Tuesday, November 15, 2011

#286: The Edge Of Reality

History is full of unlikely encounters and bedfellows, and the 20th century was certainly no exception.  If you can believe that the sex-goddess Marilyn Monroe would not only bed, but marry, Arthur Miller (who was about as sexy as a stamped bat) then you’d believe almost anyone would like anyone.  John F Kennedy had a strong liking for Frank Sinatra.  George Bernard Shaw was great chums with Harpo Marx, Salvador Dali liked Alice Cooper.  But surely the oddest of them all, and the most unexplainable, would have to be the meeting of President Richard Milhous Nixon and Elvis Aaron Presley.

The beauty of fame in the 20th century is that it was generally built around some form of charisma mixed with at least a dash of talent.  Sonny Tufts might not have won any acting awards, but he was entertaining to look at, and still is, in his movies.  The Legendary Stardust Cowboy made music that’d make your ears bleed, but as a songwriter he was good enough to have his songs covered by David Bowie.  Jimmy Page, Charlie Chaplin, Bill Wyman and many others might have been classed as paedophiles and placed on a sex offenders list but for the fact that they had some amazing talents – although, with Bill, people are still trying to work it out.  Ju Suis Un Rock Star my arse!  The criteria of talent and/or charisma went out of the window once ‘reality’ television and the internet became massive, and it’s no surprise that both phenomena are linked, but still fame is more fleeting these days than ever – remember Sara Marie and her bum dance?  She was everywhere back in the day, doing book signings, miming at shopping malls – the lot.  Last I heard she was flogging shoes in Sydney.  Collette is ringing the dinner bell at a zoo.  The bird from Dollar now sells Chiko Rolls at Circular Quay.  Pick any fringe band or actor and they’re probably driving cabs now.  Once the fame fades we generally only hear of people now when the door to a public toilet is opened and they’re busted or they top themselves.  Even then people merely say, “Tsk tsk, who?”

Fame in the 21st century is now measured by how many people talk about you.  The original stupid spoiled whore, Paris Hilton, is famous for merely being famous.  She can’t act, she certainly can’t sing – but in her defence I’d rather listen to any of her warblings than have to suffer through the murderous duet that is Ozzy and Kelly Osbourne slaughtering Black Sabbath’s Changes, trust me, don’t do it – and Hilton’s main claim to fame seems to be built around a rather poor quality home made porn tape, in which she reveals herself to be about as sexually desirable as a cracked coffee cup.  Even the Mimi McPherson tape is a better waste of time than Paris, if nothing else the quality is better and Mimi is far better looking naked than Hilton ever will be, and Mimi hasn’t got man hands.  Kim Kardashian is much the same – what do these people do?  Other than have fake marriages and whip the girls out – and they’re probably fake too – and throw tantrums on camera.  If you want fame them get some media, place a low quality porno on-line and then arrange your own reality show.  You don’t need talent; you just need to be out there.  Tori Spelling anyone?  How many books has she signed her name to?  I know actual writers who’ll never get a contract, but Tori can tape record some babbling, hire some hack to jot it down and there it is, on sale for $1.99 on the bargain table at any bookstore, and trust me, they’ve got boxes of the shit out the back, generally they’re used to level tables and chairs.

