A Review

Fred Seaman:

The Last Days Of John Lennon

Review by R.E. Prindle

Seaman Fred:  The Last Days Of John Lennon, A Personal Memoir.  Citadel Press, 1991.

The Ghost Of Elvis Presley

Double Elvis- Andy Warhol

     In order to understand the zeitgeist of the sixties one has to go back to the fifties.  The central event of the fifties was the annunciation of Elvis Presley.  The post-war world was a grey world of fear.  The country and the world had emerged from the greatest of all catastrophes, the Second World War.  WWII itself was fought in the shadow of the Great War of 1914-18, afterwards known as WWI.

     Most of the older generation had lived through both wars which was a terrifically horrifying experience.  In 1950 those who were seventy or older had memories of the Indian Wars of the late nineteenth century also.  In addition perhaps the most terrifying memory of the pre-WWII generations was that of the Great Depression of the thirties.  From 1945 to 1960 they lived in terror that the Depression would return.  There was thus a great generational divide between them and those of us who had no memory of the Depression and only vague memories of the second world cataclysm.

     The older generations were struggling to restore the normalcy of the period between the wars as they wished it might have been.  Technology had made this impossible.  Not only had the Atomic Bomb come into existence but almost immediately after the war the sky was filled with the most extraordinary of phenomena- the faster than the speed of sound jet plane.  The pilots of this wondrous piece of technology delighted in flying low over cities breaking the sound barrier as they did and sending a sonic boom shimmering down.  If you’ve never experienced a sonic boom you have yet to be there.

     The miracle of the age however was television.  (Some people call it the boring fifties but they obviously weren’t there.)  Television made the greatest threat to civilization yet known to man possible.  That threat was Elvis Presley.  Elvis simple announced by his presence that the pre-war world would not be returning- ever.  The younger generation would fashion the world in his image.

Triple Elvis- Andy Warhol

     More than that Presley wasn’t an image of the upper class college youth like Pat Boone but the avatar of the downtrodden and suppressed not unlike Jesus the Christ himself.  They took one look at Elvis and realized that he was the Atomic Bomb that would blow up their world.  And he did.

     Every move Elvis made was an insult to them.  Things that had no relevance to them they took as a personal insult.  One such was the innocuous anthem by the songwriters Leiber and Stoller originally written as a Negro ghetto sex anthem, Hound Dog.  When Elvis sang You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog, for some reason they projected it as a reference to themselves and they deeply resented it.

     Of course every attempt to suppress Elvis deepened the generational divide.  Not only did Elvis himself exist but it seemed as though every upcoming rock n’ roll singer wanted to be Elvis.  Before the Presley clones of Vegas there were the Elvis imitators in every family’s living room like Gene Vincent, Ricky Nelson, Eddie Cochran and nearly the whole roster of Sun Records, plus, plus, plus….

     For most of the old folks rock n’ roll itself was a mystery.  They thought it was a Communist plot, might have been I don’t rule it out, but if so we were not conspirators but dupes.  We just reveled in it.  They almost succeeded in destroying it.  Elvis got drafted, in his absence the great rock n’ rollers were driven out, discredited and in some cases killed.  When Presley returned in 1960 he was different from when he went in.  He had been contained.

     John Lennon famously said in 1977 after Elvis died that he died the day he went into the army.  While a relevant statement it was not quite true.  The first stage in Elvis long immolation was when he fell under the control of his manager Col. Tom Parker, the second stage in his demise was when Parker delivered him to RCA Records, the third stage in his death was when RCA assigned Steve Sholes as his producer.

     For those of us who were there the real Elvis Presley ceased to exist when he left the Sun record label.  RCA was in no position to understand rock n’ roll values.  It wasn’t that they willfully sabotaged Elvis it was just that they didn’t know how to rock.  Their idea of rock was Neil Sedaka.  Sholes himself was antipathetic to rock ‘n roll no less than his crosstown rival Mitch Miller over at Columbia Records.  Both men hated the concept.  This was made evident in Sholes arrangement of Gene Austin’s Are You Lonesome Tonight with its plodding guitar riff and Elvis’ imitation of the thirties crooner.  Sholes failed to ruin Elvis’ career but it took Mitch Miller one LP to trash the career of the great Dion of the Belmonts.

