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Elvis was a rolling stone

By: Paul Simpson
Source: Elvis Australia
March 13, 2009 - 3:37:22 PM
Elvis Articles, By Paul Simpson

After Sidney Lumet had finished The Fugitive Kind, his adaptation of Tennessee William's play Orpheus Descending, he wondered if he should have cast Elvis Presley not Marlon Brando in the starring role.

The switch would have perturbed cineastes and cultural snobs but Lumet told Elaine Dundy, author of Elvis And Gladys (still my favourite Elvis book): 'There's a speech in the play about a mythical bird that has no legs and can, therefore, never come to rest and just hovers in the sky until it does because there is no place to land. It evoked such a memory of what I felt when I watched Presley at work: something otherworldly, inhuman (not unhuman), a kind of restless spirit that could never rest anywhere.

And I thought how extraordinary it might have been to hear that speech from someone exactly like that but totally unaware of his own separation from the rest of us'.

A rare picture of Elvis from 1957, with one of Canada's most revered authors, June Callwood.

Above, a rare picture of Elvis from 1957, with one of Canada's most revered authors, June Callwood, who passed away in June 2007. In 1957 she was a journalist and had apparently interviewed Elvis.

Elvis was different. We can all agree on that.

But that difference did not just apply to his looks, his voice, his talent. It also applied to his personality, what Lumet called his 'simplicity, lyricism and strange otherworldly quality'. One aspect of that difference that, to me, doesn't seem to have been noted or discussed is that he was a rolling stone, driven by wanderlust, with, to paraphrase Eddie Rabbit's song, the north wind blowing through his veins. Bob Dylan sensed this in his song Went To See The Gypsy which must surely refer to Elvis with its line: 'Went to see the gypsy staying in a big hotel/He smiled when he saw me coming and said: ‘Well, well, well'.

This trait is alluded to in many of his songs:

Don't Think Twice It's All Right, Early Mornin Rain, 500 Miles, Follow That Dream, For Lovin' Me, Guitar Man, I Shall Be Released, I'm Moving On, In My Way, Inherit The Wind, Lonely Man, Long Lonely Highway, Promised Land, Riding The Rainbow, Roustabout, The Fair Is Moving On, There's So Much World To Me, Tomorrow Is A Long Time, What A Wonderful Life, Wheels On My Heels, Where Do I Go From Here and You'll Think Of Me -- to name just 21.

The best of these songs have a resonance that you don't find in, for example, Dion's popular but facile, smug hit The Wanderer. In gems like You'll Think Of Me, there is a sense that this restless spirit is a blessing and a curse which could lead the owner to a 'lonely load where no one else can see'.

The motif of Elvis the rolling stone is even more pronounced in his movies. The heroes he plays in Change Of Habit, Fun In Acapulco, Jailhouse Rock, Live A Little Love A Little, Loving You, Roustabout, Spinout, Tickle Me, The Trouble With Girls are essentially rootless. The movies may conclude with romantic bliss but, given what we are shown about most of the characters Elvis portrays, it is hard to imagine his heroes truly settling down.

Of course, the obvious, blatant evidence that Elvis wasn't a rolling stone is Graceland. He settled there in 1957 and for the last 20 years of his life, spent as much time as his work allowed there. And like all of us, he was torn by contradictory impulses. He wanted a family and he wanted the rock and roll lifestyle. He learned, painfully, that he couldn't have both.

But Albert Goldman's stereotypical image of Elvis as a bored, obese recluse hiding out in his mansion isn't the real story. He may have made Memphis his home but, as Dundy points out, his status there was equivocal.

He was a local hero. The most famous person in the world and yet, at the same time, not quite accepted by the local aristocracy.

Elvis made the money to buy Graceland by becoming a very successful itinerant singer, much like Val Xavier, the anguished hero of Orpheus Descending played by Brando in Lumet's movie.

You get a sense of what Elvis' early years on the road must have been like in the powerful Johnny Cash biopic Walk The Line (shame Tyler Hilton was such a terrible Elvis) and he spent much of the 1970s on a more grandiose version of that same circuit.

This wasn't quite like seeing the world, more like living in a parallel universe. But Elvis did seem keen to travel – hitching from East Tupelo to Tupelo when he was eight (and 240 miles from Memphis to Meridian when he was 18), visiting Paris as a GI, buying a ranch in Mississippi, trying to go on holiday in Europe in October 1969 (a plan frustrated, for no good reason other than paranoia, by Colonel Parker), discovering Hawaii as a tourist and scheming intermittently throughout the 1970s to tour abroad.

And I believe he had enough wit and intelligence to feel, as he toured a fake Europe on an MGM set in Double Trouble, that it would have been much more fun to see the real thing.

Who knows where else he might have travelled if he had been encouraged, not thwarted. And if he had not become The King, with all the trappings that entailed, he might have lived longer, criss-crossing America with Scotty and Bill or just his guitar. Indeed, this solitary romantic figure is the Elvis who features in most of the apocryphal sightings of him after his death, as if this aspect of his persona had entered popular mythology.

For me, the most evocative and haunting of all the tracks released since Elvis' death is the 48 second snippet of Dylan's I Shall Be Released. The yearning with which he sings 'Any day now, any day now, I shall be released' is still powerful today. He sounds as if he has seen his light shining, is desperate to follow it, yet already senses that he may never be able to. When Elvis died, the Memphis Press Scimitar headline was: 'A Lonely Life Ends On Elvis Presley Boulevard'. I suspect his life might have been less lonely if he had, literally and metaphorically, strayed from Elvis Presley Boulevard more often.

- More articles by Paul Simpson

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Elvis Presley Video Video Preview: Tupelo's Own Elvis Presley DVD

Tupelo's Own Elvis Presley DVD + 16 page booklet. Never before have we seen an Elvis concert from the 50's with sound. Until Now! The DVD Contains recently discovered Unreleased Film of Elvis performing 6 songs, including Heartbreak Hotel and Don’t Be Cruel, live in Tupelo Mississippi 1956. Included we see a live performance of the elusive Long Tall Sally seen here for the first time ever. This is an excellent release no fan should be without it. The 'parade' footage is good to see as it puts you in the right context with color and b&w footage. The interviews of Elvis' Parents are well worth hearing too. The afternoon show footage is wonderful and electrifying : Here is Elvis in his prime rocking and rolling in front of 11.000 people.

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