When Tomorrow Never Comes: Brief Thoughts on Elvis Presley

July 6, 2018

Thanks to Matt Phillips, a 2018 Harrison Middleton University Fellow in Ideas, for today's post.

This April, HBO premiered a new, two-part documentary about Elvis Presley. Directed by Thom Zimny and produced by John Landau and Priscilla Presley, Elvis Presley: The Searcher offers an intimate portrait of the man behind the universal icon. While the film provides new insight into Elvis and his life (and presents previously unseen footage, photographs, and recordings), it somehow leaves the attentive viewer with a striking sense of wonder.

The temptation with icons is to dismiss their artistry, to see them as symbols or relics rather than as artists or masters of craft. The icon’s cultural image, whatever it is, supersedes his/her practice. Image, sadly, often eclipses craft. Call this a symptom of the mass media barrage or the shortsighted collective memory of the masses.

Call it unfair, if you like.

Take, for instance, the image that is Elvis Presley.

We know him as “The King of Rock and Roll.” We know him as the teenager who made a million girls swoon. Think about Elvis Presley for one moment. See his pearly white teeth, those eyes dashed in dark wonder, those hips moving back and forth. Those lips. And see him in his later years, an irreducible showman slowly expanding into his white, bedazzled jumpsuit.

And that’s the problem—we only see him.

Think, too, that Elvis must have known he was being seen and that, inevitably, he would continue to be seen. I find it hard to believe that Elvis was unaware of his own power as image. According to the documentary, after his initial touring years and TV appearances through the 1960s (until the ’68 Comeback Special, in fact) Elvis primarily acted in films, most of which were vehicles for his sex appeal and—if Colonel Tom Parker had anything to say about it—selling ‘merchandise.’

Whatever that means.

Roland Barthes says in Camera Lucida that, “[V]ery often (too often, to my taste) I have been photographed and knew it. Now, once I feel myself observed by the lens, everything changes: I constitute myself in the process of ‘posing,’ I instantaneously make another body for myself, I transform myself in advance into an image” (10). When I ‘see’ Elvis, I can’t help but imagine how conscious he was of the lenses pointed at him. How much of Elvis—as great an entertainer as he was—is a separate body from the real Elvis, a kind of corpus-facade assembled by the psyche, fear, and (un)willingness of the artist? I do not claim that our collective image of Elvis reveals less than we think it does (or should?), but rather that this image reveals something different from the real—it is a question of different, but not more or less.

Lately, I’ve been listening to Elvis Presley. I spent the majority of my twenties burning through Springsteen, The Doors, all the classic rock that sprang from Elvis’s early recordings at Sun Studio in Memphis. Later, into my thirties, it was the bluesmen and obscure rock—now, I’m a folk and country lover. I never understood how large Elvis Presley stood in relation to my own tastes. Above and beyond them all, in fact.

His first recorded album—Elvis Presley, released in 1956—is a stripped down and skeletal work. It feels like a simple capture of sound. That is to say it doesn’t sound (or feel) over-produced. The musicians and producer avoid the trap of chasing perfection. And that, I argue, is what makes it authentic. In these songs we have an Elvis who has yet to experience the pressures and necessary compromises of fame. In short, the album was made without expectations—this freedom may have made room for Elvis’s creation of a new music: rockabilly. Contrary to popular belief, the documentary makes it clear that Elvis sought out Sam Phillips and his recording studio. Phillips, in fact, claims that Elvis drove his truck—he was working as an apprentice electrician—back and forth in front of the studio before finally getting up the guts to walk in and ask to record. Elvis’s immensely famous rendition of “That’s Alright” was impromptu, a recorded jam session instigated by the singer. My favorite song on the album is “Trying to Get to You,” a slow plodding showcase for Elvis’s soulful voice. The brief guitar interlude is just that—an interlude to serve the song rather than a grandstand to steal the spotlight. I like to think this song is a microcosm for how Elvis existed both within the universe of a song and the physical universe. His voice is so dynamic that it seems—for a minute or two—as if he’s the only man in the world who dares or knows how to sing.

