The Book Club

Rootlessness and Promiscuity

Dear Bill,

On the subject of critics stomaching bad music because they get it for free, let me just say that I bought all the Elvis records I loved. (Okay, some of them I pilfered from the record store where I worked.) I wasn’t on any special Elvis comp list when I went through my Elvis phase. And I like Garth Brooks, although much to my dismay I was out of town when he played Central Park.

Regarding “city people” versus “Elvis World”–I agree that certain artists and hipsters treat Elvis lightly as kitsch–check the Sheryl Crow video with the floating Elvis impersonators for an example–but many others bleed the icon for its pathos, and for its ability to make those very hipsters uncomfortable. The greatest example, of course, is the late Andy Kaufman, whose Elvis impersonations played a key part in his general project of messing with the divisions between reality and fantasy in performance and everyday life.

This blurring is the subject I want to take up in arguing why Elvis remains a mighty figure, only more so because he was, as you correctly observe, deliberately bad. I said in my last note that Elvis was not just pathetic, but tragic. In the beginning of Careless Love, Guralnick writes that his is a tragedy of fame. I disagree–the power, money, and paradoxical isolation that came with colossal celebrity certainly exacerbated Elvis’s flaws, but they fermented in him from his youth. His afflictions are twofold, and linked: rootlessness and promiscuity.

Rootlessness and promiscuity are two central catalysts in rock and roll. This is a music that rejects the burden of any one origin by relentlessly absorbing new sources; it lives at the boundary between sacred and secular, black and white, male and female. The music’s energy comes from its makers’ hunger for novelty and refusal to discriminate between “good” and “bad” influences, subjects, attitudes. Born of parents who wandered incessantly over one small patch of the South, a self-styled alien in clothes he stole from the movie screen throughout high school, a speed freak who built himself a palace and then hardly every slept there when he got famous, Elvis embodies rootlessness. And as Guralnick’s empathetic portrayal of Elvis’s five million girlfriends proves, he was even more promiscuous than the average person would suspect. These qualities, as much as his love for blues and gospel, made him an archetype of rock, and of our unsettled nation.

He is not the only one. Virtually every great figure in rock, in fact, shares these problematic attributes. Take Janis Joplin, for instance, the subject of a new biography by the feminist historian Alice Echols, Scars of Sweet Paradise, to be published soon by Metropolitan Books. Echols sets up her subject as an anomaly: “The white rock world had never seen or heard anything like Janis when she stormed the stage…at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967,” she writes. Never before had there been such a frank female presence in rock. And she was a line-jumper, making a new kind of music by blending folk and blues women’s endowments into a new sound, then abandoning the musical strictures of those styles and just getting real, real, gone for a while.

Janis began her singing career in Texas as an imitator of Bessie Smith, but Echols concentrates on the way she remade herself within the memory-free zone of psychedelic San Francisco. You and I have both lived in that great city, Bill, and I think you’ll agree that one of its chief charms and dangers is the unspoken agreement of its citizens that everyone who comes there, comes unburdened by legacies. Janis, like Elvis, survived a lonely youth by creating an outrageous persona that couldn’t be pushed under by the crowd. She tried to give up her strangeness for a while, living at home with her parents going to stenography school, but found out that she was unable to follow in anyone’s footsteps. When she came to San Francisco, she transformed her voice, redid her look, started embellishing her biography (greatly exaggerating tales from her sex life, for example), and wed herself to the “eternal now” of the hippie life.

And she became a star, embodying the moment of transformation, which is the soul of rock. Like Elvis, she was a predator hunting more change and more connection, not a passive victim destroyed by circumstance. Echols give plenty of evidence, more than Guralnick does, of the outside world’s perils for her subject. The question she circles around involves Janis’ right to choose. Rootlessness and promiscuity are dangerous drugs, as dangerous as heroin and Demerol. But oh, the high.

Maybe we can talk about sex and rock, Janis and Elvis, next time.