Once in every few millenia
Last week’s column was on old school country music. Specifically, it highlighted the Dukes and Duchesses of Depression, those singers who get down when you’re down.
I don’t know about you, but when I’m in a blue funk and “hope” is a four-letter word, the last tune I want to hear is, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” The way I figure it, it’s my misery and no one’s gonna take it away from me. Besides, the gloom always lifts. Oh, it may take a decade or two, but it’ll lift — especially if I ignore the news and advice from well-intended, wide-eyed optimists.
Those old-time country singers had a handle on tragedy, especially the self-made kind. No matter the song’s lyrics, the underlying message was this: “Yeah, things are so bad right now you think they’ll never get better. And guess what? You might be right.” The singers made no attempt to prettify the situation or alleviate your suffering, which was just what the listeners wanted to hear. And even though they were only disembodied voices coming out of a jukebox, they understood. Of course, given the lives so many of those folks led, their acquaintance with gloom, doom and misery was up-front and personal.
In our current age of Warm Fuzzyhood, that attitude’ll seem unduly harsh to a lot of folks. But I didn’t think so back then, and I don’t think so now. Instead, it’s a timeless wisdom of sorts based on the half-consolation that, while I might be a loser, there’s a whole damned world full of them, and there always will be. So, yeah, I might be in company no one could call “illustrious,” at least I’m not crashin’ and burnin’ solo.
I got a lot of feedback on that column from fellow C&W lovers, many of them sharing their stories and their favorite singers. I had listed my Big Three of C&W — Patsy, Willie and Hank (and for all you nitpickers: yeah, I know there are three Hanks on the roster, but there’s only one is in my book). Almost everyone agreed with my choices.
After the Big Three, people chimed in their other rave-faves, all of whom were greats in their own right. Also many of them named what they thought was The Greatest Country Song Ever. There was no clear agreement among them, but just for giggles, here are my choices: “Make the World Go Away” by Eddie Arnold; “Always on my Mind” by Willie Nelson, “Crazy” by Patsy Cline (also written by Willie); and last but not at all least, “Yesterday She Said Good-bye” by George Jones.
Although there was no consensus on which song was the greatest, one comment that kept recurring was why hadn’t I included Elvis in my lists. It’s a valid question and it has a simple answer: Elvis was in a category all his own.
As far as I’m concerned, comparing Elvis to any other entertainer is as futile as comparing Einstein, Leonardo, Beethoven, Picasso and Marilyn Monroe to anyone else. Compare Elvis if you want, and compare him till the cows come home, but among the pantheon of great entertainers, everyone else will come up short. It’s not a point of debate — it’s a simple fact of life.
All rock and roll can be divided into two distinct periods — Pre-Elvis and Post-Elvis. No one sang like him, no one moved like him, no one dressed like him, no one played audiences like him. And so in the Post Elvis world, nothing was ever the same. Not music, not performance, not hair styles, not clothes, not teenagers, not parents, not nuthin’. The man was a giant who stood all alone in the depth and reach of his greatness.
If you don’t wanna take my word for it, how’s about paying heed to these folks:
“Elvis is the greatest cultural force in the twentieth century. He introduced the beat to everything and he changed everything — music, language, clothes, it’s a whole new social revolution — the ’60s comes from it. Because of him a man like me barely knows his musical grammar anymore.” Leonard Bernstein.
“Describe Elvis Presley? He was the greatest who ever was, or ever will be.” — Chuck Berry.
“No one will ever touch Elvis.” — Garth Brooks.
“I wasn’t just a fan, I was his brother. I love him and hope to see him in heaven. There’ll never be another like that soul brother.” — James Brown.
“Elvis was the only man from Northeast Mississippi who could shake his hips and still be loved by rednecks, cops and hippies.” — Jimmy Buffett
“On a scale of one to 10, I would rate him 11.” — Sammy Davis Jr.
“Elvis touched the life of every ear that heard him, and you couldn’t help but listen when he sang.” — Merle Haggard.
“I believe the three most important events of the 1950s were the Brown vs. The Board of Education decision, the building of Levittown, and the emergence of Elvis Presley.” — David Halberstam.
“None of us could’ve made it without Elvis.” — Buddy Holly.
“He was a unique artist — and original in an area of imitators. No one, but no one, is his equal, or ever will be. He was, and is, supreme.” — Mick Jagger.
“If there hadn’t been an Elvis, there wouldn’t have been the Beatles.” — John Lennon.
“He was quite bright … he was very intelligent … he was not a punk. He was very elegant, sedate, and refined and sophisticated.” — Walter Matthau.
“He was the fastest with the mostest.” — Roy Orbison.
“Elvis was God-given, there’s no other explanation. A Messiah comes around every few thousand years, and Elvis was it this time.” — Little Richard.
“When I first heard Elvis perform ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ it was unbelievable, and I thought to myself, how the hell can I compete with that?” — Paul Simon.
“I love his music because he was my generation. But then again, Elvis is everyone’s generation, and he always will be.” — Margaret Thatcher.
“A lot of people have accused Elvis of stealing the Black man’s music, when in fact almost every Black solo entertainer copied his stage mannerisms from Elvis.” — Jackie Wilson.
That’s just a partial list of accolades. Simply put, when weighing in on the issue of Elvis’s talent, anyone who knows anything about music, entertainment, society, or life itself, says he’s the greatest, and the issue is not up for discussion.
But something else about Elvis endeared him to me: By all accounts, he was a thoroughly decent, kind, generous and humble guy. I’ve read several books, dozens of first-person accounts, and hundreds of articles on Elvis and have yet to find anyone who said a bad word about him or heard him say a bad word to anyone. He was generous to friends and strangers alike, unfailingly polite, always willing to sign autographs and let pictures be taken. When Graceland’s gate was open, fans camped out on his lawn — with his blessing.
Sure, he wrestled with his demons, and in the end his demons won. But to me that’s a medical issue, not a moral one, and one that demands compassion and understanding, rather than condescension and condemnation.
And FYI: While I like all his music, my absolute favorite is “Fame and Fortune.” If you’ve never heard it, give it a listen and let me know what you think.
If this column makes me sound like some kind of diehard, unrepentant, maybe even hopeless Elvis fan, there’s a good reason for it — I am.
And to further clarify, there’s a quote from George Klein, DJ and lifelong friend of Elvis (in fact, he got married in Elvis’s Las Vegas hotel suite, with Elvis his best man) that explains it perfectly:
“If you’re an Elvis fan, no explanation is necessary. If you’re not an Elvis fan, no explanation is possible.”