Friday, February 15, 2008

Butch Walker- Leavin' the Game on Luckie St.

Butch Walker was tired of being mistreated by record companies. Ever since his first band was signed in 1991, he was the victim of record company politics. Although his records found a devoted cult of followers, record companies had no idea how to market him. Now six years into his solo career, Butch Walker is taking a page from Radiohead’s playbook and taking matters into his own hands.

On February 11, Walker posted a blog on his Myspace page telling fans that he was finished putting his music on physical compact discs. Fans would now be getting his music directly through his page on and be able to choose whether they wanted to pay for it or not. It is an ambitious endeavor, but it does it work?

On Valentine’s Day, Walker ushered in the next era of his career by releasing a live record entitled Leavin’ the Game on Luckie Street. Recorded in his hometown of Atlanta, Luckie Street shows Butch Walker in his element. Atlanta has been a Mecca for Walker’s cult since his days in the Marvelous 3, and the crowd and the artist feed off each other. The crowd is with him for every guitar riff, every high note, and every lyric. Walker responds with cover tunes, anecdotes and extended versions of his songs.

Walker finds a nice balance between his recent work and his past. It’s really rewarding to hear a newer song like “The Taste of Red” followed by the Marvelous 3’s “Over Your Head.” Walker handles rockers and ballads with equal aplomb, but the ballads hit dizzying heights. On “Mixtape,” Walker starts out quietly and introspectively, his passion increasing with every verse. The end is an explosion of fury, with Butch and the band bashing out the final notes. After a heartbreaking version of “Stateline,” Walker moves to the piano and performs “Sober,” “Joan” and “Cigarette Lighter Love Song” “Sober” is a revelation on the piano. Initially an anguished break-up song, it is transformed into a reflective lament on lost love.

Leavin’ the Game on Luckie Street would have been a perfect live document, except for a nearly fatal flaw. A live album is supposed to make the listener feel like they are at the show. Walker’s performance achieves this tenfold, but the MP3s don’t. At the end of every song, there is a jarring pause before the next song begins. This isn’t a major problem during the electric songs, but during the acoustic numbers it ruins the vibe. The beginning of “Joan” gets cut off. You hear the first two words and then…..nothing. It destroys the illusion that you are in the crowd.

Butch Walker’s experiment is admirable, but the kinks need to be worked out. If the song breaks weren’t so jarring, it would have been a resounding success. Right now it is just an intriguing idea. Fortunately the music is able to transcend the problems of the format and deliver some great moments. Butch Walker may have gone independent, but he did not leave his game on record company steps.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Why Cheap Trick is America's Greatest Rock Band (Really!)

Every great theory begins with tremendous doubt. Galileo was condemned by the Catholic Church for his heliocentric view of the universe. Charles Darwin was labeled a heretic for his theory of evolution. Freud’s interpretation of his dreams was declared to be pseudo-science. As time went on, the controversy and doubt faded. These theories became the basis for modern science. The theory I am going to present in this essay will also be greeted with doubt, ridicule, and disbelief. However, I believe in it with every fiber of my being: Cheap Trick is the greatest rock n’ roll band that America has ever produced.

“Cheap Trick? The ‘I Want You to Want Me’ band? John, are you out of your mind?”

This is the general reaction I get from friends and colleagues when I present this theory. I admit it seems a bit far-fetched. There are certainly bands that have sold more records than Cheap Trick. There are bands that have had more hits and have sold out more arenas than Cheap Trick. Hell, there are bands that are more popular than Cheap Trick. I am aware of all these factors, but I still say that Cheap Trick is America’s greatest rock band. Why?

Rock n’ roll has existed for half a century. In those 50 years, America has produced thousands of bands. A select few are great. Some are pretty good. The vast majority are terrible. There are very few bands that are contenders for this title. Aerosmith, The Eagles, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, The Grateful Dead, Lynyrd Skynrd would all be fairly standard choices. They all have strong followings and have sold tons of records. More importantly, these bands represent important facets of Americana. Aerosmith is the sleazy excessive side. The Eagles are the laid back country side. The Dead represents the optimistic stoner. Lynryd Skynrd is the South, and Tom Petty is the traditionalist. These bands are America. So what puts Cheap Trick above these bands?

March, 2003: It’s a gorgeous day in early spring and I am standing under the marquee of The Recher Theatre in downtown Towson. Cheap Trick is in town today, and I’m pretty skeptical. I know approximately three songs and don’t own any of their records. I am here because it’s just something to do, an excuse to get out of the house. Nothing beats live music, even if it’s a band that I don’t know anything about. The other people in line are not in my situation. Every single one of them has Cheap Trick’s iconic stamp logo emblazoned on something. Trick seems to be a code among these people, as they eagerly discuss the set list and showoff pieces of memorabilia.