Which brings me back to Elvis and Nixon.  In 1970 Elvis sat down, on a plane, and decided that he wanted to meet Nixon.  Elvis was worried about the growing counter-culture that existed in America at the time, and those damned kids with their damned rock and roll and heavy and also metal.  Those bastards.  People had stopped listening to Elvis years ago, he’d ceased to be relevant when he got out of the army and began making some of the worst films you’re ever likely to see.  For a guy who was once touted as the next James Dean, Elvis was reduced to singing songs to bulls and pretending he was a better option than Christ for nubile nuns.  Elvis movies make Adam Sandler’s early movies look like Oscar winners, and they all followed the same basic plot – Elvis wanders into town/carnival/race track/village/ beach, meets a girl, runs into trouble with the authorities/parents/anyone, has a fight, gets run out of town/carnival/race track/village/ beach, changes his mind, comes back to town/carnival/race track/village/ beach, has another fight, wins the girl and everyone lives happily ever after.  Insert names and songs here.  The longer his Hollywood career went on the more insipid and less relevant he became.  While people were expanding the boundaries of music and creating some of the most enduring sounds we know, Elvis was busily singing songs like Clambake, There’s No Room To Rumba In A Sports Car and Dominick The Impotent Bull.  By 1970 Elvis was reduced to playing Vegas, eating obscene amounts of junk food and pumping his body full of whatever drugs he could find.  And still he sang shit.  Sure, there were some gems amongst them, but for every Suspicious Minds, In The Ghetto or Edge Of Reality (as close as Elvis got to being psychedelic) he recorded at least ten times more shit that you’d be hard pressed to remember, and if you could then you’d not want to.  Elvis hated the Beatles, the Stones, the Who and the Doors.  He used to swear when people mentioned Led Zeppelin, if only because Robert Plant and co, and many more, made better music and took sales away from him.

Elvis’s letter was illuminating to say the least.  “The drug culture, the hippie elements, the SDS, Black Panthers, etc. do not consider me as their enemy,” he wrote, “or as they call it the establishment.”  There was a reason for that – the drug culture, the hippies, the SDS and Black Panthers didn’t consider Elvis as an enemy, they didn’t consider him to be anything, let alone a threat.  He was just another drug addicted fat man, old before his time, living off past glories.  There was a method to Elvis’s madness though – he didn’t just want to meet Nixon, he wanted to be an uncover nark!  “I can and will do more good if I were made a Federal Agent at Large,” he went on to say, “and I will help out by doing it my way through my communications with people of all ages.”  I don’t know about communication with people of all age, but that was Elvis.  But if you think that was funny then you’ve ain’t seen nothing yet.  “I have done an in-depth study of drug abuse,” wrote Elvis, in possibly the most unintentionally ironic line ever written, “and Communist brainwashing techniques and I am right in the middle of the whole thing where I can and will do the most good.”

Elvis had indeed done ‘in-depth studies of drug abuse’, and most of it was first hand as Elvis had his own, massive, drug problem.  Elvis, by 1970, was addicted to any number of pain killers and any number of uppers and downers – in effect anything he could bash down his throat to get him through the shows, and through the days.  Elvis’s study of drug abuse was done by reading, looking at himself and those around him.  If ever there was a crime it was that people allowed Elvis to kill himself, slowly.  It wasn’t that he was merely no longer relevant; by 1975 he was a wasted, bloated joke, a shell of a man, just waiting to die.  Sad, but true.  Remember Elvis pre 1959, or by his ‘Comeback Special’ – that’s Elvis, everything else is merely an Elvis impersonator.  I know people who are convinced that Elvis didn’t die and that he was replaced in his coffin by a wax dummy for the showing.  I tend to think that he was replaced by a wax dummy in around 1974 and nobody noticed. 

It’s doubtful that Nixon knew who Elvis was, or what he did, or that Nixon even cared.  He might have had some understanding of Elvis, but Elvis to Nixon would have been like any of the Backstreet Boys that isn’t Justin Timberlake to President Obama – the name might ring a slight bell, but he’d buggered if he knew why without a detailed briefing.  Before anyone could get to Nixon they had to get through the advisors, and a memo was duly written up.  The memo, from Presidential Assistant Dwight Chapin, led to the second hilarious act for all of this.  In the memo Chapin suggested several options, from trying to find some form of a badge to give Elvis through to this suggestion, “In addition, if the President wants to meet with some bright young people outside of the Government, Presley might be a perfect one to start with,” to which Nixon’s Chief Of Staff, Harry Haldeman responded, “You must be kidding.”  Clearly Harry knew something that Chapin didn’t know, and I’d better dollars to deutschmarks that Harry was aware that the FBI has also been contacted by Elvis.  In their files the FBI had noted that Elvis had been the subject of extortion attempts, was the subject of an on-going paternity suit that, “…during the height of his popularity during the latter part of the 1950’s and early 1960’s his gyrations while performing were the subject of considerable criticism by the public and comment in the press.”  The FBI weren’t all that willing for Elvis to meet J Edgar Hoover (now that would have been a meeting of the minds) due to Elvis’s long hair and bizarre dress.  It’s also very likely that both the CIA and FBI had also told Haldeman is that Elvis had an on-going drug issue, so the very thought of Elvis working with the White House and Nixon was a no-no, plus Elvis didn’t want publicity, for obvious reasons – he wanted to be a top secret undercover nark. 

