Twenty Years and Counting

The anniversary of Elvis Presley's death inspires the release of--surprise!--more Elvis Presley product.

In the 1969 film Change of Habit, Mary Tyler Moore starred as a nun who had to choose between her commitment to Jesus and her love for a character played by Elvis Presley in his final on-screen dramatic role. She picked Elvis--and since his death, on August 16, 1977, plenty of others have made similar decisions. On Monday, precisely twenty years after the King of Rock and Roll toppled off his toilet and expired on the floor of a Graceland lavatory, his adopted hometown of Memphis will be overrun with Presley faithful, many of whom know in their heart of hearts that the vocalist was every bit as much a savior as the Man From Galilee.

In the country at large, however, such irony-free believers are in the minority. There's no question that Presley remains an extraordinarily potent icon. But rather than picturing him as the impossibly gorgeous, thrillingly untamed gamin who revolutionized the popular-music universe in the mid-Fifties, most Americans think first of the latter-day Elvis, a porcine, white-suited gargoyle flinging sweat-saturated scarves at screaming women wearing too much makeup and too many miles of bad road. To commemorate the two decades since his demise, the folks at the Showtime cable channel made a Presley-themed film--but instead of putting together a deferential bio-pic along the lines of the short-lived, Priscilla Presley-approved Elvis television series, they produced Elvis Meets Nixon, a satirical fantasia about the 1970 meeting of the title pair. Respectful it isn't, but there's been no organized protest against Showtime by the King's loyal subjects. At this point, even they realize that Elvis Meets Nixon is par for the course--like using a fast-talking salesman dressed as Abraham Lincoln to promote a car sale on President's Day.

RCA, the record company that has long served as the repository of the Presley catalogue, hasn't actively participated in making Presley a figure of fun, but neither has it consistently countered this perception. Upon Elvis's passing, the firm did everything it could to shake a few more quarters from his corpse, reconfiguring his hits and misses in a dizzying array of largely unnecessary compilations. An apt example was the 1980 boxed set Elvis Aron Presley, an eight-platter collection of "rarities" that presented a completely incoherent overview of the singer's work. But in recent years, the label has done a better job of keeping the focus on music. Beginning in 1992, it began issuing massive boxes designed to document Presley's oeuvre in roughly chronological order, and while the last of them, Elvis: Walk a Mile in My Shoes --the Essential 70's Masters, was marred by a booklet that engaged in superfluous historical revisionism, its predecessors, Elvis: The King of Rock 'n' Roll--the Complete 50's Masters and From Nashville to Memphis: The Essential 60's Masters I, are admirable efforts that are more about Presley's fascinating way with a song than his legendary ability to make boosters purchase the same material over and over again.

By contrast, Platinum: A Life in Music, a four-CD boxed set released to coincide with the twentieth-anniversary hoopla, is a throwback to the posthumous Presley albums of the late Seventies and early Eighties. In the opus's introduction, an anonymous writer claims that "the purpose of this set is to complement, not duplicate, previously issued retrospectives," and in a sense, that's true: Of the 100 "performances" here, 77 of them have never appeared as part of an officially sanctioned package. But that's a dodge worthy of Colonel Tom Parker, Presley's shady manager and manipulator. Despite its first-class art design and expansive concept, Platinum is at base just another attempt to separate the suckers from their wallets.

Clearly, the models for Platinum were the Anthology series, which brought the Beatles back to the pop charts on numerous occasions during the past several years. There's an enormous difference, though, between the Anthology offerings and the stuff that makes up Platinum. Because the Beatles wrote most of their songs and took an active hand in arranging and producing them, their studio work tapes revealed the process by which their classic songs took shape. This was not always a good thing; Anthology 3 provided more context on Let It Be than anyone needed. But the variations on "A Day in the Life" and "Strawberry Fields," among others, were distinct enough to interest both Beatles completists and aficionados who fell short of absolute obsession. Moreover, the in-depth liner notes helped consumers pinpoint the deviations between familiar ditties and the takes that led up to them.

The same cannot be said for writer Colin Escott's Platinum notes. Mimicking the tack taken by the experts employed on the three Anthology projects, Escott eschews a narrative approach in favor of penning blurbs keyed to each song. But he doesn't detail how, for instance, "Miracle of the Rosary (Alternate Take 1)," which kicks off the fourth CD, diverges from the rendition of the composition that appeared during the early Seventies. Listen to the latter (available on Elvis Now) side by side with the Platinum piece and you'll understand why. Simply put, there are not many differences separating the two. The arrangements are the same, the playing is the same, and even Presley's approach to the vocals is the same. If someone with a good ear and a touch of anal retentiveness spent hours comparing the tracks, he might be able to learn why one was used and the other was discarded: Perhaps Elvis sounded slightly flat while delivering one phrase, or the guitarist strummed when he should have picked at the number's conclusion. But such a discovery would be trivial given how little the "new" songs reveal.

The exceptions to this are mainly on disc one. "I'll Never Stand in Your Way," probably cut at Sun Records in January 1954, reveals a strangely tentative Elvis not yet ready to cut loose. So, too, does a stop-and-start run-through of "That's All Right," the Arthur Crudup blues that he eventually mastered; the manner in which he reins in the crazy sensuality that he oozes in the better-known version gives this reject a scintillating tension. But rather than building on this theme, the compilers of Platinum disrupt it by sprinkling radio smashes into the mix. It's difficult to know why they felt compelled to drop the originals of "Don't Be Cruel," "All Shook Up," "Teddy Bear" and many more onto Platinum; probably they feared that people purchasing it after seeing the plugs that have been airing on Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy would be alienated unless at least some favorites were included. But the juxtaposition of a shaggy, off-pitch ransacking of "When the Saints Go Marching In" (a private recording from 1956 that finds Presley harmonizing with running buddies Red West and Charlie Hooten) with the polished-for-airplay "Love Me Tender" is just plain baffling. Or maybe it's not. That the subtitle on "Suspicious Minds," from disc three, reads "Alternate Take 7" lets you know that there are six others sitting in a can in RCA's vault just waiting to be foisted on a gullible populace. Place them beside some classics and--voila!--Platinum, Part Two.

By the same token, you can hardly blame RCA for taking advantage of certain fans' mania for owning everything they can grab that's even tangentially connected to the dead performers who mean the most to them. The record industry is a business, not a public service, and members of it have the right to make money from it whether the albums they're distributing are good or not. Furthermore, none of their efforts will have the slightest impact on the evolution of Elvis Presley's image. In death, the King has taken on a life of his own--one that's too powerful for anyone to control. He may be a joke to some and a god to others, but either way, he's here to stay. On August 16 twenty years from now, people will still be making pilgrimages to his grave, and they'll still be buying every Presley album they can find. Pop stardom is ephemeral, but Elvis is forever.

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