Doors open at 7:00 PM, and I take my usual spot in the front row. I am minding my own business when I feel a tap on my shoulder. I turn around and see a man about my dad’s age. He even looks like my dad: Button down shirt, khaki pants, glasses. His most distinguishing feature is his jacket: A vintage satin baseball jacket with the Cheap Trick logo on the back.

“Is this your first time brother?” he asks with a grin.

“Yup. Are they any good live?” I sheepishly ask.

“Unfuckingbelivable,” Almost-Dad says. “You are going to be blown away my man. I first saw them when I was your age, and I had no idea who they were. I was so impressed I bought the jacket.”

In my experience, adding the word “fucking” to an adjective usually means that you are about to see something monumental. The fact that the word came from my dad’s long lost brother confirmed it. This guy obviously used such words sparingly, and the fact that Cheap Trick warranted an obscenity was intriguing.

The house lights go down. Almost-Dad begins to pump his fists in the air and lets out a mighty “YEAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHH!” He’s not the only one. These fans are in complete and total ecstasy, and a note hasn’t even been played. This is commitment.

Guitarist Rick Nielsen and drummer Bun E. Carlos appear onstage first, followed by bassist Tom Petersen and lead singer Robin Zander. They tear into “Hello There,” and I am absolutely mesmerized. These guys are the same age as my parents, but are performing with the passion of a band in their early ‘20s. Robin Zander’s British Invasion-style vocals sound exactly like they do on the records. Rick Nielsen looks and acts like a crazy uncle, jumping around and telling dirty jokes in between songs. Tom Petersen stands in the background looking pretty, while Bun E. Carlos holds it together with his simple, steady drum beat.

The music is three decades old, but sounds as if it was written yesterday. Even though I don’t know any songs besides “I Want You to Want Me” and “Surrender,” I find myself singing along. The tight harmonies and heavy guitar riffs go together like peanut butter and chocolate. This is one helluva band.

The week before, I saw The Used at Towson University. The Used were in their ‘20s and could not match Cheap Trick’s energy or presence. I compared Robin Zander to The Used’s Burt McCracken. McCracken swayed back and forth like a heroin addicted glacier. Zander didn’t move around much, but charisma spewed out of every orifice. I want to be Robin Zander when I grow up.

The show ended with “Surrender,” and when the band left the stage Almost-Dad tapped me on the shoulder again.

“Whadja think Bro?” he asked.

“Amazing,” I breathlessly replied. “Absolutely amazing!”


With that, Almost-Dad left, his Cheap Trick jacket waving me goodbye.

I left the Recher and went around to where the tour bus was parked. I didn’t have anything cool for them to sign; I just wanted to tell them what I thought. After awhile, Robin Zander emerged from the bus. He flashes me his million-dollar smile and comes over. I sheepishly give him a piece of notebook paper to sign and he obliges.

“Y-you guys were really great tonight,” I said, aware that I was in the presence of greatness.

“Thanks,” he replied. “I appreciate you coming out.”

He shakes my hand before attending to the other fans waiting for an audience.

Rick Nielsen comes out next, and flashes me his demonic grin. As he signs the paper I ask him a question.

“Can I take a picture of you?”

“Yeah man! Snap away!”

I take out my Kodak disposable camera and take a picture of Rick gritting his teeth like a deranged R. Crumb character.

I immediately went out and bought the core of the Cheap Trick canon: Cheap Trick, In Color, Heaven Tonight and At Budokan. As I got deeper into their catalog, I wondered why Cheap Trick was not in the pantheon of great American rock n’ roll. It seemed odd that a band like Aerosmith was lauded with massive critical respect, but Cheap Trick languished in the Recher Theatres of the world. I wondered why.

June, 2006: Record and Tape Traders. It’s my weekly trip to the record store. While thumbing through the new releases, I stumble upon Rockford, the new Cheap Trick album. I wasn’t even aware they were making a new album, but I bought it anyway. I wasn’t expecting much, but loyalty is a rare virtue in today’s world. If anything, it would have one or two decent songs, like most latter-day Trick albums. I put it on the stereo, and my reaction was similar to the one I had three years before.

I listened to Rockford incessantly for about a month. With every listen, a hypothesis started to roll around in my head. Cheap Trick is one of America’s greatest rock bands. I continued to listen to Rockford and went over their back catalog. I was listening to Heaven Tonight when I came to my final conclusion. Cheap Trick was not one of America’s greatest rock bands; they were America’s greatest rock band.

I realized that this was a ridiculous statement the moment I made it to myself, but the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. Like an evangelical preacher, I began preaching my theory, and was labeled a heretic. Maybe I am a heretic, but my argument stands on solid ground.

