Thursday, 26 December 2013

Z is for Also Sprach Zarathustra

The music to which Elvis arrived onstage in his 1970s concerts. Its first appearance seems to have been his New York live debut, at Madison Square Garden, on 10 June, 1972. The first song he played that night was his first single, That’s All Right.

Given modern fame by its use in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, Also Sprach Zarathustra is a tone poem by German composer Richard Strauss (1864-1949). He wrote it in 1896, using twelve-note material twelve years before Schoenberg. Originally subtitled ‘Symphonic optimism in fin-de-siècle form dedicated to the 20th Century’, it depicts the ‘division between nature and men and the attempt to liberate the individual through laughter’. This portrait is elaborated, in the composer’s words, by alternating the two remotest keys, C Major, which represents nature, and B Major, which stands for humanity, then bringing them together at the end of the piece. 

The opening theme (which is all you got to hear at an Elvis concert) was described by Strauss thus: ‘The sun rises. The individual enters the world or the world enters the individual.’ Sun? Individual entering the world? On your marks, Elvis academics and conspiracy theorists.

Strauss’ piece, for which he was paid 3,200 marks, was ‘freely based’ on the epic prose poem of the same title written by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), one of whose tenets was Only The Strong Survive — a thesis elaborated by Elvis on his 1969 version of the Jerry Butler song. 

Nietzsche also wrote about the importance of the ‘Dionysian value-standard’. Many commentators have pointed to the similarity between the atmosphere of early Elvis shows and Dionysian ritual celebrations in ancient Greece. Van K Brock, for example, in Images Of Elvis, The South And America, wrote that ‘Pentecostalism, like Rock, is a Dionysian cult; offering similar ecstatic release in response to frenzied stimuli’. 

But the core of Nietzsche’s thought, and the one that earned him the blame for providing philosophical and moral underpinning for Nazism, was the concept of the Ubermensch. There is no evidence that Elvis ever studied Nietzsche — which is perhaps surprising given his interest in books of metaphysical pensées such as, according to his hairdresser and ‘intimate spiritual adviser’ Larry Geller, The Impersonal Life by Joseph Benner. It is easy, though, to imagine him sitting on the toilet in Graceland pondering Nietzsche’s dream of ‘the possibility of the emergence of exceptional human beings capable of an independence and creativity elevating them beyond the level of the general human rule’. Elvis was, in his own way, always asking himself about that, ever transfixed by the same questions. Why me, Lord? Why was I given this talent? Was I sent to save? If so, why do I feel so empty, so emptied even?

Like Elvis, Nietzsche died young (56) and spent the last part of his life in seclusion — though in his case it was twelve years in a mental hospital, his brain destroyed by the syphilis which would kill him four years after Strauss’ tone poem debuted. 

So what was so significant to Elvis about Also Sprach Zarathustra that he chose it as his theme tune? Ed Parker, one of Elvis’ spiritual ‘mentors’ and karate instructors told Brock, ‘that as far as he knew Elvis simply liked the movements and rhythm of the music.’

Next up Now the A-Z is over . . . maybe some more Elvis stuff, maybe some more stuff about the greatest songs in the world ever

Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Y is for Yoga

Yoga Is As Yoga Does is a song featured in Easy Come, Easy Go, the first of the three 1967 Elvis films. It features an encounter with some hippies — hence the modish subject matter of the song. In the movie, Elvis played a frogman and sang the yoga song as a duet with Elsa Lanchester, an actress previously linked with Frankenstein (she played the monster’s bride in The Bride Of Frankenstein) and Charles Laughton (she was both the homosexual actor’s fictional wife, Anne of Cleves in his Private Life Of Henry VIII and his real wife).

Laughton himself was also linked with Elvis. He was the substitute host on Elvis’ first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show — Sullivan was recovering from a car accident — on 9 September 1956. Elvis sang Don’t Be Cruel and after he’d finished Laughton commented, laughingly: ‘Well, what did someone say? Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast?’

Laughton died in 1962. In 1964 Elsa Lanchester acted in Mary Poppins. In 1986, she was in Die Laughing — and then died.

Elvis recorded many other strikingly titled songs, most of them for his movies and many of them collected on the bootleg album Elvis’ Greatest Shit! (Dog Vomit, Sux 005, 1984): Dominic The Impotent Bull, Smorgasbord, Queenie Wahini’s Papaya, Petunia The Gardener’s Daughter, Fort Lauderdale Chamber Of Commerce, There’s No Room To Rhumba In A Sports Car and You Can’t Say No In Acapulco — the last pair both being cut on the same memorable January day in 1963.

Tomorrow Elvis, Superman and a Stanley Kubrick — the final link which explains life and everything like it.

