Elvis Has Left the Building: The Day the King Died by Dylan Jones

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Elvis Has Left the Building: The Day the King Died by Dylan Jones

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Category: Entertainment
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: An assessment of how Elvis Presley's life and death shaped popular culture, and the influence of his legacy
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: July 2014
Publisher: Overlook
ISBN: 9781468309676

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The phrase ‘Elvis has left the building’ was first used by a promoter in December 1956, when he assured a passionately pro-Elvis audience from the stage that their idol had gone home, and would they please resume their seats to watch the rest of the acts on the bill that evening. Ever since then, it has become a kind of showbiz punchline.

On 16 August 1977, he left the building for ever. It was the first of three deaths occurring in three months, in almost symmetrical succession (the second and third being Marc Bolan and Bing Crosby respectively), of very different yet major musical stars. That was ‘year zero’, when punk rock was trying to proclaim the beginning of a new age. One of the more durable talents from the punk era, the geeky bespectacled computer operator and singer-songwriter Declan McManus, even reinvented himself with the name Elvis Costello. Some of the more loud-mouthed punks reacted to the news with indifference, while the more far-sighted of them and their older, wiser fans recognised that Elvis was one of the first punks of all, the one who originally stormed the barricades and brought rock’n’roll to the masses.

This is certainly not a cradle-to-grave biography. Instead, it is partly life story – or more accurately, perhaps, decline and fall – and partly examination of the posthumous cult of Elvis, who in death became bigger than ever before and seems to have stayed that way. It starts with the day on which his sudden if not perhaps completely unexpected death was announced to the world. By then he had become more or less a middle-of-the-road crooner, a grossly overweight virtual recluse who would not go on tour or perform outside his own comfort zone and whose gigs were reportedly pretty poor, a deity surrounded by a bunch of sycophants, ‘the Elvis mafia’.

As is often the case with a celebrity’s early death, his passing changed everything. While the punks scoffed, nearly everyone else realised that the man who had gone was the one who originally broke down the barriers in the entertainment world. Like the rather more tame, avuncular Bill Haley, whose initial fleeting success he soon eclipsed, he was a trailblazer, an original punk who had so outraged the cosy musical status quo of the mid-1950s. Fellow stars lined up to pay him tribute, most surprisingly of all Frank Sinatra, who had once dismissed him as ‘a rancid-smelling aphrodisiac’, and who now told an audience in concert that they had ‘lost a good friend today’. Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen and others all admitted how much he had changed their lives. The future DJ Danny Baker angrily berated a crowd of punks at a London club for cheering the news, was bottled for his pains and had to be rescued by a visibly distressed John Peel.

Thus began the deification of Elvis, whose records predictably began to sell even more heavily. His recently-released single ‘Way Down’, which had initially been greeted with little more than indifference, immediately flew out of the shops and went to No. 1. To a certain extent this is a biography, although an anything but cradle-to-grave account. Not until around halfway through do we arrive at one of the most important days in rock’n’roll, 5 July 1954, which found him in the Sun Studios, Memphis, recording ‘That’s All Right’. Some of his contemporaries realised that they had just found a star in the making, a teenage lad who could fuse blues and country music together, while others dismissed him as a ‘freaky nuisance’ who dyed his eyebrows, but at least could be relied on to get his hands on plenty of his mother’s diet pills, Benzedrine, at that time one of the most potent forms of speed. It was an ironic forecast of how he would end up, a victim of persistent and chronic substance abuse. His stepbrother repeatedly argued that Elvis committed suicide, though whether it was a deliberate overdose of nightly drug cocktails or a case of being so addled that he hardly knew what he was doing, as in the case of Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein ten years earlier, nobody will ever know.

Jones has an excellent grasp of the Elvis legend. He recognises that the poor boy from Mississippi was a towering figure in twentieth-century culture, yet sadly threw it all away in a series of ill-considered career moves, notably his refusal to tour Britain or other countries (or should we say the refusal of his manager, for reasons connected with the latter’s status as an illegal alien), a series of poor money-grabbing films which some said could have been scripted by Enid Blyton, and a series of tacky live shows at Vegas where he seemed more intent on playing up his status as a sex god than a singer, a third-rate self-parody. He argues that Elvis may have been the embodiment of rock’n’roll and a genuine force for change, but once he discovered his form he stuck to it, in contrast to Sinatra, who experimented with his arrangers and his material, and the Beatles who were continually moving their music forward, embracing new styles and new technology as it became available.

Ultimately the story of Elvis is a sad one, that of a prisoner of his own success, just going through the motions until his sadly inevitable premature end. Jones paints it in all its darkest horrors, and he pulls no punches in his documentation of the phenomenon which became tarnished all too soon. Yet he is clearly a fan, a thoroughly objective one, demonstrates convincingly that the man’s influence never wavered and is still just as strong today.

I write as one of those who always admired Elvis for what he was and what he stood for, even though I find much of his output hard to listen to and his films unwatchable. But there’s no getting away from the fact that he was one of the few figures in popular music and culture who changed everything. Anybody who doubts that, or who wants to understand why, need go no further than this absolute gem of a book.

Further reading:

The Eighties: One Day, One Decade by Dylan Jones

Twenty Thousand Roads: The Ballad of Gram Parsons and His Cosmic American Music by David N Meyer

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Booklists.jpg Elvis Has Left the Building: The Day the King Died by Dylan Jones is in the Top Ten Biographies 2014.


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