One of the pillars of American life is consumerism. From the moment Cheap Trick was conceived in Rick Nielsen’s wonderfully warped mind, they were already a brand. The ingenious stamp logo was plastered on everything from t-shirts to panties as early as 1976. To move the merch, the band created a subtle but effective image for themselves. Pretty boys Robin Zander and Tom Petersen were strategically placed up front, their adorable Midwestern faces greeting impressionable fans from an album cover. The not-so-pretty Nielsen and drummer Bun E. Carlos were relegated to the back. This strategy not only sold records, it gave the band personality. Personality was scarce in the late ‘70s rock scene, and the band stood out.

This strategy especially worked in Japan, where Cheap Trick was treated like royalty. Millions of Japanese girls fell for the American marketing machine, shelling out millions of yen for posters of “Robeeen.” Although the image was calculated to sell the maximum amount of records, it was subtle enough that you didn’t really notice unless you actively looked for it. The image was also symbolic. Robin Zander and Tom Petersen were up front, but if you looked at the songwriting credits, they all belonged to Rick Nielsen. Robin Zander was the great and powerful Oz, but Nielsen was the man behind the curtain.

However, Cheap Trick’s image was much more than a marketing ploy. Early press releases featured fabricated stories of exotic backgrounds and exaggerated deeds. This was meant to give Cheap Trick a level of mystique that few bands had in the mid-‘70s. They were touted as a band without a past, and any journalist that attempted to get information out of them were promptly given a more outrageous story than the last.

Consumerism and branding are an aspect of American culture that Cheap Trick has mastered, but musically it is a bit hard to make a case. Each one of the bands that I mentioned in my introduction have a distinctly American sound. Aerosmith plays blues-influenced hard rock. Tom Petty plays electrified folk. The Dead is heavily influenced by jazz, while Sknyrd and the Eagles are influenced by the sounds of the south.

Cheap Trick is from the Midwest, but their sound is based in the British Invasion. Rick Nielsen’s huge power chords are taken from the Who, and the vocal harmonies are copped from The Beatles. However when you deconstruct their music, there is much more to it. The basis for the sound is in the British Invasion, but American culture is subtly inserted. Bun E. Carlos’ drumming is steeped in the American R&B of the 1950s, and the band often includes Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame” in their setlist.

The majority of Trick’s musical influence comes from Britain, but Rick Nielsen’s smart-aleck lyricism and obsession with sex are purely American. Many of his songs are meant to be humorous, but kids from different cultures were able to get a slice of Americana from their Cheap Trick records. For example, “Surrender” is both an homage to and a parody of American teenage rebellion. However, in Japan, where such rebellion is looked down upon, “Surrender” provided a true release. It told the kids that they would be alright.

Finally, Cheap Trick’s music is totally devoid of the pretension that plagues most great American rock bands. All of them play completely unpretentious music, yet when you talk to them, they act as if they are talking about writing Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. When Steven Tyler talks about writing “Dream On,” he talks with reverence about how that song launched a thousand make-outs. That’s all well and good, but it’s just another garden variety power ballad. It’s not like he wrote “In My Life” or “God Only Knows.” He has completely fallen for his own hype machine. It’s incredibly lame to see a nearly 60 year old man pretend to be relevant when his last decent record came out in 1979 (I am aware that Aerosmith is far more popular now than they were in the ‘70s, but I refuse to consider sober Aerosmith Aerosmith.) . Meanwhile, if you ask Rick Nielsen about “Surrender,” there is no pretension. He will tell you that it is a kick-ass rock song and then proceed to play it, complete with five-necked guitar.

In many ways, Cheap Trick is the embodiment of America. They are a hard-working band, completely devoid of pretension. They are big, loud and showy but complex at the same time. They talk a big game, but if you look deeply enough there is a big heart at the center of the music. Cheap Trick is the melting pot of rock n’ roll.

August, 2007. Virgin Festival. It is 105 degrees in the front row. My throat is sore, I have a pounding headache, and my nose is running. I have gone through the two bottles of water that I was allowed to bring in. Fountains of Wayne have just finished an underwhelming set, and my friend Jon is not happy. I told him that the only thing I really cared about was being in the front row for Cheap Trick.

“But what about the Fratelli’s?” He asked.

“Trust me on this one.” I assured him.

The background music fades out, and the MC introduces the band. I realize that I have stepped into the role of Almost-Dad, and Jon is my pupil. The band steps onto the stage one by one, with Robin appearing last. I look up at Jon, who has skepticism written all over his face. I wait with baited breath for the first power chord, because once he hears that, it’s all over. The band tears in to “Hello There.” I look up at Jon, who is now picking his jaw up off the floor.

After a blistering 45-minute set, Cheap Trick leaves the stage. I am mentally and physically drained. Jon stares into space for a few seconds, and then speaks.

