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Mark Steyn on Dead Elvis v. Live Elvis

Thursday, August 16, 2007
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HH: We begin as we do most Thursdays when we are lucky with Mark Steyn, Columnist To the World, in his Canadian nest today. Good to talk to you over the border, Mr. Steyn.

MS: That’s right, I’m holed up in rural Quebec, Hugh. That’s where you catch me today.

HH: Well, there are many important issues racking the world, but we’ve got to begin with the most important one. 70,000 people stood outside of Graceland last night to celebrate or honor the King on the 30th anniversary of his death. Is that a little odd, Mark Steyn?

MS: You know, it’s interesting, I mentioned in a piece I wrote about Elvis that Col. Parker, who managed him, was in fact an illegal immigrant. And several guys wrote to me thing morning saying does that mean that managing Elvis was one of those jobs Americans weren’t willing to do?

HH: (laughing)

MS: And I think it’s very interesting, because it actually does explain some of the features of Elvis’ career, the fact that he never went overseas except when he was in the Army in Germany. The reason he never toured in Britain or in France or anywhere else was because his manager was an undocumented alien, and he wouldn’t have been able to get back into the country.

HH: I didn’t know that. I hadn’t read the piece that you wrote about him. Where was Parker from?

MS: He was, he claimed to be this sort of from West Virginia kind of Civil War colonel stock, and in fact, he was an illegal immigration from the Netherlands. And it’s interesting…I wrote a piece, really, about how August 16th, 1977, transformed Elvis. Priscilla Presley basically looked at, in the wake of Elvis’ death, looked at what her husband was bringing in, and realized that for a world famous superstar, he was basically operating at a nickel and dime level. Col. Parker essentially had not exploited the brand for the twenty years of Elvis’ career. And she was the one who basically said well this is ridiculous. He’s not, you know, he signed all these agreements, third rate nickel and dime agreements that Col. Parker persuaded him to sign. This guy should really be much bigger. And this kind of posthumous Elvis phenomenon owes everything to Priscilla Presley and other people who transformed the estate, and took it out of Col. Parker’s hands. It’s an interesting aspect. Dead Elvis is actually a much more lucrative proposition than live Elvis was.

HH: Well, why is dead Elvis…I mean, he came along at exactly the moment that mass audience arrived and the post-war consumption phase began. But why is dead Elvis so attractive? I mean, there’s just nothing very relevant about Elvis today.

MS: Well you know, you say that, but I think Elvis is actually quite an interesting sort of superstar, because if you look at most Hollywood celebrities, I mean, you berate Hollywood celebrities fairly routinely…

HH: With the best of them, yes, I do that, yeah.

MS: And the reason for that is that most of them come from ordinary backgrounds, they get a bit of success, they become slightly pretentious, they get a place on Central Park West, they start thinking they’re great intellectuals. Barbra Streisand, whom you mock fairly regularly, is a good example of that. Elvis never did any of that.

HH: Or Sean Penn who was with Hugo Chavez this week.

MS: Exactly, and Elvis never bothered with that, he never got a place in Malibu, he never got a place in Central Park West. He basically just did everything he’d done when he was poor, only more so. So instead of having one cheeseburger a night, or one peanut butter and jelly sandwich, he would have ten cheeseburgers. But he basically, and I think from that point of view, he in a sense, he kept faith with the background he came from more than the average Hollywood celebrity does, and I think in a sort of strange way, you know, he took that anti-…Graceland, which is a beautiful, or theoretically beautiful antebellum mansion, and he turned it essentially, he decorated it like the kind of world’s biggest trailer. And I think there’s something in that that actually sort of speaks to people, that he never sort of broke faith with who he was and where he came from?

HH: Who are those 70,000 people, Mark Steyn, who go to an Elvis vigil thirty years after he OD’s?

MS: Well, you know, I think some of them are just weirdos and fruitcakes. They’re these guys you see in cat suits doing Elvis karaoke in some crummy sports bar out on Route 173 on open mic night on every Tuesday. So some of them are those weirdos. But a lot of them are people who actually find something when they listen to Elvis singing a spiritual, or Elvis singing Old Shep, actually hear something real and rather moving in it. And I think we mock those people at our peril, because I think there’s something they hear in his voice that is sincere, and that speaks to them.

HH: Did you count his voice as a great voice?

