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Good Effect on People That Is Art
The great American singer
Elvis Presley had one of the largest effects on people—including in terms
of numbers of people—of any person who has ever lived. Still loved now,
he shook the world in the middle and late 1950's
with a voice, a sound, and electrifying stage performances that were exciting
and new. In this paper, I will speak only about a few aspects of his life.
I believe the reason his singing has had such a lasting good effect on
people is explained by this principle, stated by Eli Siegel: "All beauty
is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we
are going after in ourselves."
Listen to the opening
of his classic 1958 recording, "Jailhouse Rock," written by Jerry Leiber
and Mike Stoller. Elvis sings with tremendous, all-out exuberance, while
also there is measure, precision, even curtailment as each line is articulated
I think there is no
other singer in all of Rock and Roll who has that magnificent oneness of
something tremblingly moved, stirred, and masterfully powerful at once.
Until now, the guitar and drums have sounded like they're struggling to
break free, just like the prisoners in the song. Then Elvis gets to the
line, "You shoulda heard this knocked-out jailbird sing," with such exact
fairness to the rhythm, and with every note on the same pitch, but with
utter, abandoned wildness that sends a thrill through you as the band does
what Elvis now sings: "Let's rock! Everybody, let's rock!"
Lyrics from Jailhouse
threw a party in the county jail.
The prison band
was there and they began to wail.
The band was jumpin'
and the joint began to swing.
Elvis Presley's singing
is loved because it shows opposites we hope to make sense of in ourselves
can be one; That you can be free and not only not lose control,
but have beautiful control; That you can give yourself over to something
and not only maintain yourself, but be more yourself because of
He Hoped to Have & the Unknown Opposition
Elvis Presley was born
in a two-room "shotgun" shack, in the midst of the Great Depression, January
8, 1935, to Vernon and Gladys Presley—desperately poor descendants of Mississippi
sharecroppers who perpetually owed nearly every cent they earned to the
landlord. He was one of twins. The other, a boy, died at birth. The effect
of America's unjust economic system on the Presleys was enormous and horrible.
When Elvis was two, his father, frantic for money, sold his only cow to
their landlord. Feeling cheated by the payment—a check for only four dollars—he
altered the check to make it appear like 40 dollars. The landlord had him
arrested and he went to prison for a year and a half, causing Elvis and
his mother to have to leave the tiny shack they rented from this landlord.
They remained poor throughout Elvis's growing up.
In all the hardship
they went through, the Presleys keenly felt they needed each other. In
particular, Elvis felt his mother depended on him for her happiness. Peter
Brown and Pat Broeske write in their book, Down at the End of Lonely
Elvis came to understand
he was the most important person in the world to Gladys, and he repaid
that attention by becoming—as best he could—the little man of the house.
He was coming to an
attitude to the world—feeling it was out to rook him and his family—and
that the best way to take care of himself was to stay close to the home
base and to those persons he felt belonged to him and whom he could manage.
He was very protective of his mother—and often spoke of someday making
enough money to "pay all the bills." But with people outside the family,
he is described as "shy" and "removed." In high school, he painfully felt
he "didn't fit in." I have learned that when a person concentrates excessively
on what Mr. Siegel once called "the near as had by oneself," it has a bad
effect on him and the people he knows—because he is not being true to his
greatest need, to like the world himself and encourage that in others.
But in his singing, he had another purpose—and the way near and far, the
intimate and wide are made one is very often powerful and beautiful.
In later years—after
the death of his mother and remarriage of his father, and after achieving
enormous fame—Elvis shied away from meeting new people in his personal
life, and preferred the company of a familiar group of friends, whom he
saw, in many ways, as like his family. He demanded their loyalty, and was
very hurt when someone acted as if he or she wanted to live an independent
life. And it seems he expected the women he was in relation to, including
his wife Priscilla, to be devoted to him in an exclusive way. He didn't
know that this possessive attitude had a bad effect on the people he knew,
and that it was in conflict with another tremendous desire he had: to be
"Elvis couldn't stand
for anybody to be in pain," writes friend Jo Smith, "If anybody in the
group had a problem, he had to solve it." Once when he learned a friend
was having difficulty with hospital bills after the birth of his son, Elvis
paid the bills. Another time, when a woman visiting his neighbor suddenly
died, he paid for all the funeral arrangements and transportation of her
family back to England. And there are many instances of his giving gifts—of
money, jewelry, a new car—to people he knew, but also to people he didn't
know, who seemed to him to need it.
