In Search Of Elvis

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The Irish Times

In Search Of Elvis

This is an article from the Irish Times, which printed an abridged version of a chapter from a Joe Jackson book tentatively titled "In Search of Elvis." Having noted many echoes of Presley in U2's Zooropa show, Jackson met Bono to discuss these influences.

Bono: There's a book called the History of Show Business and Shamanism, and the author says that show business *is* shamanism; that is, above everything else, religious. And he talks about hallucination of the masses, which is what rock bands do today. And there's no doubt that Elvis was the start of that dizziness, that hallucination, wasn't he?

Jackson: You've also suggested that what happened in the Sun Studios in the early 50's (where Elvis was discovered) was one of the most important cultural moments of the 20th century. Did you always realise that, or was it more a result of U2 going to Memphis to film "Rattle and Hum"?

Bono: It came about more as something unconscious, a part of a journey to check out our own roots, and the roots of our music. But what I meant about Sun was that it was then that shamanism moved centre stage. Jack Nicholson once said "Elvis wasn't the first. Bing Crosby brought black music, jazz influences into white culture." But what I'm saying is that Memphis at that point was when we had the possession, the shaman, the shuddering of the culture at that core level. You had God, and fun-sex, two previously incompatible ideas; and you had African and European musical ideas, and the blending of those forces made Elvis a microcosm for the wider cultural forces that were set in motion at the same time.

Jackson: When did you first tune in to Elvis?

Bono: I always said there's only been one man I ever fancied as a pre-pubescent, and that was Marc Bolan. But coming right behind that, the one who charged me heterosexually was Elvis, in that black leather suit in the Comeback Special. That's why I wear the black suit and we created the small boxing-ring stage in Zooropa. That's where all that comes from. But on a spiritual level, when I saw "the fat Elvis" during the early 70s, I saw him as a fallen man. And when he sang "Glory, Glory, Hallelujah" I knew he meant it. Even then I knew where he was coming from. I saw him as I've always seen Southern preachers -- in a very Shakespearean way, as much, much larger than life.

Jackson: You end Zooropa with Presley's "Can't help falling in love." Why?

Bono: The whole encore section is kitsch, it's Elvis/second-hand car salesman/the devil, before I got into Macphisto. That's what I saw him as: an Elvis-devil. It was about world-weariness, about being in a jaded, fat-Elvis period which -- in a sense -- is what U2 are going through. But part of it all was "stardom," and the decadence implicit in that supposed lifestyle. So we begin with "Money, Money, Money" then "Desire" and ringing up the President, whatever. It's the derangement of stardom. And we paint that kind of portrait until finally we come through to the soul of that with "With or Without You," and "Love is Blindness" -- the repentance. Then there is this voice, which starts off as an Elvis parody, because it's the drug addict strung out on the audience, singing "I can't help falling in love with you" -- look at me. This is what I am. Yet the last voice was mine, in falsetto; and to me that sound is the child on the cover of our first album. That, at the end of all this artifice, is me saying this is where I come from. So what we're saying is that amongst all the trash, you can keep alive a sense of purity, that this little quiet voice is still there and still true. That's why people loved Elvis, even at the end. There was still that aspect of purity.

Jackson: Now you know why that picture of Elvis as a child is central to the book. That image, to me, is the voice that lingers, even after Presley's death; the voice of a child. The child he was, I was, we all were.

Bono: That's why I shivered when you showed me the illustration. But take this one step further. What if that image of purity is the image of a Christian in the original state of grace? As it is to many people. One night I was doing my Elvis-devil dance on stage with a young girl, in Wales, and she said "are you still a believer? If so, what are you doing dressed up as the devil?" I said "have you read the Screwtape Letters?" Which is a C.S. Lewis book that a lot of intense Christians are plugged into. They are letters from the devil. That's where I got the whole philosophy of mock-the-devil-and-he-will-flee-from-you. So she said "yes" and I said "so you know what I'm doing." Then she relaxed and said "I want to bless you."

Jackson: But isn't that a core issue in relation to U2 and Elvis? The way people are locked inside linear thought patterns, saying "if you are this, you can't be that." Particularly in relation to Judaeo-Christian teaching, which tell us we must forever be "good" like Christ and not "bad" like Satan. Or critics who ask "how can Bono be subverting the trappings of fame when he seems to be enjoying them so much?" Surely the truth lies in the middle of both paradigms, the tension between being good and bad, saint and sinner, the dualistic nature of life.

