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Ian Birchall

Tone Deaf Albert

(February 1982)

From Socialist Review, No. 40, 20 February–19 March 1982: 2, p. 35.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).


Albert Goldman
Allen Lane, £9.95.

Elvis Presley was not a lovable man. He was reactionary, sexist, brutal and self-indulgent; he could, however, sing rather well. Albert Goldman, author of the ‘ultimate biography’ of Elvis, also reveals himself as distinctly unlovable. Maybe Albert is good at something, but it certainly isn’t writing books about rock and roll.

The whole book is written in breathless slang that drips with inauthenticity. Albert delights in the risqué pleasure of retailing other people’s racist remarks (and inventing, his own sexist comments); just enough to show he’s a real swinger, while keeping safely within the limits that show he’s a liberal as well.

And if that wasn’t bad enough, Albert is also an academic – Adjunct Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. So, mixed in with the lurid details of Elvis’s tastes in sex and drugs, we get Rilke and Proust, not to mention Lord Raglan on history and myth. Because someone once called Elvis ‘The King’, we get a whole chapter on American democracy’s ‘deep yearning for royalty’. (This approach could work wonders for Duke Ellington and Major Lance.) As a young performer Elvis used to hang the cardboard cylinder from a roll of toilet paper on a string inside the front of his trousers. Albert seems to be doing something similar for his brain.

A monstrous array of cross-cultural references is mobilised to demonstrate a commonplace of orthodox literary criticism, namely, that things don’t really change. Elvis used to break his guitar strings. But, a hundred years ago, Paganini broke violin strings. Conservatives can be consoled, there is nothing new under the sun.

Moreover, despite its pretentiousness, the book is sloppy and inaccurate. Albert confuses Meredith Hunter (killed at the Altamont Festival) with James Meredith (the first black to enter the University of Mississippi). He refers repeatedly to a song called I’m All Shook Up. If, in his three years of research, he had got round to looking at record labels, he might have discovered that the track is called All Shook Up.

The last point is not accidental. Albert is plainly not interested in music. He tells us down to the last milligram what drugs were in Elvis’s possession, but the few short pieces of analysis of Elvis’s songs radiate boredom.

That isn’t to say there is nothing we can learn from this book. Albert shows just how right Marx was when he says that ‘capitalist production is hostile to certain aspects of intellectual production, such as art and poetry.’ The whole history of popular music is one of fine performers with their roots in the oppressed layers of society being taken over by capitalism and turned into stars who aren’t worth listening to. (This is a universal truth, despite the view of some benighted elements in the Rock Against Racism milieu that the Beatles were not going downhill all the way after Love Me Do.

Albert reveals many of the squalid details of how Elvis was destroyed as a singer and an actor by commercial pressure. He was, for instance, never allowed to meet his song-writers, in case they did a deal behind Colonel Parker’s back. His films were budgeted so that all the other performers should come as cheap as possible.

But if capitalism destroys it does not always destroy in the same way. I have known for a long time that Colonel Parker ruined Elvis. What Albert brings out is the fact that, even in his own terms, Colonel Parker was a pretty poor manager.

He lacked imagination, and seemed positively afraid of Elvis doing anything original or controversial. He failed to organise really big concerts of the sort that were to be so successful for the Beatles. It was Colonel Parker, not the military authorities, who decided that Elvis should make no records for two whole years while he was in the Army, a time when he was at the peak of his powers.

Above all, Colonel Parker was responsible for structuring Elvis’s whole career around a series of mediocre films. It may be true that ‘the public gets what the public wants’, but it is unlikely that the public wanted, let alone deserved, such monstrosities as Frankie and Johnny.

Albert is also quite interesting on the circumstances in which Elvis’s type of music was able to emerge.

He documents vividly the racism which characterised the society in which Elvis grew up, and lists the varying musical influences that Elvis drew together. As well as making the fairly standard point about how Elvis combined the traditions of black and white song, he notes the important influence of Dean Martin – a connection I for one had never previously made.

But when it comes to the real historical significance of rock and roll, Albert is way out of his depth.

For a hundred years or more there had been songs which expressed working-class oppression. But rock and roll was the first music to express working class aggression. Arising out of the self-confidence engendered by the postwar boom, it was thus to become potentially one of the key art forms of the socialist revolution.

Because Albert cannot understand this, He cannot understand the importance – and the limits – of Elvis, he notes that Elvis was bypassed by the music of the late sixties – but fails to see how deeply that music was rooted in the experience of the Vietnam War. And, with his literary critic’s view that nothing ever changes, he can even suggest that Elvis Costello is an ‘Elvis epigone’. No-one could say that who had actually listened to Oliver’s Army. But then Albert hadn’t – just as he never really listened to Elvis Presley.

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