I think the singing he heard and loved gave Elvis Presley hope — however unconsciously — that his 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. In the lesson I quoted from, Eli Siegel said to Bob Walker, a rock and roll musician: "Is there [in rock and roll] the utmost pain and the utmost assertion? Is it the blare of agony?"— Kevin Fennell  

Part 2
(continued from previous page)


Includes a discussion of Elvis Presley: music, lyrics, life

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    By Kevin Fennell

    The 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, 22 years after his death, 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 separately: 

    Lyrics from Jailhouse Rock

    [The] warden 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.
    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!" 

    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 it. 

     The Effect 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 Street

      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 kind. 

    "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. 

     Loving Music 

    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, he explained: 

    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 to others. 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 ever saw. I think the singing he heard and loved gave Elvis hope—however unconsciously—that his 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 good will. 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 it form. Here are the first two verses:

    Lyrics from HEARTBREAK HOTEL 

    Well since my baby left me 
    I've found a new place to dwell; 
    It's down at the end of lonely street, that 
    Heartbreak Hotel where I'll be 
    I'll be so lonely baby 
    Well, I'm so lonely 
    I'll be so lonely I could die. 

    Although it's always crowded 
    You still can find some room 
    For broken-hearted lovers 
    To cry there in the gloom, and be so 
    And be so lonely baby 
    And be so lonely 
    They're so lonely they could die.

    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 same thing. 

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