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.)