American Culture

The Elvis “Coverup”: Nothing to See Here, Move Along…

If the excerpt from the new Elvis biography is an indication of the entire work, readers will learn exactly –  nothing new…

Elvis doing that Jailhouse Rock (image courtesy Wikimedia)

I had a professor who once described sound academic writing as learning to “articulate the obvious.” This in itself isn’t bad advice, and I occasionally pass it along to writing students who seem convinced that scholarly writing of any worth must follow “the three C’s” of turgid writing: it should be convoluted, confusing, and contradictory.

Joel Williamson’s new biography of the King, Elvis Presley: A Southern Life, avoids turgidity and, if the excerpt recently published by Salon is any indication, it follows my old professor’s dictum to a degree that readers knowledgeable about the music legend (or about the history of rock and its significant figures) may find downright frustrating.

The history and biography of rock’s first superstar is so thoroughly and minutely documented that even a scholarly work (which, since this is published by Oxford Press, I suspect it is) would have a difficult time uncovering new information. Small victories would be what a scholar (and rightly so – one of the most useful goals of scholarship is completeness of knowledge of a subject, so even minutiae would be useful) seek. As a sometime – well occasional – well, when I’m made to be – scholarly writer myself, I offer Professor Williamson all due credit for tackling such a daunting subject.

But damn, tell us something we didn’t know.

Elvis meets Tricky Dick (image courtesy Wikimedia)

In the years immediately after Presley’s untimely death at 42, much that made Elvis fans, rock music fans, and the general public sad, queasy, and angry was the information that emerged concerning Presley’s drug addled and self-destructive lifestyle (I have as part of my cool post card collection the one with the picture of “E” in one of those ridiculous outfits he favored during the 70’s – big collar, bigger belt buckle – shaking hands with Satan Nixon) in the last decade of his life. The role of his dealer physician Nichopolous was recounted ad nauseam in the press. The role of Baptist Memorial Hospital – and its doctors, especially Dr. Jerry Francisco – in covering their own asses was also thoroughly revealed. But this is the information that Dr. Williamson gives us as the excerpt of his – what was it Amazon, that bastion of honesty called it? Ah, yes: “vivid, gripping biography, set against the rich backdrop of Southern society–indeed, American society–in the second half of the twentieth century” work that he seems to suggest is new and shocking information.

Horse hockey. One has to ask the obvious question. What did Dr. Williamson and Oxford Press know, and when did they know it? Evidently not what pretty much everyone else knew and not until recently.

See, here’s the deal. Dr. Williamson is a fine historian, and I’m sure this is a meticulously researched bio of Elvis. So from a scholarly standpoint, I feel confident in saying that it may meet that amorphous goal so prized in scholarly biography of being “definitive.” But as for giving us new insight into what made Elvis “authentic” (which is what matters to serious thinkers and writers about rock), I’m dubious, if this excerpt is any indication. Like most academics, Professor Williamson may be that stranger that John Sebastian was trying to tell about rock and roll….

I’ll probably read this book and write about it at some point down the road.  You’d be better served to go listen to some Elvis, especially that early genius work, and record what it does to you.

Here’s a good place to start:


17 replies »

  1. What a fine graf! Well done.

    Horse hockey. One has to ask the obvious question. What did Dr. Williamson and Oxford Press know, and when did they know it? Evidently not what pretty much everyone else knew and not until recently

    I’m not sure there’s that much to know about Elvis, is there? Were there ever a star who was probably exactly what he appeared, I’d think it was the king.

    • What made Elvis great is what made him tragic – he was a simple Southern boy who loved to sing and had an unbelievable talent for it. What he didn’t have was anyone who cared about him except as a meal ticket. George Harrison said it best. He said that in The Beatles there were four guys looking out for each other. When he met Elvis he noticed that no one was looking out for him. That says it pretty well, I guess…

      • Yeah, I vaguely remember reading something by a record producer or some such once who was talking about Elvis as a vocal talent who said no one knew how good he was, octave range and all that stuff. Said he was a generational talent. As you know, I think the entertainment industry is the modern equivalent of throwing virgins into volcanoes, and surely he got tossed in head first.