Elvis finally met Nixon at 12:30pm on Monday, 21st of December, 1970.  Before this Elvis had caused a bit of a stir by bringing a gift into the White House for Nixon in the form of a gun.  Bringing weapons near the President has always been somewhat of a no-no, but Elvis made his case and was allowed to bring his unloaded gun for Nixon, along with a pile of signed photos, which Nixon promptly gave to his daughters and other staffers.  The meeting started with the obligatory photo shoot featuring Elvis and Nixon and then moved on to more serious matters.  Elvis cracked out his law enforcement medals and badges, clearly to the amusement of Nixon, who was probably wondering who this long haired hippy was in front of him.  After hearing that Elvis was playing in Vegas, Nixon commented that playing Vegas was difficult – somehow I think that even speaking to Elvis was difficult for Nixon, but the thought of Nixon on stage, singing Hound Dog is just a bit too funny for thought.  In his conversation Elvis brought up what would become a recurring theme for him – his hatred for the Beatles. 

By the mid 1960s Elvis was a forgotten man for youth, replaced by four men from Liverpool, Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr: The Beatles.  Everywhere Elvis looked it was Beatlemania, and the sight of it must have driven him to tears.  It wasn’t that he was unfamiliar with it – at his peak Elvis had just as much attention as the Beatles, and just as many young women, it was more that the Beatles had something that Elvis had long lost – credibility and relevance.  More people listened, and followed, the Beatles than did Elvis, and while the Beatles were being progressive with their music – and let’s be frank here, in 1962 they recorded Love Me Do and in 1965 they’d moved to Tomorrow Never Knows and in 1966-67 they’d moved to Sgt Pepper, a landmark in any era.  Conversely Elvis was stuck in Hollywood making his crap movies, recording crap songs and being about as relevant as a low rent Tab Hunter.  The Beatles were making millions and playing to millions, Elvis was making hundreds of thousands and unable to get a gig thanks to his utterly incompetent manager.  Ricky Nelson was probably more relevant than Elvis when the Beatles were peaking. 

Elvis hated how the Beatles had made money in America and then left.  “Presley indicated that he thought the Beatles had been a real force for anti-American spirit,” read a report of the meeting, “He said that the Beatles came to this country, made their money, and then returned to England where they promoted an anti-American theme.”  I’ve been wracking my brains to recall where any of the Beatles ever promoted an anti-American theme.  If anything they promoted an anti-touring theme, that being that they were tired of the mindless routine of touring and playing to masses of screaming girls, who were so loud that the music was secondary, at best.  Elvis’s anti-Beatle stance reportedly surprised Nixon, but, being Nixon, he nodded in agreement, probably still wondering who this fat hippy with the sideburns and funny glasses was doing in his office.  At lunch time even.  Nixon them warmed up to his favourite theme – protests!  According to Nixon those who protested used drugs and those who used drugs were anti-American, not the Beatles.   Young people, bloody hippies, they all used violence, drugs dissent and protest – it was all the same.  If you were young and didn’t have a crew-cut then you were a hippy.  Elvis also warmed to the theme of drugs and hippies, he mentioned his drug studies but didn’t mention how much of it had been first hand study, and made mention of the fact that he could infiltrate groups of hippies and rat them all out to the Feds, man.  Nixon gave Elvis a badge and expressed his concern that Elvis, “…retain his credibility.”  That Nixon, he was a card, always handy with a joke.  And with that the meeting was over and Elvis was ushered out, Nixon probably sat down, had some food with his advisors and laughed his head off at the ridiculous looking hippy who wanted to be a nark.  Go for it Elvis, report everyone.  As Tom Jones said later, if Elvis was going to turn in all the drug users he knew, he’d have to start with Elvis. 