Twelve years after this recording, after a stint in the army and a largely disappointing sojourn into show business, Elvis Presley did a music special for network television (otherwise known as the ’68 Comeback Special). The circumstances of how this show was arranged are detailed fully in the documentary, but one result was an informal, backstage jam session with Elvis and the original members of his band. The entire set is energetic and passionate—it shows Elvis at his best. He’s stepped back into the role of a singer in a band, and he’s singing the songs he loves in the most simple, powerful way. The rendition of “Lawdy, Miss Clawdy” features a sweaty Elvis Presley clad in black leather banging out rhythm guitar and singing at the top of his lungs. But in this particular performance it’s not the sound that matters. Here, we see a young rock and roller free to do what he’s always wanted to do. He’s singing a great song for a few folks in a small room—and he’s doing that with all the passion he can muster.

But given all this artistry, I feel the most accurate image I have of Elvis Presley comes from his country album, Elvis Country (I’m 10,000 Years Old). Cut in 1970, the album is a comprehensive journey through country music and its many nuances. In the original Rolling Stone review from March 1971, the critic Peter Guralnick says of the album, “[I]t’s the singing, the passion and engagement most of all which mark this album as something truly exceptional, not just an exercise in nostalgia but an ongoing chapter in a history which Elvis' music set in motion.” No song displays Elvis Presley’s skill and artistry more than “Tomorrow Never Comes.” The song begins with the tender touch of a ballad, but within the first minute, the skilled balladeer seizes the song, the lyrics, the music, the tempo, and takes them for his own. As the song climaxes with a frantic plea of “Yeah, you tell me, you tell me you love me, yeah, baby,” it’s as if Elvis is singing into the abyss. This is a performance of genius, desperation, kindness.

But given all this, I ask myself: Is sound always more authentic than image? I tell myself it is, that sound doesn’t lie because it’s so difficult to create (and recreate), but we can’t forget that the recording studio itself—all the wires and mixing boards and padded rooms—likely encourages a certain performance. Is this self, the willingly recorded self, more authentic than the self that is willingly made into an image? I’m not so sure. But I am sure that the willingly recorded self is far more authentic than the images of a self made without permission. Perhaps Elvis is implicated, along with the audience, in the creation of himself as an icon (or is his image a false idol?). After all, it is Elvis acting in those films, smiling boyishly in those early television appearances, and using his body—how obscene!—to hold our ears hostage. And it is we, the audience, who worship the body of the man, who reach out with an unquenchable desire to touch, touch, touch. When, in contemporary popular culture, has there been a single body more desired, more leveraged for profit and gain? Certainly Elvis contributed to his own iconography; this is true even if his contribution was consent. But I wonder, does the icon give perpetual license to his image, to the making of his image, or to the interpretation of his image?

To all? To neither?

Thinking deeply about the combined sounds and images of Elvis leads me to the concept of duende. In Edward Hirsch’s book on the subject, The Demon and the Angel, he writes, “The duende, then, is a vehicle for surpassing the ego, the rational or day mind. It gives us access to another force within us, the deep or night mind” (94). Hirsch is attempting to describe how an artist (in this case, a poet) can transcend their ego to reach a heightened state of creation, a kind of demonism. His assertion is that the rising of the duende kills the ego. In other words, the greatest artists reach a state of death when they are at the height of their powers. If we reduce the scope of excellence to a simple number, I’d wager that Elvis Presley reached a state of duende, or touched the duende, more times than any other musician I’ve ever heard. What I’m saying then is that Elvis Presley—before his death—may have died a thousand deaths. Or ten thousand. And all this in the service of artistry.

Elvis Presley: The Searcher also discusses the complicated relationship Elvis had with his manager, Colonel Tom Parker. Of all the interpretations possible, the film leads me to think that Elvis’s image, his sounds, and his artistry were co-opted—for a time, at least—by a snide purveyor of ‘merchandise.’ It’s true, though, that Elvis may not have reached the level of icon without this man’s business sense and help (if we can call it that). What is that saying? One hand washes the other, I think it is. Still, part of me wishes Elvis Presley had said something uncouth to the Colonel now and again: I wish Elvis had grabbed his crotch, squeezed, and said, “I got your merchandise right here, buddy.” But then again, someone might have captured that on film.

And then where would we be?


Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. New York: Hill & Wang, 1981. Print.

Hirsch, Edward. The Demon and the Angel. New York, San Diego, London: Harcourt, 2002. Print.

