Red Elvis

Intro by Karen L. Dowd

We recently welcomed back Attorney Michael S. Taylor to the Firm as Of Counsel. As he decorated his office, he brought out a print of Red Elvis by Andy Warhol. Years ago, the painting was at issue in a case we successfully handled. I did not like or get the painting. Mike did. So on his return, he decided to explain his appreciation for the painting to me, an unreceptive Warhol viewer. While I still don’t like the painting, this makes for great, and timely, reading.


By Michael S. Taylor, Of Counsel

Andy Warhol held a mirror to the face of America. Whether or not he was a genius – and the point is hotly debated among those who pronounce the truth of such things – his art exposed the truths he believed about America. An unwavering loyalty to consumerism, an iconography that substituted faith in wealth and particularly in fame for more traditional ideas about faith in god or even self. And perhaps most prominently, the American obsession with image as image, unadorned by context. He seemingly understood – or at least honestly believed - that Americans didn’t want the facts or the history, they wanted just the image, so they could supply the story comfortably for themselves.

And so in the fall of 1962, while painting soup cans and dollar bills and Marilyn Monroes, Warhol created a silkscreen image of Elvis Presley, the “King of Rock and Roll.” Likely taken from a publicity headshot, the almost scowling face is repeated 36 times on the canvas. “Red Elvis,” so named for the only color used, is not Warhol’s most famous work, and not even his most famous painting of Elvis Presley (which likely is a full-length view of the star in cowboy dress, called “Double Elvis”). But “Red Elvis,” capturing its subject at nearly the precise instant of metamorphosis from substance to likeness, reflects Warhol’s worldview possibly better than any of his other works. (Soup cans, after all, always hold soup).

The “King” did not invent rock and roll and to his credit never claimed that he had. It is rooted in the rhythm and blues music that any number of black artists had been playing for years, tinged with a country and western sensibility. Fats Domino was making what was obviously rock and roll with Billy Diamond in New Orleans by 1949. Jackie Brenston (along with Ike Turner – Tina Turner’s notoriously abusive husband – and his band) captured “Rocket 88” at Sun Studios in Memphis in March of 1951, which many consider the first rock and roll recording. And Big Mama Thornton recorded her version of “Hound Dog,” a future Presley smash, in August 1952. There were many more. Elvis sought out this music while growing up poor in Memphis, but didn’t make his first meaningful recording until July, 1954. He would not become famous beyond a wide corridor between Tennessee and Texas until nearly the end of 1955.

The music was there, but like most everything else at the time, it was segregated. So while a young Elvis may have been able to find his way to it, “race music,” as rhythm and blues euphemistically was called then, was not welcome at the front door of 1950’s America. Along with the people who played it, it was relegated to separate and inferior status, and carried with it a racist fear of the “other,” in all its ugly manifestations. And while other white artists had tried to bring this music to a larger audience - Bill Haley and His Comets had been making rock and roll records since at least 1952 – none had much impact. Until Elvis.

With matinee-idol good looks, a deceptive and irresistible southern charm and a compelling baritone, Presley marched rock and roll straight through the front door and down the aisle of the whitest houses on the block. He was not an innovator but a conduit, exposing white audiences everywhere to music that, until then, had mostly been available only to black audiences. But for some, he was genuinely dangerous; a threat to good taste at least, to the moral fabric of America at worst. Cultural elites worried for the art form; fathers worried for their daughters. He was sex and violence and unwelcome change all wrapped into one. His records were smashed by disc jockeys who refused to play unwholesome “race records” (though they did not always use so polite a term as that), he was burned in effigy, riots broke out at his concerts and he was reviled by critics from the New York Times (“Mr. Presley has no discernable singing ability”) to none other than Frank Sinatra, who called rock and roll a “brutal, ugly, degenerate [and] vicious” form of music played by “cretinous goons.” So much effort at contempt was a sure sign that Presley had hit a nerve. By 1958, he was on his way to becoming the biggest star American popular culture had ever seen. By 1960, after a brief stint in the military, Presley’s fame was so enormous that even Sinatra, who had flatly rebuked Elvis and rock and roll as an art form, was forced to host a television special honoring the King’s return.

And then it was over. By 1962, Presley already was not what he once was. Rock and roll already was ubiquitous, and both it and Presley were no longer dangerous. Its edge blunted by the weight of its own popularity, rock and roll was at most a nuisance and its proponents merely a bad influence. Mostly it was well on its way to a wide, safe acceptance. Elvis, for his part, was making B-movies that served more as vehicles for the next pablum-filled soundtrack recording than anything else. While he would continue for years as a huge star, he would never again be the stuff of parents’ nightmares.

Warhol’s sneering “Red Elvis” captures the dangerous sex-symbol, the unruly rock and roll swagger, and the instrument of civil unrest – at precisely the moment he became none of that. By the time it was created, the repeated image was all that was left; the man and his music already were a commodity. And Warhol, perhaps ahead of his time, seemingly understood just that. He did not mourn the change but acknowledged and perhaps even celebrated it as a truth revealed. While the person and the image diverged, fans, and Warhol, could remember. His art allowed them to create a story that fit their view of the world – forever remembering a hero that maybe never was; distracting them from the uncomfortable reality of a world that was growing more and more complicated and difficult to see.

Perhaps Warhol was simply ahead of his time. Perhaps his genius was as commentator rather than creator. A careful observer of our current war on history and facts, the casual way in which opinion suffices for proof and the impossibly convoluted overlap between politics, news and popular culture would surely think that Warhol knew in 1962 what we are all seeing writ large today. “Red Elvis” was thus a sign of things to come, had we only known what we were looking at.

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