In much the same way you don’t thank Thomas Edison every time you put on the lights, you don’t thank Elvis Presley every time you listen to Kendrick Lamar. Presley towers over not simply US culture but teen culture everywhere to such a degree you don’t think about him anywhere, he is so deep in our DNA he isn’t revered. Presley will never be forgotten but he is an invisible presence on the landscape of pop. Presley’s influence is so completely absorbed, he is relatively speaking forgotten, compared to, say, the Beatles. Elvis Presley is teen culture today, the same as he was 40, 50 years ago. I know he isn’t forgotten but he seems to be missed in a conversation where you could easily place him between MLK and the Beatles. Presley is pop.
We assume what he invented.
And here is another reason as to why we deal with Presley from a distance we don’t give the Beatles: there is something simple about the Presley mystique and recordings, he doesn’t quite lend himself to theory. At least as the inventor of rock and roll, he is a simple man who smoothed out all racial and sexual conflicts simply through his embodiment of them. It is too much, we can’t quite grasp what is going on and we don’t have to, the music does it for us.
Earlier this month the That’s The Way It Is (Deluxe Edition 8CD/2DVD) was released, eight hours plus of live performances from Presley’s Vegas stand in 1970 and what it does is get us close to the real Elvis by showing him in his natural habitat. It is like a PBS Nature version of Presley. Place the performances between the NBC Special and American Trilogy Elvis. 68 was a shocker where after years of B movies and allowing Uncle Tom Parker to deeply influence his musical decision making, he took control again and performed two sets of powerful modern rock and music which brought him roaring to the top of the pop firmaments. How gratifying it must have been when Presley realized that a decade of dicking about hadn’t blunted him at all. That, if anything, his voice was better than ever and as a fully grown man he was capable of presenting himself as both the arbitrator of cool and the Sinatra of rock.
The result of this realization was the recently built International Hotel booking Presley for a mind blowing 57 show run in July 1969, And then again in August 1970. That’s The Way It is, the deluxe version was put together by the supreme Legacy Recordings, the catalog division of Sony Music Entertainment, details the 1970 stand..
I have been listening to the 156 tracks album on Spotify since it came out and decided to go back to the movie. I’d place it here in Presley’s movie story:
1. Blue Hawaii
2. Jailhouse Rock
3. That’s The Way It Is
It is that good because it does what is never ever done, it shows the real Elvis. To see Presley bantering with guitarist James Burton, directing the band during rehearsals, rumbling through rehearsals with such ease and power, it just seems like he is a good guy in ways that can’t be faked. From the first shot, Presley driving on to the MGM lot, shaking hands with the guard, while”The Next Step Is Love” plays in the background, and then cracking up while singing it during rehearsals, Presley is obviously in his element. This is why he got into music. This is what he wants to be. You all here the stories of Elvis surrounded by good ol’ boys, his friends, who stood with him and protected him, and here they are. Or at least the band is. And Presley is one of them, their leader but not simply their boss, he is working but a joyful work, a happy work, where he wants to be and what he wants to do and when I claim we’ve lost sight of Presley what I mean is we’ve lost sight as to how this man really really was. We are stuck with an assumption he was a lightweight who got lucky, an ignorant white trash Southern boy who fluked in. And he wasn’t. watch him here and his musical acumen is sterling and obvious and his simpliness is almost a form of being humble.
That’s The way It Is spends the first 45 minutes filming rehearsals and cutting in these Presley fanatics who, frankly speaking, look like creepy psychos, but you get the fact that they worship Elvis: it is very very clear. By the time you reach the actual opening night performances, you are ready for it and it is superb. Compare it to say, Aloha From Hawaii Via Satellite, and it is obvious something changed along the way. I owned Hawaii and I didn’t own THWIS and I loved it at the time, but Presley was better without the big bam boom. The set up was loose enough and close enough in Vegas 70: during “Love Me Tender” he waded into the audience where the women lined up to kiss him, as passionately as they could in the seconds they had, this proximity to greatness comes across in THWIS in ways that stopped really existing. He didn’t even have the sweaty scarves in 70, it was just touch and be touched.
Presley had lost his boyishness by 1970, but not his voluptuousness, with the skin tight flared pants, rainbow colored shirts and long thick sideburns, he oozed adult sex, his face, not yet jowly or fat, moved from the plump lips to the rest of his wide handsome visage and his eyes glistened darkly with a hint of drugs in them. At the end of the 1960s, he hadn’t embraced psychedelia but he had embraced the singer songwriters out there and the Beatles and Simon and Garfunkel were both covered in Presley glory.
This was a man who had found his place in the pop world and knew how to perform it. Playing Vegas was not playing Haight Ashbury and although Presley was only 35 years old, he was not embraced the way it should’ve been by the the generation he spawned. He wasn’t even old enough to be a father to these kids, he was a big brother, but he was seen on the wrong side of the establishment though it was Presley who fought for them in 56. And watching Elvis handle himself, his funniness, his good nature, the band were laughing all the time; Presley would undercut the intensity of his performances by laughing, I wonder how this could’ve been missed. That he belonged with us in the 60s, not them. He didn’t have the assholeness of the Nixon republican establishment.
That Presley, that That’s The Way It Is Presley, is an emblem of everything the world adores about the US, he holds his gifts light as a feather and he offers them to us with good humor and humility. Take a look and tell me this guy didn’t invent us.
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