“Elvis Presley: Elvis Country (I’m 10,000 Years Old).” Rolling Stone, 4 March 1971,

Elvis Presley: The Searcher. Directed by Thom Zimny, Home Box Office (HBO), 2018.

Elvis: ’68 Comeback (Special Edition). Directed by Steve Binder, NBC, 1968.

Presley, Elvis. Elvis Country (I’m 10,000 Years Old), RCA, 1971. Spotify,

Presley, Elvis. Elvis Presley, RCA Victor, 1956. Spotify,


And the Villains Vamped

June 8, 2018

Thanks to Ben Peterson, a 2018 Harrison Middleton University Fellow in Ideas, for today's post.

“Laughter is the best medicine.” -- everybody ever

If you have been alive at any point in time, you have probably heard this expression. If you’ve been alive for more than a few years strung together, you may have heard it evoked in many different situations by many different voices, of which a slim minority belonged to licensed doctors. There should be no need to point out that in a literal sense the notion is absurd. It’s a platitude, a pleasant chunk of bunk. In a nonliteral sense, however, this oft-repeated nugget of pop pharmacology really is thicker than snake oil. Funny business might not cure our carnal ills, but when it comes to quality of life there is something in that daily block of Seinfeld reruns more soothing than any pill, drip, or salve. The influence is less pharmaceutical than metaphysical. It reaches down into the psychic depths where monsters dwell and eases the thorns from their aching feet. Under a wave of cool, honest laughter, anxiety is dispelled, insults neutralized, grudges eroded, gloom allayed.

It makes sense, then, that any supplier of this special drug would become a recipient of the best compensation: our gratitude and affection. The one who makes us laugh is the one who saves us, an act which seems invariably to foster a deep, sanguine, human connection. Physical jokery is one of the simplest forms of this exchange: the clown submits to all manner of embarrassment which, should we be amused, we repay with at least a general feeling of approval (short of any horrific makeup). If Chaplin ended the movie in the gutter, spiritually squashed, we probably would feel that this was not a comedy after all. We like to watch the fool fail, but we love to see him prevail in the end—even if prevailing means simply to keep on truckin’. This comic law underpins the paltriest Keystone one-reeler as much as it does contemporary gems like The Big Sick.

And then there’s Lemony. One of the greatest fortunes of my growing-up years was to witness the unfolding of A Series of Unfortunate Events, a bleak and often thrilling Young Adult mystery saga credited to the fictitious narrator Lemony Snicket. Even today, I’m not convinced that this name is not a joint nom de plume for Roald Dahl and Agatha Christie, or possibly Dr. Seuss and Jorge Luis Borges. Impaling touches of absurdity and wry lexical digressions upon dark, twisting vines of plot, Snicket relates the trials of three hyperintelligent children who are orphaned by a housefire and spend the next thirteen increments of their lives escaping from horrid foster environments and ducking a vain and pernicious actor who lusts after their sizeable inheritance.

Unfortunate Events is currently nine books deep into a Netflix adaptation featuring Neil Patrick Harris as the openly theatrical antagonist, Count Olaf, and Patrick Warburton doing a pretty fine Don Draper impression. The show is scripted in part by Daniel Handler, the “real” identity of Lemony Snicket. Like Nickelodeon’s attempt to vacuum-pack the first three titles into one movie back in 2004, I think the Netflix series is clever in some respects but ultimately too…for its own good…silly. It plays the way an adult probably feels reading these books. The show sports a kind of pop-up-book whimsy in place of the very legitimate sense of dread that hangs over Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire. The novels—thanks to Snicket’s melancholy voice leading us through the story like a well-read Charon—are populated mostly by dry, black humor that never betrays the seriousness of the children’s grief and unrelenting peril. The jokes in the home streaming version are lighter, more extroverted, and stem mostly from Count Olaf being a narcissistic dunce.

This is a very unusual prescription indeed. Villains have always been viable focal points of humor, of course: my mind goes to Biff Tannen’s periodic rendezvous with his least favorite animal waste product. That gag amuses not only because it’s happening to someone else (rather than ourselves), but because it happens to someone we particularly dislike. In scene after scene, Biff is nothing but vicious and nasty to his fellow man—and even, in Back to the Future Part II, to older and younger versions of himself. He is a pure, 24-carat villain, so he warrants a bit of filthying up; them cow pies are just desserts. Even if we don’t catch Marty McFly pausing for a chortle over the manure shower we can assume that, as a chronic victim of Biff’s brutality, he would find some righteous amusement in it.

