Saturday, May 8, 2010

"Petunia the Gardener's Daughter" by Elvis Presley (1966)

It's in the history books now: there were two Elvis Presleys: the sexy young revolutionary in black leather, and the washed-up overweight hack in white jumpsuits. The stamps tell the whole story, right? What else is there to add?

Except that I disagree with this assessment entirely. On the one hand, I think Elvis was brilliant in the seventies. In an entirely unironic way, I love the huge emotion-filled music he pumped out in Vegas: blues in emotion if not in musical content, belted out with edges roughened from years of experience. And on the other hand, a lot of that pre-army stuff that's so uncritically adored these days... well, perhaps familiarity breeds content, but a lot of it does nothing for me. "Hound Dog"? Come on, really - 'you ain't never caught a rabbit...'? Hysterical nonsense, really. And to my ears, that song's a-side "Don't be Cruel" (the double-hit single was Billboard's highest-charting song for decades, until Whitney Houston) seems to my ears to be exactly the kind of insincere bop-bop-shoo-bop that 'revolutions' are meant to do away with.

And of course, as the keen observer will note, between the 50s and the 70s, there was an entire decade. The very decade that the public record (written by people who were young in the sixties) tells us was the most important in American youth culture in history. The decade of the Beatles. Of the Rolling Stones. Of Bob Dylan. The decade when Elvis pumped out some twenty-odd flimsy musical comedy films, with poor acting and interchangeable songs.

Elvis's movie years bring out nothing but anger in many people, and for good reason: to think that while the music he loved and by some definitions 'created' was undergoing such radical transformations, his management kept him entirely removed from youth culture and anything approaching passion or art, preferring instead to let him rot in the Hollywood star system, making movies that everyone involved knew were garbage. Colonel Tom Parker, his manager, has been rightfully excoriated for his many bad management decisions during Elvis's life, of which this one is arguably the worst (barring sending him on a concert tour in the final months of his life when he was clearly ill and in need of rest and medical attention).

However... you could make the point that only in retrospect can we see what a poor choice this was. You could argue that there was no handbook on how to let rock 'n' roll stars age gracefully, that going into movies was the tried-and-true step forward for teen idols from Bing Crosby on. You could certainly point out that, while Elvis might have been stuck in a treadmill lacking in artistic reward, at least he still had a career in the 1960s, something almost none of his 50s rock 'n' roll colleagues could say. Crap movie soundtracks sold by the shedload; studio albums faltered on the charts. How could 'the Colonel' have been expected to behave differently?

But the mere fact is that Elvis was a singer, not an actor. Music was the only real thing he cared about, and the only real thing he was good at. As we saw in the 1970s, Elvis had an almost peerless ability to wring out whatever emotion could be found in even the most hackneyed of lyrics, if his heart was in it. He was no songwriter, but as an interpreter, he was second to none. Elvis may not really be the 'king' of anything. He may be suspect in the story of music and race relations. He may not truly be the revolutionary Sony BMG would so dearly love you to believe. But he was great. When they let him be.

So what is this garbage? What's so damning about the musicals, what's so depressing about the way Elvis was forced to piss away the years that could have been his artistic triumph, is how bad the songs are. Elvis could still latch onto a good song and make it into a great one, given the opportunity: "Can't Help Falling in Love" and "Return to Sender" were both film songs, for example. But the Colonel had no musical taste or shame whatsoever, and the songs presented for these movies were churned out by hack writers signed to Elvis's own publishing houses, working on the cheap at breakneck pace. They couldn't really be anything but hackwork, and when forced to accommodate the needs of some asinine plot, became as hateful as the present song, which Elvis apparently got so angry recording that he stormed out of the recording studio.

Though many musical teams worked for Elvis's publishers, and while the trio of Giant / Baum / Kaye tend to be the most readily condemned, it seems to me that by far the worst offenders were Sid Tepper and Roy C. Bennett, who in addition to the present hateful piece of garbage provided Elvis with song titles of which the following are a mere selection: "Song of the Shrimp", "The Bullfighter was a Lady", "Wheels on my Heels", "Fort Lauderdale Chamber of Commerce", and "Five Sleepy Heads". To present someone as great and talented as Elvis with nonsense like that is to perpetrate an insult the likes of which few have attempted.

I said that the Colonel couldn't have known... of course, I'm merely playing the devil's advocate. Anyone with a modicum of musical knowledge could have, should have, seen that garbage such as this was antithetical to everything Elvis was, or at least could have been. To misunderstand your client's talent so spectacularly takes a tin ear and thick head of colossal size.

But don't take it from me. This crap came out on the Frankie and Johnny soundtrack in 1966, the year of Revolver and of Blonde on Blonde. On the topic of Bob Dylan... two months after the release of this album, Elvis was in the studio cutting a cover of a Bob Dylan song, as a mere 'bonus track' for a soundtrack album for some other revolting flick that featured too few movie songs to stand on its own. It was 'Tomorrow is a Long Time', and I provide a YouTube link to it here. I defy you to listen to the stately, mature beauty of this rendering and not fume in anger at the stolen legacy that the years 1963 - 1968 could have been, had they been filled with songs like that instead of songs like this.

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