The fact that these stories are retold again and again every few years walks the line between morbid fascination and genuine reappreciation. If their work was so great, shouldn't it stand on its own, without being bolstered by lurid biography?
Maybe that works with Beethoven, but these are performers who, by definition, are their own greatest creations.
You don't really know Elvis unless you've seen the pelvis. Piaf's clean, simple gestures on any number of YouTube videos underscore her emotional directness. The significance of Elvis' roots in a childhood of poverty, or Piaf's early street-singing for spare change, can only be determined when you start by examining the redemption cliche so prevalent in pop culture.
While it's easy to think that any creative personality needs near-death experiences to be interesting, Barbra Streisand is proof of how mistaken that is. She's as great as anybody, but on her last tour she never played the pathos card, never even asked you to believe her voice was what it was 30 years ago. She knew the score. You did, too. There was still plenty to enjoy.
More-tragic icons inspire a level of audience involvement similar to the protective denial usually reserved for distressed family members. With Elvis, that denial existed on a mass scale; devoted fans swore he was better, sexier than ever, in his final years.
Then, at one of his concerts less than a year before his 1977 death, I compared the screaming throng's response to the distracted performance I saw onstage and wondered if I'd landed in a parallel universe. The man who was the source of social anarchy in 1956 was, two decades later, a creature of ritual. During one song, a minion stood by, arms piled high with white scarves that the King would run across his neck for a few seconds, then toss into the audience. To get through some songs, he needed a lyric sheet. A few tries were necessary to reenact the agile footwork of decades past.
And later that night, when a news photographer produced close-ups, Elvis was so puffy and rotund that, in his glittering concert costume with its huge belt buckle, he looked like a Las Vegas Santa Claus. But point that out to one of the faithful and you might as well be kicking the family dog.
Even as an Elvis skeptic, I wasn't immune to denial. Sometimes his voice functioned so badly that the coming high note seemed impossible. Then he'd hit it, spot on. Had I not bought in, I'd have smelled a rat; instead, I had to wait until later biographies revealed that his high notes were sometimes supplied by backup singers.
More vital, but also strange, was Garland's 1967 U.S. tour, one of her last. On some nights, she created the illusion of being in her vocal prime. But I struggled not to puzzle over how she looked: In an increasingly bizarre series of fashion choices in her later years, her face was painted bright pink, her eye sockets colored aqua, and her hair was sprinkled with glitter. (Only years later, when David Bowie became Ziggy Stardust, did I have a context for this.) Denial was needed: Though her look was a symptom of something too strange to examine, you had to be riveted by the tension between what you saw (complete artificiality) and what you heard (distilled emotional truth).
This isn't to say that artistry is lost. Often, it is in fact accentuated in the art of extreme contradiction. Billie Holiday often gave her best in times that were her worst. On her 1958 Lady in Satin album, her voice was in ruins but her interpretive eloquence had never been sharper - and with an accompaniment of plush string orchestrations, like seeing great Roman ruins in ornate frames. Later, I learned that she consumed a pitcher of gin during those recording sessions - another magnetic contradiction, this one between unflinching observation facilitated by inebriation.
Piaf is perhaps the best instance of what you hear with and without biography. Her voice has been in the air for decades - I first was taken with her in my teens - but most Americans knew little about her life before La Vie en Rose, maybe only vague references to car accidents and drugs. The film explained so many things I'd gotten telegraphically from the voice - particularly in the later years, when it was more like an unmodulated bray - that I was almost reduced to the defensiveness of 1977 Elvis fans. The movie is terrific, yet I wanted it to stop.
But it didn't. And if you're going to continue having her voice in your life, your denial has to morph into compassion. With any of these great singers, moral judgments just get in the way. Forget the idea that bad childhoods lead to adults with drug habits. It's behind those sorts of smokescreens that I found what may be the missing puzzle piece: The loneliness that comes with individuality.
These are artists who rewrote the rules of mainstream culture not through any conscious design but just by being who they were. Even when embraced by a large public, they couldn't help living apart from the rest of the world - odd ducks who grew up to be rare birds - in ways that only sharpened their powers of observation. They experience more in a shorter period of time. Also, they had fewer people to tell them "no." If you're hailed for rewriting the rules onstage, why should the usual rules apply offstage?
The strain and speed of all that brought them to the ends of their lives with more to give, but with a compromised delivery apparatus, like packing more into a car when its wheels are about to fall off. So while you may hear immense surface wreckage in Piaf's last recording, 1963's Un homme de Berlin - you can barely even call it singing - she may have been at her most inventive, like those expressionist painters who use the ugliness of the world to convey elemental simplicity.
Not all these Mount Rushmore-sized personalities fit neatly into such theories. While Elvis' last album, Moody Blue, sounded lazy in 1977 but has poignance in 2007, it's hard to make the same accommodations for, say, the film Harum Scarum, currently selling for $1.86 on Amazon.com. Maybe if you meet it far more than halfway? One clear-eyed customer reviewer sets the bar low enough that Elvis can clear it: "I think he deserves an Oscar simply for not rolling his eyes."
To hear late-career work by Garland, Holiday and Piaf, go to
Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/davidpatrickstearns