Sunday, June 6, 2010

Bad Elvis

[These are liner notes to a mix CD I made of "Bad Elvis," a collection of his worst Hollywood-era songs.]

Elvis’s greatest gift was his sense of commitment. Time and time again, the songs that best defined his art – from “That’s All Right” through “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Hound Dog” and then on down to “Long Black Limousine” – his songs had power because he was committed to them; he made you believe them.

But like any great American adventure, things went too far too fast, tipping the scales from success to failure. Somehow, the greatest singer in American history, working with some of the best studio musicians, finest record companies, and biggest production studios produced what is perhaps the most embarrassing second act of entertainment history. It was the proverbial perfect storm of music – despite all of the parties’ credentials, they created music that was trite, stupid, underwritten, and overdone.

And, I would like to add, endlessly fascinating.

Just as how Bela Legosi’s final films with the legendarily inept director Ed Wood were technically the worst movies of his career, they are nonetheless among the most interesting to watch. Same goes with Elvis and his Lost Hollywood years. I’d take these songs over his final non-soundtrack LPs of the ‘60s and most of the hodge-podge comps and hits records from this same period.

To borrow Christopher Ricks’ writing about Bob Dylan’s poetry, I hear more than just bad music (although I hear that too) – I hear Elvis descending into a world of sin. The Seven Deadly Sins, to be exact – complete with pride (“He’s Your Uncle, Not Your Dad”), envy (“Poison Ivy League”), sloth (“A Dog’s Life”), greed (“Fort Lauderdale Chamber of Commerce”), gluttony (“Ito Eats”), wrath (“The Walls Have Ears”), and, of course, lust (“Girls! Girls! Girls!”). There’s also incest (“Kissin’ Cousins”), racism (“Stay Away, Joe”), sexism (“Britches”) and horrid puns (“Petunia, the Gardener’s Daughter”); as well as cloying Spanish matador themes (“The Bullfighter Was a Lady”), awkward German two-steps (“Wooden Heart”), C-level vaudeville showtunes (“Lookout Broadway”), strangely mocking hillbilly tunes (“Barefoot Ballad”), and annoying children’s songs (“Old MacDonald”). But above all, there is near Dada-esque surrealism everywhere (“Yoga Is as Yoga Does,” “No Room to Rhumba in a Sports Car,” “Song of the Shrimp”).

One could almost go so far as to say that, like Bob Dylan was doing around the same time with the Basement Tapes, Elvis was mapping out his own incomplete version of America, only where Dylan found weird mystery, Elvis’s found sinful failure.

But in all likelihood, this is just a bunch of really bad music – which just happens to be sung by the greatest American singer of all-time.

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