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

X is for X-ray

In 1957, the American magazine Harper’s reported that in Russia, bootleg Elvis records, cut on hospital X-ray plates were selling for $12.50 each. This story has been repeated verbatim ever since. Wondering how you cut recorded music into something as hard as a glass X-ray plate, I called a leading expert in record cutting at his London studio. He confirmed my doubts in two words from the start of the alphabet. A was for ‘absolute’ and B was for ‘bollocks’.

Tomorrow It's Christmas so, obviously, it's  . . . yoga

Monday, 23 December 2013

W is for Red West

Was Red West the most important man in Elvis’ life?
West himself says they were best friends at Humes High and that he saved Elvis from getting beaten up by football players angered by his haircut. ‘I really felt sorry for him,’ said West. ‘He seemed very lonely and had no real friends.’ West worked as Elvis’ bodyguard in the early Sun days. When Elvis joined the army, West went with him to Germany. When he left, West and his cousin Sonny were taken on as bodyguards and full-time founder members of the Memphis Mafia.

According to some sources, in 1961 Elvis commissioned West to write his first professional composition, That’s Someone You Never Forget, a song about the most important woman in his life — his mother. (In all, Elvis recorded eight of West’s songs.)

West says he was the one who told Elvis that Priscilla was having an affair with her karate teacher, Mike Stone. At which point, Elvis asked West to hire a hit man to kill her. He hired one for $10,000 — he says — but Elvis changed his mind, and decided not to have his wife murdered. Next, West wrote a song about the break-up, Separate Ways, and gave it to Elvis who made it the title track of his next album. 

Then, on 13 July 1976, West — along with Sonny and another bodyguard member of the Memphis Mafia, Dave Hebler — was fired, by Elvis’ father Vernon, either because he’d been beating up Elvis fans or because he was helping service Elvis with drugs.

The entourage’s revenge was to write the first exposé of their former boss’s junkiedom, Elvis — What Happened?. Elvis heard about the book and tried to buy them off. When that failed he addressed the problem at his very last Las Vegas show, on 2 December 1976, in a monologue to the audience — who, as the revelations were not yet public, can have had little idea what he was on about. 

It was Elvis at his most fork-tongued. ‘I’ve just returned from New York where I attended a meeting of the International Federation Of Narcotics Agents and I’ve been awarded honorary membership, ladies and gentlemen. I don’t pay any attention to movie magazines or newspapers because in my case they make the stories up. When I hear the rumours flying around, I get sick. In this day and age, you can’t even get sick. They said I was strung out on heroin and I’ve never been strung out on anything but music. If I ever find out who started that I’ll knock their goddam head off, the son of a bitch. That is dangerous to me, my family, my friends and my little girl. If I find out who started this, maids or room clerks or freaks that carry your luggage up, I’ll rip their tongues out by the roots! Now I’ll sing Blue Hawaii from the movie.’

When it came time to promote the book, West was forthright. Elvis, he said, ‘takes pills to go to sleep. He takes pills to get up. He takes pills to go to the john.’ In another interview, Hebler said of Elvis: ‘It seems he is bent on death.’ The book was published on 1 August 1977. Fifteen days later, Elvis was dead. 

Tomorrow Elvis'  X-ray vision

Sunday, 22 December 2013

V is for Voodoo

In 1956, The Catholic Sun described Elvis’ music as a ‘voodoo of frustration and defiance’.

Tomorrow The most important single man in Elvis' life? (Clue one. It's not his daddy. Clue two. It's not Sam Phillips. Clue three. It's not the Colonel.)

Saturday, 21 December 2013

U is for Uncle Silas Payne
Sam Phillips grew up on the family farm outside Florence, Alabama. One of the workers was an old, blind, black man known as Uncle Silas Payne. He taught young Sam about music, about the power of what Sam later called ‘genuine, untutored Negro’ music. When Sam started his own record company he remembered what Uncle Silas had taught him and went looking for ‘Negroes with mud on their boots and patches in their overalls, battered instruments and unfettered techniques’. He found them and recorded them. Then he found Elvis and taught him what Uncle Silas had taught him. As has often been said, Uncle Silas is the secret hero of the whole story.

Tomorrow Elvis runs the voodoo down

Friday, 20 December 2013

Xmas 2013: a soundtrack

Here is the tracklisting for you if you downloaded my Xmas 2013 Dropbox folder. If you didn't get that hook-up and want it, let me know, either via direct email or a comment on this page.

As to details, well, I may or may not write some sleevenotes and do a proper CD cover. But I do know that tomorrow I will post the next section of the Elvis A-Z and that on Christmas Day there will be a gift for you all.

