative glutton, then rides atop them in a way that is at once godlike and ridiculous.
The result of these histrionics is often preposterous, but entertainingly so. When Elvis was in his final stages, he had become so vast and supreme a figure that it didn't matter what he was singing; simply that he did so at all was enough. He could still approximate the rock of his youth, as he does on disc two's "Steamroller Blues" and disc five's live "Heartbreak Hotel," but he was more interested in jerking tears and causing the middle-aged females in attendance to gasp.
Elvis succeeded more often than anyone had a right to expect, and he did so without evincing the slightest pretension about art. And that's not a bad thing: The music on Walk a Mile in My Shoes is memorable (and wonderful--and horrible) because such considerations couldn't have been further from Presley's mind. Sorry, Mr. Marsh, but Elvis didn't require your worshipful approval, or that of any other dictator of taste. All he needed was some hairspray, a pair of white shoes, a few sweat-soaked scarves, a couple dozen studio hacks and a song that gave him an excuse to punch a hole in the sky.