“I don’t know about you, but I think that kicked ass.”

The cycle begins again.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Elvis Aron Presley 1935-1977

Authors note: This blog originally appeared as an entry in the 411Mania Music Hall of Fame. The story appears here:

On December 3, 1968, The King reclaimed his throne. After years of mediocre movies and lackluster singles, Elvis Presley proved that his title was not just a marketing gimmick. Clad in a black leather suit with his hair piled in a perfect jet-black pompadour, he performed with a fire that he had not shown since the 1950's. He performed songs that he hadn't performed in years: "Lawdy Miss Clawdy," "Jailhouse Rock," "Hound Dog." The official name was "Singer Presents: Elvis", but history would remember it as the '68 Comeback Special.

Elvis Aron Presley was born on January 8, 1935 in Tupelo, Mississippi. His father Vernon worked odd jobs, and his mother Gladys was a seamstress. Elvis began singing in the church choir at an early age and received his first guitar for his eleventh birthday. He made his first public performance the year before at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show. He sang "Old Shep," a Red Foley ballad about a boy and his dog.

Like many Depression-era families, the Presleys had trouble making ends meet. They bounced from home to home before finally settling in Memphis, Tennessee. The diverse musical climate of Memphis agreed with young Elvis; he listened to everything from the country picking of Hank Snow to the hard driving blues of B.B. King. He hung out on Beale Street, soaking up the music and buying flamboyant clothes at Lansky Brothers

Elvis graduated from L.C. Humes High School in June of 1953. That summer, he walked into The Memphis Recording Service to make a belated birthday present for his mother. He recorded two songs, "My Happiness" and "That's When Your Heartaches Begin". Receptionist Marion Keisker was impressed enough to take down his name and telephone number for her husband Sam.

Sam Phillips was the owner of the Memphis Recording Service and the founder of Sun Records. He noticed that many white kids were buying R&B records, and set out to find a white singer that sounded black. In January of 1954, Elvis returned to the studio to make another recording. This time Sam was around for the proceedings and, like Marion, he was impressed by Elvis' rough talent. That summer, Sam brought Elvis in to record a demo of a song called "Without You". The song didn't click, but Sam was still willing to give Elvis a shot. He put the young singer together with guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black.

After several unremarkable sessions, the band stumbled upon an old blues number by Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup entitled "That's All Right." The instant the band started playing, everything fell into place. Elvis' ringing rhythm guitar and confident voice highlighted Scotty's leads, while Bill's propulsive bass held it all together. The result was a compelling blend of country and R&B that would later be known as "rockabilly". "That's All Right" b/w "Blue Moon of Kentucky" was Elvis' first single for the Sun label, and was released on July 19, 1954. Scotty became the group's manager, and they began to play small clubs throughout the South. Sun released his second single, "Good Rockin' Tonight" b/w "I Don't Care If the Sun Don't Shine," in late September of 1954. On October 6, 1954, the band appeared on "The Grand Ole Opry". They were given a lukewarm reception.

A few weeks later, the band played the "Louisiana Hayride". Elvis' appearance on the "Hayride" was a success, and he signed a contract for 52 more appearances. During this time, Elvis met Colonel Tom Parker, manager of country star Hank Snow. In January of 1955, Sun released Elvis' third single, "Milk Cow Blues Boogie" b/w "You're a Heartbreaker." Elvis signed a contract with Bob Neal, who took over as the band's manager. Colonel Parker became involved with the band's affairs as well, booking them on several package tours with Hank Snow and other "Hayride" stars. His live appearances became wilder, and his good looks and sex appeal were a hit with the girls in the crowd. That spring, Elvis auditioned for Arthur Godfrey's "Talent Scouts" but was not accepted. In April, Sun released his fourth single, "Baby Let's Play House" b/w "I'm Left, You're Right, She's Gone."

In August of 1955, Elvis signed a management contract with Hank Snow Attractions, owned by Hank Snow and Colonel Tom Parker. Snow left shortly after, and Colonel Parker became the sole manager of Elvis Presley. Bob Neal was initially kept on in an advisory capacity, but disagreements with the Colonel caused him to leave. The same month, Sun released his fifth and final single for the label, "I Forgot to Remember to Forget" b/w "Mystery Train."

In November of 1955, Colonel Parker began to negotiate the sale of Elvis' Sun contract to RCA. The deal included all five of Elvis' Sun singles, and all of his unreleased material. Elvis signed the document on November 20, 1955. The deal was for an unprecedented $40,000, plus a $5,000 signing bonus. Elvis had his first RCA recording session in January of 1956, just days after his twenty-first birthday.

