I’m not sure that I can make a meaningful connection between Groucho and Elvis (apart from the fact that they both died 25 years ago this year) but if there is one, I reckon it’s got to do with the epic generosity of the performer – of the entertainer – that they share and that always humbles me. Great comedians – funny people in general – remind us of our humanity, our incompleteness – and also of the the possibilities.
The best thing I’ve read about Groucho and the whole Marx Brothers phenomenon is Simon Louvish’s Monkey Business. An unpretentious read grounded in Louvish’s obvious admiration for the brothers, focused on the documentary record and never afraid to chuck in some of the brilliant original material. Groucho was a complex and worldly figure whose work gets better with time – perhaps his Century’s most important popular entertainer. He was also the funniest man that ever lived (if you ask me).
So, over there, on the right, above the Cage-o-gram, I’m introducing the ‘Groucho-gram’ – an occasionally-updated Groucho quote. Actually, now that I think about it, the other really good Groucho book I can think of is a beautiful collection of his letters to his daughter Miriam called Love, Groucho that would give any father something to aspire to.
(Audio clips courtesy Why a Duck?)
Nike ads and remixes notwithstanding, the passage of time has not been kind to Elvis. Outside of the faithful, he’s still mostly considered a mockery. The problem is that he was never really a rock star. At least not in the post-1960s sense. A crop of early sixties acts (mostly British) changed our definition of the popular musician forever. Before the Stones (and the Beatles and The Who and The Kinks) a musician was an entertainer, an uncomplicated mouthpiece for song-writer, management and record label. Talent. After the Stones, a rock star was a different kind of creature all together: autonomous, self-directed, ironic, important.
Elvis was a working class kid who grew up in the era of the entertainer. He never shook off the limitations of the role and never aspired to exceed them. He never wrote a song, delivered a manifesto, challenged a convention. He never took up the new entitlement of the musical God to scare or affront or challenge. His excesses were all inward-focused, self-destructive, sad (there may have been 14 TV sets in his house but he never tossed one out the window). None of this compromises his brilliance as an artist. His funny, honest, human performance in the 1970 Las Vegas concert performance ‘That’s the Way It Is’ (DVD UK, DVD US, CD UK, CD US) is wonderful. He’s a magnetic, complicated, supremely engaging figure.