MS: I think it’s a kind of undisciplined voice. You know, if you listen to…Elvis, apparently in those early days, wanted to be Dean Martin, which is an odd thing, because it’s not even clear to me that Dean Martin wanted to be Dean Martin. And there’s something slightly odd when you listen to Elvis just sort of ambling his way through those late Vegas recordings, he’s forgotten the words, the band sounds lousy, he’s sort of ambling his way through it, and I think he is one of those kind of undisciplined talents who was never really shaped, and never really knew, he never really got any direction in his career. But there is something raw and real and visceral at the heart of what he does that does actually stand for something.

HH: You know, we’ve had the Ray Charles movie, and we’ve had the Johnny Cash movie. Is there an Elvis movie out there that needs to be made at some point, or will be made?

MS: I don’t think so. You know, I think it’s very, I think people always think those projects are great, and they never really are. You know, in the end, I think it’s very hard to make a compelling biographical film about a singer. You know, they did that one about Bobby Darin a couple of years ago…

HH: Ooh, Kevin Spacey, yeah.

MS: Yeah, with Kevin Spacey, who’s a big Bobby Darin fan, absolutely committed to it. The movie died. The movie died.

HH: Yup, yup.

MS: And Bobby Darin actually has an interesting life, a tragic life, but you know, people don’t care about that. Again, that’s a Hollywood way of looking at it, the price of fame. Most people would like to have that problem.

HH: (laughing) You’re right.

MS: And they don’t. And so this idea that you can keep making endless movies about, it doesn’t matter who it is, whether it’s Billie Holiday, Judy Garland, that’s not a problem that ordinary people relate to, or even, you know, moderately successful people relate to, or even spectacularly successful people relate to. The fact of the matter is this sort of price of fame narrative has been done over and over and over, and people just don’t buy into it.

HH: Most people relate to the fact that their portfolios have gone down 10-15% in a week and a half. The market panic, Mark Steyn, are you concerned by it? Or do you just think it’s a burp?

MS: I think, well, I’d make two points on that, that I think there are kind of long term questions in there, but that I think this is essentially just a burp. You know, what is interesting to me, in fact, is the other story, that there is a lot of global instability around at the moment, and in effect, the market has factored that in so that when there are kind of rumors about war, or Iranian nuclear weapons or whatever, the market doesn’t react to it. The market in a sense has learned since September 11th to factor in quite a big chunk of global instability into the way it looks at things.

HH: Jose Padilla convicted today. I guess Bush Co. wasn’t making it up.

MS: No, and you know, that is the reality of the fact that we all thought if you read the press that this is some joke guy who was sort of a harmless guy who got mixed up in stuff, that there are in fact issues here that he’s a U.S. citizen, he shouldn’t have been involved in, he should have earned the right to a full trial by jury, and all the rest of it, and I think the fact of the matter is that these guys seem like jokes until they pull something off. And the fact is, they’re not. Every…you can take any plotter, any terrorist, and he seems like a nothing loser until the day the bomb goes off.

HH: Right, right.

MS: So when you intercept them before the bomb goes off, it will naturally seem as if you’re making too big a fuss about nothing, but you’re not. And that’s what this Jose Padilla conviction brings home, that this threat is out there, and it’s real, and just because these guys seem like nickel and dime losers, they’re not, not if they succeed in doing what they’re plotting to do.

HH: Ahmadinejad today denounced the European missile defense. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard sanctioned yesterday, or sort of sanctioned, we’re getting ready to, and then General Jack Keane on this show yesterday said we have 72 Iranians locked up in Iraq. You take that all together, game on with Iran, Mark Steyn?

MS: Well, there’s two aspect to this, aren’t there? On the one hand, you have the United States government declaring units of the Iranian state as terrorist organizations. At the same time, you have officials of the United States government dealing with Iranian officials in various negotiations, vis-a-vis Iraq. Well, the fact of the matter is that those two halves of the pie are incompatible. The reality is it’s not a question of whether we choose war with Iran. We are already at war with Iran. We’re just sort of fighting it out through proxies at the moment. But the fact is there is a state of hostilities between the United States and the Iranian government.

HH: Mark Steyn, always a pleasure, about to leave the virtual building, Columnist To the World. You can go to www.steynonline.com for all of Mark’s many columns. I’ve got to go read the one on Elvis.

End of interview.

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