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Tom Chaney: Elvis: A Tragic Life

Of Writers And Their Books: Elvis: A Tragic Life. Tom says Mason shows us Elvis emerging as a semi-tragic figure fomenting a revolution but sacrificed by his manager Parker. This column first appeared 19 February 2006.
The next earlier Tom Chaney column: Think BOOKS for Christmas

By Tom Chaney

Elvis: A Tragic Life

The date was July 5, 1954. A shy, mumbling, awkward nineteen-year-old young man recorded some popular songs of the day in the Sun Records studio in Memphis, Tennessee. He had said that he wanted to cut a record for his mother's birthday.

After stumbling through "Harbor Lights" and one or two other current standards of the day, something happened. The singer had been fumbling around with other popular ballads when he shouted out "That's All Right, Mama," and launched into an old Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup tune.

In the control room, Sam Phillips, owner of Sun, stuck his head out of the door and said, "What are you doing? Back up and try to find a place to start and do it again."

According to Bobbie Ann Mason in her 2003 biography, Elvis Presley backed up, found the place to start, and did it again and again. "Sam recognized what he was looking for: the energy, the liveliness, the abandon, the risk. Scotty [Moore] and Bill [Black] quickly picked up on Elvis's lead with a forceful, fast rhythm."

And rock and roll was on its way -- a mixture of rhythm and blues, southern gospel, and country -- with Elvis in the driver's seat.

The shy, polite singer would become a cultural icon by the time of his death twenty-three years later in the bathroom of Graceland.

Bobbie Ann Mason brings her practiced fictional skills to this biography -- Elvis Presley, in the most useful Penguin Lives series of biographies by major writers on important cultural figures. Others have written more detailed studies of Elvis, especially Peter Guralnick in his massive two volume study accompanied by Elvis Day by Day with Ernst Jorgensen.

But Mason's short biography brings new insight to the career of Elvis from his beginnings in Tupelo, Mississippi, as the poor son of impoverished parents, through his move from Sun Records into the thrall of Colonel Thomas A. Parker until his early death in 1977.

In Mason's treatment, Elvis emerges as a semi-tragic figure fomenting a revolution with a great deal of talent which talent was sacrificed on the altar of Parker/van Kuijk's carnival instincts. It was Parker (who was actually a Dutch illegal immigrant named Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk) who kept him making the same banal movie over and over and who forbade his taking such roles as ones in "Midnight Cowboy" and "A Star is Born" when they came his way. Parker kept Elvis from the special services unit in the army where he would sing for free. For the same reason Parker blocked a White House visit because performers there were not paid.

Examining the career of Elvis, one is led to the conclusion that the singer's career was one of unrealized musical potential in the midst of financial success. One is struck by the continued immaturity of adolescent pranks coupled with a yearning to read, to understand, and to come to terms with himself in the world.

Addicted to prescription drugs, he offered his services to President Richard Nixon in the 'war on drugs.' The irony of that contradiction is evidence of his immaturity and his acceptance of the myth of himself created by Parker and kept alive by his fans.

The Elvis biography is among a group of three Kentucky authors being considered by the Hart County Book Discussion Group over the next several months. Last Wednesday's discussion of Elvis Presley involved members of all ages from one youngster not yet born when Elvis died to others who were adults when the rock and roll revolution caught fire. In between were several members close in age to Elvis.

That group has been around since 1984 considering works of fiction, poetry, biography, and history on a monthly basis. In the next two months the group will read and discuss works by Kentuckians Robert Penn Warren and Wendell Berry.

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2014-12-07 07:15:53
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