That’s not to say I disagree with Bono, there’s a time and a place for it. But the Beatles have a glowing “look at how great they were” from Elvis Costello and Bob Dylan gets a “what an amazing songwriter” from Robbie Robertson…
Bono talks about “a voice even bigger than his gut” and “self-loathing” and the breaking of spirit. Quoth Bono, “The big opera voice of the later years — that’s the one that really hurts me.”
Even if you find it underrated, why bring it up if it hurts you? Why not talk about the amazing work at American Sound Studios in Memphis and during That’s The Way It Is, when Elvis was storming Vegas. We get it. He felt trapped by it later, but let’s not act like he didn’t also fucking own Vegas.
Why not talk about a man who, despite the heft of unprecedented fame, loved and respected his fans? Who never forgot where he came from, and never forgot who made it all possible. Why not talk about a man with a generous heart – generous with his money given to not just his hangers-on, but to fans and random people, to the point of breaking the bank?
I get it. We shouldn’t white-wash history. And that’s absolutely correct. But the character assassinations that started in the 80’s led to a stereotype that has now done irreversible damage to the perceptions of, not only the cultural impact, but the music itself. The perpetuation of the mythology by Bono illuminates nothing; teaches nothing to a generation of music fans about the music.
Exactly one song of Elvis’ is mentioned, “Mystery Train.
” Dylan and the Fab Four get five songs and eight songs mentioned, respectively. How can you possibly have a discussion about the supposed third greatest artist of all time without talking about his art? Why talk about the voice in terms of scale when you can talk about the voice in terms of message?
Let’s talk about Bridge Over Troubled Water
, a song about which Paul Simon is quoted (in Rolling Stone) as saying “When I first heard Elvis perform ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ it was unbelievable. I thought to myself, ‘How the hell can I compete with that?'”
Let’s talk about Tomorrow Is Such A Long Time, Dylan’s personally precious cover. Quote: “That’s the one recording I treasure the most… it was called ‘Tomorrow Is A Long Time.’ I wrote it but never recorded it.”
Let’s talk about In The Ghetto
, Walk A Mile in My Shoes
, and If I Can Dream
, socially conscious songs with powerful messages regarding urban poverty and echoing Martin Luther King, Jr.’s iconic “I Have A Dream” speech. These songs say more about the man than the man ever said about himself.
Let’s talk about You’ll Never Walk Alone
, a standard Broadway song Elvis sang with such fervor and passion he turned it into an almost religious inspirational tune tune.
Yes, you can talk about how Elvis was a social and political game-changer, you can talk about the what-ifs, the missed opportunities, the undeveloped potential, and when things “went wrong” and where he might have been “saved.”
But here’s my point: talking about those topics with such disillusionment is easy when you grew up with Elvis, when you are a Bono. But it means absolutely nothing to generations of potential listeners yet to come because they have no frame of reference. It reinforces the false idea that Elvis should only be mentioned in the same breath as “impersonator,” “fat guy in a jumpsuit” and “died on a toilet.”
Bono (and Rolling Stone) completely missed the point. The music deserves to be heard and judged on its own merits. It is, ultimately the reason why people have been drawn to Elvis for over 60 years now. The only explanation needed for why Elvis is #3 on that list has nothing to do with anything Bono wrote. It’s the music. Let it speak for itself.