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Offbeat Elvis: A Compendium of Oddities

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Mojo Nixon, the gruff troubadour of the 1980s, once sang that "Elvis Is Everywhere," and it's true. Beyond Elvis Week, he permeates our collective consciousness. As Mojo observed, he's in your jeans, he's in your cheeseburger, and even "in Joan Rivers, but he's trying to get out!" He's so omnipresent that discerning Presleyphiles can have a tough time sorting through his manifestations. So, I offer up this (very subjective) alternative catalog of where to find the most compelling — and surprising — embodiments of the King.

First of all, look to the skies! As Mojo enthused, "Everybody in outer space looks like Elvis! 'Cos Elvis is a perfect being! We're all moving to perfect peace and harmony, towards Elvisness! Why do ya think they call it evolution, anyway? It's really Elvislution! Elvislution!"

This is confirmed by a magnificent CD collection from 2012, Elvis: Prince from Another Planet. The title is taken from a New York Times review of what was, surprisingly, the King's only live booking in the Big Apple: a run of four shows at Madison Square Garden in 1972. This is Elvis in full 1970s glory. He seems to be testing the fit of his regalia, and it's still early enough in the game that you can feel the TCB Band's excitement. And, thanks to found footage from a fan who smuggled in a camera, you can also see it.

The set's DVD presents the restored home movie intercut with comments from band members and New Yorkers who attended the shows, including rock writer and Patti Smith guitarist Lenny Kaye, who gushes that "he functioned as a god. It's very seldom that you get a chance to go to a show at Mt. Olympus."

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Prince or god? At one time, he was just A Boy from Tupelo. That's the title of a new CD set released just days ago by Sony, subtitled The Complete 1953-1955 Recordings, and it drives home the realization that Elvis was barely 18 when he started his career. (See Robert Gordon's short film on the young Elvis here).  As the first complete collection of  studio and live recordings made in the first two years of his career, every outtake and false start of the Sun sessions is included, providing a glimpse into how the Sam Phillips and the group crafted Elvis' sound.  It also offers a hair-raising intimacy due to thousands of hours spent in the restoration and remastering of the tracks. Even once-rare live tracks from the Louisiana Hayride and other shows sound fulsome, immediate, and nearly noiseless. The clarity far outpaces the once-canonical set, The Complete 50's Masters, first released in 1992, although one should still revisit the 2005 reissue to hear his post-Sun classics.

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Prince, god, boy, or baby? The latter answer is proffered by experimental group the Residents, in their little-known 1989 concept album, The King and Eye. Doom-laden synth reinterpretations of classic Elvis songs, delivered with fervid, faux-redneck vocals, are mixed with clips of an adult telling real children a faux-fairy tale. "Once there was a baby, and the baby wanted to be king." If the concept is off-putting on paper, to these ears the music is pleasantly disconcerting: a retro-futuristic setting for a menacing, yet sympathetic, antihero crawling with anxieties.

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But for deconstructing Elvis, it's hard to beat local auteur Mike McCarthy, who has a bit of an Elvis obsession. He'll be hawking his graphic novel of Elvis-as-zombie highjinks, HELVIS, at 7 pm on August 16th at 901 Comics. And McCarthy's short film, Elvis Meets the Beatles, may be his greatest homage: A kind of Hard Day's Night on acid, it recreates the tension of the Fabs' first encounter with their hero, blending a semi-ridiculous cast with a sharp script and what can only be called a farcical sense of foreboding. The very groovy soundtrack was released by Rockin' Bones Records in 2006. Another of McCarthy's films, Tupelove, is a more affectionate look at Elvis' hometown, starring local chanteuse Amy LaVere.

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Yet perhaps the most affectionate take on the King is a lesser-known gem from the late, great Alex Chilton. His pre-Big Star "I Wish I Could Meet Elvis" circulated for years as a bootleg before its first official release on the Ardent label's release, 1970, and later on Omnivore's Free Again. It's an amusing, Gram Parsons-esque swipe at fandom, with Chilton exclaiming, "Wella-wella it sure would feel real weird/if Elvis/was sitting right here!" Though served up with a heaping teaspoon of irony, Chilton's love of the King was very real, as anyone who heard him croon "I Want You, I Need You, I Love You" in his latter days can confirm.

And that may be the ultimate message from the Memphis underground: Despite the smog of hype surrounding the King, and whether he was an alien, god, prince, boy, or baby, we want him ... we need him ... we love him.


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