Friday, January 08, 2010

`A Habit of the Time'

After working with me periodically for almost a year, a high-school teacher mentioned on Thursday that her father is a professional Elvis Presley impersonator. He sells a little real estate but for 20 years has earned most of his living performing as the man who would have celebrated his 75th birthday today. She showed me some online photos and played a video of her Dad backed by the Jordanaires, the quartet that accompanied Presley starting in 1956. I was hoping for a sweaty, campy act, a parody I could laugh at and feel superior to, but her father is a dead-ringer for the not-quite-corpulent Elvis, circa 1971. In photos he’s utterly convincing and in a blindfold test his voice would fool a lot of fans. In other words, he’s not a caricature but an uncanny re-creation, a respectful trompe-l'œil Elvis.

“There’s a lot of old ladies who think he is Elvis. It’s embarrassing. They ask my mother very embarrassing questions,” the teacher said. What impressed me was her matter-of-factness. She felt no need to defend her Dad or launch a preemptive joke attack against him. Her father impersonates Elvis the way mine was an ironworker. Her attitude mirrors my own toward the real Presley -- neither fan nor hater. An aunt who lived in Olean, N.Y., gave me the single of “Hound Dog” for my fourth birthday, in 1956, the year Elvis recorded it. I thought it was a novelty song about a puppy, and that was last Presley recording I owned until I bought the great Sun sessions a few years ago. His death in the summer of 1977, when we also lost Nabokov and Groucho Marx, is still sad and tawdry, even to a tepid listener.

In his second book, The Sense of Movement (1957), Thom Gunn, born in Gravesend, Kent, but already transplanted to the Bay Area, included “Elvis Presley,” surely among the first poems about rock and roll:

“Two minutes long it pitches through some bar:
Unreeling from a corner box, the sigh
Of this one, in his gangling finery
And crawling sideburns, wielding a guitar.

“The limitations where he found success
Are ground on which he, panting, stretches out
In turn, promiscuously, by every note.
Our idiosyncrasy and our likeness.

“We keep ourselves in touch with a mere dime:
Distorting hackneyed words in hackneyed songs
He turns revolt into a style, prolongs
The impulse to a habit of the time.

“Whether he poses or is real, no cat
Bothers to say: the pose held is a stance,
Which, generation of the very chance
It wars on, may be posture for combat.”

The title of the volume suggests Gunn’s move to the U.S. in 1954 and the energy he found in his newly adopted country. It also hints at Elvis and his once-lascivious moves. Written as unrhymed free verse, the poem couldn’t work. The substance must press against the form. Only that tension can suggest Elvis’ energy, still so fresh: “He turns revolt into a style, prolongs / The impulse to a habit of the time. Twenty-five years later, in The Passages of Joy (1982), Gunn includes another poem about Presley, “Painkillers”:

“The King of rock ‘n’ roll
Grown pudgy, almost matronly,
Fatty in gold lame,
mad King encircled
by a court of guards, suffering
delusions about assassination,
obsessed by guns, fearing
rivalry and revolt

“popping his skin
with massive hits of painkiller

“dying at forty-two.

“What was the pain?
Pain had been the colours
of the bad boy with the sneer.

“The story of pain, of separation,
was the divine comedy
he had translated
from black into white.

“For white children too
the act of naming the pain
a keen joy at the heart of it.

“Here they are still!
the disobedient
who keep a culture alive
by subverting it, turning
for example a subway
into a garden of graffiti.

“But the puffy King
lived on, his painkillers
neutralizing, neutralizing,
until he became
ludicrous in performance.

The enthroned cannot revolt.
What was the pain
he needed to kill
if not the ultimate pain

“of feeling no pain?”

This is a bad, paint-by-number poem, a string of pop-psychology and counterculture clichés that rationalizes and romances a junky’s self-destructiveness and mourns his inner child. If “Elvis Presley” is my friend’s Elvis-impersonating father, “Painkillers” is the guy I saw at a county fair with the jumpsuit-encased beer gut and sweat-stained armpits. My friend’s father, at age 53, has outlived his model by 11 years.


William A. Sigler said...

I'm with Chuck D from my generation who said "Elvis never meant shit to me," but I do see, despite my wife's protestations that Elvis even in his semi-comatose state reading lyrics off a card was a far more mesmerizing entertainer than the hundreds of other stars she's seen, why you forgive your usual eloquent preference for age over youth to favor the Elvis of the young Gunn: coiled and closeted, the strangeness compelling because there is, after all, danger in that closet, vs. the Elvis of the older, wiser, corpulent and analytic Gunn, who sees that the closet has long since been exposed to light, leaving nothing behind but the maw. "The divine comedy he had translated from black to white" (great, albeit pretentious, line) had resolved to a private pain that we make believe is not pain at all--so near is the illusion to our hearts.

For my money, the best literary rendition of the King is Lester Bangs' essay "Where were you when Elvis died?", which, unlike the Gunn trajectory, matches Elvis in both innocence and daring in identifying him as, essentially, the inventor of sex. I love his final paragraph:

“If love is truly going out of fashion forever, which I do not believe, then along with our nurtured indifference to each other will be an even more contemptuous indifference to each others’ objects of reverence. I thought it was Iggy, you thought it was Joni Mitchell or whoever else seemed to speak for your own private, entirely circumscribed situation’s many pains and few ecstasies. We will continue to fragment in this manner, because solipsism holds all the cards at present; it is a king whose domain engulfs even Elvis’. But I can guarantee you one thing: we will never again agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis. So I won’t bother saying good-bye to his corpse. I will say good-bye to you.”

James Street said...

Woody Allen said that he isn't afraid of death, he just doesn't want to be there when it happens. I've always though he said it with a hopeful smile, as if he was almost certain, but not quite, that no one ever IS there when it happens, but that so many people believe they WILL be there that he was sure he would get a laugh.

While reading your piece, I had an image of myself struggling one last time, just before death, to accomplish some great physical task. I am an ex-athlete and I imagined that I might be leaping high in the air, coming down with the football and then sprinting with all my might for a touchdown.

It occurred to me that the horrified spectators standing around my death bed might think that my body was entering into a final agonized spasm of pain caused by my approaching death. But the unknown truth was that I was sprinting off to a touchdown as the lights of the stadium dimmed and finally went out for me, forever.

It's not very romantic image but maybe it's closer to the truth than Berryman's.