Elvis wasn’t finished there.  He’d also contacted the FBI with the same offer, that he be given some form of credentials so he could rat people out.  He also wanted a meeting with Hoover.  That was never going to happen.  In 1970 it was easier to meet Nixon than Hoover, and Hoover wanted nothing to do with the hippy in the bizarre capes and glasses, and those sideburns.  There was no harm though in giving Elvis a tour, after all that was what most celebrities got, and Elvis was duly shown around on New Years Eve of 1970.  The FBI reported the tour and meeting back to Hoover, as was the way, and the first thing they noted was that Elvis appeared to be somewhat bizarre in appearance.  This wouldn’t have been that surprising as the FBI of 1970 was straighter than the White House and anything other than a suit, tie and buzz cut was bizarre.  Elvis, in his multi-coloured outfits, complete with cape, funky sun glasses, long hair and what appeared to be badgers attached to his cheeks would have caused shockwaves in FBI Headquarters.

Elvis was proud of the badge that Nixon had given him which identified him as an agent of the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, a meaningless notion at best.  Again Elvis rallied against the Beatles, despite the fact that he often sang Beatles songs in concert.  This time Elvis was adamant that the Beatles had, “…laid the groundwork of many of the problems we are having with young people by their filthy unkempt appearances and suggestive music while entertaining in this country during the early and middle 1960s.”  It might be argued that Elvis was getting his Lennon mixed up with his Jagger, or even his Burdon, but we may never know, indeed Elvis probably didn’t know either.  Elvis then went to state that the Smother Brothers and Jane Fonda had a lot to answer for.  In another ironic statement, Elvis, who seemed to be clear of drugs for this visit, was described as being a sober, clear minded young man, despite his manner of dress.

Nixon went on to other things, and people.  He met Sammy Davis Jr, a meeting that did more harm to Davis than good, and one that he would have to justify until his dying day.  Nixon could care less, he had other things to worry about, like the Vietman war, and a little thing called Watergate, which led to his eventual downfall.  At one point in the mid ‘70s, Nixon was voted the most hated man of the 20th century, beating out other luminaries such as Hitler and Stalin.  That takes an effort.  It would take over a decade after Nixon resigned from office in 1974 to regain some of his own credibility, but he did just that, by remaining low-key, but becoming a voice. Nixon went a long way to rehabilitate himself, and at the end of his life, in 1994, he was viewed more as a curiosity than an outright villain.  Checkers be damned, Nixon was the bogyman of a generation: “Eat your peas or Nixon will get you!”  Watergate became a catchphrase, made a lot of careers and made a lot of people millionaires.  Nixon did his own bit, but went his own way, and rarely, if ever, mentioned Watergate.

Elvis had just over six more years to live, before succumbing to his toxic cocktail of drugs, physical abuse and junk food.  Towards the end Elvis was a cartoon, a caricature of a man who would wander out on stage, mumble his way through a few songs, throw a few sweaty towels out to his blue rinse audience, stagger off and collapse backstage in a pool of sweat.  There’s a lot to celebrate about Elvis, and each time a documentary is made, or another of Priscilla’s TV specials, we’re reminded that, once, Elvis was a God amongst men, and he strode the Earth, bestowing his gifts amongst us.  However there’s also a lot to mourn about Elvis, how towards the end of his life he was abandoned by the very same people who would later make fortunes from their associations, how he was under the spell of a few Svengalis, from his manager, Col Tom Parker, an illegal immigrant who refused to allow Elvis out of the country for fear of losing control over him, to Dr Nick, who happily supplied drug after drug, and how those who could have saved him didn’t and instead fed his addictions happily.  As long as the money flowed freely, people were happy to allow Elvis to deteriorate to the point where it was far too late to save him.  His awards, his badges, his wanting to be an uncover nark, his wanting to believe that he was still The King of Rock and Roll, it all counted for nothing when he expired, on the toilet, in the most undignified manner ever.  Elvis had long since become what he wanted to rally against, sadly he could never see it.  Although they ran parallel, Nixon was able to realise his failings and deal with them, Elvis was just too blind, and more is the shame.

But, for a shining few minutes, over forty years ago, one of the most unexpected, and improbably meetings of them all took place – The King met The President.


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