Warren Zevon deconstructs Elvis

Senior Reporter, JAM! Showbiz
Friday, March 10, 2000

TORONTO -- Elvis Presley has inspired many songs, but one of the strangest may very well be Warren Zevon's "Porcelain Monkey," a track on his newest album, "Life'll Kill Ya."

 Like many of the songs on the record, "Porcelain Monkey" focuses on the wasting effects of age and seems to lament Presley's steep fall from grace.

 "He threw it away for a porcelain monkey,
 Gave it all up for a figurine
 He traded it in for a night in Las Vegas. And his face on velveteen"

 In fact, Zevon says he has been on the record about his lack of enthusiasm for the King Of Rock 'N' Roll since Presley left this mortal coil in 1977.

 "I have written one letter to the editor in my life and it was to Rolling Stone when Elvis died," Zevon says while kicking back in a Toronto hotel room.

 "I said it was terrible that Elvis had died. He was a great American, whatever. But Robert Lowell had just died, and he had a great voice, too, and no one on earth knew or cared," Zevon says, referring to the author of the poetry collections "Land Of Unlikeness" and "Life Studies."

 "Robert Lowell, aside from being one of the greatest of all poets this century, he was insane. He was one of those guys who stood up in front of those 'Ban The Bomb' buses and got mowed down, and marched on the Pentagon, in between bouts of manic depression. All kinds of things. But nobody gives a shit. Nobody remembers him."

 Zevon is dressed in black, with two shiny black acoustic guitars resting on nearby furniture. Later in the day, he'll perform on "Open Mike With Mike Bullard," followed the next night (Friday) by a solo show at the Horseshoe Tavern.

 The purpose of the trip is to promote "Life'll Kill Ya," his first new release in five years, but he so warms to the topic of Presley that when his publicist knocks at the door to end the interview, he requests a chance to go into extra innings in order to make his point.

 "Nothing interests me less than Elvis Presley," he says flatly.

 So how did he come to write a song about a topic he finds so uninteresting? He was working with collaborator Jorge Calderon, when he noticed a postcard in his friend's notebook, showing the interior of Graceland's garish TV room -- including the faux simian mentioned in the song.

 "We were writing a song, Jorge and I, as we do, sitting on the davenport of despair, the divan of doom. I looked over at his notebook and I noticed his postcard of the TV room. And I said, what's that?"

 "That is Elvis' porcelain monkey," Calderon replied.

 "I said, 'Let's go!'

 "We did intensive research, which I found dull and distasteful. I think it is a very sad story, and not an interesting sad story, just a sad story," he says, quoting his own lyrics: "'He had a little world, and it was smaller than your hand.'

 "I don't dislike him. Not being interested in something is not like active dislike. It's not that I don't like him. I think he sang great. I think he was a great actor, too.

 "I've never been to Graceland. I wouldn't dream of going to Graceland. It may just be that I have my own priorities, or I am a certain type of snob. But I thought very seriously about going to Glenn Gould's grave here (in Toronto). But I'm not interested in Graceland."

 What it comes down to is Zevon has serious misgivings about Presley's deification as an innovator, and included a 'har-har-har' refrain in "Porcelain Monkey" as a tribute to the black blues singer Wynonie Harris."It was to remind people there were other people other than Elvis," Zevon says.

 "We're in a world that objects so strenuously to pop culture. Sure, Elvis is fine, so what's wrong with Ricky Martin? He can dance. I guess Elvis danced. He choreographed himself. What's the difference? I think Ricky Martin is fine, too.

 "Who's buying Ricky Martin and Backstreet Boy records? Ten-year-olds. And 50-year-old intellectuals weren't buying Elvis Presley in 1957. Ten-year-olds were."

 But the 50-year-old intellectuals are the ones writing tributes to Presley now.

 "Right, partly because they are sentimentalizing their childhood," Zevon says.

 "Yes, he was a wonderful singer, he did something that synthesized a culture we will never exhaust our passion for exploiting and oppressing. Yeah, he did that.

 "He furthered the cause of ripping off a culture we've already oppressed for 400 years in my country. But I don't know how much is individual brilliance, genius, and how much is just the currents of culture.

 "Being at a cultural crossroads can be luck, you know? Don't be absolutely sure that Soundgarden wasn't as good as the Rolling Stones. They just came 30 years too late to be innovative."

 So who has earned the kind of reverence Presley receives?

 "Bob Dylan," he says.

 "I don't think it is possible to overestimate Bob Dylan's contribution to the 20th century."

 He pauses for a moment.

 "I don't think there is anything wrong with Elvis," he says again.

 "I'm being a little cute about it. I just don't find him very interesting. It's extraordinary how little impulse there is to define oneself as a human being in Elvis's life. Look at Muhammad Ali. A moral giant on top of everything else he did."

 On the new album, there's also an earnest sounding cover of Steve Winwood's "Back In The Highlife," which Zevon says was intended to be ironic. Similarly, on a recent tour, he performed a cover of the song "From A Distance" -- best known as a hit for Bette Midler -- which he considered to be a "fabulously ironic" song, but which was greeted with disdain when he sang it.

 So is it a hazard of his job to have his irony misread. Is it wrong to assume everyone is in tune with your sense of irony?

 "Yes, it is wrong," he says.

 "Sometimes you do something that is funny, and maybe your main talent is being funny. The more you give serious answers, the more they laugh. The serious answers become funnier to people than your humour. That's when they really howl, when you tell them what you did that morning."

 Maybe when people are confronted with honesty, they find it ..

 "Disquieting? I guess so."