Newspaper Articles – Issue 13
by Art Fein
It’s 8:00 here in L.A. It’s hot, and the news is only hours old. It’s like the Kennedy assassination, just. I remember the exact moment I heard. I reacted numbly, like “oh, really?” and sat down. It took a while for the pain to set in. I called a friend to find out what he knew, but stopped. It had happened: that was all there was to know.
It had just been a couple of months earlier that I’d gotten re-energized about Elves. As a kid I couldn’t have been more slavish, with records, pictures, posters, pennants. Anything that mentioned him I’d buy. I read all the fan magazines, followed his every move. Connected people like Nick Adams grew in importance. Natalie Wood should have married him. His impact on my young life was total.
But I backslid when he did. The crushing disappointment when he got out of the Army. The tepid Sinatra tv special. those slushy Italian ballads. Those movies. Elvis, the image, crumbled like everything else in the 60s. The ’68 comeback offered some hope; him on tv, kidding around with a guitar on his knee, the symbolic leather jacket that not he, or me, or anyone ever wore in the 50s. The 1970 tour (how I looked blankly at the little ad in the Denver Post, trying to reckon with my senses like today). the Vegas days, the karate chops and the fringed suits. Then the slowdown and the poses where there used to be movies. And now this.
Ironically, 1976 was a big year for Elvis “revivals” because of several important re-issued records, official and otherwise. RCA put out The Sun Sessions, important early stuff, and The Legendary Performer that contained a lavish booklet with session sheets, news clippings, magazine covers, and other fetishists’ delights culled from what must be an incomprehensible ( to the impressionable) feast of Presleyana somewhere in the RCA vaults. The bootlegs told the real story, though, with early session outtakes, precious movie soundtracks, and most importantly, the original rv soundtracks to the Tommy & Jimmy Dorsey shows in January, 1956, the ones they refer to on the first album’s liner notes. The power of the Man! The first show: he’s shy, quietly introducing himself and suddenly going wild. No screams, just bewilderment from the mid-1950s eisenhower years audience. At the end of “Blue Suede Shoes”, a blast from the band and applause. But by the second song the tale is told. The drama of those shows was so inescapable. The Dorsey Brothers, don’t you ? Fading symbols of a passing order, their pale, polite variety show suddenly confronted by youthful animal energy as significant as the atomic bomb that so permeated those years. And in the middle of “Heartbreak Hotel” the horn player, doing what should have been Scotty’s guitar break, breaks loose and blows his brains out in futility trying to match the fervor of the kid with the loose hips and electric eyes. Hearing this is goosebump stuff, a glimpse of raw power like — who? Hitler? Exactly who could summon up such emotion with the flick of a wrist? In the late 60s I remember respecting Abbie Hoffman and Frank Zappa and Eldridge Cleaver because they cited Elvis as an influence. It was obvious, but in those days it needed pointing out. Elvis made it all possible. Elvis represented anarchy.
It was in the sideburns. Defiantly there, against convention, Bold, Unflinching. they, and he, made it possible for everyone to let loose. Elvis was directly responsible for the revolution of the 60s.
He was explained, at first, like Napoleon: a leader who came along when there was a vacancy on the throne. Sure, the kids were leaning towards rock and roll type music, and he got there at the right time. But consider this, rock historians: if not Elvis, then who? Who else in those raucous days had everything — looks, voice, moves? Bill Haley, Carl Perkins? Of course not. Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran? Closer, but no. Elvis led the way. He was the one.
The history of rock and roll began when Elvis walked into Sun Records studios in Memphis to cut a record for his mother’s birthday. The studio people remembered what they heard, called him back a year later and cut a record, put him on tour as “the hillbilly cat”, and the world hasn’t been the same since. He had this power to touch people.
I felt it first when I saw him on television, writhing around on Ed Sullivan late in 1956. I felt it in his records, in his pictures; I felt it in those ridiculous articles in Photoplay and Modern Screen, and I felt it when people criticized him. And I felt it in 1958 when his mother died. I was upset. I cried for him. If he had gone then, I don’t know what I would have done.
Elvis led us into the wilderness, into the delicious abandon of rock and roll and paved the way for a new freedom that no one knew they wanted ’til they got it. He did it singlehandedly, standing there doing naturally what everyone secretly yearned for but couldn’t express. And then he took his creation and shaped it over to lead his original fans back to stability from the disruption that he ushered in! Elvis in the 70s represented flash, perfection, and, of all things, maturity. The same kids who clung to his wildness used him to cling to uncertain adulthood. they’d abandoned their wild ways and had little to show but a world full of confusion that seemed headed straight for hell. And hell-raising Elvis kept them straight!
It’s getting late now, and the day ends with the tv coverage. David Brinkley kept a professional distance from the subject, ending with “like it or not, he changed our lives.” that insufferable Geraldo Rivera hosted a show with a lot of film clips and Rona Barrett serving some moth-rot about her “personal” proximity to Elvis. NBC ran heavy on Sullivan tv footage so that millions, finally, could see the rubber legs and the flashing eyes, all the savage excitement that brought us all here, nearly offsetting their “panel” of blowholes who discussed him like he was a book.
Of course, the people who should have been speaking for Elvis, you, me, the woman crying on the Memphis street were still voiceless, led by the bland and the blonde who bloodlessly read our nightly news.
It’s all too much. The day’s over and sadness is this hot night’s only blanket. Me and the kid who loved him so deeply need to sleep now. Rest easy, El.