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Bibs, bobs and fitting tributes

17 August 2002 - Sydney Morning Herald

Book review: THE ELVIS TREASURES by Robert Gordon; THE ELVIS TREASURES by the editors of Rolling Stone

by Stephen Cummings

Elvis Presley is back in the charts once more, courtesy of the A Little Less Conversation remix, and the flame has been lit for a new generation of fans. Leading the charge to celebrate the 25th anniversary of his death is the Memphis music journalist and documentary maker Robert Gordon with The Elvis Treasures a collection of memorabilia complete with 60-minute CD featuring rare radio interviews.

The Elvis Treasures is an entertaining, oversize book that contains a plethora of removable facsimiles of items from Graceland's archives, such as Presley's driver's licence, his library card, recording contracts, an invitation to the Viva Las Vegas film premiere, a letter to an early girlfriend from G.I. Elvis, and rare photographs from his Sun Records days.

An essay-length biography by Gordon accents the key moments in Presley's career, though The Elvis Treasures is not about Elvis the artist, who was probably the greatest pop singer of the 20th century, but about Elvis as a photographic image and icon. Elvis may have left the building, but the books keep coming. I recently read that has more than 400 books on Elvis Presley in its catalogue. The Elvis Treasures is certainly one of the better ones.

Those with memories that stretch back far enough may recall that Elvis emerged in the 1950s. It was a time of social change. A new subcultural class emerged: in a time of full employment these teenagers had money to spend, and they didn't want to spend it on the same stuff as their parents. Rock'n'roll was born in America, and Elvis became its symbol.

Liverpool was a seaport and American sailors were regular visitors, bringing with them their R&B records fresh American sounds that were unavailable to British radio listeners. The time of the teddy boy had arrived. Which is where the Beatles enter the picture. The Fab Four dominated pop music like no-one else except Elvis.

Harrison is compiled by the editors at Rolling Stone to celebrate the life of the Beatles guitarist and songwriter George Harrison, who died last year, aged 58. The editors have drawn heavily on the magazine's archives. However, this is not a quickie publication to cash in on an untimely death, but a fitting tribute to an accomplished songwriter and influential guitarist. The volume comes in a handsome coffee-table format, with more than 100 photographs, discography and a section on Harrison collectables.

Harrison's wife, Olivia, writes a gracious and affecting introduction. Although Harrison was a reluctant performer, she tells a charming tale of the guitarist leaving musical messages on every dictaphone, answering machine or tape recorder in their house. They were played on the ukulele, piano or guitar. Some were humorous, others fiercely serious. The ukulele was Harrison's favoured instrument in later years.

Harrison is written with grace, sensitivity and passion. Mikal Gilmore's chapter, The Mystery Inside George, is the most meticulously researched and sympathetic portrait of Harrison that I've read. Senior editor David Fricke delivers an informative guide to the stories behind Harrison's songs and an analysis of 25 of his finest guitar performances.

Tributes from fellow musicians such as Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger and Paul Simon all put paid to the myth that Harrison was the quiet Beatle. Apparently he was as cranky and rude as the rest of us. Keith Richards provides a neat critique of Harrison as a guitarist: ``The thing is, you've got your Jimi Hendrix, you've got your Eric Clapton, and then you've got guys who can play with bands. And George was a band and team player. George was an artist, but he was also a fucking craftsman."

Stephen Cummings is a musician, songwriter and novelist

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