Essays: Lament for Elvis |
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Lament for Elvis

THE THIRD episode of The Christians (Granada) was going well. The barbarians were dismembering the Roman Empire; monks on remote islands were preserving civilisation; Bamber Gascoigne, after a wishy-washy start in the first episode, was plainly getting to grips with his subject. But at half-time came the news flash: Elvis Presley was dead.

Here was an ideal chance for the reflective viewer to indulge himself in profound thoughts about tradition, culture, sanctity and the eternal human need for an object of worship. Would Elvis Presley be the new Jesus? Was Jesus merely Elvis Presley in blue suede sandals? These were among the searching questions one might have asked oneself. I’m sorry to confess that I asked myself none of them. It was a full-time job trying to feel appropriately sad. After all, people that famous don’t really die, do they?

Luckily, or unluckily, there were other viewers with faster reactions. Some of them were rounded up for Elvis — Loving You (Thames), a tribute which was commendable for the alacrity with which it was put together, if for nothing else. Mini-tycoon Jonathan King, radiantly happy to be in front of the cameras even on such a solemn occasion, said that this was a doubly important death because the man doing the dying had been entirely created by the media. Tony Palmer said it would be a pity to leave the audience with the impression that anyone as talented as Elvis had been entirely created by the media. Jonathan King said ‘I agree with Tony Palmer.’

Tom Jones came through on the telephone from Buffalo, New York State, to say that the news of Elvis’s death left him speechless. Cliff Richard, pop’s Mr Clean, was sorry, too. Some teds in a Hammersmith pub said that Elvis’s memory would never die. James Brown palely recreated some Elvis songs. There were clips from ‘Jailhouse Rock’ and ‘GI Blues’ — scarcely representative, but probably they were the only ones available. Just as the interviewees were probably the only ones available. Certainly the front-man — whose name, I hope, will continue to escape me — must have been the only one available. ‘Why do you think Elvis was such a phenomena?’ he asked. If you are more than a phenomenon, perhaps that makes you a phenomena.

An instant compilation is bound to trivialise its subject. The Beeb managed things better by being less quick on the uptake. Doubtless they learned their lesson long ago from the TW3 special on Kennedy’s assassination. Anyway, instead of trying to put a studio show together in nothing flat, they contented themselves with screening That’s The Way It Was, a straight-up-and-down filmed record of Elvis’s cabaret act during his last phase. Here you could see something of what the man had to offer the world. Overweight, short of breath and using self-parody as a refuge, he was still unmistakably a unique rhythmic force.

As I write, hysterical pilgrims to Elvis’s deathbed are running each other over. At the prospect of such drooling idolatry there might seem to be a good case for saying that Elvis Presley was never anything but a manufactured event. But only someone who has never danced could think that. It has nothing to do with your age — just with whether or not you feel music through your knees. The first Elvis Presley records set standards which subsequent rock singers might approach in different ways but never surpass, since Elvis had expressed the rhythm of pure happiness, and there is nothing more pure than pure. The talk about his sexual explicitness is accurate but beside the point. He wasn’t saying that dancing should be like sex. He was saying that sex was like dancing.

In Robbie (BBC1), Fyfe Robertson poured scorn on modern art. ‘I am, art-wise, just the intelligent man in the street.’ By standing in the street he could prove half of this contention, but the script he had written went nowhere near proving the other half. Intelligence on this subject would have been welcome, but what Robbie had to offer sounded more like philistinism. ‘I haven’t much time for most critics of the fine arts. They don’t write for us.’

Robbie wasted no time defining which critics were most critics, or who exactly were us. There was nothing in his cosily dismissive attitude to stop Hermann Goering being one of us, when you thought about it. But Robbie had made no plans for thinking about it. Thought-wise, he was just the intelligent man in the street.

At the Hayward Gallery Robbie interviewed some young artists who responded with eagerness to the chance of condemning themselves out of their own mouths. ‘I am an artist. This is the result of 20 years’ work,’ said a man standing in front of a series of blank canvases. ‘I bring them into existence ... I made them from nothing.’ Heroically refraining from pointing out the obvious, which was that they were still nothing, Robbie moved on to probe the creative psyche of a man who vomits with his head buried in soapsuds.

It was obvious that public money was being wasted on subsidising these activities, which Robbie, with would-be severity, calls ‘way-out crap,’ or ‘phart’ Robbie was legitimately worried that the artists involved were teachers, not students. Yet his disinclination to go into the background of the subject made his attack too broad to be enlightening. Where does he draw the line? At non-representational art?

David Hockney was the best interviewee. ‘It seems to me that if you make pictures there should be something there on the canvas.’ Hockney was also insistent that the art schools should return to classical discipline. But Robbie never asked him why they had left it in the first place. Robbie was too indignant with the present to seek reasons in the past. ‘They’re doing this on your money!’ He was doing his programme on our money, too, so the viewer was justified in feeling annoyed. There is nothing more frustrating than to hear good opinions badly put.

The Hammer and Thistle (Granada) was a profile of Hugh McDiarmid**. Gus Macdonald’s script and narration honestly faced up to the awkward fact that the great man’s opinions have been consistent only in their extremism. Common sense declares that anyone who rejoins the Communist Party after the suppression of the Hungarian uprising must be either a fool or a rogue. The contention here was that he was something in between — a poet.

There is something to this idea. There is no point in trying to dismiss writers like Pound, Brecht or Neruda because of their politics, since their poetry has independent life. But the excuse should not be made too readily. As the programme could not help hinting, McDiarmid likes Stalinism now for the same reason he liked Fascism then — the unashamed appeal to naked force. ‘Unremitting, relentless, organised to the last degree’ is the way he would like to see a political movement behave. The Scot Nats should give thanks that he is too cranky to lend them his pen.

[ ** Hugh MacDiarmid; “Hammer and Thistle” ]

The Observer, 21st August 1977