What sets Unfortunate Events apart—in dark, un-Hubbled regions of the comic cosmos—is that we are given no one to laugh with. There’s a stark divide in this misfortune-strewn world separating the good guys from the bad, and that line comes down fairly predictably between children and adults. But the behaviors of these two groups are curiously inverted. Horseplay and hamming are made exclusively the affairs of the grown-ups, most of whom are either actively victimizing the Baudelaires or, at best, trying to lift their great despair with allergenic peppermint candies. Snicket will have no such shenanigans from his underage heroes. By and large, he denies them the propensity to laugh at the most clearly laughable premises, even on the rare occasion that the joke does not mortally imperil them. There are exceptions in the books, but so far the Netflix orphans have done little to suggest a humor center.

The fact is they are simply too busy: Snicket denies them the time to find things funny. The Baudelaires are not merely bereaved, they are literally forced to tidy up after a gaggle of adult goof-offs who cannot take care of themselves. (Olaf’s hygiene, for one thing, is enough to make a rat queasy.) The siblings are written as book-smart whiz kids thrown into high-gear survival mode. They cook and clean, craft appliances, saw logs, disinfest dank cellars, decipher Dan Brownian codes—they survive, and they do it with a demeanor that’s industrious, resourceful, gloomy, and strangely pedantic. They are like weary single parents, endlessly harangued by the mess-making monkeyshines of almost everyone they meet. They have no time for smiles. They have only a few cards in their emotional decks, while their foes are fully emotive and animated.

It works. Maybe because the storytelling funnels us into the kids’ corner, or maybe because their plight is so plainly undeserved and unjust. (Or perhaps the novels’ exquisite balance of tones has impressed me so deeply that I can project it back onto the more shambolic streaming series.) Regardless of why, the show gets away with having these long-faced junior MacGyvers oppressed by a conspiracy of jocular thieves. I root for Violet, Klaus, and Sunny, and I zealously await the unmasking and indictment of their enemies, even knowing those perfidious clowns are the ones who have been making with the funny. All the yuks are theirs to claim. The orphans, to be honest, kind of bum me out and bore me. A wax statue of Liam Neeson garroting a panda is more risible than these kids. Yes, I cheer them on through their unfortunate toils, but if their folks were still alive and they invited me over for a playdate in the library, I would try to think of a credible excuse to get out of it and go watch Olaf workshop his newest bizarre trainwreck of a theater piece. My sense of right aligns me with the eternally breathless Baudelaires, but my sense of humor gravitates toward their tormentors.

Should my loyalty not be split in two? Between the glum youths I want to prevail and the snickering cads who must be thwarted? It isn’t. Somehow my mind accounts for the fact that, in this world, fun is felonious. Perhaps enabling that kind of contortion is the power of art. Storytelling like Snicket’s manages to play not just on my emotions, on my squirming id’s need for entertainment, but simultaneously on my moral fiber. And it’s able to play these sections against each other, entrusting me to be rational and ticklish, even when each of those forces seems fixed to undermine the other. Olaf and his cronies are constantly making fools of themselves—like Chaplin, keeping my cabinet flush with over-the-counter Hardeehar. Wouldn’t it be easy—natural, even—to let the funny bone serve as the gavel? These zany malevolents do me a great service with their clowning. How do I repay them? With betrayal. The baleful Baudelaire bambini aren’t doing me any favors, yet they furnish themselves with my full support.

In a sense, we are deputized by the story. The Olaf cabal suffers no diegetic witness equipped with the critical judgment and functioning sense of humor to acknowledge how royally pinheaded they are. It’s like their frivolity itself is their most successful scheme, the one trick they keep getting away with. The orphans are smart enough to see through every other ploy and disguise, but they’re too smart to realize what nimrods are at their heels. So it’s up to us. Only our vigilant ridicule keeps the villains in check—and yet every smirk they inspire gives us that much more in common with these buffoons, and that much less with the wet blankets we are here to champion. When we step into the world of Unfortunate Events, humor is no longer a virtue: it’s a cause for suspicion.

