Bruce Springsteen said, "That Elvis, man, he's all there is. There ain't no more. Everything starts and ends with him."
Worshiped and despised, Elvis Presley is still, 15 years after his departure, all things noble or all things rancid, depending on whom you ask.
Multiple questions keep puzzling us. Did he originate rock n' roll or steal it from black culture? Did he revere his mother or just want to sex her up? Is he six feet under Graceland's Meditation Garden or living with amphibious mutants in the remains of the Titanic?
Set aside the blathering personality cult and moronic mythology that have sprung up post-Elvis. What do Public Enemy, the Boss or the tabloids know, anyway?
John Lennon pronounced simply, "Before Elvis, there was nothing." And he was right, at least as far as rock n' roll was concerned. Chuck Berry, Bill Haley, Fats Domino and countless others may have laid the groundwork, but it took Elvis Presley to spearhead their musical creation and thrust it upon a bewildered world. Someone else might have done it, but it was Elvis who did. For that service, he is called "The King."
Elvis may be the most popular entertainer in recording--or, for that matter, recorded--history. For more than 35 years, a steady parade of Presley paraphernalia has saturated the marketplace--some of it irresistible, most of it not. Even with his life scrutinized to the smallest detail, the hunger for Elvistic effluvia continues unabated.
With the approach of August 16, the anniversary of his death, the stores are glutted with an all-new assortment of the King's keepsakes. Ignoring the trivial and stupid, like comedic "Elvis for President" pamphlets and exposs on his "current activities," here is an overview of the significant items that shed some new light on their subject:
First is the just-released Unseen Elvis: Candids of the King (Bullfinch Press, list price $29.95), a photographic portfolio compiled from the private collection of superfan Jim Curtin.
Curtin, an impersonator and aficionado whose existence seems solely devoted to Elvis, presents 406 never-before-published portraits of the King, more than half in color. They span the length of the Memphis Flash's career, gathered in chronological chapters from "The Fifties" to "Final Decline."
A large portion of the amateur pictures shows Elvis hugging and kissing a tiresome stream of giddy women. The women look dumbfounded, the object of their affections bored. Only once does Elvis look anything but placating, and then he's injecting his tongue into a mirthful devotee's mouth--a peekaboo tidbit that proves Elvis really loved some of his fans.
Many of the other images are outtakes from familiar sessions, but there are some gems: Elvis the sportsman at buddy George Klein's wedding, wearing a shouldered handgun and aiming a scoped shotgun above the gaping guests' heads; Elvis the humanitarian trudging through a shattered car wreck to comfort the victims, looking like Dracula in a leather trench coat in front of the gaping paramedics. Moments to cherish!
Curtin's brief text interrupts the photos with a trite rendition of a lifetime most already know. More interesting are Curtin's stories of his own Elvian experiences. Curtin is a sweet-spirited yet pathetic fanatic, displayed on the book jacket in full Elvis regalia. Anyone who makes $122 per week as a grocery store clerk and spends it all to bribe his way into Elvis' hotel suite has a problem. Curtin comes off both twisted and tender, but hard-core fans will relish his tribute.
Of greater interest is a compact disc release of That's the Way It Is (RCA, list price $29.98). Originally pressed on vinyl in December 1970, it's billed as the soundtrack to a documentary film of the same name. Actually, only a couple of the disc's dozen tracks were lifted directly from the movie score. The rest are either live alternates from his August 70 stint at the International Hotel (now the Las Vegas Hilton) or cuts from a Nashville studio session two months earlier.
What separates That's the Way It Is from any other Presley rerelease--and doubles the price tag--is the incredible sound quality. This is the first and only pressing of an Elvis original master recording from Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs. Specializing in presenting classic albums (like Pink Floyd's The Wall or Elton John's Goodbye Yellow Brick Road), MFSL records at half the normal speed from the original tapes, ensuring the ultimate in aural reproduction. The disc's 24-karat-gold plating prevents corrosion, and the owner could supposedly use the CD as a flying saucer for the next century without substantial damage.
That's the Way It Is seems a strange choice for such a devoted process. Far from a classic album, it took two and a half years after its debut for the LP to be certified gold. But why question corporate providence when That's the Way It Is contains such treasures and sounds so great? Crank the music loud, close your eyes, and you'd swear that a show lounge had materialized in your living room. Every nuance of Elvis' performance springs to life, including several audible mistakes.