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Elvis at 75: Can we ever again see the performer, not the punch line?

Unplugged and uninhibited, Elvis Presley showed he still had it in his 90-minute comeback special on NBC in December 1968. He died less than nine years later. Unplugged and uninhibited, Elvis Presley showed he still had it in his 90-minute comeback special on NBC in December 1968. He died less than nine years later. (Courtesy of Bmg/Elvis Presley Enterprises)
By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / January 3, 2010

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Begin with two facts.

First, he was once beautiful, astonishingly beautiful, and that fact contributed so much both to the rapidity of his rise and the awfulness of his decline. Beauty was almost as important to his success as race was. Same voice, same talent, same songs sung by a white Fats Domino? The impact would have been nothing like what it was. Music created and drove the phenomenon that was Elvis, but it was only part of what made that phenomenon so overwhelming.

Of course he did end up looking like a white Fats Domino (worse, actually - Fats has never looked swollen or appeared glum), and that’s the second fact: He became - he remains in some measure - a joke.

By the time of his death, Elvis had already proven himself the ultimate Elvis impersonator. He stays encased, liposuction-resistant, within the bombast, the karate chops, the jumpsuits, the dying on the toilet. Beauty and the beast, that at least has a track record. But beauty and the punch line? As always, Elvis Aron Presley was a category of one.

He would have been 75 on Friday. This culture is as crazy for birthdays and anniversaries as it is for awards. It’s all the same principle: Any excuse for a high-profile party, especially one with lucrative commercial prospects. And who, even 30 years after his death, might offer better commercial prospects than the one figure who’s been on a first-name basis with the planet for the past half century? Popes and monarchs require numerals. Mao Zedong, Muhammad Ali, Bob Dylan: They have to settle for a surname. With all due respect to Mssrs. Costello, Stojko, Peacock, and Mitchell, there is only one Elvis.

Yet there’s a detectable hesitation about observing - let alone celebrating - Elvis’s reaching three score and 15. It’s an event, but certainly not an . . . Event. One reason, of course, is that parties are more popular with a guest of honor, and Elvis left the building 32 years ago. Beyond that, there’s the matter of those two facts, the beauty and the joke it became. They go a long way toward accounting for the relative lack of fuss.

There’s some fuss, to be sure. The most notable birthday tie-in is RCA/Legacy’s four-disc “Elvis 75: Good Rockin’ Tonight.’’ The 100 tracks include all the greatest hits (and Elvis, don’t forget, had a lot of greatest hits), as well as album cuts, live performances, and rarities, including his very first recording, “My Happiness,’’ which he cut for his mother, Gladys, as a pay-to-record-yourself session back where it all began, at Sun Records, in Memphis.

It’s hard to imagine a better musical introduction to Elvis than “Elvis 75.’’ Completists and connoisseurs of the incongruous have another option: “Elvis: The Complete Masters,’’ consisting of all 711 recordings by Elvis released during his lifetime. Incongruity comes courtesy of the label, the Franklin Mint. That’s right, Elvis as somewhat dubious investment-quality collectible - and yours for just $489 (plus $10 shipping and handling). Somewhere Colonel Parker is all smiles.

As might be expected, Birthday Central this weekend will be at Graceland, with Priscilla Presley and Lisa Marie Presley presiding. Other Memphis events include a Grizzlies game on Friday night against the Utah Jazz, with the home team wearing blue suede sneakers, and on Saturday the Memphis Symphony Orchestra performing an Elvis pops concert. Las Vegas has already gotten into the act, with Cirque du Soleil’s “Viva Elvis,’’ which opened there last month.

TCM will air an Elvis movie marathon on Friday. An exhibition on Elvis and the media opens at the Newseum, in Washington, D.C., in March. A recent DVD, “Elvis: ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ - The Classic Performances,’’ reminds us of what all the original fuss was about. And remember to get your Elvis iPhone app, which has been released in time for his birthday.