On January 27, 1956, RCA released Elvis' first single, "Heartbreak Hotel" b/w "I Was The One." The single was a smash right out of the box, selling 300,000 copies in its first three weeks. It would eventually hit #1 on the pop and country charts, as well as #5 on the R&B chart. Elvis and the boys made their first television appearance, on the Dorsey Brothers' "Stage Show". They performed Big Joe Turner's "Shake Rattle and Roll" and "Flip Flop and Fly." The audience was not sure what to make of Elvis, but it was clear that a new star was on the rise. He made five more appearances on the Dorsey Brothers' show, and his confidence grew with each one. Meanwhile, Elvis and the band continued to tour and make appearances on the "Hayride". Elvis concerts became scenes of mass hysteria. Girls lost their minds with every shake of his magic pelvis.

On March 13, 1956 RCA released Elvis Presley, his first full length album. The album eventually reached #1 on the album chart, where it would remain for ten weeks. The album is a million seller.

On April 1, 1956 Elvis had a screen test for Paramount Pictures. He lip synched "Blue Suede Shoes" and performed a scene from The Rainmaker, a Katherine Hepburn vehicle. Elvis did not get a part in the film, but signed a seven-picture deal with studio head Hal B. Wallis. Elvis' fame skyrocketed during this period, and crowds got bigger and wilder. Many shows were stopped early due to hysterical fans rushing the stage.

On June 5, 1956 Elvis made an appearance on "The Milton Berle Show". He performed "Hound Dog," and swiveled his hips in a manner most suggestive. Adult America is shocked and appalled, and Elvis was condemned by religious leaders and parents groups. The press dubbed him "Elvis the Pelvis." The controversy made him even more popular with teenagers.

A month later, Elvis appeared on "The Steve Allen Show". In an effort to diffuse the controversy, Allen had Elvis dress in a tuxedo and tails. To complete the humiliation, Allen forced Elvis to sing "Hound Dog" to a basset hound. Elvis went along with the plan, but was clearly unhappy about it. Meanwhile, Elvis' fame continued to grow. Ed Sullivan vowed never to have Elvis on his show, but eventually offered The Colonel $50,000 for three appearances. It was the highest amount ever paid for a variety show performance. Later that year, an issue of Variety magazine proclaimed Elvis the "King Of Rock ‘n' Roll".

In August 1956, Elvis began shooting his first movie, a Civil War melodrama called The Reno Brothers. The movie co-starred Debra Paget and Richard Egan. The title was changed to Love Me Tender midway through production to capitalize on Elvis' new single. Elvis made his first appearance on the "Ed Sullivan Show" on September 9th. He performed "Hound Dog," "Don't Be Cruel," "Love Me Tender" and "Reddy Teddy." The show garnered the highest ratings in television history.

Tupelo, Mississippi proclaimed September 26, 1956, "Elvis Presley Day." Elvis played two shows at the Alabama-Mississippi Fair and Dairy Show, the very place that he performed "Old Shep" a decade before. The crowd was so wild that the National Guard was called in to maintain order. Elvis Presley was deemed the biggest thing to hit the music industry since Frank Sinatra. The Colonel capitalized on his fame by placing his likeness on every piece of merchandise imaginable, from lipstick to stationary. By the end of the year, the merchandise would gross $22 million.

Elvis made his second "Ed Sullivan Show" performance on October 28th. On November 16th, Love Me Tender premiered. The film was a smash, and the critics' reviews weren't bad. The fact that Elvis sang several songs in the film certainly helped matters.

Elvis made his final appearance on the "Ed Sullivan Show" on January 6, 1957. To avoid controversy, he was only filmed from the waist up. Ed Sullivan proclaimed Elvis to be a "real decent, fine boy" and told America that he was a pleasure to work with. Shortly after his Sullivan appearance, Elvis began shooting his second movie, Loving You.

In March, Elvis purchases Graceland, a sprawling mansion for his family to live in. The home was his sanctuary for the rest of his life. The family moved into the home in April. Elvis finished work on Loving You, and continued to tour and make personal appearances. That spring, he performed outside of the United States for the first time, appearing in Canada. In May, Elvis began shooting his third film, Jailhouse Rock.

Loving You premiered on July 9th. The movie was another smash for Presley, and reached the top ten of the box office receipts. The movie produced two hit singles, the title track and "Teddy Bear." Elvis continued to tour, release records and make appearances. On August 31st, Elvis performed a concert in Vancouver. It would be the final time he performed a concert outside of the United States.

On September 27th, Elvis returned to Tupelo and performed a benefit concert for the Elvis Presley Youth Recreation Center. He would donate to the center for the rest of his life, and it still exists today.

