Crossing America in the Present Tense
Sold Out in LAX
Everything is for sale in Los Angeles. The lobby of the 73-story Intercontinental is on the 70th floor, and all surfaces are nicely touched up in an interior designer’s perfect fantasy, but the first three floors of the building are a video screen selling Korean Airlines, Ford cars, and healthcare, while the very top of the building sports a huge Pepsi logo, visible for miles and miles, even though it’s Coca Cola for sale in the room fridge at 4 bucks a can. This shot is the entry to the parking lot, and the color patterns are shaped by tiny plastic human dolls, legs spread, arms raised, as if posing for a Mayan sacrifice. The city without a skyline has nothing memorable on display, but makes up for it by gathering all the small shocks of the New: the selling of pretty junk is literally endless.
I am with Austrian cameraman Helmuth Humphrey, with whom I traveled dozens of times from the Arctic to Amsterdam and across the Americas. We’re shooting a corporate gig at the Convention Center, and will have another assignment in Colorado Springs, and then a race back to Washington for other work. We don’t know it yet, but we’re about to hit a legendary highway as we cross the USA, and as we travel it we find the treasure one always finds when the Interstate is abandoned and you travel through ordinary scenes of hope, commerce and history. Ominously, it is raining in L.A., more than ever before, and we leave in a torrent of storms, floods and mudslides to the safety of Death Valley, only to find a rare rain falling on Stovepipe Wells.
A world away from politicians and industry, the country is both lovely and muscular. The provincial fears that rule our social discourses would be cured if every loudmouth had to explore the details that make this country great. Greetings from Bryce Canyon! The place is fantastic.
Elvis died while he took a shit.
Fell off the toilet with a ruptured heart, body toxic with uppers, downers and in-betweens, even though he never drank and once told Richard Nixon he’d like a narcotics bureau badge he could wear so he could help bust hippies amok on pot. This is the Elvis we all know, and this is the Elvis I find in New Mexico, on the Texas border, on Route 66.
We are driving to Memphis, where Elvis stalked the streets at night and became the one person on Earth who knew more religious songs than anyone else. Like McCartney and Lennon with popular dancehall tunes, Elvis astonished everyone he met with his knowledge of songs sung in church. And for a kid too shy to sing unless he was part of a congregation in church, Elvis had two amazing abilities: his knack for rhythm and his ability to understand the contours and colors of a song. The songwriters Lieber and Stoller were astounded at the precocious Elvis’ knowledge of the blues: “He knew a lot more than we ever would.”
As I make a study of him driving East to Memphis, I learn something I’d never even considered before: Elvis Presley was the first musician to make the guitar the key instrument of his act. Yes, there was the gyrations of his crotch and legs, wildly exaggerated and overrated in hindsight, but he was the first pop star to go onstage as a guitarist. Page, Townshend, Gilmour, Springsteen, Hendrix: they all followed Elvis, and the fact makes me dizzy with juvenile pleasure. The first rock and roll guitarist was Elvis Presley? He played a child’s guitar until he was a late teen, and when he traded it in reluctantly for something bigger, he was horrified when the toy was thrown into a trashcan.
But he is known for his dancing, which began as nervous twitching as he reminded himself to stay on point as a rhythm master nobody had ever seen before, from black entertainers or otherwise. He was self-invented when it came to that twitching, but out of necessity other than aesthetics: he failed all his auditions out of stage fright right up to the day he was turned into a superstar when the people around him finally followed his lead and let him sing the way he wanted to.
TV beckoned with three shows with Ed Sullivan, who wasn’t there for the first and had this to say when he watched the first show with Elvis: Sullivan said that Presley “got some kind of device hanging down below the crotch of his pants -- so when he moves his legs back and forth you can see the outline of his cock . . . . I think it’s a Coke bottle. We just can’t have this on a Sunday night. This is a family show!” But Sullivan was selling tickets, so he brought Elvis back twice more, and here is critic Greil Marcus describing the third show:
“(He) did not tie himself down. Leaving behind the bland clothes he had worn on the first two shows, he stepped out in the outlandish costume of a pasha, if not a harem girl. From the make-up over his eyes, the hair falling in his face, the overwhelmingly sexual cast of his mouth, he was playing Rudolph Valentino in The Sheik, with all stops out.”
Ignoring Sullivan’s wishes, Presley performed a spiritual, “Peace in the Valley” to close the show, betraying his roots as a gospel listener if not a gospel singer, and on TV in front of more than 50 million viewers Sullivan called Presley “a real decent, fine boy.”
And as I drive across the Mississippi, I am given this neat bit of history by Wikipedia: Frank Sinatra, who had famously inspired the swooning of teenage girls in the 1940s, condemned the new musical phenomenon. In a magazine article, he decried rock and roll as “brutal, ugly, degenerate, vicious. ... It fosters almost totally negative and destructive reactions in young people. It smells phoney and false. It is sung, played and written, for the most part, by cretinous goons. ... This rancid-smelling aphrodisiac I deplore.” Asked for a response, Presley said, “I admire the man. He has a right to say what he wants to say. He is a great success and a fine actor, but I think he shouldn’t have said it. This is a trend, just the same as he faced when he started years ago.”
Fuck you, Frank, I say out my window. Because I read also about Presley’s fall from grace into money-making shitty movies and then his rise out of the ashes with a comeback show in Vegas, when he incited bedlam all over again, and was called the King in the frenzy offstage after the show, and Presley pointed at a black man standing quietly on the edge of the crowd, watching the chaos, and this was Fats Domino, just watching this mess around Elvis until he found himself the attention of Elvis and his adoring crowd: “That’s the king of rock and roll right there,” said Elvis.
For some reason this modesty strikes me with great surprise. And I am still shaking my head at how easy it is to get it all wrong when you drink the surface and never taste the depths:
“Rock and roll has been around for years,” said Elvis, “And we called it rhythm and blues.”
I’m posting this now, listening to “Peace in the Valley,” and it is a shattering experience, of music belittling everything I think of it, reducing me again and again and again to somebody who should shut up and hear before he dreams to speak. I will put the link to that song below in the comments, if you have a few minutes to hear Elvis the way he wished to be heard.
The country is so big . . .
. . . so filled with nooks and crannies of strange and delightful stories, that it is easy to play the detective and follow a thought until it unravels into a novel of longing and mystery: the paint on these cars is applied every day by visitors passing by on Route 66, and then melts in globs onto the ground where it is collected by artisans like Crocodile Lyle, who tells me in his studio on 6th Avenue in downtown Amarillo that
“friends don’t let friends drive on the Interstate.” You don’t see anything if you travel the shortest line between points, do you?
I grew up this way, living in a car in Asia and the Middle East and Europe, and learned to overcome the discomfort of approaching strangers with a question, because I am shy, which does not matter because if you ask your question properly there will always be answers. I still take the longest path armed with the smallest questions, and everybody tells me their secrets. I keep thinking I should write them down, these American secrets, but I am too full of questions to waste my time making a catalog.