        Have to say, though, he’s one of those folks that you remember where you were when he died.

        • Probably the greatest pure singer rock and roll will ever see, Otherwise. And, yes, that includes all those yelpers like Whitney, Mariah, etc. Elvis did get some vocal instruction when he came back from the military. Teachers said he could have sung opera. Impressive.

        • greatest pure singer rock and roll will ever see

          Hmmm. This is a hell of an assertion. And it may be right. But … it’s the sort of thing one says when one wants to start an argument.

          So who else would be in that conversation? Orbison. Freddie. Otis? Sam Cooke?

        • I don’t want to insult or alienate anyone, but Elvis was an ex-choirboy garage band singer compared to Roy Orbison and Freddie Mercury. Orbison had greater range and emotional depth, as did Freddie, who was also more daring and provocative. Elvis is SO overrated, mostly because the emotional reverence of his fan base has elevated his status much higher than it ever deserved to be.

  2. Dan, you and Sam may be missing my point. I was thinking of the voice as instrument. I apologize for not making that specification clear. Might make a difference in your responses.

    BTW, the first word in that description of Elvis is “probably.” That makes it a qualified assertion. So far what I’ve seen are questions about other singers’ claims to such a qualified endorsement and ad hominem attacks on Elvis and his fans. But no conclusive proof that any of the singers mentioned has a better voice than Presley.

    All the singers mentioned are great talents, no doubt. Better than Elvis? Depends purely on who sets the criteria and who decides how the criteria are applied and measured. My reference to Elvis had to do with legitimate vocal teachers and coaches making assessments about his voice as an instrument. There may be similar assessments out there for Orbison, Mercury, Cooke, or Redding. If so, I’ll be glad to hear what qualified voice instructors have to say about the others mentioned.

    Otherwise we’re simply talking about taste and personal preference. Then we’re letting ourselves in for commenters raving about the great singing abilities of Dylan, Jagger, or Gene Simmons….None of us want to open that Pandora’s Box….

    • I think that without some kind of scientific acoustical analysis to back up your assertions, using the assessments of vocal teachers and coaches as the basis of your argument makes it as subjective as any other opinion expressed in the comments above.

      • Not really, Dan. I think one of the premises of S&R is that knowledge is to be respected, and therefore I’ll grant that the opinion of a vocal coach counts more than mine. It doesn’t make them correct, and it’s subjective, but it’s at least informed subjective.

        I heard a great story about Roy Orbision. When he was six or so, his parents took him to church to sing. He opened his mouth, started singing, and people started giving him money to come sing at their occasions. He never in his whole life worked a single day at what we would call a real job. Opened his mouth once, and that was it.

  3. Expert be damned.I know what I like and I like Elvis Presleys voice better than any I have ever heard or probably will hear in my years left on earth.

    • Again, we’re talking about here is the division between taste and informed assessment. That informed, expert assessment carries so little weight anymore says a lot about what a certain segment of the culture has done to undermine education and expertise without our realizing it.

      For example, as I noted, there may well be vocal teachers as qualified as those who rated Elvis tops who deem Freddie Mercury’s the best voice in rock. Aristotle told us that “authority” proof is the weakest kind – but that it is still proof that can/should be relied upon over still weaker forms such as single example and anecdote. It would be very interesting to see what Aristotle thought of using a technological measurement such as Dan mentions and calling that proof. I suspect Aristotle would have some interesting questions about methodology and conclusions. Even the ancients knew science was subject to bias and human error.

