Elvis, the King
Elvis Presley was born on this day in 1935 in Tupelo, Mississippi.
In Jim Jarmusch's film Mystery Train (1989), a pair of Japanese teens, boy and girl, arrive in Memphis to see where rock 'n roll was born. After a breathless tour of Sun Studios, the two retreat to a seedy Memphis hotel, where the girl, a die-hard Elvis fan, shows her too-cool boyfriend her scrapbook of "discoveries" of Elvis in history -- in dead-on comparison photos with a Middle Eastern king, Buddha, Madonna and Bartholdi's Statue of Liberty -- to which the boy responds, deadpan: "Elvis was even more influential than I thought."
The film, like much of pop culture in the years since Presley burst onto the scene in 1954, is thoroughly infected by Elvis; even Elvis' ghost makes an appearance, played (perhaps appropriately in a kind of hair-raisingly gyroscopic, post-Modern sort of way) by the one-time husband of Bill Clinton's accuser Paula Jones.
Is there a point? The point is: Elvis was terrifically influential, and yes, in the theology of our collective prefab pop canon, he is everywhere.
His humble beginnings are the Lincolnesque stuff of American legend: born to a poor Mississippi family during the Depression, the survivor of a stillborn twin named Jesse, Elvis' first home was a 2-room shotgun shack. As a youth he absorbed Southern popular music from all angles -- blues, country, gospel and bluegrass -- wore zoot suits and trendy hairstyles and called himself "Valentino."
As a 21-year old truck driver, he wandered into Sun Studios trying to record a ballad which studio head Sam Phillips might be persuaded to put out on a record. Just for fun, he recorded a souped-up version of an R&B standard called "That's All Right," and when Phillips heard it, he thought he might have found an eminently marketable "white boy who sounded black"; a clean-cut, athletic young man who would be acceptable to parents while singing the African-American rhythm-and-blues that the hip kids were already listening to on the sly.
The genie was out of the bottle, though, and by 1956 when the mass hysteria of teen girls was reaching fever-pitch, parents were denouncing Elvis Presley as a cause of moral decay in American society. What Phillips perhaps didn't see at first was Presley's animal-form, brought forth on stage as with the Wolfman on a full moon, with snarling lips and gyrating rear haunches. Presley was the most palpably, overtly sexual famous male since Valentino himself.
His singing did in fact "whiten" R&B, taking its sensuality and injecting it with dose of back-country exuberance and slow-burning gospel fire. Did he invent rock n' roll? No, but for all significant purposes he was the center of the commotion surrounding its birth, single-handedly elevating the role of "rock star" and beginning its creeping replacement of "movie star" as the Alpha-male idol of public life.
The hits came one after the next ("Mystery Train was his first national #1, 1955, followed by such tunes as "Heartbreak Hotel," "Hound Dog" and "Don't be Cruel"), and soon he was offending parents on national TV (suffering below-the-waist censorship on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1956). It was natural that the new champeen should be a movie star as well, and in his earliest films (such as Love Me Tender, 1956, and Jailhouse Rock, 1957) he successfully elaborated on his rebellious image.
A stint in the U.S. Army, stationed in Germany, took him out of commission from 1958 to 1960 and probably got him addicted to speed. After that, he lost his edge for several years: his records had more in common with Dean Martin than James Brown, and his movies ranged from the pleasantly cute to the ridiculous. The British Invasion in pop music, led by Lennon & McCartney and Jagger and others, made him seem less exotic, even gracious and polite by contrast, and he was becoming almost inconsequential as a performer (except perhaps in his beloved South, although his movies continued to make money) when he did an about-face and returned to his rebel roots: singing rock 'n roll, looking trim and wearing black leather in the Elvis '68 TV special; returning to Memphis after years of recording in Hollywood and releasing From Elvis in Memphis in 1969; playing to sell-out crowds in an elaborately staged and choreographed Las Vegas show, complete with sequined jumpsuits and karate-chop dancing; and, in 1973, appearing tan and fit in another TV special, Elvis in Hawaii.
Hawaii was his last hurrah. His last years were a tale of isolation and excess, marked by rapid weight gain (he ballooned to 250 lbs.), an increased dependence on drugs, the spontaneous consumption of material things (for himself and randomly as gifts for others -- Cadillacs, yachts, five-figure checks), and the collection of acolytes and toadies who began to manage his increasingly eccentric daily life in a manner similar to that experienced by Howard Hughes (who died a year after the 42-year old Elvis did at the age of 71). From almost the instant of Elvis' death in Memphis on August 16, 1977 (the official cause was "cardiac arrhythmia"), he achieved popular beatification. His legion of die-hard fans refused to believe he was a drug addict (after all, he did offer to Richard Nixon to serve as a "Federal Agent-at-large" in the war on drugs), and argued that all attempts to make him out to be anything but a wholesome good old boy with the voice of an angel were downright anti-American.
So it goes: "Elvis impersonator" is now a more or less legitimate occupation and a durable if kooky genre of entertainment, the U.S. government has put him on a postage stamp, and a veritable Elvis industry has grown up in the years since his death, supporting the sale of everything from vials of his sweat and dirt from his grave to black velvet paintings to thousands of other novelties. Indeed, one surmises that if you really want to, you can buy any commonly used household item with his image on it. Tell-all books rotate the topsoil of his burial place at the shrine known as Graceland, his mansion in Memphis, and references to him in all manner of media seem to multiply exponentially.
At the wacky rag-end of Elvis worship, there are those refuse to believe that he is even dead, his "sighting" at a Burger King in Kalamazoo, Michigan years after his death now being the stuff of legend, with hubristically irresistible parallels to Christ's resurrection. Elvis may have "left the building," but only in the sense that he has leeched into the space outside the building, right into the space between our ears, a recurrent "hunk-a-hunk-a burnin'" myth of humble birth, triumph, death and rebirth into eternity.