100 Greatest Artists

3

Elvis Presley

Illustration by Braldt Bralds

Out of Tupelo, Mississippi, out of Memphis, Tennessee, came this green, sharkskin-suited girl chaser, wearing eye shadow — a trucker-dandy white boy who must have risked his hide to act so black and dress so gay. This wasn't New York or even New Orleans; this was Memphis in the Fifties. This was punk rock. This was revolt. Elvis changed everything — musically, sexually, politically. In Elvis, you had the whole lot; it's all there in that elastic voice and body. As he changed shape, so did the world: He was a Fifties-style icon who was what the Sixties were capable of, and then suddenly not. In the Seventies, he turned celebrity into a blood sport, but interestingly, the more he fell to Earth, the more godlike he became to his fans. His last performances showcase a voice even bigger than his gut, where you cry real tears as the music messiah sings his tired heart out, turning casino into temple.

In Elvis, you have the blueprint for rock & roll. The highness — the gospel highs. The mud — the Delta mud, the blues. Sexual liberation. Controversy. Changing the way people feel about the world. It's all there with Elvis.

I was eight years old when I saw the '68 comeback special — which was probably an advantage. I hadn't the critical faculties to divide the different Elvises into different categories or sort through the contradictions. Pretty much everything I want from guitar, bass and drums was present: a performer annoyed by the distance from his audience; a persona that made a prism of fame's wide-angle lens; a sexuality matched only by a thirst for God's instruction.

But it's that elastic spastic dance that is the most difficult to explain — hips that swivel from Europe to Africa, which is the whole point of America, I guess. For an Irish boy, the voice might have explained the sexiness of the U.S.A., but the dance explained the energy of this new world about to boil over and scald the rest of us with new ideas on race, religion, fashion, love and peace.

I once met with Coretta Scott King, John Lewis and some of the other leaders of the American civil rights movement, and they reminded me of the cultural apartheid rock & roll was up against. I think the hill they climbed would have been much steeper were it not for the racial inroads black music was making on white pop culture. Elvis was already doing what the civil rights movement was demanding: breaking down barriers. You don't think of Elvis as political, but that is politics: changing the way people see the world.

In the Eighties, U2 went to Memphis, to Sun Studio — the scene of rock & roll's big bang. Elvis' music diviner Cowboy Jack Clement opened the studio so we could cut some tracks within the same four walls where Elvis recorded "Mystery Train." He found the old valve microphone the King had howled through; the reverb was the same reverb: "Train I ride, 16 coaches long." It was a small tunnel of a place, but there was a certain clarity to the sound. You can hear it in those Sun records, and they are the ones for me. The King didn't know he was the King yet. Elvis doesn't know where the train will take him, and that's why we want to be passengers.

Jerry Schilling, the only one of the Memphis Mafia not to sell him out, told me that when Elvis was upset and feeling out of kilter, he would leave the big house and go down to his little gym, where there was a piano. With no one else around, his choice would always be gospel. He was happiest when he was singing his way back to spiritual safety. But he didn't stay long enough. Self-loathing was waiting back up at the house, where Elvis was seen shooting at his TV screens, the Bible open beside him at St. Paul's great ode to love, Corinthians 13. Elvis clearly didn't believe God's grace was amazing enough.

Some commentators say it was the Army, others say it was Hollywood or Las Vegas that broke his spirit. The rock & roll world certainly didn't like to see their King doing what he was told. I think it was probably much more likely his marriage or his mother — or a finer fracture from earlier on, like losing his twin brother, Jesse, at birth. Maybe it was just the big arse of fame sitting on him.

I think the Vegas period is underrated. I find it the most emotional. By that point Elvis was clearly not in control of his own life, and there is this incredible pathos. The big opera voice of the later years — that's the one that really hurts me.

Why is it that we want our idols to die on a cross of their own making, and if they don't, we want our money back? But you know, Elvis ate America before America ate him.

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