To paraphrase Public Enemy, Elvis might've been a hero to most, but he never meant much to me.
Something about him always felt too easy. The idea of a handsome white guy scratching out a living in the Deep South, crooning blues, gospel and country music and lighting the fuse on what would become rock 'n' roll is compelling, sure, but once you start getting past the familiar, much of Elvis' music always seemed a little hokey.
That was before I tackled the just-released 814-track (711 master recordings in chronological order along with 103 rarities), 30-disc Complete Elvis Presley Masters box set, available only via completeelvis.com. (The limited, numbered first edition is sold out, but there will be a second, unnumbered edition released next year.) It's not an insignificant investment of time (I consumed much of the set over a three-day period) or money (it retails for around $750).
But this Complete Masters set is the most comprehensive assembly of Elvis Presley's life and work I've ever encountered. It deftly strikes a balance between obsessive fanatic and casual enthusiast; the exhaustive liner notes, penned by Peter Guralnick and Ernst Mikael Jorgensen, detail every aspect of nearly every song on this set. As a cultural biography, it's a work of depth and passion that rivals any other music-related book -- and this is a book, weighing in at more than 200 pages -- released in 2010. Taken together, it's a triumph of musicology.
Assessing an artist's full output, all in one shot, is daunting, but fortunately, Elvis was an artist who frequently revisited the same song and similar subject matter again and again throughout the course of his career. Once the outlines are clear, it's easy to trace the rise and fall and ultimate growth of the man from Mississippi who changed the face of music.
Presley's earliest tunes, where you can feel the urgency and primacy of what this hellbent youngster was trying to accomplish, still hold even the most unfamiliar listener in thrall. Hearing Presley and his hastily assembled band scratching out Blue Moon of Kentucky or Heartbreak Hotel is like witnessing the DNA of every rock band formed since materialize before you. The messy blend of genres which, together, create something totally new underscores just how revolutionary this hip-swiveling matinee idol was.
And it's those movies -- widely mocked yet still indelible -- and the songs which appeared in them that form much of the Complete Masters set. Wisely or not, Presley's handlers decided the real money was in Hollywood. That, too, paved the way for the multiplatform talents (I use the word loosely) populating screens and airwaves today. Before Elvis, no one dared cross over from music to film or TV. Everyone stayed in their lane. Put it this way: If Elvis hadn't made Roustabout, we wouldn't be seeing Justin Timberlake in The Social Network or on Saturday Night Live.
Certainly, such a mammoth curatorial effort is not for everyone, especially those that don't get all the fuss about the King. I'll still reach for a Beatles album over an Elvis disc any day of the week, but now, at least, I more fully understand just why this hound dog has held so many under his sway for all these years.