Saturday, August 15, 2009

Guralnick, Elvis and YouTube

I've been thinking a lot about Peter Guralnick's amazing Elvis Presley biography since finishing it last week. One of Guralnick's gifts as a biographer is his ability to completely disappear behind the narrative. The storytelling throughout the two volumes of his Elvis biography are guided by the words of Elvis, his family, friends, girlfriends, gurus, doctors and the objects and documents that surrounded them. You get to know and appreciate the accomplishments and shortcomings of an Elvis blissfully free of all the pop-culture detritus (not entirely unjustified) that's cluttered so many assessments of Presley.

Presley's unmaking came in the form of an intense four-year slide into polypharmacy and its attending dependence on a near grotesque amount of medications readily administered by celebrity smitten doctors. The pathologists who examined the lab results from Elvis's autopsy found, according to Guralnick, "the detection of fourteen drugs in Elvis' system, ten in significant quantity. Codeine appeared at ten times the therapeutic level, methaqualone (Quaalude) in an arguably toxic amount, three other drugs appeared to be on the borderline of toxicity taken in and of themselves." You could have gotten high just licking Elvis the dude was so pumped full of drugs.

I find it fascinating that Elvis' cultural ascendancy coincided with (and was propelled along by) the spread of home televisions into the living rooms of large swaths of the U.S. That's where so many people first saw him. It used to be that catching a glimpse of any of this footage after it first aired meant you were either a media scholar happily burrowing through an archive or simply lucky enough to catch a repeat of the original.

Now, of course, a pretty sizable chunk of Elvis video culled from TV guest appearances, specials and movie clips is being posted on YouTube, Google Video and other video hosting sites. A huge spectrum of televised popular culture is available online, legally or not. I'm smitten with the idea about the potential this has to democratize media access with Youtube and other file hosting sites acting as informal (and unstable) archives. Sometimes a copyright holder will go after these videos and hosting sites like YouTube will dutifully remove the video at the copyright holder's request often ignoring the fair use considerations of the poster. I have no idea how aggressive Lisa Marie and the Estate of Elvis Presley are about challenging copyright infringement and fair use but there's a lot of Elvis clips out there.

In any case, in '68 Elvis made Christmas special for NBC. The producers were committed to getting Elvis back to his roots. He hadn't performed live in years and his recording output over that same time had largely consisted of schlocky soundtrack albums. They brought in Scotty Moore, the guitarist who played on Elvis's seminal Sun recordings from 54-55 among others to capture a kind of informal jam for the program. Here's a great, smoking clip from the '68 special on NBC of Elvis performing a spirited version of That's Alright Mama.

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