Jailhouse Rock premiered on October 17th. The film was another huge hit, and is generally considered Elvis' best performance. The jailhouse production number provided an iconic image of Elvis, and the title track became one of his signature songs. Unfortunately, the movie was also marred by tragedy. Just weeks after shooting wrapped, Elvis' co-star Judy Tyler was killed in an automobile accident. Elvis never watched the finished film.

Elvis and his family celebrated their first Christmas in Graceland in December. Elvis received an unwelcome present that year: His draft notice. Undaunted, Elvis began shooting his fourth film, King Creole in January of 1958. Shooting wrapped in March, and Elvis returned to Memphis to perform a few concerts. These would be his final live appearances until he was released from the army.

On March 24, Elvis Presley was inducted in the United States Army. His induction was masterfully orchestrated by Colonel Parker. Everything from his formal induction to the desecration of his perfect pompadour was meticulously documented by the press. Elvis was sent to Fort Hood in Texas for basic training, and would remain there for six months. While on leave, he was rushed into the recording studio by RCA. This would be his final session until his release in 1960.

King Creole was released in July. Elvis received positive reviews for his acting, and the film is considered to be one of his finest. Unfortunately it was one of the only times where he was taken seriously as an actor.

In August, Gladys Presley became very ill. She returned to Memphis, and doctors diagnosed her with acute hepatitis. The army granted Elvis emergency leave, and Elvis rushed home to be by her side. Gladys Presley died on August 14, 1958. Services were held the next day at the Memphis Funeral Home, and she was laid to rest at Forest Hill Cemetery. Elvis was devastated by his mother's death, and he never quite got over it.

On October 1, 1958, Elvis was deployed to Germany. He was stationed there for eighteen months. During this time, Colonel Parker kept his name alive by putting out records and through various promotions. In October 1959, he met fourteen year old Pricilla Beaulieau. He was instantly taken with her.

Elvis was promoted to Sergeant on January 20, 1960. He was a good soldier, and showed remarkable abilities as a scout. Despite his celebrity, he was treated just like any other GI. He was officially discharged from the United States Army on March 5, 1960. He returned to Memphis two days later.

The remainder of March was a blur of recording sessions and television appearances. On March 26th, he taped an appearance on Frank Sinatra's television special that was titled "Welcome Home Elvis". The highlight of the special came at the end, when Sinatra crooned "Love Me Tender" and Elvis answered back with a rendition of "Witchcraft."

Elvis is Back! was released on April 8th. The record went to #2 on the Pop chart. It was considerably less rocking than his 50's output and showed the more pop oriented direction that he was going in. Meanwhile Elvis began shooting his fifth film GI Blues. "Welcome Home Elvis" aired on May 8th and was a ratings winner. In August, Elvis began shooting his sixth film, Flaming Star. Flaming Star was a serious drama, a major departure from the musical fluff of GI Blues.

The GI Blues soundtrack was released in October and quickly hit #1. The album would become Elvis' most successful on the Billboard charts. The film was released in November, and was a big hit. In contrast, Flaming Star was released to good reviews, but the lack of music hurt its box office receipts.

Elvis would make a few more serious dramas, but they never did as well in the box office as his musicals. GI Blues and 1961's Blue Hawaii set the tone for the remainder of his film career: Exotic locales, pretty girls, and lots of music. With the exception of 1964's Viva Las Vegas, none of them show Elvis' talent as a performer. Elvis quickly became bored and frustrated with his lack of quality output.

As the 1960's wore on, Elvis seemed to fall behind with the times. His movies always made a profit at the box office, but teenagers had moved on. The Beatles had surpassed their idol as the number one musical act in the world. The Fab Four met Elvis at his LA mansion in 1965. The two camps were civil, but Elvis was clearly threatened by the Beatles' popularity.

On May 1, 1967, Elvis and Pricilla married in a private ceremony in Las Vegas. Pricilla had been living with Elvis since 1963. Pricilla became pregnant in July, and Lisa Marie Presley was born on February 1, 1968. In July, Elvis began rehearsals for a new television special. The show was initially supposed to have a Christmas theme, but midway through production plans were changed. The special featured the best new material since Elvis is Back! as well as rocking versions of his older hits. The highlight of the show was a roundtable jam session with his original musicians. Elvis played his hits and even poked fun at his rebellious image. Elvis' creative juices were reinvigorated.

The "comeback special" aired on December 3, 1968 and became a milestone of American popular culture. It was one of the biggest television hits of the year, and the accompanying soundtrack album shot up the charts. The King had proudly reclaimed his throne. The creative juices kept flowing into 1969, and Elvis threw himself into recording. He held marathon recording sessions in Memphis, and the musicians were astounded by how motivated he was. The results, From Elvis in Memphis and Back in Memphis are considered Elvis' finest studio albums.

