Blue Suede Studies

Hugh Barnes

  • Elvis and Me by Priscilla Beaulieu Presley and Sandra Harman
    Century, 320 pp, £9.95, October 1985, ISBN 0 7126 1131 2
  • Are you lonesome tonight? by Alan Bleasdale
    Faber, 95 pp, £3.95, September 1985, ISBN 0 571 13732 6
  • Elvis and Gladys by Elaine Dundy
    Weidenfeld, 353 pp, £12.95, April 1985, ISBN 0 297 78210 X
  • The Johnny Cash Discography by John Smith
    Greenwood, 203 pp, £29.95, May 1985, ISBN 0 313 24654 8
  • Horse’s Neck by Pete Townshend
    Faber, 95 pp, £6.95, May 1985, ISBN 0 571 13873 X
  • Like Punk Never Happened by Dave Rimmer
    Faber, 191 pp, £4.95, October 1985, ISBN 0 571 13739 3
  • Starlust: The Secret Fantasies of Fans by Fred Vermorel and Judy Vermorel
    Comet, 253 pp, £4.95, August 1985, ISBN 0 86379 004 6
  • The Beatles by Hunter Davies
    Cape, 498 pp, £12.95, December 1985, ISBN 0 224 02837 5

It has become fashionable to think sagely about Elvis, and to deliver such thoughts in mawkish turns of phrase. His biographers, who set the trend, promote it in order to make sense of themselves. Team spirit is otherwise uncharacteristic of them, and they quarrel passionately about everything except the music, which, for the most part, they ignore. Disagreements are harmless, of course, tokens of scholarship, and it would be churlish to complain. But with each new venture into the field Elvis undergoes modification and change. While his supporters, smarting at unsavoury rumours, maintain he stayed smart to the end, the rest speculate about unsocial behaviour and a diet which consisted primarily of pretzels and pills. So business booms, and eight years after his death Presley has been launched on a fresh and exciting career as the avatar of the good and the not-so-good, still travelling in the wake of Little Richard.

The history of rock ’n’ roll focuses on the white triumvirate – Presley, Buddy Holly and Jerry Lee Lewis, who have at different times heaped contumely on themselves – neglecting its roots in Jazz and the Blues, and a sibling relationship with Soul. Along the way, that history has appropriated the music on behalf of a white audience by perpetuating the myths of the approachable hero and the rebel-next-door. Elvis’s legendary status – guaranteed by a dozen wonderful records he made before joining the Army – was facilitated by this confusion. For many people the Sun Sessions – Presley tones fed in and out of Sam Phillips’s soundbox – captured the spirit of the new music in the same way that the voice of Mahalia Jackson identified Gospel. John Smith’s discography of Johnny Cash, who was resident in Memphis at the time and also benefited from Phillips’s expertise, contributes to the idea of a movement. Presley’s intelligence, however, has always been in doubt. Joe Esposito, his infamous retainer, considered him an intellectual wizard. According to Stan Brosette, his publicist and, on occasion, his friend, he was fascinated by words. He would inquire after the meaning of difficult ones and repeat them over, sometimes backwards, so it sounded like an incantation. Moreover, his mind was ‘so fine, so sharp, he could have been anything he wanted’. Unfortunately no one has satisfactorily explained what he did want, besides universal fame outstripping Cassius Clay’s, his only serious rival. The picture that emerges – and has emerged at every turn since Jerry Hopkins published the first, fawning biography – is of an awkward man lacking in direction. Elvis has suffered remorseless gossip, and triumphed over it to such an extent that he now seems more remote than ever. His ex-wife, whose timing is impeccable, has produced a memoir to coincide not only with a burst of activity on the Elvis front but also with a revival of interest in her own career now that she is a Dallas femme fatale. Priscilla unburdens herself of Graceland’s secrets with the delicacy and attention to detail that soap opera is famous for. Meanwhile Elaine Dundy’s Elvis and Gladys and Alan Bleasdale’s Are you lonesome tonight? – which has arrived in the West End from Liverpool – concentrate respectively on the early and final chapters of the life. Both are sober and reflective, anxious to celebrate rather than to sneer.

Jerry Hopkins’s Elvis was unpinched by sophistication. The author was a flower-child, a journalist on Rolling Stone, and he cheerfully took on the role of Graceland’s dupe, appealing often to Brosette’s authority. The book was written in 1971 during an interval of optimism in Presley’s decline, when the singer appeared to have recovered from the years wasted in Hollywood in a string of forgettable films. The 1968 NBC Christmas Special, in which he surfaced leather-clad and looking like Brando in The Wild One, had announced his renaissance in a riot of miscegnation and noise. Memories of it were still sharp when Hopkins set about his labours, and affected him profoundly. Ironically, during his last months, Elvis preferred videos of this vintage to those of the glory days, and the NBC show forms the backbone of Alan Bleasdale’s play. ‘Older Presley’ – played by Martin Shaw in purple pyjamas – clutches an attaché case of medications to his side, ceasing abruptly from soliloquy and self-pity to gaze spellbound at his lithesome former self. At one point, Presley, who is attended around the clock by minions, halts the screening and dispatches his most obsequious aide in search of a dictionary. The testimony of Stan Brosette, who might well have been the prototype of Marty, is recalled:

OLDER PRESLEY: What does ‘propensity’ mean?

MARTY: Well, er, why?

OLDER PRESLEY: I just remembered it ... ‘Propensity’, it’s a word. I’ve heard it. Maybe I read it. Could be someone said it about me, now that I recall. Maybe one of them New York writers. Some interview I did last year – man was a smartass – kept on using big words – like ‘Connecticut’. Yeah, went back to the big city an’ wrote all that clever snide stuff. Said I had a propensity for good an’ evil ... Kinda like that.

It is a touching scene, and catches ambiguities surrounding the subject of the play. Experts have divided neatly: some, interested in stamping their mark, have recognised the expediency of disturbing a dream; others have remembered Elvis with cloying sentiments, reminiscent of the singer himself mourning a dead dog in ‘Old Shep’ – which was, significantly, his favourite song, and the one whose chords he first mastered.

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