     Very few if any of the great rock records were produced by the majors.  Nearly everything of value was produced by independent labels, many of them one shot efforts.  Gene Vincent and his Be-Bop-A-Lula was a notable exception although his label, Capitol, soon had him singing Somewhere Over The Rainbow.

   After the first run of actual imitators Elvis and rock worked their way into the subconscious of the next wave that included Lennon and the Beatles to produce an extension of rock.

     Upon Presley’s return from the army his manager, Parker, removed him from recording and put Elvis into the movies almost exclusively.  The movie Elvis was an extension of the personality of Tom Parker.  Elvis was Elvis and his appearance was always galvanic.  His charisma could be diminished but it couldn’t be destroyed.  I was as disappointed by his movies as much as anyone dropping in only occasionally over the sixties to see if anything had changed.  It hadn’t.

     Thus as we all moved into the sixties while Presley still lived it was only as the ghost of the Sun Records innovator.

      The Ghost of Elvis Presley was captured by the artist Andy Warhol in a number of renderings.

Octopresley- Andy Warhol

He presented Elvis in various single screens or multiples of two, three and up to the eight as in the image above.  He ignored the musical Elvis in favor of an image taken from a Western movie.  As Warhol was a homosexual he rendered Elvis as a gay cowboy.  In truth Elvis had an ambiguous persona.  Many people thought he was queer.  Any male fan felt himself under the accusation.  Elements of his persona indicate a severely emasculated personality that lend credence to at least a latent feeling of homosexuality.  Elvis’ fellow students called him ‘squirrel.’  Indeed, the use of eye shadow, pants with a stripe down the leg and pink shirts in 1951-52 and ’53 would have led to open accusations of homosexuality.  And yet, even though I identified with his obvious emasculation when I was only sixteen and seventeen it never occurred to me that he might have been one.  I don’t think he ever was.  Had he been his more than macho entourage would have had nothing to do with him.  Nevertheless his portraitist Warhol perfectly captured his ambivalence and androgyny.

     The number of portraits by the artist clearly betrays Warhol’s own hero worship.  Perhaps his own gay cowboy movie owed some reverence to his idol.  Oddly enough Warhol never designed a record cover for Presley even though he designed over fifty during a career from 1949 to 1987.

     Andy had always been a pop music fan.  This was very unusual for a man born in 1928.  This would have made him 26 if one assumes ’54 as the birth of rock and 28 in ’56 when Presley exploded onto the scene.  Anyone older than 18 in ’56 rejected rock.  It is true that Warhol was dualistic, capabhle of listening to opera and rock at the same time, I mean simultaneously,  so he may have had his personality split by the times.  At any rate Warhol who apparently wished to excel in all the arts attempted to enter the music field by managing a band, while establishing a rock venue.  In 1965 he took The Velvet Underground in as his house band while setting up a venue called The Dom.  Not stopping there he also created an ambient experience, or light show, he called The Exploding Plastic Inevitable.  The combination of music and light was innovative and widely imitated.  Unfortunately Warhol didn’t have a secure lease and the venue got away from him.  Perhaps realzing he was spreading himself too thin he never followed up letting the Velvets go their own way.

     Warhol nevertheless established close bonds with other musicians.  His attempted connection to Bob Dylan failed.  Whether sour grapes or not he comitted this thought to his diary in July of 1985:

     Watched the Live-Aid thing on TV.  Bobby Zaren’s office had been calling, wanting me to go down there, but with that many big celebrities you never get any publicity.  Later on that night Jack Nicholson introduced Bob Dylan and called him “transcendental.”  But to me, Dylan was never really real- he was just mimicking real people and the amphetamine made it come out magic.  With amphetamine he could copy words and make it all sound right.  But that boy never felt a thing- (laughs) I just never bought it.

     Warhol did succeed with Mick and Bianca Jagger and the Rolling Stones.  While his cover for the first Velvet Underground album was considered innovative (read: weird) his cover for the Stones’ Sticky Fingers album with its functional zipper was as the term of the time went, mindblowing.

      While Warhol never established contact with the Beatles, when his fellow artist Yoko Ono led her trophy husband, John Lennon, from London to New York in 1970 another firm connection to musicians and the inheritor of Elvis Presley’s mantle as the Savior was formed.   Over all floated the Ghost of Elvis Presley.

Part II:  John & Yoko In New York follows.

After the Topps Baseball Card Style