ELVIS PRESLEY (2007): Merchandising, marketing and maybe some music?

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ELVIS PRESLEY (2007): Merchandising, marketing and maybe some music?

So Elvis is back in the building? That’s the impression we must draw on the 30th anniversary of his death with the announcement of plans to expand the visitor’s centre in Memphis.

As part of some grand design the current centre will be bowled and a new one -- seven times the size of his home of Graceland across the road -- will be built. And some kind of 3D hologram imaging will allow Elvis to actually be there

You have to wonder if he would want to be however.

Yes, the King is gone and he’s not forgotten and all that. But really, what with the Elvis key-rings, mugs, oven-mitts (with the recipe for his fried peanut butter sandwiches on them, see Recipes From Elsewhere), fridge magnets, posters, pennants and all the rest, Presley must be turning in that much photographed grave.

If Elvis were alive to see how much his image has been twisted, mocked, satirised, exploited, elevated, merchandised and mythologised I imagine . . . Well, I imagine he’d just want to die.

What has been lost amidst the Elvis Tourism (which I confess I have done) is the music.

Elvis the Icon is everywhere, but that enormous catalogue of recordings -- from My Happiness at Sam Phillips’ studio in Memphis in 1953 to recordings of those final live shows -- just don’t get played anywhere outside of a few key songs on classic hits radio.

Elvis’ body of recordings doesn’t deserve to take second place to the consumer circus that is the Graceland visitor centre today, let alone the one which his image will inhabit in years to come.

   Yes, I have been to his birthplace in Tupelo (small, as expected), Sun Studios (pretty much what I expected) and Graceland (much smaller than expected, the myth of Elvis had inflated it in my imagination), but what I kept trying to think about was the man and the music he made.

   What must it have been like at that small house in Tupelo, now surrounded by parking lots, a merchandising store, a statue of Elvis as a Boy (yep, got my photo taking shaking his hand!) and some kind of Elvis church? What must it have been like when this was the wrong side of the tracks and he was growing up hearing country music and black blues? What kind of filtering or assimilating did he do?

And in Sun Studios. What must that energy have been like while history was about to pivot around him?

And even at Graceland which was once a semi-rural property and now has caryards and light industrial zoning pushing against its fenceline? What must those informal gospel or good time rock’n’roll sessions been like?

At all these places you are so seduced and diverted by the myth of Elvis you can easily forget that at heart he was a musician, an extraordinary singer and great interpreter of songs.

So what of the music?

Even today, half a century on, early songs such as Mystery Train offer a visceral thrill. And it is to some of those lesser known hits I always direct those new to Elvis.

Songs like Heartbreak Hotel, Hound Dog and Don’t Be Cruel are a bit threadbare and familiar to have much frisson of delight and discovery -- but invest in the five CD set The Complete Fifties Masters and locate such songs as One Night Of Sin, True Love, You're So Square I Don’t Care, I Want to be Free and Blue Christmas. In them you can hear the range of human emotion from sexual passion through sublime love to desperation and soppy sentiment. And of course the songs of his faith are there too.

In the mid 60s when Elvis was making those godawful movies and my friends and I were buying albums by the Stones and the Yardbirds, a mate and I would always go to see Elvis on the big screen.

We knew the formula and always used to laugh about them afterwards, but what I also remember is what used to happen in the cinema: not long after the opening credits the audience would start talking and laughing through the dialogue -- but the second Elvis sang everyone would stop and listen.

Elvis’ voice had that effect, even when he was considered by a joke by a generation which had grown up on tougher music and rock musicians who seemed much more rebellious, dangerous and innovative.

So for me -- despite having my stockpile of Elvis memorabilia and junk and trivia -- it has always been about the music.

Even when he was all but lost to us in those final years you can still hear that raw passion flare up.

And I defy anyone, knowing that he had just separated from his wife and was heartbroken, to listen to Always on my Mind (“Maybe I didn’t treat you quite as good as I should have . . .“) and Fool recorded in the same sessions (“Fool, you didn’t have lose her, you only had to love her”) and not be moved. You can hear a man whose heart is breaking.

Listening to the best of his music, whether it be raw rock’n’roll or those genuinely heart aching ballads, confirms for me that Elvis has never left the building -- which is why we probably don’t need some expensive hologram.

 The Elvis illustration here was done by a Herald artist whose name I have forgotten. My apologies, it is terrific.

This essay appeared at www.kiwiboomers.co.nz in August 2007 on the 30th anniversary of Elvis death. It was prompted by an article in a newspaper.

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