This past Friday (Jan. 8th) marked the birthdays of two pop music mavericks, Elvis Presley and David Bowie. One was the King Of Rock N' Roll while the other took it to places few could have imagined.
It's unfortunate that Elvis Presley in some quarters has become a punch line. A cliché. But that image is not entirely without cause. Let's face it, in the end he was drug addled, isolated, eccentric, wearing sequin jump suits, firing guns into television sets, and taking his personal jet on a midnight run to Denver for a Fool's Gold. An oven baked sandwich made with an entire loaf of bread, slathered in peanut butter, jelly, and bacon.
A gifted, once in a lifetime talent, that was eventually mismanaged, spending his final years as a tabloid caricature.
But it wasn't always like that.
Elvis was born dirt poor in a Tupelo, Mississippi, shotgun shack. It was there that he began to soak up the music and moves of the musicians around him. Country, blues, bluegrass and gospel, black and white.
Tom Petty said "He did not invent rock 'n' roll per se...What he did was different...". As Sam Phillips pointed out (founder of Sun Records, the first to record him) Elvis Presley wasn't just another white guy imitating black musicians, he was taking everything he had seen and heard and distilled it into something that was his own. His legs, hips, and shoulders were shakin'. Teenage girls screamed and the parents panicked. Everyone was watching and listening.
"Hound Dog", "Don't Be Cruel", "All Shook Up", "That's Alright Mama", "Mystery Train", "Good Rockin' Tonight", "Baby Let's Playhouse", "Blue Moon of Kentucky", "Teddy Bear", "Heartbreak Hotel"...he had hit after hit, after hit. In 1957 he's drafted and sent overseas. By now he had signed a contract with Col. Tom Parker, a move that would forever alter his career and life. When Elvis returned from the Army, Parker decided on a grown up path: pop crooning, movies, and merch. The revolution Elvis had started was giving birth to records like Rubber Soul, Aftermath, Pet Sounds, Blonde On Blonde...and there's Elvis, in Hollywood, making movies with lame songs.
Then came the '68 comeback special. Elvis in front of a live TV studio audience, sitting in a circle with Scotty Moore, DJ Fontana, and some of the other guys that were there in the beginning, banging out songs. He was decked out in black leather and seemed to be back in his element. Presley's next album, Elvis In Memphis, had a hit with Suspicious Minds. It could have been a renaissance.
Instead, it was Vegas residencies, oldies tours (imagine being in your 30's on an oldies tour), plus the never ending smorgasbord of drugs. The downward spiral had begun.
There's a lot of what ifs when you think about the life of Elvis. What if Elvis hadn't been drafted or at the very least not shipped off to Germany. We weren't at war at the time. You would think shrewd management could have arranged for him to serve in some capacity and continue working. And then there's Col. Tom Parker. What if Elvis had met someone like a Brian Epstien, Andrew Loog Oldham, or Albert Grossman? Instead of encouraging Presley's artistic curiosity, Parker viewed Elvis as a cash machine to be exploited. While he saw the benefit of merging film, TV, and music, he also stunted advancement. Parker had a financial stake in the only publishing company allowed to funnel (often inferior) songs to Presley. And it's because of Parker that Elvis never toured Europe. Parker was Dutch, not a U.S. citizen (let alone a real colonel, the title was honorary) and he feared not being able to get back into the U.S.
In all fairness, there was no map for the roads Elvis was going down. So if there were some mistakes, missteps, that was understandable. Which makes his life, his story, just as important as the music, and still serves as a cautionary tale. Elvis is still important. Presley might not have been the best, and certainly not the most consistent, but no one could argue with the fact that he was the musician most responsible for popularizing rock & roll on an international level. Without him, it might have been a world without a Beatles, Stones, Zeppelin, Springsteen, Petty, Roxy Music, Sex Pistols, Clash, or Lana Del Rey. Even after all these years, one still marvels at his voice, his moves, and dogged determination.
He was born David Robert Jones, but later changed his last name to Bowie to avoid being confused with Davy Jones from the Monkees. Of course, all things being equal, the music he would produce over the years would have canceled any confusion.
His early stabs at music came with The King Bees, Mannish Boys and The Lower Third, releasing singles that were generally ignored. But in 1969, things start to take shape. This was Bowie, the folky with an alien attitude, strumming acoustic guitar and singing about spacemen, dystopian narratives about lazy societies, isolation, and madness. James Taylor, he was not.
Then came Hunky Dory and Changes. It was a song he wrote as a night club parody, a knock off. But by a twist of fate it captured the spirit of the times: "These children that you spit on as they try to change their worlds, are immune to your consultations, they're quite aware of what they're going through". He was beginning to find his way.
From there it was Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane ('a lad in sane'), and the Thin White Duke. We would barely catch up with Bowie before he would shed another layer of skin and move on. Maybe as a Glam Rocker, a blue eyed plastic soul man, or a proto-metal Rebel Rebel.
He was a rock star rumored to exist on a diet red peppers, milk, and cocaine. He was best friends with Iggy Pop and discovered Stevie Ray Vaughan. He said he was bi. He said he was gay. He married a super model. He starred in movies and acted on the stage, debuting as The Elephant Man here in Denver.
Bowie never stopped learning, never stopped being curious. Even in the end, he was still tinkering with normal conventions. On his final album, Blackstar, Bowie recruited a local New York jazz quintet as his band. Producer Tony Visconti told Mojo: "If we'd used [Bowie's] former musicians they would be rock people playing jazz...Having jazz guys play rock music turns it upside down."
Sadly, Bowie and Elvis never met. As the legend goes, David wrote 'Golden Years' for Presley. Elvis had heard the demo (both were on RCA Records at the time) and shortly before Presley's death there talks about Bowie producing his next album.1977-era Bowie producing Elvis. Let that sink in.
It's no great stretch to assume that their influences will still be felt decades from now as they still are today. Bruce Springsteen said this, "Elvis gave us full access to a new language, a new form of communication, a new way of being, a new way of looking, a new way to think about sex, about race, about identity, about life..."
As for Bowie, he gave license to the idea that reinvention could be part of the plan. Why not portray yourself as an androgynist alien on one album only to go kraut-rock on another? And of course along the way, reminding us that we could be heroes, even if it was, just for one day.
The Bowie Bible, Express.co.uk, Allmusic, Billboard, NME, Playboy, and the HBO documentary, Elvis Presley: The Searcher helped back up my meager writing talents in putting this together. Also decades of listening to the music of Bowie and Elvis at loud volume provided invaluable assistance.