Saturday, February 13, 2010

One Night of Sin

Although Elvis died over thirty years ago, he’s still very much alive in many parts of the popular culture and always turning up in the most interesting ways. Whether he's brought up in comparison to Michael Jackson’s recent death, or alluded to in television dramas, novels, songs and visual art, Elvis continues to mutate into every kind of wish fulfillment. He never really left the building.

The list of pop culture references is too long to indulge here, but one notion clearly fascinates me. I always think of Elvis in relation to Marlon Brando. While both emerged out of the rebellion of the ‘50s, they also embodied America’s noblest democratic principle, the idea that a man can make of himself anything he desires. With that goal, or course, comes the eventual failure to live up to that quest for pure freedom that both men created in their work. Their failure to do so came, in part, because of our need to tame in them what we loved most in their distinctiveness; that is, we sought to make them ordinary, to be more like us. But their failure is also due to their own inability to maintain their distinctiveness, the very quality that attracted us to them in the first place. Although both became iconic figures in mass culture, they each ended up horribly isolated and trapped. They even at times became parodies of themselves as if to deny that iconic status, as if to mock it and make it less real. Perhaps that why it’s no accident that these charismatically handsome men would, in succumbing to those pressures, eventually become bloated.

Both Elvis and Brando played with a sense of sin. Brando’s best roles (A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront, Reflections in a Golden Eye, The Godfather, Last Tango in Paris) mischievously broke down our expectations of what constituted entertainment. He took on parts that had the potential to upset us and he overturned any notion that we knew who he was. On the other hand, Elvis was never the star in his movies that he was on stage, in particular, before the army. The sense of sin he initially set loose, beyond the wiggle of his hips, was the playful idea of getting a complacent generation shaking. But then, what? Like Brando, in the ‘60s, Elvis stopped shaking things up and was relegated to bland genre parts in films that emasculated him. Elvis's sin, to paraphrase Dylan, was his lifelessness. But as pop critic Greil Marcus once said about Elvis, it was sin that brought him back to life.

That was never more true than in his 1968 television comeback special. While watching The Beatles and The Rolling Stones capture the ground that he’d abandoned to a career in Hollywood, he was now faced with the challenge of making new demands on his audience. By 1968, that audience was older and had grown nostalgic. Elvis was the ‘50s after all, so how relevant could he be next to The Doors? To find out, Presley slimmed down, got decked in leather, and gathered together with the men in which he began making his career. And there, performing in a concert in the round with an electric guitar, he finally reclaimed himself (and his audience) by making some of the best music of his life. Where else, too, would he find the desired elixir but in the blues. The restorative power of the blues was the very source that partly powered Elvis's ascension in the beginning.

One of the songs, “Trying to Get to You,” he had recorded during his first sessions at Sun Records in the mid-‘50s. In this new version, though, his delivery wasn’t as reverential. He seems to be singing to himself, to some lost possibility that's now been newly found. There’s anger and desire present, yet there's also great humour in this performance, a sense that he’d been away too long. You can hear the need to test himself against the neutered icon he’d become.

Of course, sin also becomes the acknowledged subject in his cover of Smiley Lewis’s “One Night (of Sin).” This song, about a trip to the whorehouse and the night that unfolds, isn’t played here for any prurient humour. In Elvis’s performance, he could be singing to his lost years in Hollywood. There is a hungry bite in his voice, an unrequited passion, but also an expression of pure relief. A sense of sin has indeed brought him back to life. In this song, he appears to have acknowledged both what he has and what he lost.

While some icons are comfortable in their established images, and others (like James Dean) didn’t live long enough to break their mold, both Elvis and Brando grew old before our eyes. They continued to embody the restless American artist’s strongest desire to re-make the culture as they simultaneously remade themselves. But with that goal in mind, by mapping out America’s greatest virtues, they also bravely courted its greatest failings.

--Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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