Friday 17 August 2007

Elvis At 72

Every year a bunch of new noisy kids will tell you rock and roll is a young man’s game. At 72 and still The King, Elvis Presley knows that it’s stamina you need. He’s survived medical addictions and years of indifference, the attentions of rock gods and hysteria of fans, and after fifty years he knows one thing no other can claim: I started this. This is my kingdom.

It was ex-First Lady Betty Ford who saved him. After he collapsed onstage in Las Vegas in 1976, an embarrassing, obese, shambling dinosaur of a performer, she made contact and quietly persuaded him to check into the Betty Ford Clinic. As an ex-alcoholic and prescription drug addict, she knew the road he stumbled along and if anyone could make Elvis listen it was the wife of a US President. Elvis always did respect authority.

We didn’t learn until much later that while he was drying out some of those he had inspired made pilgrimages to offer him comfort and inspiration. It was Bruce Springsteen and Don Henley who got Elvis to focus on his managerial situation. The music world had changed immensely since signing a 50-50 contract with Colonel Parker and over time and talking he saw that his place in the world could be regained and if to do that he had to jettison the man who had made him famous and rich, so be it. The expected legal battle evaporated when the Colonel realised that taking the case to court would expose his illegal immigrant status and he settled quietly.

The 1978-79 World Tour eclipsed everything any performer had achieved to that time. The pent-up expectation of a world waiting to see The King created a hysteria not seen again until Michael Jackson’s similar tour ten years later. Just watch director Martin Scorsese’s excellent documentary One Night With You to see how a planet’s adoration inspired The King, fuelling his charisma as he celebrated hit after hit from his extensive song catalogue.

The Eighties marked a turning period: What does a fifty year old rocker do? The tour with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers backing him alienated many of his older fans as much as it did Petty’s contemporary audience, and while there were rumours of a recording project with Bruce Springsteen, whatever may have happened in the studio has to this day stayed within the four walls. The so-called “jam sessions” with The Travelling Wilburys were fun, but it was plain Elvis wasn’t comfortable in a group (even this one), and in previous times George Harrison and Dylan had been enemies assaulting his status and relevance. You got the feeling Elvis doesn’t forget, or easily forgive. The albums he recorded were inconsistent, reminding too many people that over the years he had recorded some dreadful material. His moody reading of Tom Waits’ “Downtown Train” was both a surprising choice and a rare hit record. Some years it seemed Elvis was happy just to stay at Graceland and spend his time remodelling the interior.

By 1995 he had reached the nadir of rock star status: elder statesman. The subject of endlessly recycled VH-1 “specials”, he was part of the musical wallpaper. To those under 30 Presley was the name of the daughter who married Michael Jackson and then the Elvis obsessed actor Nicholas Cage. His few concerts played only to the faithful. He hadn’t made a decent record in years. Then the unimaginable happened – his record company dropped him.

Coincidentally, Rick Rubin was looking for an experienced musician to work with. His overtures were met with scepticism by those around Elvis, but shaken by his label of 40 years dumping him, Presley took the meeting. It was an unlikely partnership but each respected the other’s musical truth. The deal was sealed when Elvis asked what kind of record Rubin wanted to make and Rubin replied, “The best record we can. And we’ll keep recording until we make it.”

The album Elvis Presley consciously harkened back to Elvis’s first album of the same name. It sounded spare and naked, the focus on Elvis’s still considerable vocal skills, informed now with a lifetime of experience. What made it memorable was the choice of modern songs, decided by both Elvis and Rubin. The playful take on Springsteen’s “Pink Cadillac” seemed almost too obvious, but the whispering depth of “I’m On Fire” surprised everyone. Perhaps most unexpected was the gospel passion and phrasing Elvis brought to “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”.

Rubin and Elvis unveiled the collaboration with some dates at a small Los Angeles nightclub. To Elvis’s surprise there were young people familiar with his work and respectful of his impact on history. The thrill he got from the intimacy and communication of a small room led to the inclusion of random club dates in subsequent tours, the most coveted experience a fan could have.

As their collaboration continued, Elvis’s rehabilitation grew. Blues revisited his love for the music that had set him on this long road some 45 years before and God similarly expressed his passion for church music. In the hands of Rubin they became reflections on what it meant to create a new music that held the possibility of never growing old and how you dealt with the fact that while your heart may still be 17 your body was advancing through its 60s. (Musicians, especially, paid attention since they would one day navigate these same waters.) In the eyes of the world he was once again The King.

On turning 70 Elvis decided to celebrate over 50 years of music making. Rock And Roll is an extraordinary album not just for the way he reinterprets some of his greatest hits – “Heartbreak Hotel” and “In The Ghetto” are tours de force in heartache – but the other songs he chose to highlight the rich history of the kingdom he invented. When he sings, on the title song, “It’s been a long time since I rock and rolled,” he means it in a way no-one else can.

For the subsequent world tour it must have been his sense of humour to have a band built from every decade: guitarists James Burton and Joe Perry with Jack Casady and Dave Grohl swinging the rhythm, this core group supported by strings, horns and gospel choir. But where people expected a summation, what they saw and heard was a man unconcerned about what he did in the past. It was an exploration of who he was now, how he was on stage and what that performance did to people. In 1957 he said that he had watched blues singer Arthur Crudup on stage and thought if he could achieve what Crudup did then he would be a mighty music man and half a century later he was still reaching for that place. Or as Elvis summed it up in the song that ended every show, “It’s A Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna Rock And Roll)”.

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