In March of 1969, Elvis began filming Change of Habit, his final motion picture. In July, he was booked for a four week engagement at the International Hotel in Las Vegas. The engagement marked Elvis' first appearances on a live stage since the early 1960's. Elvis was in tremendous shape, and the show was a red-hot mix of old classics and new material. In September of 1969, "Suspicious Minds" was released. The song was his first #1 hit since "Good Luck Charm" in 1962, and would be his final #1 single.

In January of 1970, Elvis returned to Vegas for another engagement at the International. He broke attendance records. In February, Elvis played six shows at the Houston Astrodome and drew a record setting 207,494 people. The success of the shows spawned rumors that Elvis would tour for the first time since the 1950's. Elvis returned to Vegas for another engagement in July, and parts of it were filmed for an upcoming documentary, Elvis: That's the Way It Is.

In September, Elvis embarked on a nine-city concert tour. It was his first since 1957, and ticket sales were brisk. The show got good reviews and parts of it were also filmed for That's the Way It Is. He never left the road for such a long stretch again.

In December, Elvis made in impromptu visit to the White House and met with President Nixon. He wanted a DEA Drug Enforcement Badge and wrote a heartfelt letter to the president, telling him that he was deeply concerned about the drug problem in the United States. Ironically, Elvis was high most of the time. He had gotten hooked on amphetamines in the army, and was rarely without a lethal cocktail of uppers and downers. Nixon granted Elvis his badge and took several photos. The picture of Elvis and Nixon shaking hands is one of the most requested images in the National Archives.

Elvis continued to tour and release records throughout 1971 and '72. In June of 1971, part of Highway 51 South in Memphis was re-christened "Elvis Presley Boulevard". In late 1971, Elvis and Pricilla separated. The marriage had been on the rocks for several years, and Pricilla left for karate instructor Mike Stone. Elvis began dating Linda Thompson, who would remain his female companion for the next four years. In June of 1972, Elvis performed four sold out shows at Madison Square Garden. A live concert album was quickly rushed out by RCA. Parts of the concert were used in a new documentary called Elvis On Tour.

Elvis performed another Vegas engagement in September and announced plans for a television concert to broadcast live via satellite from Hawaii. Expectations for the special were high, and it was predicted that the concert would be seen by more people than any other television special in history. In October, Elvis released "Burning Love," which would be his final major hit.

Elvis: Aloha From Hawaii was broadcast via satellite in January of 1973. The special was seen by over one billion people in 40 countries. Elvis was in top form for the special, and he played a mixture of standards, new material and his old classics. It was the pinnacle of his career in the 1970's. His performances would rarely hit such glorious heights again. The concert album was released in May, and reached #1 on the charts. It was his final #1 album. Elvis and Pricilla's divorce was finalized in October. The two remained close friends, and Elvis was granted regular visitation with Lisa Marie. In mid-October, Elvis entered the hospital for a variety of health problems, including hepatitis and an enlarged colon. His dependence on prescription drugs increased, and his weight ballooned.

Although his health was getting worse, Elvis continued to tour and perform in Las Vegas. His performances became erratic. He began forgetting the words to songs, and sometimes performed entire concerts on his back. Despite the lackluster performances, Elvis' female fans still saw the sexy "Hillbilly Cat" of 1956. His tours continued to sell out, and he always broke attendance records. During his summer '74 engagement in Vegas, Elvis met with Barbra Streisand to discuss starring in her remake of A Star is Born. Elvis was excited by the idea, but it never materialized.

Elvis and Linda Thompson split in 1976, and Elvis began dating beauty queen Ginger Alden. His life became a haze of tours, pills and food. He barely resembled the King of Rock n' Roll that he once was. In 1976, Elvis fired longtime bodyguards Sonny and Red West. The pair retaliated by writing a tell-all book entitled Elvis: What Happened? The book exposed Elvis' drug problems to the public for the first time. Elvis was shattered and betrayed by its publication.

As 1977 dawned, it was clear that Elvis' health was failing. He still continued to tour. In June, some shows were recorded and taped for a special and concert album called Elvis In Concert. Elvis was a shadow of his former self, but flashes of his amazing talent broke through. At the end of the show he performed "Unchained Melody," and belted the song out with every fiber of his being.

On June 26, 1977 Elvis performed his final concert at The Market Square Arena in Indianapolis, Indiana. After the show, he returned to Graceland to relax before starting another tour mid-August. He spent time with Lisa Marie, and attempted to get an advanced copy of Star Wars for her to watch.

In the early morning hours of August 16th, Elvis finalized tour details and relaxed. He played a game of racquetball and sang a few songs on the piano. He retired to his room at 7 AM. In the late morning, Ginger Alden found him slumped over in the bathroom. Paramedics were called but were unable to revive him. Elvis was taken to Baptist Memorial Hospital. Doctors tried everything they could, but it was no use. Elvis Presley, the undisputed King of Rock n' Roll, was dead. He was 42 years old.