1 Silver Bells Bing Crosby (1950)

2 Christmas at the Airport Nick Lowe (2013)

3 Up On The Housetop
Pomplamoose (2010)

4 Frosty The Snowman Fiona Apple (2008)

5 Christmas Day With Me Laura Vane & the Vipertones (2009)

6 Merry Merry Christmas
Alton Ellis & The Lipsticks (1972)

7 White Christmas Elvis Presley (1957)

8 I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus
John Prine (1994)

9 Christmas In Prison Emmy the Great featuring Lightspeed Champion (2006)

10 Grateful For Christmas Hayes Carll (2011)

11 Call Collect On Christmas Del McCoury (2005)

12 I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day Nick Lowe (2013)

13 I Wrote To Santa Claus Huey Smith Piano & Clowns (1962)

14 Christmas Blues Canned Heat (1968)

15 Rocket Ship Santa
The BellRays feat. Lisa Kekaula, Tony Fate and Bob Vennum (2005)

16 A Five Pound Box Of Money Pearl Bailey (1959)

17 Baby It's Cold Outside Ella Fitzgerald And Louis Jordan (1949)

18 Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) The Raveonettes (2008)

19 Cold White Christmas Casiotone For The Painfully Alone (2006)

20 Christmas Dirge
Nellie McKay (2007)

21 Christmas Rhapsody
Pledge Drive (2003)

22 How Will You Spend Christmas? Rev AW Nix (1930)

Next up 
Uncle Silas Payne, the man who invented rock and roll?
T is for Trapani, Sicily, and Tesco, Stroud Green Road, London N4
When Elvis died,
I was staying at a fly-blown hotel in Trapani, Sicily. I saw the headline on an Italian newspaper. At the time, I was living in north London, on the southern reaches of Crouch End, and did my shopping at the Tesco supermarket in Stroud Green Road. Now read this e-mail which I found at the now defunct website, It was posted on Thursday, 13 February 1997 at 19:30:58 (EST), by Clare Mac 

‘I saw Elvis this morning at Tesco on Stroud Green Road in London N4. He was buying some low-fat cottage cheese with pineapple. He was wearing a shell suit and white socks with red stripes tucked over the bottom of his trousers!! This proving the King is alive and well and living near Finsbury Park.’

Trapani, Tesco, Thursday — spooky, huh? If that's not enough for you, here is an Elvis impersonator whose surname is Trapani.

Tomorrow The man who invented rock'n'roll. Clue: it's not Elvis and it starts with a 'u'.

Thursday, 19 December 2013

S is for Scatter

Scatter was Elvis’ pet chimpanzee who lived the life of a country song in Graceland. When Elvis got bored with the chimp, the Memphis Mafia took over his care, dressing him in human clothes and introducing him to hard liquor. He became a violent alcoholic and died of cirrhosis of the liver.


Tomorrow Trapani, Sicily and the Tesco's in Stroud Green Rd

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

R is for Rock ’n’ Roll

Of course. One day, someone complimented Sam Phillips on his talents as a record producer. ‘Producing?’ said Sam. ‘I don’t know anything about producing records. But if you want to make some Rock ’n’ Roll music, I can reach down and pull it out of your asshole.’


Tomorrow S is for Elvis' favourite pet

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Q is for Questions


Two questions posed to Elvis at one of his last press conferences.

Q What about the rumour that you once shot your mother?

A Well, I believe that one takes the cake. That’s the funniest one I ever heard.

Q Do you smoke marijuana to help work yourself into a frenzy?

A (giggle, mumble)


Tomorrow . . . R is for Rock ’n’ Roll

Monday, 16 December 2013

P is for publishing

I checked how many Elvis books are available from Amazon. Nearly 7,000 — though, obviously, some will be various editions of the same book. The British Library holds more than 400 Elvis books. Among them, naturally, are reference books — invaluably helpful I’ve found them, too. There are also well-known biographies and memoirs by former lovers, bodyguards, his nurse and a fellow soldier. There are personal narratives — Elvis Is Dead And I Don’t Feel Too Good Myself. 

There are recipe books (for peanut butter fans only.) There is fiction such as Zip Six: A Novel. Under ‘conspiracy theories‘ there is Top Secret: The Untold Story Of Elvis Presley’s Secret FBI Files and several others. 

There are a surprising number of academic texts such as The Inner Elvis: A Psychological Biography Of Elvis Aaron Presley Vol 1 and Elvis (American Structural Readers: Stage 1). 

Others are even more specialised, to say the least — The Day Elvis Met Nixon, say, or Elvis Presley Calls His Mother After The Ed Sullivan Show or Did Elvis Sing In Your Hometown?

Some must be a joke but, on the other hand, just might not be — The Gospel Of Elvis: Containing The Testament And Apocrypha Including All The Greater Themes Of The King has to come in that category, as does Elvis For President: Committee To Elect The King and, I guess, Alien Pregnant By Elvis. Others are just plain baffling — Elvis In Aspic, for instance.