      Aristotle observed also, however, that there are various kinds of truth, among them scientific (proof by observable, testable facts) and cultural (proof by aesthetic judgment). The former he approved as more reliable than the latter – but he said the latter still holds great value for us. Who’s the best singer – a cultural truth debate – has its value but would be hard to reach a satisfactory conclusion about using science. In such a case authority evidence might be our best source.

      My favorite rock singers are Paul McCartney and Paul Rodgers. No one would accuse either of those guys of being possible opera tenors – an accusation that could be made about several of the guys mentioned in this discussion.

      That is the essence of taste. Chacun a son gout, as the French say….

      • The maddening thing about that whole authority issue is just how badly it’s understood. It isn’t that I’m right because I have a PhD. It’s that people who get PhDs have to work goddamned hard and in doing so they accumulate a level of knowledge (and ideally an enhanced capability when it comes to processing knowledge and spinning it out into useful insights – ideally, but not automatically, I fear) that most folks don’t have. Too often these days Joe Sixpack dismisses the opinions of experts because book learnin’. It’s as though they think Walmart sells doctorates to anyone who walks in. I even encounter that here at my company on occasion. So I have to be careful not to assert that I have worked hard to become an expert.

        No, you’re not right just because you’re a credentialed expert. But if you’re a credentialed expert, it’s probably because you worked hard to get that way. You may be wrong on a given subject (jeez, experts are wrong all the time, I know), but in point of fact people who spend a decade studying the fuck out something DO know more about it, on average, than people who never thought about it before this morning.

        I listen to people’s arguments and often find keen insight from those who are not experts. Maybe they’re just smart. Smart is a GREAT source of insight. Only an idiot dismisses what someone has to say because they are not sufficiently credentialed. We learn the most when we’re diligent about knowing who’s talking, respecting their expertise and insight, and understanding what they know.

        We’ve talked about this before – I work hard to keep my taste and critical faculties clear in my head. I don’t especially like a lot of things that are great. I love some things that are not great. I think The Beatles are the greatest band ever, but I don’t listen to them much. Rick Springfield is no John Lennon, but I have all his CDs.

        You can tell me I’m wrong if we’re arguing over who’s great. You can’t tell me I’m wrong if we’re talking about who my favorite band is. I’m sure I let my taste color the critical faculty sometimes, although I try not to. Human nature, I suppose.

        Forgive me rambling and ranting. Jim’s comments just reminded me of people I have dealt with in the past who piss me off.

        As for Elvis, also someone I don’t listen to a lot. I prefer some of his peers. But if music profs say he could have done opera, that’s an interesting concept and I want to hear the argument. In fact, I’m trying to imagine him doing Marriage of Figaro right now. In sequins.

      • BTW, I never heard you admit to Rodgers before. I know that Classic Rock radio has made him into something of a bad cliche, but credit where due. He can damned well sing, opera tenor or not.

        And if it’s opera tenors you’re after, the genre to be examining is Metal, which is where a lot of that tendency seems to have landed.

    • Others had probably better voices, especially Orbison, who Elvis admitted was a better singer, but Elvis’ interpretation of a wide range of music, country, gospel, ballads, blues, rock, quasi opera, in my opinion puts him a notch above others and explains his wide and lasting appeal.

  4. Rodgers is a favorite singer, though I’m not a fan of any of his bands. Free was a one song band, basically (and it was a great song, even though now played over 2 million times). Bad Company for me was a 3 song band (“Can’t Get Enough,” “Bad Company,” and the transcendent “Silver, Blue, and Gold”). The Firm? Meh. His stint with Queen? Great band, great singer – didn’t work for me….

    Saw Sebastian Bach on Broadway in “Rocky Horror.” He was quite creditable. But opera? Not to my mind.

    • The Firm had a great tune in “Radioactive,” but that was about it. Bad Co really was the apex, and I’m not sure you give them quite enough credit. I don’t think they’re the greatest band in history, but they had some pretty good work. My favorite Bad company tune will always be “Rock & Roll Fantasy,” I guess.