To post a comment, click on the title of this blog and scroll down.

Great Books Chicago 2018

May 18, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s blog.

Conversation: an oral exchange of sentiments, observations, opinions, or ideas.

Discussion: consideration of a question in an open and usually informal debate; or a formal treatment of a topic in speech or writing.

When does conversation become a discussion? According to Merriam-Webster, conversation flows freely between observations, opinions and topic. In other words, conversation is a fluid exchange between people. Discussion, on the other hand, tends to be more focused. In discussions, participants examine a specific question. One of the things that makes Great Books Chicago so fun is that it excels in both areas. There are social events to fill the needs of conversation, which complement the discussion sessions focused on specific readings. The most recent Great Books Chicago focused on popular culture through the lens of television, film and music. Popular culture often gets a bad reputation as if analysis of contemporary art forms is somehow less respectable than analysis of “classical” art or “high” art. The new trilogy by the Great Books Foundation, however, demonstrate important intersections between art and culture.

Some of my favorite discussions at Great Books Chicago focused on the critic’s role. In a selection by A.O. Scott from Better Living Through Criticism, Scott defends the role of the critic as an essential element of art. In a sense, professional critics raise the awareness of an average viewer. He claims that all humans desire to critique, even if it only surfaces in the form of selection (choosing one movie over another, for example). Furthermore, if we find ourselves critiquing something, we should have a valid reason for doing so. Scott writes, “What I’m more interested in here is the general tendency – I would really say the universal capacity for our species – to find fault. And also to bestow praise. To judge. That’s the bedrock of criticism. How do we know, or think we know, what’s good or bad?” Scott believes that if we are willing to label a piece of art as “good” or “bad,” then we should also understand the foundations of that criticism. In fact, society depends upon it in order to keep us on “the path of truth and beauty” in Scott’s view. He also refutes the misconception that only “intellectual” art deserves criticism, but rather the forms which find mass popularity. These forms reflect something vital back to us.

Attempting to engage with all of popular culture is daunting. Modern technology makes it possible for humans to spend the entire day without a break in media. Furthermore, many people run multiple platforms simultaneously. Headphones allow us to create an independent atmosphere and a playlist of our own. This does not mean, however, that we cannot listen attentively. Nor does it mean that we are becoming immune to art’s effects. But whatever our current rate of consumption does mean is worth investigating. Scott continues, “We are far too inclined to regard art as an ornament and to perceive taste as a fixed, narrow track along which each one of us travels, alone or in select, like-minded company.” Instead, he continues, “It’s the job of art to free our minds, and the task of criticism to figure out what to do with that freedom. That everyone is a critic means, or should mean, that we are each of us capable of thinking against our own prejudices, of balancing skepticism with open-mindedness, of sharpening our dulled and glutted senses and battling the intellectual inertia that surrounds us. We need to put our remarkable minds to use and to pay our own experience the honor of taking it seriously.” (258) In other words, try to understand why you like what you like.

During Great Books Chicago, I met with many wonderful folks who had lots of ideas, some of them different from my own. Through discussion we find likeness and difference. I appreciate this format because of its freedom from personal judgment. Rather than being attacked for my ideas, some of which are decent and some of which are wrong, I better understand the difference. As a result of discussion, I make more well-rounded and better-informed decisions. Since art is a form which demands criticism, selecting something (even on my private iPod) can be viewed as a public act. As Scott says, “[T]here’s no such thing as a private or personal criticism. It has to be a public act.” I wonder if our personal “tastes” function the same way as a Facebook algorithm which feeds us only what we want to see? I do believe that it is worth looking at the reasons behind our choices, tastes, behaviors and critiques. Great Books Chicago is an ideal platform for thoughtful debate. (One other aspect of discussion that bears mentioning here is that there is no mandatory participation. Many people enjoy adding their opinions, but there is no mandate which asks us to participate. Some people simply enjoy hearing others debate. However you like to participate, these opportunities tend to elevate the dialogue.)