The news reached the media within hours. The major television networks threw together documentaries about his life. Fans gathered at the gates of Graceland, and radio stations played marathons of his records. On August 17th, the gates of Graceland opened for mourners. An estimated 80,000 people passed by Elvis' coffin. The funeral was attended by many celebrities, including Caroline Kennedy and former co-star Ann-Margaret. Televangelist Rex Humbard presided over the service and comedian Jackie Kahane delivered the eulogy. The casket was taken to Forest Hill Cemetery in a procession of all-white automobiles. His body was later moved to the Meditation Garden in Graceland when somebody threatened to steal the corpse. Gladys' remains were also moved, and Vernon was buried there in 1979.

Why Elvis Presley was selected:

Elvis Presley didn't invent rock ‘n' roll, but he was its savior. Bill Haley had a major hit with "Rock Around the Clock," but it was considered a novelty record. Elvis legitimized rock ‘n' roll as a genre and proved that a long term career was possible. Elvis' early records capture everything that was great about early rock n' roll: The energy, the excitement, the innocence and the sexuality. His later records are more subdued, but he still made some fantastic music. The amount of emotion he brings to songs like "Suspicious Minds" is absolutely stunning. Without Elvis, I wouldn't be writing for this website, and I would probably be listening to Patti Page. As legendary rock critic Lester Bangs put it in 1977: "Elvis kicked ‘Doggie in the Window ‘out the window and replaced it with ‘Let's fuck.' The rest of us are still reeling from the impact." Elvis Presley is the one true King of Rock ‘n' Roll. Accept no substitutes.

Friday, February 1, 2008

A Month With Elvis Presley

The final word count was 4,011. I had never written anything so epic. I e-mailed the piece to my editor, and took a deep breath. I was exhausted. I put aside everything in my life to focus on that article. I locked myself in my room and lived on a steady diet of Goldfish and Mountain Dew, pausing occasionally to sleep and shower. For one month, I was consumed with Elvis Aron Presley.

Elvis and I have a long and complicated history. When I was in the third grade, my dad came home with a box of records that he inherited from an elderly client. The records were pretty terrible. My dad went through the box, periodically rescuing treasures and commenting on the oddity of the collection: “Who in their right mind buys two Dr. Demento albums?”

I didn’t have any interest in anything that contained “I’m My Own Grandpa,” but two records caught my eye. The covers featured a man wearing a white-sequined jumpsuit and a helmet of black hair. The man apparently had one name: Elvis. At eight years old, I had a vague idea of who Elvis Presley was. I had never heard any of his music, but I knew that he was pretty important. I put the record on, and the moment I heard “Jailhouse Rock,” everything clicked. My friends listened to bands like The Spin Doctors, Counting Crows and Toad the Wet Sprocket, but I immersed myself in the music of the King.

As I grew older, I moved on. I stopped listening to Elvis all together and moved my posters down to the basement. In my late teens, I even subscribed to the revisionist theory that Elvis was nothing more than a wilder version of Pat Boone. I didn’t understand his impact. Sure his ‘50s work was fantastic, but pap like “It’s Now or Never?” The terrible films where he always seemed to be playing a race car driver? How could he be considered the king of anything, let alone rock n’ roll?

I don’t think anyone from our generation can truly grasp what an impact Elvis had on our culture. We’ve grown up in a world where sex is no longer a dirty word. When Elvis hit the national stage in 1956, male singers stood stoically at the microphone crooning sweet ballads and novelty songs. Elvis threw that notion out the window with swiveling hips and a hiccupping vocal. Male singers had never been sexy, and in the conformist world of the mid-‘50s, that was threatening. His sneer still implies danger a half century later.

Unfortunately the image that most people have of Elvis Presley is not the “Hillbilly Cat,” of 1956. Elvis’ fall was so stunning that people only think of him a fat drug addict who died in his bathroom. To place him in that box is not only insulting to the man, but also insulting to our culture. Elvis gave us some of the greatest music of the 20th century, and we take it for granted. We take it for granted because it has always been there. However, there was a time when it wasn’t there. Elvis Presley is the root of all modern music. Everyone has been influenced by him, consciously or unconsciously. As legendary rock critic Lester Bangs once said, “Elvis threw “Doggie in the Window” out the window, and the rest of us are still reeling from the impact.”

I decided to write about Elvis because I wanted to understand his impact. I have a firmer grasp on it, but I don’t think I’ll ever fully appreciate it. However, I am fully aware of one thing: Elvis’ early records encapsulate everything that is wonderful about rock n’ roll. He will never leave the building.