It is bizarre to realize that less than a decade separates hillbilly raveups like “Baby, Let’s Play House” and the shamelessly beautiful torch ballad “I Need Somebody To Lean On,” the kind of song you can't imagine Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman really wrote for Elvis Presley and not, say, Julie London. That the song was recorded for a stupid but less-bad-than-the-rest Elvis movie makes its beauty all the more sublime. Every few months, I get it stuck in my head to the point that I consider overriding my loathing of owning a lot of books [and being one cheap bastard] to buy the sheet music for it so I can at least pretend playing it over and over is constructive.
“Somebody To Lean On” and the movie’s title track more or less cap off a sweet spot in Elvis’ career — after his Army hitch but before he abdicated all professional responsibility in Hollywood — when he made some truly great, probably underrated pop records, many of them written by Pomus & Shuman: “It’s Now Or Never,” “(Marie’s The Name of) His Latest Flame,” “Little Sister,” “Suspicion,” “Ain’t That Loving You Baby,” “I Feel So Bad” [find me a wilder drum ride just before the sleaziest-sounding saxophone solo, and I’ll kiss your ass on the courthouse steps] and “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” which was recorded a lot later in his career than one might assume.
Speaking of this moment in Elvis’ career:
I recently rediscovered how funny and cruelly incisive Albert Goldman can be -- I know, I know, it was great when he wrote about Lenny Bruce being a drug-addled shithead who had serious problems with women but it was the worst thing ever when Goldman dared to write about Elvis Presley, John Lennon and Bruce Lee being drug-addled shitheads who had serious problems with women. Hey, three out of four died of drug overdoses but that don't mean nothin’ -- and besides, who am I to judge you for your obvious anti-Semitism.
What reintroduced me to Goldman was one of my periodical flare-ups of interest in knowing more about the late Scatter Presley:
Scatter was the ideal frat-house mascot. A forty-pound, three-foot-tall chimpanzee, he had been trained by his first owner, a Memphis cartoonist who used him on his local TV show, to wear clothes, drink whiskey and raise hell with women. When Elvis first brought the beast out to Hollywood, he was enthralled with his antics. Elvis would treat him like a baby, carrying him around on his shoulders, showing him off for company and even changing his diapers. What tickled the Guys must about Scatter was the fact that he was so damn horny. Just let a girl step in the house and old Scatter would be hot on her tail. He would lift up her skirt and stick his head up toward her crotch. He would follow women to the bathroom or try to get inside while they were on the toilet. He would also chug-a-lug a few drinks at the bar and then turn around on his stool and start whacking off in some girl's face.
Elvis was always thinking of fresh ways to use Scatter as a device for driving people crazy. He would have the chimp dressed up in his cute little middy suit and tennis sneakers. Then Scatter would be enthroned in the back seat of the Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud and driven about by one of the Guys wearing a chauffeur's cap. That night Elvis would scream with laughter as the chauffeur, generally Alan Fortas (who has a somewhat simian build), would recount the stories of how this motorist almost ran off the road staring at the chimp or how that old lady looked shocked or a cop on a corner did a triple take as the car went by. What really bugged Elvis was that they could never find one of those trick cars, like they have in the circus, that can be driven from the rear by a hidden operator while the ape sits up front turning the driving wheel. To roll down Hollywood Boulevard on an afternoon with Scatter at the wheel of a big costly Cad, casting looks to right and left with a driver's cap on his head and his long funky fingers wrapped around the wheel -- oh, God! Wouldn't that be heaven!
Short of the ultimate thrill, however, there were lots of other tricks you could play with the chimp. One of his most celebrated exploits was the time he got loose at the Goldwyn Studio and climbed up the drainpipe to the second-floor office of the boss, Sam Goldwyn. When Scatter came swinging through the window, Goldwyn's secretary screamed in horror and fled from the room. Scatter kept on going until he was in the Big Man's private office. Before the astonished movie mogul could utter a word, the ape had leaped on his desk and was cavorting among his contracts, pub shots and pictures of his grandchildren. Fortunately, the animal was well diapered, so he couldn't do anything totally outrageous.
The best fun Elvis had with Scatter was always some stunt involving sex. It was as if Elvis were using the beast as his proxy, as the perpetrator of all those crazy sex pranks he would have liked to have played but didn't dare. There was a little stripper, for example, who was a regular at the Presley parties. Elvis would entice this girl to come up to the house; then he would persuade her to get down on the floor and wrestle with Scatter. She wasn't much bigger than the chimp. If you didn't look too carefully, you would swear that the horny ape and the hot little chick were getting it on. That killed Elvis.
Another time, when one of the Guys went upstairs with a young woman who was an aspiring songwriter, Elvis got Alan and Sonny to slip Scatter into the bedroom after the couple had started balling. Scatter outdid himself on this occasion, eliciting from the girl some of the loudest and most piercing screams of his entire career. Sad to say, the guy was so outraged that he picked up the beast and hurled it about ten feet down the hall.
Poor Scatter! He soon suffered the fate of all Master Elvis' other toys. He lost his charm and was shipped back to Graceland, where he was installed at the back of the house in an air-conditioned cage. Neglected after all the attention he had received for years, he pined and drooped and turned vicious. Late in the Sixties, he bit a maid who was feeding him. Two days later, he was found dead in his cage.
How can the thumbnail of a life — even a chimp’s — be so funny, revolting, sad and somehow uplifting in spots? I fully accept that this might say more about me than Scatter, but you have no joie de’vivre if the image of a fully dressed chimp chug-a-lugging a few drinks while seated at a bar, then pivoting on his stool to start whacking off in a lady's face doesn’t make you laugh a little. Clearly, you forgot to imagine the tiny sneakers he’s wearing at the time.