Bono: That's what I've come to learn, in time. And I think that's exactly what killed Elvis Presley. That was the pain. The pain wasn't "I don't have any friends, my career is on the skids, my waistline has expanded. The pain was 'I don't like myself, and don't respect myself and my life, because people who say I'm bad must be right.' I think it was guilt along those lines that made Elvis lose the will to live. Yet in the scripture there is another line: 'There is, therefore, no condemnation for those in God.' There is no guilt. Guilt is not of God. It is a false teaching.

Jackson: Does the fact that Elvis's life apparently ended as a result of drug abuse make you keep a check on your own indulgences? Does any of that resonate for you?

Bono: No. What I still want from my life is a wholeness that I don't believe Elvis has. I had a conversation with Jerry Lee Lewis years ago, because I always felt he's the man who had these driving dualities. As with that moment in Sun where he stops the session and says "this is the devil's music, I'm not going to make it." He's either in the church choir or down the strip. There are those extremes that, for Jerry Lee Lewis, seem not to be resolvable. But I remember saying to him "Amazing Grace/How sweet the sound. Music is the sound. Don't you see?" Yet people like Jerry Lee find it so hard to resolve these tensions because of the battering they received from the Bible Belt. On the other hand, I've had the experience of unmolested spiritual growth, so I believe I can live in a way that these people can't. I understand, I think, a little better these two urges and how, although they are paradoxical, they are comfortable to live with -- the spiritual life and the sexual/physical life. And so, to answer your question, the only encouragement I get from Elvis at that level, is "don't make the mistake of being driven by this idea that you can't have it all -- because you can." That is, to be whole.

Jackson: Do you think Elvis sought that sense of wholeness through drugs, or tried to escape from the fact he couldn't reconcile such opposing forces in his own life?

Bono: I really think he was trying mostly to escape the pain of the guilt, the pain of believing that he was tapping into voodoo and the spirit of the devil. All of that must have affected him because of his Pentecostal upbringing. And he must've known, instinctively, that when he sang he was touched by the spirit of God. And he apparently did read countless books trying to figure out such questions., but I don't think he ever got a satisfactory answer. It's the thing that Bob Marley lived, and not just in terms of the sex and the spirit but in terms of the politics. He had that three-chorded strand. That's the wholeness I'm looking for. It says in the Bible "the three-chord strand cannot be broken." That's a reference to the Trinity, obviously, and the Trinity is God the Father, God the Son -- which is the flesh, Jesus wanting to understand what it's like to have a body -- and the Holy Spirit. That's what we must aspire towards. But Elvis didn't reach that state of being, he was crushed under the weight of not figuring out how to draw together those three strands. And crushed under not being able to accept that God loves him, loves his creations as they are, and where they are. That's the tragedy. Though the problem also is learning how to live with the tensions between those forces and the thought that you may never pull them together. Maybe even feeding off that, which I think is what I do in terms of all the music I create, and my life. Elvis was left with those two great energies, sexual and spiritual, and even though he never resolved how to draw them together, with the the third strand, his music did help so many of us to pull together at least two of those strands. That was his greatest contribution to rock 'n' roll and to our cultural life in general. That's his greatest legacy.

Jackson: Elvis's motto was "Taking care of business," obviously another part of his legacy for U2.

Bono: Definitely. I've always wanted U2 to take on this middle-class, bourgeois preconception that art must stand apart from commerce. And U2 do call it "TCB." We quote Elvis. We are a gang of four, but a corporation of five so we sit down and go through the numbers say "Taking Care of Business."

Jackson: Nonetheless, critics suggest that your business involvements "pollute" the art, the music -- that you could end up "selling your soul" for wealth, as maybe Elvis did in Hollywood.

Bono: This is madness. Look at Picasso. And the real point is that business shouldn't be left out of the creative process. The key is to serve your vision and not just serve the making of money. If you serve the concept of money-making you do sell out your vision, and soul. And U2 have learned from Elvis in that area. That's why we've no problem serving art and business, seeing both as two sides of the same equation. That's not a bad legacy from "the man" is it?

Copyright © The Irish Times. All rights reserved.

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This page contains a single entry by Jonathan published on March 26, 1994 8:10 PM.

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