Imagine Elvis with an iPhone. That’s impossible, of course. It’s not just because, obviously, he belongs to a low-tech past (and he’s definitely PC rather than Mac, the same way he was Cadillac rather than Porsche or BMW). We bump up against the joke factor. It almost sounds like a punch line, “And then Elvis took out his iPhone’’ (rimshot)!

The what-ifs and unanswerable questions about John Lennon, say, are tantalizing. They’re also, other than the Yoko factor, primarily musical in nature. Those about Elvis are likely to be at least slightly absurd and about meta-Elvis. He was only 42 when he died, just two years older than Lennon, but his artistry seemed pretty much exhausted. Lennon consciously spent the last few years of his life, not that he knew they would be the last years, shrinking his persona. By the time of his death, Elvis was almost all persona.

That’s the toughest challenge Elvis would have faced, the evolution of that persona. There would have been many options available to him. Go a bit feral and nuts, like Jerry Lee Lewis. Get cuddly, like Little Richard. (Years before Richard flourished in the kid market with “Itsy-Bitsy Spider,’’ a resigned-looking Elvis sang “Old MacDonald’’ in one of his worst movies - which is really saying something - “Double Trouble.’’) Become simultaneously august and spare, like Johnny Cash. Fade away and grow bitter, like Chuck Berry. Or some combination of them all; that would have been only his right, since Elvis was bigger than all of his contemporaries combined.

Some of the might-have-been questions about a living Elvis are mundane. Which cape would he have worn for his Kennedy Center Honors? Would there have been a bidding war among Subway, Jenny Craig, and WeightWatchers for his services as spokesman? Which son-in-law would Elvis have favored, Michael Jackson or Nicolas Cage?

The smart money’s on the King of Pop. Elvis always had an appreciation for other talent. Recall, for example, his marveling to Lewis, Cash, and Carl Perkins about Jackie Wilson’s imitation of him. Also, even if he’d managed to make it to 75, we have to assume Elvis wouldn’t have wholly shed his baggage of weirdness. How could he not have recognized an affinity with Jackson. He might even have asked for the number of his tailor.

The fun in speculating about these questions comes from our inability to jump to conclusions. Part of what made Elvis Elvis was his capacity to surprise. He was a huge Monty Python fan. He memorized both Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream’’ speech and Douglas MacArthur’s West Point farewell address. He supported Adlai Stevenson over Dwight Eisenhower.

How would he have taken to Al Gore invoking his name at the 1992 Democratic National Convention: “It’s always been my dream to come to Madison Square Garden and be the warm-up act for Elvis,’’ with its implication that Gore’s running mate was campaigning to be King as well as president? Would he have gone to Richard Nixon’s funeral? Would he have been invited? It would have been a good career move for both of them. Year after year, the most-requested item for reproduction from the National Archives is the photograph of Elvis shaking hands with Nixon in the Oval Office.

One question, at least, is strictly musical. Would Elvis have gone “Unplugged’’? That one’s been answered actually. Elvis invented the concept, on his 1968 broadcast on NBC, the “comeback special,’’ where he plays in the round with Scotty Moore and D.J. Fontana. Those numbers are among the finest rock ’n’ roll ever filmed.

The comeback special is the great hinge in Elvis’s career. Those 90 minutes on NBC proved he could still do it, and then some - even as they also made plain what even his most fervent fans knew to be true but might not care to admit: He couldn’t do it forever. He still looked gorgeous, panther-sleek, the voice in excellent shape. But the eyes had hardened and begun to dull. Were those dollar signs occluding them, or simply the looming lights of Las Vegas?

