Elvis and John

originally from http://www.criticalmess.net, December 29, 2008

by Rod Miller


Call this an opinion piece. I’m not planning to look anything up, just let my impressions roll off, so if my facts are wrong, I claim them.  

So John Lennon was killed December 1980, just over three years after Elvis died (or was killed by an incompetent, greedy, manipulative drug provider, if you prefer.) Elvis was 42, Lennon 40, and yet perception is reality in that they were from two different musical eras, Elvis from the first, the Golden Age of Rock and Roll, and John from the British Invasion, when the colonies had to be retaught how to rock out—and after such a short time. I shamefully admit I’ve never read any accounts of the famous meeting between Elvis and the Beatles; I can imagine between the awestruck quartet and the naturally shy Southerner it wasn’t as explosive as we’d like to imagine. Not like, for instance, the Million Dollar Quartet session when Elvis sat down with Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis for the first time and the music and conversation flowed like liquid sunshine. Maybe it would have been better if that meeting had been staged by Brian Epstein (had to keep the Colonel out of it; he wouldn’t have stood for it if there wasn’t a guaranteed payday)–set the boys up in a studio when Elvis had a recording date and let them bump into each other accidentally. Can you imagine?

But the point here is the perceived difference, at least here in the states, between the King of Rock and Roll and the iconoclastic, brilliant, defiant, dark prince who helped fill the void while Elvis was in celluloid exile. People who care about music take it as inarguable that John wrote some of the best songs of his generation, and that’s a hell of a generation, with Paul Simon, Pete Townshend, Ray Davies, Marvin Gaye, and, oh yeah, Bob Dylan. Elvis wrote…pretty much nothing. Writing credit to get him to sing your song is not the same thing. John was the political voice, the advocate for peace during war, a self-confessing, soul-baring songwriter who was usually best when he was most personal. Elvis chose songs he could believe in (eventually) but didn’t write his own feelings out, relying on people like Mac Davis to provide them for him.

But don’t think I’m knocking Elvis in any way. I’m second of three generations in solid fandom. Own most of his output (and that’s a lot), seen all the movies (and that’s a lot too), and know when to walk away from Elvis bashers. And there we are. Why bash Elvis? What did he ever do to people to become a joke? Let’s look at the facts: dirt-poor Southern boy, an only child after the death of his twin at birth, utterly devoted to his mother, moved to the big city (Memphis) for his daddy to find work, average childhood for the place and time, a love for music of all types from an early age, then an unprecedented rise to become the biggest star in the world for years, despite the most mediocre-to-poor, ham-handed management imaginable. (I would argue that the combination of his talent and the society of the time made his success inevitable. Someone was going to be the King, and he was the best.) Virtually no missteps on his way up, then a directionless wandering for a time, a comeback that would set the template for comebacks, and finally the dissolution of his talent, his family, and his life as the drugs that had become a lifestyle consumed him.  

For John? An only child in a working-class town, raised by an aunt because his mother did not want the responsibility, a love for music that led him to the most important friendships and alliances of his life, unprecedented success as a member of the biggest band in the world (a title that would change hands frequently after them, but that really had no meaning before them), possibly his greatest artistic success after leaving that history-making band, familial happiness at last, and the kind of comeback Elvis had enjoyed just beginning to blossom when he was killed. 


So why is John remembered as the smart Beatle by the rank and file in this country while Elvis is a sideburned, rhinestoned, mumbling, stumbling, pill-popping, white-trash, mayonnaise-and-banana-sandwich-eating jumpsuited Vegas buffoon?  