Tomorrow Elvis answers a couple of questions

Sunday, 15 December 2013

O is for ‘OK, I won’t’

Elvis’ final words. His last girlfriend, Ginger Alden, former Miss Traffic Safety and Miss Mid-South, had told him not to fall asleep reading in the toilet. ‘OK, I won’t,’ he replied.

His last read was either The Scientific Search For The Face Of Jesus by Frank Adams or The Shroud Of Turin by Ian Wilson. 

His last meal, according to Albert Goldman, was hamburgers and French fries at dawn the previous day, prepared by his cook Mary Jenkins. Despite her urgings, Elvis wouldn’t touch his food on the day of his death. 

Other sources say a different cook, Pauline Nicholson, served him ice cream and cookies at 4am — just the day after he’d had a cavity filled, by the way.
Tomorrow Not Presley but . . . oh, dear, publishing

Saturday, 14 December 2013

An alphabetical advent calendar of Elvis . . . 

N is for Norse

Old Norse is the language which gave us the word ‘Elvis’ — meaning ‘all wise’. Well, maybe. 

The first actual Elvis was Irish. The name is an anglicised version of Ailbe, a 6th century bishop and saint. St Ailbe is still a big name in the Irish Catholic world. He is one of the four men who brought Christ to Ireland — and so one of those responsible for turning the place into the land of saints and scholars. His feast day is September 12.

There is a Welsh connection, too. St Ailbe (Elvis) baptised David, founder of the Welsh church. Which is why, in Pembrokeshire — about as far west as you can go in Wales without actually being in America — there is a tiny village called Saint Elvis, with a church in ruins. 

There is also a St Elvis farm and a shrine to St Elvis. At least, it is said there is  but I've not been able to find an image of it. Nor have I ever been to St Elvis but I have found it on the map . . .

Tomorrow O is for the King's dying words

Friday, 13 December 2013

An alphabetical advent calendar of Elvis

M is for Minnie Mae Presley
Minnie Mae was Elvis’ paternal grandmother. She was born on 17 June, 1890 and died on 8 May, 1980. That means she outlived both her son Vernon and her grandson, whose birth she attended. Hers is the one of the four gold and black gravestones in the Meditation Garden in the grounds of Graceland. (Actually, there are four and a quarter gravestones if you count the mini one for Elvis’ stillborn twin, Jesse Garon.)

Tomorrow The link between Elvis and an ancient European language

Thursday, 12 December 2013

An alphabetical Elvis advent calendar . . .

L is for Leg Wiggle


The Leg Wiggle Controversy was a phrase first used by Ron Rosenbaum in a cover story for the New York Sunday Times magazine on 24 September 1995. It was about Elvisiana and Elvisianics — in other words, is Elvis a new religion? The Leg Wiggle Controversy focuses on the significance of Elvis’ hip and thigh gyrations — sexual or spiritual? 

In the academic corner stands Vernon Chadwick, Director of the International Conference on Elvis Presley organised by the University of Mississippi’s Centre For The Study Of Southern Culture (1966’s event was subtitled Then Sings My Soul: Elvis And The Sacred South). Chadwick is an English professor with a modern English professor’s way with words — he famously described Elvis as an ‘assembler of clothing signifiers’. And as a good Mississippian he disdains what he sees as a Yankee distortion of the history and meaning of Elvis’ hip movements. He wrote: ‘With astonishing cultural illiteracy, New York critics of the 1950s mistook Elvis Presley’s leg-shaking Rock ‘n’ Roll as an obscene striptease, when in fact his moves stemmed from the provincial subworlds of Southern Gospel, Country and Blues that combined spiritual exaltation with bodily release.’ That is: it was the Lord’s will moving Elvis’ pelvis.

In the other corner of the Leg Wiggle Controversy was the Rev Howard Finster, an ‘apocalyptic Folk artist’ and self-proclaimed ‘man of visions’. He too thought Elvis’ pelvis was a gift from God but he believed it to have been an explicitly erotic gift. ‘Elvis was sent by God to revive sex, to stimulate sex and nature.’ The Rev Finster says he learned this during a visit from Elvis the angel.


Tomorrow Minnie Mae, the Presley that outlasted Elvis

The book Essential Elvis, new edition, published December 2013. Link on left of page

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

K is for Kalamazoo


The first place Elvis was spotted after he died was Kalamazoo, a small city in south West Michigan. According to the Weekly World News, that is. The American tabloid reported the sighting by 50-year-old ‘mother of five’ Louise Welling, non-Elvis fan and wife of a car assembly worker. She saw him twice, first in a grocery store, then, with her daughter and grandson, outside a Burger King restaurant. Having eaten, Elvis ‘put on a pair of dark glasses, got into a small, light blue car and took off real fast.’ Mrs Welling then added: ‘Other people have seen him, but they are afraid to say anything.’

Tomorrow The Leg Wiggle Controversy