riff raff

Take a Really Deep Breath

Take a Really Deep Breath
Just as housewives of yore used to "extend" their supply of meat by adding increasing quantities of bread, grain, or sawdust to the ground chuck, it seems that your average daily paper can maintain the illusion of size and interest by tamping its editorial full of nonnutritive fiber. How? By turning its coverage of trifling pop-culture events into epic series -- namely, the Chron's pointlessly drawn-out, sprawling, ineffable succession of Dead Elvis stories from Aug. 11 to 16 (including a special "Elvis Issue" of the Sunday Datebook -- scooped! -- on Aug. 3. We think those crafty editors at the Chron were trying to steal a march on all the national magazines that were planning to put Elvis on the cover to mark the anniversary. We haven't seen any as yet, but we're watching closely) and the Ex's fatty triad on the Season That Falls Between Spring and Autumn and Was Related to a Human Emotion That Is Often Considered the Opposite of Hate. (All right, all right -- Riff Raff will, in the interest of providing lean meat, resort to actually calling this 30-year-old season the Summer of Love.) And though keeping a daily paper's size up is admittedly important -- think of the many household uses for all that castoff newsprint -- standards must be maintained for limiting the amount of filler used in a given product. (At least that's what the FDA says, if not the Newspaper Guild.) Let's inspect, at first, the infinitesimally subdivided subject matter of the Chron's various Presley pieces. (Fortunately, what little meaning they actually contain can readily be gleaned, more or less, simply from browsing the headlines. Therein is demonstrated the simple, consumer-oriented grace of a daily paper.) The litany of subject headings in the Aug. 3 Pink Pages included stories headed "Toasting Bubba," "When Elvis Rocked the Bay," "The Best and the Rest of the King on CD," "Flipping Through the Pages of a Unique Life (A sampling of the more than 150 books written about Elvis)," "Viva, Elvis Presley Movies!," "Girls! Girls! Girls!," "Elvis, Wart and All (Kitschy collection includes Presley protuberance)," "Kiss Me Tender -- My Smooch With Elvis," "The Rhinestone Rocker (You, too, can look like Elvis)," "Memphis Memorializes, Mocks Her King," "Everything Elvis -- a Grand Tour," and "Q & A with ... Elvis?" Riff Raff's years in the biz can attest that such a lineup can only be the product of a crazed editor -- we assume Datebook Editor Liz Lufkin -- with far too many sullen orderees about. Without getting into the actual quality of the various pieces (especially not that of "Toasting Bubba," by the anemic Dave Marsh), one might have thought that the range of subject matter certainly sounds exhaustive. Not so. Beginning just over a week later and continuing over six days, we had the submissions of tireless Chron correspondent Sam Whiting, who went to Memphis and Tupelo to caulk up what subatomic fissures remained unsealed in the great gray face of the Chron's Presley coverage. Monday, on the front page: "The Cradle of Rock 'n' Roll," along with a sidebar of Elvis' vital stats, such as birth weight, offspring, and favorite color. Tuesday: "The King and His City." Wednesday: "A King-Size Wedding" (marriage at an Elvis-themed church), "Father, Son Guard the Treasure" (Memphis fan-family hoards memorabilia), and "Outraged Fans Shut Down Elvis Show." Thursday: "One for the Money, Two for the Food" (an Elvis restaurant). Friday: "The Serious Side of Elvis -- a Search for the Few." And, at last, on Saturday: "Mourning in Memphis." And there you have it -- as low-rent an idea as you can have with a big budget, not so much deftly executed as slowly tortured. And the outcome? Elvis Presley is still dead, and was, truth be known, never closely affiliated with the Bay Area. The Ex's three-parter on the Summer of Love was more tolerable, since it only dragged out for three days. And the first two installments, written by Larry D. Hatfield and Donna Horowitz, actually weren't all that bad; they presented the negative along with the endless, gushing, frothy positive. In other words, they presented the truth. Hatfield's story even quotes the admirably cynical Ed Moose as saying when he arrived in San Fran in 1962, "I thought (The City) was the most egregious example of urban narcissism I'd ever seen. Nobody was doing anything." And: "It wasn't Podunk, but it sure wasn't Paris." Thank you, Moose. Horowitz's piece on an old commune at Olompali occasionally grew twee, but demonstrated that some of those youthful idealists weren't the best parents. (One former child of the commune admitted as much, and said, "My dad and mom turned me on to pot when I was 8." Groovy.) But then, unfortunately, there was that third installment -- the one with the byline that has grown into a pair of hack watchwords: Julian Guthrie. She, too, examined the "phenomenon" of hippie parents, but kept her pitch baby-bouncy. What can these former hippie parents offer their brood? Positive ideology! An open mind toward youthful fashions and hairstyles! A general respect for what it means to be young! Guthrie even dragged a talking head into the "debate" -- one Dr. Mark Levy, who said: "There is a universal need to rebel." They should have saved the doctor's insight for the Aug. 20 story "There's Always Room for Jell-O (Still jiggling after 100 years)." It might not have made much sense, but it would have given the piece some dimension. Granted, from the perspective of proper food labeling, Guthrie's feature meets many of the requirements for filler. It is certainly, as they say, "biologically inert." But why extend journalism into three parts, when a single, concise outing would have served just as well? We suppose the secret is knowing when to stop, as we do now. Whew. (M.B.)

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