Day Fifty-Four: "Velvet Elvis" from Even Worse

Well, folks, it’s time for another riveting glimpse inside the sausage factory. When I began Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place, I had a month-long head start on The Weird Accordion to Al, having written about twenty five entries before the site launched. I planned to maintain that head start by setting aside two or three hours of every workday so that I could crank out a column. 

I’m glad that I started with a huge backlog because my strange belief that I would somehow have two or three hours free every day to work on The Weird Accordion to Al turned out to be utterly delusional. It turns out that I have zero time, ever, to the point where I’m seriously considering some manner of sleep-training program so that I can work on Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place content while I’m asleep, because that seems like the only way I will be able to keep up the pace I have established in the site’s first three months. 

So instead of maintaining a huge head start and diligently chipping away at the massive workload that is the Weird Accordion to Al, I’ve been stealing time to write the column in between the enormous amount of work I have to do both for the site, and for the five outside columns I’m writing, and the book I’m writing, and also my wife and son and dog, all of whom I love very much.  

So my month-long head start has completely dissipated. I’m writing this from the seminar tent at the 2017 Gathering of the Juggalos in Oklahoma City while waiting for Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope to come on and address the Juggalo masses while dodging bottles of Faygo and angrily ruing the venue’s unconscionable lack of wi-fi. 

Oh, and that month-long lead: this piece is due to run in about thirty-six hours. So while this project has proven more difficult and more labor-intensive than I had anticipated, it’s also more rewarding. Working my way through Al’s catalog in such an obsessive fashion makes the themes and recurring motifs in his work achingly clear.

“Velvet Elvis” for example, is yet another goof on rock pretension and dour solemnity, and more specifically a man as synonymous with pretension and dour solemnity as he is with tantric sex, making reggae accessible for white people and boring people to tears with the lute: Sting. We’ve already encountered Sting a few times in this journey. 

Most auspiciously, Al transformed the Police’s angsty anthem “King of Pain” into a persistent tailor’s sonorously insistent spiel on the classic early parody “King of Suede.” Al and his band similarly had fun taking the title of “Every Breath You Take” as literally as possible on an early polka medley and on the UHF soundtrack Al made “Money for Nothing”, which Sting co-wrote with Dire Straits’ frontman Mark Knopfler (and performed back-up vocals for) into a song about The Beverly Hillbillies. 

“Velvet Elvis” finds Al once again deriving inspiration from The Police and, in an even more Al move, making a serious, even dour-sounding song about something that could not be less serious or more ridiculous. In this case it’s the titular item of hyper-kitsch Americana, which fills one of Al’s signature easily-overjoyed seekers with a sense of total spiritual completeness disproportionate to its negligible cultural and creative value. 

“My life it used to be incomplete” the song begins over a pitch-perfect approximation of the Police. The obsessive art lover could be speaking for any of a number of warped anti-heroes in Al’s music whose life similarly lacked all meaning and purpose.

And, like those perversely satisfied protagonists, total fulfillment comes from an unlikely source, or at least it would be unlikely if the characters in Al’s songs didn’t generally find happiness, even bliss, in ridiculous pop-culture ephemera rather than love, or spirituality, or religion, or leading a life of meaning and purpose. 

Who needs meaning and purpose when you have an archetypal piece of American camp that, as the suspiciously overjoyed singer relates here, depicts an idealized Elvis that, unlike the real thing, will never get older, or fat, or lose his androgynous beauty?

“Velvet Elvis” consequently doesn’t follow a familiar blueprint but rather a series of familiar blueprints that add up to something uber-Al. Al has always delighted in trash culture, in camp, in the tackier recesses of American entertainment and while “Velvet Elvis” isn’t as inspired and eloquent an homage to the king as “One More Minute”, which brilliantly channeled the aching sincerity of Elvis at his “Are You Lonesome Tonight”/“Love Me Tender” lushest, nor as brilliant a riff on Sting as “King of Suede” it’s a veritable master class in the themes and endlessly recurring motifs that make Al such an unexpectedly deep and enduring artist. 

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