Friday, January 21, 2005

Colonel Tom Parker, RIP

Comedian Nipsy Russell opened for Elvis Presley in concert and once said of the King’s success: "Every entertainer should go to bed at night and pray he finds a Colonel Tom Parker under his bed when he wakes up in the morning."

The carny barker. The hustler who made chickens dance on a hot plate covered in sawdust. The trailer park Mephistopheles, Svengali with an Elmer Fudd accent, the man who either led Elvis into mediocrity or merely did the legwork for the wishes of the King. The saga of Colonel Tom Parker took place on a landscape of dreams. Indeed he considered it both dream and duty to keep his boy in the highest tax bracket. Parker never failed.

As with any courtier he had a title. A Louisiana governor bestowed "Colonel" on him; Elvis preferred "Admiral." Needless to say, Colonel Parker never served in the armed forces. In fact, despite the American Dream he (literally) represented, he was a Dutch immigrant, in the U.S. illegally. He could never leave his adopted home lest he not be allowed back in. For this reason Elvis Presley never played abroad, unless you count those jam sessions in the Army.

Anyone who has read on rock music recognizes certain traits in the average rock manager of a certain day—a fringe player with a need for stardom, locked in a (usually unattractive) body bereft of artistic talent but seething with ambition. This breed rides the bus, attends the parties, settles the lawsuits, arranges the abortions, and plays hardball with the record companies. Yet he must suffer an ignoble facelessness that sooner or later begins to grate. In their own minds deserving of more than money, the manager can only await the day of expulsion and then lament, "Without me, [artist] would be nothing."

The Colonel never made any such claims. There was no need. He achieved an influence over his artist that other money men envy.

Presley’s decline is supposed to have begun when the Colonel bought (or stole) the country boy’s soul. Money, pills, and the death of Gladys are often cited as contributing factors. Unable to comprehend the decline, mortals were reduced to pondering the supernatural to explain Parker’s uncanny control over the King. That’s why Phil Spector was convinced the Colonel hypnotized Elvis. If that was so, however, the mind proved susceptible to Parker’s suggestions, for Elvis seldom went against his manager’s wishes. While the Colonel is a handy scapegoat for the King’s astonishing artistic decline, recall that even in the Sun days, Elvis admired crooners. Unfortunately, as his record collection later showed, he did not stop at Dean Martin.

Was Parker the hillbilly Faust, then? No, but mention of such a bargain suggests something akin to the truth, for remember, Faust willingly sold his soul. Human ambition is such that the Devil never has to cheat.

"Dream me a dream," Parker said, "and I’ll do the hard sell. I have no dreams for myself, only those that apply to you."

And Elvis dreamed bigger than anyone. In this strange relationship we sense the bewilderment more obvious in the Presley of the later years, as he struggled to understand why no other person in the world he helped create could give him the devotion of the Colonel (or of the late King Mother).

When re-negotiating his contract in the Sixties, Parker reached heights undreamt-of by his peers. Not with his fifty percent cut, mind you. He’d been taking a quarter of the proceeds for years, enough to keep any man in Cubans and ugly suits. No, what the money men of rock envy is what such a magic figure means. An even split. A partnership. In essence Elvis said, "You are half of me and all that I am. And what I am is the greatest entertainer in the world, the King of Rock and Roll." Parker had attained a pop culture Magna Carta.

The anecdotes surrounding Parker are legend. Hawking programs and pens at concerts. Selling his client into celluloid slavery and making himself a technical consultant on every film. (An invaluable presence on the set of Roustabout, for sure.) Turning down an invitation to perform at the White House because Elvis Presley did not perform for free.

Thomas Andrew Parker (nee Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk) died January 21, 1997, in Las Vegas, the City of Dreams. By best accounts he was eighty-seven years old. Wherever Elvis ended up, rest assured that he no longer plays for free.