Anglophilia vs. self-loathing. Press assassination. A number of career foibles that make Elvis easy to mock. The association with Vegas that the town loves to perpetuate at the ongoing expense of Elvis’ memory. But I think the biggest reason why John is a martyr and Elvis is a joke is that Elvis was a Southerner. Oversimplified? Wait and see. John, no matter what, was seen as different, alien to the entire country from the start, with a charming accent this country had hardly ever heard (unless you were stationed in the north of England in the war). The Beatles were promoted as the Next Big Thing, not the end of civilization like rock and roll had been. They were cute and cuddly where Elvis had been dark, threatening, greasy. Elvis proved himself and became an American institution, but the backlash still existed. The South—Dixie, home of southern hospitality—would accept him as a local boy done good—hell, he took care of his momma with all that money. The rest of the country, though—all that money and what did he do? Surrounded himself with his old high school buddies, the same small-town small-time small minds he had grown up with, and was comfortable with. The Colonel loved it; no hanging out in L.A. with Jackson Browne and all those cokeheads, no running all over Monaco talking up Mick Jagger and Warren Beatty. Elvis never toured, never performed outside the U.S. except for once in Canada. He was a hometown boy, cradle to grave. You’ve heard how he filled out his taxes, right? Half his income to Uncle Sam every year. No fancy accountants, no loopholes, no deductions—half his gross—that’s right, gross—sent a check every year because this country that had been so good to him deserved it. So all the money paid to staff, the money to the Colonel, everything else came out of the half he kept. Idiot, or patriot?  

How many of you have been to Graceland? When he started to make real money—when he knew he was rich and it looked like it would last—he did what he said he would do and bought a house for his momma. Not a mansion in Beverly Hills like Jed Clampett or a penthouse on Park Avenue, not for the Presleys. Nope—he bought the nicest house available…in Memphis. Over the years he fitted it out with the kind of toys he loved—lots of tv’s, recording equipment (naturally), special things that appealed to a guy with lots of money and a childlike enjoyment of things he never could have afforded—no, that his parents never could have afforded—growing up. After his momma passed, he continued to live there, going out less often and shorter distances, recording in Memphis or Nashville, touring when he needed the money. His reputation couldn’t have gotten bigger, but it was a different time, when Bruce Springsteen could jump the gate to meet him. He was still accessible, and that is the problem this country has with him. He was not a British-expat New Yorker, living on Central Park and palling about with Harry Nillson; he was a fat, drugged-up lounge singer living in his momma’s house in the town where he grew up, probably a dead beagle or two buried in the backyard, divorced from his only wife—too bad about the Presley boy, seemed like he had it all one time.  

The sophisticates in the rest of the country love to look down on the South; a southern accent has long been shorthand for stupidity, poverty, incest, racism, poor health…the South is a complete punchline. On my tour of Graceland, I heard the comments in line and throughout: ‘tacky,’ ‘ugly,’ ‘tasteless.’ You know, it’s a historic house, like the Hermitage, or Monticello, or Mount Vernon. Those places are preserved as their owners left them. I personally don’t know that George Washington or Andrew Jackson—other notable Southerners, incidentally—didn’t decorate their homes with the eighteenth-century equivalent of green shag carpeting. The fact that Graceland is locked into a much more recent era is what does the damage now, and Elvis suffers for it. It’s not that he was stupid, or tacky, or tasteless. He was Southern. He was different, from everyone. That was his majesty.


In the backyard at Graceland was the item that made the biggest impression on me, and it’s not what you think. Not any of the gravestones, not any of the vehicles. It was a swingset. I can so easily imagine little Lisa Marie asking her daddy for a swingset for her birthday some fine Spring afternoon, and Elvis readily agreed. After all, he had probably wanted one at that age too, and Vernon had likely not been able to provide; if he was lucky, maybe little Elvis had a friend with a jungle gym whom he could visit. But for Elvis, the sky was the limit, right? He could call the finest engineers and architects in the world to design and build a swingset for his little girl. What would you like, Lisa Marie? A playhouse with escalators to the top of the slide? A pink marble castle with a tower where you can let down your hair and play Rapunzel? Anything she wanted, right? You know what that swingset looks like? 

It’s a Radio Flyer swingset, the metal sawhorse design with two swings, a slide, and the chin-up bar hanging from the crosspiece. I don’t doubt for a second that Elvis called the Western Auto (That’s OUGHT-toe—you say the ‘T’ twicet) down the street and either had it delivered or drove down there hisself to git it. He wasn’t stupid, he wasn’t slow, he wasn’t tacky. He was Southern, and unsophisticated. In this country, that’s bad enough.


Filed under Rod Miller

3 responses to “Elvis and John

  1. Brilliant. And now what is our Southern music heritage?

  2. Rod Miller

    Good question. I may have the answer next week. If not then, soon.

  3. Rod Miller

    Haven’t forgotten this. Looks like a big writing weekend, so I’ll try to come up with something worthwhile.

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