In a few more years, artistic exhaustion had set in. You can hear the increasingly sad evidence on disc four of “Elvis 75.’’ He’d become a cover artist, a glorified lounge singer. Since he’s Elvis, the lounge singer can surprise you sometimes. His “Only the Strong Survive,’’ on disc three, rivals Jerry Butler’s original. But to hear Elvis sing a “Steamroller Blues’’ that’s a very pale version of James Taylor’s already-pallid original is to know the truth of the title of another cover on “Elvis 75,’’ “Funny How Time Slips Away.’’

Yes, it certainly is funny - though not funny ha-ha, like Elvis the joke. Time slipping away - the beauty fading, as it had already started to do; the youthfulness gone - is the other, more powerful reason for a muted response to Elvis’s 75th. An elderly Elvis subverts the very idea of Elvis. In one of his most moving lines, W.B. Yeats wrote of a young friend killed in World War II, “What made us dream that he could comb gray hair?’’ The thought of Elvis combing gray hair is unthinkable - and not just because he’d started dying black from the very beginning. Hard as it is to confront Elvis the joke, it’s far harder to surrender a belief in Elvis the beautiful and young.

Beauty and youth have lesser, far more common incarnations in prettiness and immaturity. Elvis’ faintly louche features - the sleepy eyes, the lopsided grin - kept his looks from mere prettiness. As for immaturity, his artistry - what ultimately matters the most about him - provided unassailable protection. From the very beginning, he displayed uncanny assurance. It’s there in that first recording for Gladys. Listening to her son sing “My Happiness,’’ she wasn’t just hearing a natural. She was hearing a singer who knew he was a natural.

The contrast with Frank Sinatra is instructive. We think of him as being so assured - he was the Chairman of the Board, after all, Rat Pack roisterer-in-chief. But that came later. Sinatra didn’t attain full and unmistakable command of his instrument until the early ’50s, with his Capitol recordings. For the first dozen years of his career, he was still finding his way vocally. A slight sense of insecurity was, if anything, part of Sinatra’s appeal - an artistic skinniness to go with his physical skinniness.

In precisely the opposite way, Elvis’s assurance was so much of his appeal. It was what kept his sneer from seeming an affectation. His assurance was also part of what made him seem so threatening (which, depending on how old you were, was part of his appeal, too). The hip-shaking that drew so much condemnation was the visible and outward sign of his absolute confidence as a performer.

Why shouldn’t he be confident? Elvis had an incalculable advantage over Sinatra. Sinatra perfected a tradition. Elvis created one. He is a nexus of 20th-century popular music: blues and R&B and country and gospel and Tin Pan Alley (he loved Dean Martin, and one of the first songs he recorded was Rodgers and Hart’s “Blue Moon.’’) With so many predecessors to draw on, Elvis had none to compete with. There’s a kind of logic, actually, to Elvis becoming a joke. With no competition (sure, the Beatles supplanted him, but it took four of them to do it), what was left for him to do? Self-mockery was the only way to up the ante on himself.

A few weeks ago I was walking down an aisle in a Rite Aid and noticed something odd about the music being piped in. It was an Elvis song, but not one you’d expect. It wasn’t “Love Me Tender’’ or “Can’t Help Falling in Love’’ or something more uptempo, like “Return to Sender’’ or “All Shook Up.’’ It was “That’s All Right,’’ the first song Elvis recorded commercially, the start of what we now know as “The Sun Sessions.’’

It’s been more than five decades, but there’s still such freshness to the recording, such unexpectedness bursting through the familiarity. Scotty Moore and Bill Black, on guitar and upright bass, hang on for all they’re worth, trying to keep up with this crazy kid as Elvis’s voice - urgent, insinuating - floats out over the beat, a croon that joins joy and nerves and arrogance (already you can hear his sneer), and that voice turns almost spectral as it slides into its upper register whenever it comes to allll ri-iiiiii-ght. (Forget “E pluribus unum’’ or “In God we trust.’’ The words that should appear on our currency are “That’s all right.’’) What I was hearing transcended beauty - it most definitely transcended joke - except that it had this in common with a joke: Filled with delight, I wanted to laugh.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

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