Note: Links to previous posts on the albums of 1974 appear at the bottom of this one.
“The last act in the biography of the hero is that of the death or departure. Here the whole sense of the life is epitomized.” — The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell
If a series of posts can follow the mythic path of the hero — and I don’t see why not — then this is the point where the hero encounters death. A Hollywood scriptwriter would call it the Ordeal — the crisis of the story. Good Times wasn’t Elvis Presley’s final studio album, but it came in his final years when he and the cultural space he inhabited were in crisis, ringing more hollow than vibrant. If anyone was in need of Jonah-like rebirth, it was the King of Rock and Roll.
In the late Seventies, Elvis Presley was the subject of raw mourning, but by the Eighties he had become a joke. His super-evolved greaser hair, rockabilly hiccups, gyrating hips, heartthrob mannerisms, increasing weight, unusual lifestyle, sequined kimono-pajamas and on-stage karate chops seemed ridiculous. Elvis impersonators proliferated. Even Elvis’s death was a joke, first of all because he was found naked on his bathroom floor, suggesting he had died while on the toilet. “Elvis Lives” fanatics and unbelievable tales of Elvis sightings abounded, and the phrase “Elvis has left the building” became a punchline.
The Dead Milkmen’s song “Going to Graceland” (1987) is an example of this attitude:
Living Colour’s take in “Elvis Is Dead” (1990) is more incisive:
“Elvis Is Dead” addresses the ridiculousness of the hysteria surrounding Elvis’s popularity and death, as well as how sick it is to pimp the ghost of a talented but troubled individual. As Little Richard says in the song, “Presley was a good performer, on stage he was electrifyin’.” That, along with his sex appeal, is what all the fuss was about. From Nashville to the European theater in World War II to Hollywood and Las Vegas, from country to rockabilly to gospel and blues, Elvis was a powerhouse. But by the time Good Times came out in 1974, drug and alcohol abuse, poor health, and declining popularity had caused him to fall on hard times indeed.
The tracks on Good Times include covers of hits by other artists, but for the most part I find them uninspiring. When it comes to Elvis, it’s almost impossible for me to hear the music through the cultural noise present during my childhood. Musically, I’m more drawn to his rockabilly material like “Hound Dog” and “Long Tall Sally” from the Fifties, but Good Times isn’t a bad album. One standout track for me is “My Boy.” Here it is live in 1975:
Elvis sings the song from the point of view of a man in an unhappy marriage, but what resonates with me most is his unbounded love for his son. Ever since my son was born, I have a tendency to hear lyrics out of their intended context, or within an altered context, and to apply them to my son. I would be surprised if these lyrics are not poignant for other parents as well, happily married or otherwise:
“Because you’re all I have, my boy
You are my life, my pride, my joy
And if I stay, I stay because of you, my boy”
It’s hard not to also apply the lyrics to Elvis’s own crumbling world, and to hear in them, and in his voice, an attempt at courage despite wavering commitment toward the hard work of living:
“I have laughed, I have cried
I have lost every game
Taken all I can take
But I’ll stay just the same”
In life, Elvis would never emerge from the belly of the beast. He died just three years after the release of Good Times and his death was the real death, the final one that is followed by no afterlife save in the memory of friends, family, acquaintances, fans and posterity. That afterlife comes from a life well-lived, a life with impact, a life with grace for all its ugly moments — and Elvis’s was such a life. It teaches us that all lives, even the most glorious, are messy.
So there’s hope for you and me.
Previous posts in this series:
John Lennon’s Walls and Bridges
Roxy Music’s Country Life
Sly & the Family Stone’s Small Talk
Linda Ronstadt’s Heart Like a Wheel
Ringo Starr’s Goodnight Vienna
Genesis’s The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway
Gryphon’s Red Queen to Gryphon Three
Fanny’s Rock and Roll Survivors
Billy Joel’s Streetlife Serenade