I think the fight
in Elvis Presley between the desire to have an effect on people he could
be proud of, and another, more narrow desire, got him down very much. He
told a friend, "I'm self-centered, and I don't like it. It's a really bad
situation." And I believe this unresolved battle contributed to his insomnia,
frequent nightmares, and also his attraction to drugs, which increasingly
hurt his life. I wish he could have learned from Aesthetic Realism about the thing in himself that interfered with the deep hope he had to affect people in a good way, a strengthening way, all the time. It is
a fact that the understanding of himself and his art he was thirsting for,
crying out for all his life, deserved to have and never got, was here in
Aesthetic Realism all those years.
From very early in his
life, Elvis Presley loved music, and particularly music that was sung
with deep and yearning feeling. He said in an interview:
We were a religious
family, going 'round together to sing at camp meetings and revivals. Since
I was two years old, all I knew was gospel music. That music became such
a part of my life it was as natural as dancing....
And as he grew, first
in Tupelo, Mississippi and later in Memphis, Tennessee, he drank in the
black gospel, blues, and country music he heard on the radio, the street,
and anywhere he could find it. The good effect music had on him, he passionately
wanted to have on other people. In spite of his shyness, by the age of
9 he had learned some guitar and sang on the radio, and at 10 performed
on stage at the County Fair.
In a great Aesthetic
Realism lesson Mr. Siegel gave to a rock and roll musician, Bob Walker,
The purpose of
art is to show feeling can have accuracy. An artist feels he should show
his feeling, and if he does, it will be delightful to himself and delightful
The first recording
Elvis made—in 1954 at the age of 19—was "That's All Right (Mama)," which
became an immediate sensation throughout the South. In an interview, he
said this about the man who originally recorded that song:
I used to hear
Arthur ("Big Boy") Crudup...and I said if I ever got to the place where
I could feel all that old Arthur felt, I'd be a music man like nobody
I think the singing
he heard and loved gave Elvis hope—however unconsciously—that
feelings, including the pain and degradation of poverty, and his feeling
of lonely separation from people, could be given form. Aesthetic Realism
provides the logic for this.
Eli Siegel on the
Oneness of Pleasure and Pain in Rock and Roll
In the lesson I quoted
from, Mr. Siegel said to Bob Walker:
Is there [in rock
and roll] the utmost pain and the utmost assertion? Is it the blare of
agony? Do you want to blare? Most rock and roll people belie themselves
in their art. In life they are shy. You seem to be too....Is there a desire
to unburden oneself as if he were an earthquake?...The purpose of rock
is to make secrets a public delight.
These great words of
Eli Siegel explain for all time why millions of people have loved rock
and roll—why I have. The best thing in me, my desire to like the world,
has always hoped to win out against my desire to hide, skulk, be inward
and strategic. And it is that best thing in me that cared for rock and
roll. But I never would have known it if Aesthetic Realism had not made
it clear, and it never would have changed. In a beautiful discussion in
an Aesthetic Realism class for which I am tremendously grateful, Ellen
Reiss spoke to me about my desire to keep my feelings to myself. Carol
McCluer was expecting the birth of our daughter, Sara, and I stupidly felt
I should hang onto myself and not show the big, new feelings I was having.
Miss Reiss asked me: "Do you feel you should have a life within that says
'NO TRESPASSING'?" I answered Yes, and she asked, "What good does it do
you?" And she spoke with such passion and confidence about the alternative:
If Kevin Fennell
really wants to have good will for Carol McCluer, he'll feel his mind meets
the world in a way it never has before. He'll see more, know more, things
will mean more to him, his life will be more exciting. People don't know
how much non-good will has put a dull gray film on everything. You don't
know how much dimmer your life is now than if your purpose was to have
I thank Ellen Reiss
so very much for this discussion, which made for an immediate change, enabling
me to have such pleasure and pride showing my true feelings to my wife,
and wanting to know hers.
Elvis Presley's great
1956 recording, "Heartbreak Hotel," written by Mae Boren Axton and Tommy
Durden, has "the blare of agony" all the way through. The agony is given
such fervent, energetic form in Presley's great singing, that it is also
thrilling, joyous! In the lesson of Bob Walker, Eli Siegel said:
The large purpose
of a person is to make a one of the utmost secrecy and the utmost meaning....Pain
and pleasure as one are present in all art. Rock and roll has made pain
into an announcement....It takes the energy of the fit and gives
Here are the first two
I want every person
in this world to know Aesthetic Realism, to learn with pleasure and pride
how we truly want to affect people. And I believe Elvis Presley wants the
Lyrics from HEARTBREAK HOTEL
Well since my baby left
I've found a new
place to dwell;
It's down at the
end of lonely street, that
where I'll be
I'll be so lonely
Well, I'm so lonely
I'll be so lonely
I could die.
Although it's always
You still can find
To cry there in
the gloom, and be so
And be so lonely
And be so lonely
They're so lonely
they could die.