The most recent newspaper photograph of the man is evocative. Berlusconi sits behind his tinted limousine window. The smile on the ex-crooner is wide and the freshly enamelled teeth are clenched in masculine defiance. The plastic skin is tighter than normal. Two comparisons come to mind. The most obvious is Thatcher leaving Downing Street when she exploited a scarcely used female identity and shed a tear. The actress pretended that she was vulnerable and sensitive. The self-pity disgusted and angered me as it must have done so many of her victims, the working class generation she was prepared to condemn to a scrap heap in order to realign power in favour of the rich whom she idolised. If you think this is harsh you should visit the housing estates where the British house their poor.
Elvis was also caught behind the window of his limousine and it happened on more than one occasion. The most famous shot is from the documentary, ‘Elvis On Tour’. The film is edited to suggest that he is pondering his past, that he is a man whose life and circumstance will always be without proper explanation. He has been selected by fate to be adored but the price is that he will end his life obliged to sit, stare and wonder. I accept this edited version if only because it implies that of these three famous characters it was the least educated amongst them who was the most thoughtful.
The last time I was in Rome I was with my two daughters. In an anonymous but fine restaurant a guitar player serenaded our table. We confirmed that we were all Elvis fans and the guitar player tortured us with his rendition of ‘It’s Now Or Never’. The food was of a higher standard than the music. The waitress was chatty and friendly. I mentioned Berlusconi. She shrugged her shoulders and smiled. The inference was clear. The man was flawed but some men you indulged. Such men are everywhere and invariably they have adoptive sisters and mothers and protective mates. It is in their nature. Perhaps they are blessed by the devil.
Berlusconi would still be there if emotion had not been boycotted by the market accountants. A democratically elected leader has been removed and we now understand. If the choice has to be made capitalism will take priority over democracy. But those of us who live outside Italy are baffled by the tolerance of the population for an overwheened narcissist and corrupt glutton even if much of the recent history of other Western democracies has also demonstrated willingness in its electorates to approve narcissistic smugness. The difference between Blair and Berlusconi is not as great as people imagine, probably nothing more than the faith of an ex-patriate Catholic. The two men are close friends.
People who are not Elvis fans are as bewildered as those who observe Italian politics from a distance. How was it that Elvis fans could stay loyal to the man? This was a performer who made 29 awful movies without protest and who was responsible for wildly inconsistent performances on stage and in the recording studio. I think of the waitress in the Italian restaurant and the resigned smile. Some men you indulge because without them life would not be quite so interesting. Or perhaps it is more specific than that. Some men you indulge because whatever their faults their presence will redefine the elite that you have to endure. They not only rock the boat, they undermine the pretensions that support the supposedly superior. Their shortcomings become essential to our loyalty.
This is what I imagine the smile of the Italian waitress said. ‘Who else is there? At least he understands us. He wants what the poor want, beautiful women and the good life. Compared to him the other politicians are smaller men. We know he is crooked. We don’t have to trust him.’
Berlusconi was more sinister than that but we are talking about emotions and included are those that are the most dangerous of them all, indulgence and double standards.
The book ‘Treat Me Nice’ begins with a reference to the trumpet player, Louis Armstrong. I selected him because I thought Louis and Elvis had much in common. Both were extremely talented and original but they finished their lives as unfashionable characters. Both had been undermined by the cerebral and talents that insisted they understood the modern world better. Miles Davis did make music that was beyond the imagination of Louis Armstrong and there were rock musicians that made individual records superior to those of Elvis. But Armstong and Elvis still left catalogues that compared favourably to their rivals even if they were very different to what followed. Fortunately, their unfashionability has hardened into something that is beginning to earn respect. This, of course, takes us back to that final shot of Berlusconi in the limousine. The defiance within the clenched teeth which reminds us that he may have been corrupt but we will never be able to dismiss his shameless determination.
I think I know what kept me loyal to Elvis. Other musicians may have staked different ground but once I heard his great records I was always aware of the limitations of others. I could hear them working to register their achievements and whilst those efforts were appreciated there is nothing as seductive as what appears to be the effortlessly sublime. I feel the same about Louis Armstrong. It is more than likely that Armstrong has never made a record as irresistible as ‘I Can’t Get Started’ by Bunny Berrigan but as great as that record is I am always aware of the limitations of Berrigan when I hear his trumpet solo. Why? Because I can imagine how Armstrong would have played it perfectly. That is what happens when I listen to the rivals of Elvis, great records but performers who are less than him. And perhaps that was the appeal of Berlusconi to the Italian electorate. He did not have to make as much effort as other politicians. He could take more risks and was not obliged like them to pretend he was clean.
Or maybe we are just gullible, especially with men who have certain natures.