Elvis Word for Word
by Jerry Osborne
Published by Harmony Books
340 pages, 2000
Buy it online
A Word From the King
Reviewed by Lincoln Cho
It's hard to believe that more than two decades after his death, there's anything left to say about Elvis Presley. After all, literally hundreds of books, television specials, documentary films and magazine articles have examined the ill-fated star in the time between. Yet somehow every year another book or six that deals with some aspect manages to find its way into print.
Elvis Word for Word: What He Said, Exactly How He Said It... manages to put a new spin on material that -- not surprisingly -- was unearthed years ago. The book amounts to little more than a compilation of everything verifiable Elvis ever said, in interviews, correspondence and even some private taped telephone conversations. What emerges is a fairly intimate though one-dimensional portrait. Originally published in a different format in 1999, Elvis Word for Word shows the contradictions that were Elvis in a bland and convincing way. Presented chronologically, we first meet Elvis on October 16, 1954 on Frank Page's "Louisiana Hayride," a stage show that was broadcast on KWKH radio. (Just think: simulcast before there was such a thing.) Characteristic of these earliest interviews, Presley is unfailingly respectful and polite, while interviewers with agendas scarcely let him get a word in edgewise or, in fact, even allow him to complete his thoughts or sentences.
[F.P.] I'd like to know just how you derived that style; how you came up with that rhythm and blues style? That's all it is, that's all you can say.
In 1956, in an interview with Lou Irwin at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, Irwin asks Elvis a question that almost four decades later, we take so for granted we wouldn't even think of asking. Irwin says, "What is rhythm and blues?" Elvis' answer is interesting:
Rhythm and blues is just rock and roll. It's a music. Rhythm and blues, it's a craze, but it's a very good craze in that there is some very beautiful songs recorded in rhythm and blues..."
Later, Irwin asks for Elvis' take on rock and roll contributing to juvenile delinquency. It was obviously a topic that held some passion for the young singer and his sentiments have been echoed by hundreds of musicians since:
Rock and roll is a music. Why should a music contribute to... juvenile delinquency. If people are gonna be delinquents they're gonna be delinquents if they hear Mother Goose rhymes. Rock and roll does not contribute to juvenile delinquency at all.
In his own words we see the bright, talented and idealistic youth ultimately move towards disillusioned, jaded middle-aged man. "The fun ceased to exist, that's the thing," he says to Red West in a telephone conversation recorded in October of 1976. "I couldn't pinpoint it, just couldn't quite figure it out... boil it down."
Letters to fans, girlfriends and friends -- though a disproportionate amount of the latter are from the two years Presley spent overseas when he would have had more time than usual to write -- as well as telegrams and random scratchings on hotel letterheads. ("There is a way when we are able to rid ourselves of some sin, sickness, poverty and the results of wars and economic changes.") A lot of it is the detritus that any of us produce in our lifetime. Just think of all the meaningless stuff you have ever said or written and then imagine it all collected and put in chronological order and produced -- complete with snapshots -- in a book. A little frightening? Combine this with the things we already know: the gorgeous young pop idol who comes back from the armed forces somehow diminished and who later slides to a horrible and undignified end.
Elvis Word for Word is a somewhat esoteric book. It doesn't really shed any new light on the life of the doomed King, but -- really -- is there any new light to be shed? It does, however, present a portrait of fame and underline the things we've suspected about Presley all along: too much fame and too large a star is unhealthy. It can create an engorgement large enough to choke on. Talent is not the issue. What one does with it and how one handles it seems to be more to the point. | December 2000
Lincoln Cho is a freelance writer and contributing editor to Blue Coupe Magazine.