Saturday, October 6, 2012


Performance anxiety. Creative block. Call it what you will. I'm stuck.

This used to come so easily.

It's Maile's fault. I think I am moving too fast for her.

Look, it has been a long time since I had an Elvis buddy, a special someone with whom you share a love of all things Elvis, that you can unabashedly obsess over the merits of take 1 of 'Frankie & Johnny" vs the master take used for the soundtrack, that you can analyze and pontificate at length over every single live performance given by Elvis in search of, well, a good performance of a song, yes, maybe some rarity that Elvis performed on stage only a few times, but also clues to Elvis' frame of mind, a glimpse into the metaphysical darkness of existential events (what? Even I don't know where that last bit came from but I am leaving it in).

A long time. 

So it is a bit understandable that I would be overly excited at meeting someone who is not afraid to admit to being an Elvis fan, who listens to Elvis' music on long car trips, who traveled to Graceland of his/her own accord ferchrissakes. And I am positively hyper at the prospect of being able to bequeath onto this new Elvis buddy x-years worth of bootleg collecting.  

My last Elvis buddy (lets call him "G") was the brother of an early ex-Mrs Blofeld's Cat. 

(Actually, there was an Elvis buddy after G, a woman, but, although she was very nice, she was one of those certifiably loony Elvis fans, like she was married to a guy (also a crazy Elvis fan) who modeled his appearance on Elvis, from the pompadour to the 1970s sunglasses and paunch but he was too short to accurately complete the illusion).

In the years I knew G, he was in his most formative, impressionable years (late high school to early college years), somewhat directionless, fatherless. Through a shared a love of movies, an ongoing intense debate as to who was better: Pacino (me) or DeNiro (he), and a taste for the ganja (he was my supplier so he earned a few bucks off of me that way), I was able to introduce him to some culture in my own ways: books to read (I worked in publishing back then, a house with a line of very fine editions of the classics of literature: smoking weed is great but reading Dostoyevsky after smoking some weed is better); jazz music (which, given that G was a confirmed grunge fan, I consider this a personal triumph; I was no expert in jazz, I was learning myself at that time via some jazz encyclopedias from my publishing house and this coincided with cassette tapes being phased off the shelves of the franchise record stores when CDs started to come into vogue so you could always get cassette tapes of jazz really, really cheap); and yes, Elvis and his music (it started with the more outrageous Elvis material, like Elvis' monologues on stage when he was out of his mind but I was able to paint this within the framework of a larger Shakespearean tragedy which made it more interesting to him). 

In order to introduce G to Elvis and jazz and literature, I would make radio shows (actually, these were mix tapes but I'll be damned if I call them that) comprised of carefully programmed music.  Please understand that these shows were thought out, planned, scripted, everything had to flow, be thematically coherent. 

Sadly, any copies I may have had at one time of these radio shows have long since been lost.  All that remains are my notebooks with some draft tracklistings which provide a glimpse of how much I toiled on getting the theme and the flow right (lots of cross outs and lines with arrows indicating move this track up here, that track down there, drop take 7 of "You Don't Know Me" off completely).  

Some greatest hits: one show featured carefully chosen Elvis movie songs bookended by excerpts of Quentin Crisp reading from THE NAKED CIVIL SERVANT - these excerpts served to introduce the Elvis song and would comically comment on, say, take 1 of "Frankie & Johnny" or take 9 of "How Would You Like To Be".

Another show was an all poetry special, which featured Elvis songs bookended by the likes of Kerouac and other beats reciting their poetry, Charles Bukowski reading his poetry or William Shatner reading his poetry (!) and yes, Elvis also reciting some poetry ("As I awoke one morning...")!!  Another radio show featured one of Elvis' complete performances, one chock full of his monologues, say the College Park, Maryland show from 1974, chopped up and wrapped with classic jazz music tracks. 

In a way, it was a glorious creative time, in retrospect. 

But I think I am moving too fast with Maile.  

My god, what did I do, I mentioned to Maile that we should each make for the other a mix tape (yes, I used that very phrase, "mix tape"; I am a dork) of our respective favorite Elvis tracks

Of course, my mind is on another radio show. My older self is wanting to recapture some part of my younger self that may be long gone. 

I've already made the mistake of just blindly, hurriedly, excitedly ("Wait till Maile hears this, she will love it") making CDs for Maile already, straight copies, and so I have exhausted a good supply of outtakes and live performance tracks. 

Adding to my creative impotence at the moment is a sense I have that Maile is hesitant. Maile is an Elvis fan, one of those true bloods who loves his music, who remembers fondly watching Elvis' movies when just a child. But Maile is not interested in a trip to the dark side. Maile is not interested (yet?) in listening to, say, a tape recording circa 1976 of the last phone conversation between Elvis and Red West, after Elvis had fired Red, or, rather, had his dad fire Red, and Red is trying to to get a woozy, drugged Elvis to admit that what Elvis did was really shitty. Or listening to a phone conversation between Arlene (obviously a former one night stand) and an Elvis who is clearly not interested in talking to her. And forget about College Park, MD 1974 and most of 1977. Believe me, I can understand that only the truly demented Elvis obsessive would have any interest in hearing Jackie Kahane's act or hear the Sweet Inspirations opening set.

