Steamroller Blues

At the height of American technological triumph, Elvis released this throwback tune, his hymn of praise to 19th century low-tech machinery. He’s no Saturn rocket or lunar module. He’s not even a diesel-driven bulldozer or an 18 wheel Mack truck, but a steamroller, and this is his version of heavy metal.

The picture sleeve from the single makes it even more obvious - this machine (in sepia tone) comes clanking out of the past, with gears, chain-drive and a smokestack like you’d see on a ironclad from the Civil War. Everything about the steamroller here is archaic, weighty and slow. Yet Elvis sings with a surprising amount of swagger. “I’m a steamroller!” and, he declares, he’s going to “roll over you.” The music too - even with the Vegas big band screaming trumpets - is a throwback. The classic Elmore James “Dust My Broom” riff holds the tune together and gives it old fashioned dirty blues energy. There are no references to the moon here. This is Earth-Elvis, the low-tech destroyer Elvis.

It’s all built on a series of ego-declarations. He’s a steamroller, then a cement mixer, a “churnin’ urn of burnin’ funk.” This line harks us back to the previous year’s Big E hit: “Burnin’ Love.” Mostly that tune is built on standard love-is-fever images: rhyming “fire” with “higher and higher” and “the sweet song of a choir.” But with its obsessive chanting chorus (“hunka hunka burnin’ love”) and Elvis’s frantic “my brain is flaming!” it seems to conjure up a victim of spontaneous cerebral combustion.

“Steamroller Blues” moves on to stranger comparisons. Elvis is a “demolition derby,” not one car but the whole gear-grinding white trash apocalypse, leaving him a “hefty hunk of steaming junk.” And then he’s a “napalm bomb, baby.” After ten years of the war in Vietnam, there was hardly a word less tainted than “napalm.” For most Americans, even those who supported the war, it meant uncontrolled fiery death from the skies. And here’s Elvis saying he’s napalm and will “blow your mind.” The minds of his fans were already blown, though seldom did they think of their idol dropping jellied gasoline onto them from a helicopter gunship.

Elvis’s brain, “flaming” or otherwise, is not the frequent subject of in-depth analysis. He was, though, a man given to much thought, especially on such topics as astrology, UFOs, pyramids and reincarnation. Likewise, he was much given to reading. Wherever he traveled, Elvis always had his servants bring along his personal library of over two hundred spiritual books, which included various Bibles, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet. He took his occult researches all the way to the end: dying on the toilet reading The Search for the Face of Jesus, a book about the Shroud of Turin.

In short, when he wasn’t thinking about burnt bacon, peanut butter, and “Takin’ Care of Business,” his mind went to the occult. Even his conception had a mystic quality. Vernon Presley told his son that he’d known the exact instant when he’d come into being because at that moment, Vernon had lost consciousness. Though there is a more common explanation for such an event, Elvis took this orgasmic blackout as an absolute sign that at the moment of conception his father had become possessed by a higher power, God himself. Thus exalted, Elvis embraced the notion that Vernon - ex-con and paint factory worker - was not his true “daddy.” On the night Elvis was born, Vernon walked into the backyard and saw the heavens suffused with a divine blue light. Elvis took this story too as part of his mythos, as he’d long associated the color blue with his own supernatural power, and with his fate as the “One.”

The “One” or the “All?” This is the question that truly matters. A singularity or infinity itself? A cryptic emblem featured on his stage costume points toward our answer. Elvis’s jumpsuits came from the moon, but they were adorned with far more arcane emblems than NASA might provide. Elvis had massive belts, reminiscent of those worn by pro wrestlers and boxing champions. The buckles featured Elvis’s most cherished icons of power. One of them became more noticeable and important in his last days on Earth. It was a wide rectangle, outlined in silver and set with 26 rubies. Inside the border were 16 turquoise studs and at the center were two ovals just touching at the tips. UFO fanatics have compared these ovals to two alien eyes or two flying saucers docking. There’s a far more obvious interpretation. This symbol is the lemniscate, the figure 8 lying on its side, the mathematical sign of infinity. And if anyone was going to reach the infinite in ‘73, it would be Der Elvis.