Discussion enlightens an astonishing amount of viewpoints generated from a single piece of art. Another selection from the trilogy by Neil Postman, “The Age of Show Business,” examines how television is primarily a medium for entertainment. Therefore, anything we view on television should first be understood as attempting to entice the viewer through visuals. He writes, “A news show, to put it plainly, is a format for entertainment, not for education, reflection, or catharsis. And we must not judge too harshly those who have framed it in this way. They are not assembling the news to be read, or broadcasting it to be heard. They are televising the news to be seen. They must follow where their medium leads. There is no conspiracy here, no lack of intelligence, only a straightforward recognition that ‘good television’ has little to do with what is ‘good’ about exposition or other forms of verbal communication but everything to do with what the pictorial image looks like.” If we are to better understand ourselves (as individuals and as a part of any larger culture), it is worth our time to investigate where we spend our time and why. If something in our nature demands that we judge and critique, then doing so in group discussion benefits everyone.

For more about Great Books Chicago, visit the Great Books Foundation website. Join us next year for Great Books Chicago 2019!

To leave a comment, click on the title of this post and scroll down.

Pop Culture Preview

November 17, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

This book review was originally published in the November 2017 issue of HMU: Dialogues.

Tube Talk, Double Features, and Sound Bites, three new publications from the Great Books Foundation.

In February, Harrison Middleton University will cohost the inaugural Southwest Great Books Weekend  which will focus on a new popular culture series from the Great Books Foundation. We will discuss essays about television (Tube Talk), film (Double Features) and music (Sound Bites). Their focus on popular culture offers some timely and important readings worthy of discussion. I was fortunate to grab a sneak preview, and so I wanted to express my enthusiasm for February's event. These essays offer any number of interesting discussions. More than that, however, I think it is vital to take a better look at the culture that we are currently making, promoting and consuming.

First of all, these three genres unite in the fact that each medium is meant to be shared. We follow television shows and films on social media, we pick favorite characters, dress in character and create intricate fandoms. We talk about our favorite media at work, in school, on the phone or at coffee shops. Clearly, we want to share our opinions or questions with others. What better opportunity, then, to share our ideas with a group of open-minded individuals interested in the same topics!? The three volumes look at what these personas might tell us about ourselves as individuals, or as cultures. In addition, they include articles of events of such originality that there is literally no word or phrase yet adequate to describe the intricate relationship between show writers, on-screen character and impersonations.

An article from Tube Talk discusses one unnamed phenomenon that has been generated by fans of Mad Men. As technology continues to evolve, it increases our avenues to connect, but also blurs the lines surrounding reality. For example, Twitter accounts impersonating Mad Men characters quickly arose, and though the show stopped after seven seasons, the Twitter accounts continue – in character. I wonder, what enjoyment do we get from assuming the voice of characters in something like Mad Men? One blogger says “I try and think like [Roger Sterling], tweet what he might say. It’s creative, and a lot of fun.” This requires a serious engagement with the time period, an understanding of cultural constraints in that society and, of course, a thorough study of the character. The Twitter-author-voice must thoroughly know the character to presuppose what they would do. And of course, in creating an alter-ego, there is the question of losing the alter-ego. 

The rise of Twitter in tandem with shows like Newsroom and Mad Men, which relate to a relatively recent time of American history, has created a different kind of fandom than that of, say, Star Trek. Yet the urge to become or live in a fictional skin continues. The introduction to Tube Talk claims that “[Television] is the greatest mirror that our global society has ever held up to itself, and even though sometimes we may not like what we see, it is impossible to look away.” I would further say that, not only is it impossible to look away, we should not look away. Rather, we should attempt to understand the underlying culture as a way to change what we do not like, or to better understand that which we do not know. For example, in the introduction to Double Features, Nick Clement writes, “The collective practice of gathering with a group of strangers in a darkened theater to watch images moving on a screen represents one of the more unusual agreements that human beings can reach.” Funny, but his comment also opens up a number of different questions regarding film culture, human connection and historic trends.

These books offer some excellent insight into current culture. They are an essential reminder that, for better or worse, we actively participate in a dynamic era filled with mixed media and art forms. It is essential that we realize our involvement in these forms if we have any intention to understand ourselves and our society. If we intend to create the best future for ourselves, our children and our communities, then it is worth our time to understand contemporary art forms. I look forward to discussing these books in February!

To post a comment, click on the title of this blog and scroll down.