So I am working to put together a CD of some Elvis tunes that are on constant play on my Ipod, cherry-picking from the bootlegs so hopefully this will be material Maile hasnt heard before (although with my Elvis collection in such disarray, some on CD, some of which is just digital files on who knows which one of dozens of different portable hard drives) this is taking too long a time

And still I think about introducing Maile to the dark side.

One show I have been listening to of late would be a perfect start. The September 3, 1973 closing show in Vegas. Elvis has not yet descended to the deranged (as he did in September 1974) but he is becoming unhinged.

How else to explain Elvis coming out on stage in this fashion:

Now, look closely. See anything, uh, strange? Yes, I know the sight of Elvis riding on the back of a fat man is strange, but is there anything else peculiar?

Look closer. What is that on...

Yes, there is a monkey on Elvis' back. He is giving a performance with a monkey on his back. Would Maile be curious to know why? How can Maile not be curious to know whether Elvis is even aware that there is a monkey on his back?

And that is just the start of the show. 

I dont want to give away the high points of the show, but one visual bit of business (of which no photos can be found) that wont be appreciated by listening to the recording is that when Elvis starts singing "What Now My Love", a bed (!) is rolled out on stage and Elvis lies down on the bed and sings the song from there.

Believe it or not, there is a good set list for this particular evening but that is actually secondary to what happens on stage.

Would Maile want to know who this "Mario" person is that Elvis mentions during the show? and why exactly does Elvis decide (in mid-song!) to throw down a challenge to Conrad Hilton (the owner of the Hilton Hotel where Elvis happens to be performing) as well as all of the staff? 

How can Maile not be intrigued enough to take a trip to the dark side?


Maile Duval said...

I am intrigued by the monkey, especially since his pet monkey, Scatter, would have already been gone at this point.

I can see that I've thrown a wrench in production. You are right to assume that I have not yet listened to the College Park show, though I have listened to everything else you have given me. Don't forget that either the 3rd or 4th CD set you made for me was the Jungle Room sessions and I got to hear a whole slew of colorful vocabulary spew out of Elvis's mouth as I was driving one weekend a few months back. That was one road trip I won't soon forget.

The reluctance you sense is not due to a lack of curiosity, really. Like anyone who enjoys a good story, I tend to be someone who relishes the details. When I was studying history in grad school, my favorite methodology was microhistory, which involves focusing in on a specific person, event, or some other local, narrow subject, and intensely studying and then extrapolating conclusions about the larger picture from that study. My interest in Elvis fits nicely into this definition as I have enjoyed getting to "know" him over the years, reading about the effect certain events had on him personally and professionally, listening to him laugh and joke to colleagues and friends, watching rare home videos released at various anniversaries and other moments of Elvis resurgence. It is precisely because I have hung on his every word and lyric, melted at every flash of his magnetic smile, and delighted in every swivel of his hips that I have trouble with some of the material you describe.

I do not want to lose the respect I have for him as a person and as an artist. I'm afraid that if I am engulfed by the "dark side" that my whole view of Elvis will be irreparably damaged.

As far as I remember, I got my first taste of the "dark side" when I read Priscilla's Elvis and Me. I don't remember much about the book at this point, but one detail that I've always remembered was one of Priscilla's descriptions of an angry Elvis who threw things at her and generally acted verbally abusive toward her. Of course, this is her very subjective account of her life with Elvis that was written for a profit, but to my young mind (I was 13 or 14 when I read this book) such details were devastating to read. It's always difficult to find out that someone you admire has such a flaw, but I think my youth and optimism made it that much harder to accept. I remember being "mad at Elvis" for a time after reading the book, which of course subsided with time (really, his charm, even in death, is very powerful).

I'd say that I have a general understanding of what Elvis was like the last few years of his life. My theory has been that the trouble began with the death of his mother and increased exponentially with his divorce from Priscilla. I know that he was on a lot of different kinds of drugs at the end which led to erratic behavior, bloating, and weight gain. I know that even Lisa Marie, as a young girl, sensed something wasn't right and feared that her father would die. I've seen his tragically sad performance of "Unchained Melody" from the 1977 Elvis in Concert in which he asks Charlie (?) to "keep [him] with it." As I progress with Guralnick's Careless Love, I will get into all of this again and will probably learn new details I haven't read anywhere else before. Reading about it will be hard, I'm sure. I think listening to or seeing it will be harder, though.

So how will this explanation help your predicament? I'm not sure. What I can say is that I will consider listening to some of the more damaging testimony once I finally finish the Guralnick book and have a chance to reflect upon the last chapters.

Maile Duval said...

P.S. Mix tapes (or CDs, mp3 lists, etc.) are not dorky. They are awesome. I have spent many hours of my life making such compilations.

P.P.S. My playlist of all-time favorites is currently at 38 songs. I think only 30 songs will fit onto a CD. I, too, am at an impasse.

Maile Duval said...

Another philosophical dilemma:

Would I want people who admire me, as well as those who don't, to know my every flaw, see my every stumble?

Of course not.

If Elvis weren't one of the most famous people in the world, would we have documented evidence of all of his strange behaviors and habits? (Of course you could argue that his fame created, or at least exacerbated, these habits.) Thinking about Elvis as a person, and reflecting on his intense insecurity, his almost paranoid feeling that people were often laughing at his expense, it's hard not to feel sorry for him when you realize how exposed he was/is and how many people have made jokes at his expense. If I can do my part to maintain some of his dignity, I'd like to do so.