Sunday, January 03, 2010

That's the Way It Is


Every couple of years, I return to the question of whether there's such a thing as a musical "canon," a hierarchy in pop history. It's not fashionable to believe so, what with alternate pop realities going on around the world while we soaked in the Western supremacy of our Beatles and Dylan. We ignored Chinese Nuggets. But I realized recently that I personally do have a basis for how I view Greatness with a capital G: through the prism of biography.

For me, the best and greatest artists have a narrative arc to their lives that organizes and illuminates their catalog, a great mythology that transcends the ephemeral nature of pop music altogether. Case in point: the Beach Boys. Think about it: A sensitive child-like prodigy and his brothers are controlled by an abusive patriarch until the boys throw off the shackles of the 50s and embrace the freedom of the age; when they finally ditch the God/Dad figure, they find themselves lost in the haze of modernity, fighting among themselves, Eden corrupted, God dead, the man-child abandoned to his achingly lonely sand box. The choral work of lost boys in America. You can trace the story through the music, almost song by song. As a bonkers Brian Wilson said in the amazing mid-80s documentary, The Beach Boys: An American Band, "I mean, we started out as little babies. And we grew up into men. And that's a dramatic story."

Maybe it's simply that the more you know about an artist, the deeper the music becomes. And maybe it's simply that subconsciously -- or collective-unconsciously -- I relate to the tales of naive white males brought to their knees by fate and experience. Oh do I! But whatever: for my money, there's no American myth as powerful as the Elvis story. And that story really reaches the apex of its power, the full catastrophe, in the later period, the "fat Elvis" times, especially in this album, That's the Way It Is, from 1970.

This isn't quite the tragic aftermath of irrelevance, but the moment when the aftermath of irrelevance is falling over Elvis Presley like a shadow, portending the end. Our mythic hero begins to grapple seriously with the weight of what he's become (and the weight he's about to become), what he can and cannot be, the fun house mirror of himself warping and stretching over him like a ghoul. Think of it: the man never wrote his own music. So he had to take the songs made famous by the new guard in pop culture -- the Beatles, the Dylan -- and figure out how not just to cover them, but to conquer them. It's Don Quixote versus a windmill.

Elvis didn't necessarily see the futile tragedy in this, but the sweaty, heaving effort he puts into defeating a song like "You've Lost That Loving Feeling," a song made famous by the Righteous Brothers a full five years before he got to it, is so intense and funny and overwrought and entertaining, it's way, WAY more personal than the originals could ever be. Here's a man fighting at every note to keep from turning into a marble statue.

And when he finally gives in to his own unfurling grandeur, the bombast of his own stardom taking flight, it doesn't matter if he's a joke or if he's irrelevant. Because he's finally just accepted himself. He doesn't care. He's free. The walls are closing in, the doors are shutting, the cement is hardening, the end is near -- and the man keeps singing! That's the moment when these songs kill you. And I defy you to listen to them and not come away just a little bit moved by how powerful they are. Even "You've Lost that Loving Feeling," which has no right to be better than the original, is simply amazing for the important reason that he's trying to make it better because it's all he's got left.

"Baby, I'd get down on my knees for you -- if this suit wasn't too tight!" That's an comic lyric he adds to his version, echoed by his backup singers, The Sweet Inspirations (Aretha's former group). This is a song that fits into a years-long epic narrative, not just a single moment. That added level of personal biography takes the music to a new level, let's the lyric "you've lost that loving feeling" double down on what it's saying. YOU, O public, have lost your love for me. And this is how I feel about it. "Listen to me! I'm talking to you!" he sings. His performance is a gauntlet thrown down and the tragic weight of the gauntlet at once: That's the way it is.

"You've Lost that Loving Feeling" - Elvis Presley

"Just Pretend" - Elvis Presley

"I Can't Help Believin'" - Elvis Presley


Everybody here knows I'm a big fan of the 1970s "Fat" Elvis, so lemme cut to the chase: I hadn't realized how deep my fascination was going to run until Dave W. dropped the boxed set, "Walk a Mile in My Shoes: The Essential 70s Masters," on me. It's a massive, devastating, moving, triumphant, tragic, funny, oddly experimental and seriously surprising listening experience. If you're not ready to embrace the Big E, a bunch of bloggy words won't necessarily help sell you, though I'd highly, HIGHLY recommend the second volume of Peter Guralnick's biography, "Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley," which covers these final, shocking years. Anyway, these two tracks floored me. Big, lush, strangely subtle American country-soul music. His voice is flawed and human and doesn't bleed into caricature -- or rather, he's grappling courageously with caricature, trying to forge gold out of sequins, country out of Vegas. It's amazing and beautiful -- and not just meta-soulful, but actually, really. As Dave points out, few were more committed to a song and a performance than this fella.

We Can Make the Morning - Elvis Presley

I'm Leavin' - Elvis Presley

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