While the American media captures every move Justin Bieber makes, and news items one week old are treated as ancient history, Elvis Presley—who died 36 years ago today—remains nearly as popular as ever. Why?
Well, it's not just because our popular culture idolizes its heroes to near-messianiac heights. That's a given. No, at the heart of the Presley phenomenon is something much simpler and peculiarly American: dreaming big dreams and making those dreams come true.
In the final scene of the last non-documentary movie of his career, 1969’s Change of Habit, Presley is shown strumming away at a guitar in church while Mary Tyler Moore—playing a nun with a big decision to make—looked on. As Moore tries to make up her mind on which man to choose, the camera pans from Elvis to Jesus, then back and forth until the two images blend together.
That type of sledgehammer symbolism was as hard to ignore at the time as it is now, but even after decades of impersonators, sightings, and guided tours of Graceland, it is still impossible not to recognize Elvis as the quintessential Rock God.
In a collective unconscious sort of way, popular culture has a spiritual element to it. And although so many of us deify our musical icons and exhibit an almost religious devotion to them, I strongly favor the separation of Church and Presley. However, there is a striking similarity between the primary message of the early Elvis ('54-'56) and the one central to most of the great religious figures of history: change. That one can take the past, breathe new life into it, and with the promise of youth and open-mindedness, rebel against the steadfastly held morals of the day, and, ultimately, change the future.
To fully appreciate the influence of Presley on rock, it is absolutely critical to listen to the music of those first few years. He was not just some semi-talented white guy who ripped off infinitely more gifted black artists and was lavishly rewarded for his mediocrity. Elvis may have been many grotesque things in his life, but one thing he was not was a 1950s version of Vanilla Ice.
Just go back and listen to that early music. Listen to Elvis pump white-hot electricity into Big Boy Crudup’s “That’s All Right, Mama,” Wynonie Harris's “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” and Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog.” Elvis could squeeze more juice than you can shake a stick at out of the classic “Milkcow Blues Boogie,” convey a pure unholy arrogance in his “Mystery Train” that was nowhere to be found in Little Junior Parker's version, or deliver white-gospel-tinged ballads such as “Anyway You Want Me” like no one before or since. Musically, the early Presley was an astonishingly gifted alchemist—creating his revolutionary singing style by mixing black music with country and pop balladry.
His staggering singing talent, however, is only part of the Presley story. Consider for a moment the society that this comet exploded into in the mid-’50s. It was a culture nibbling on the genial jingoism of Norman Vincent Peale and being made somewhat uncomfortable by Adlai Stevenson. It was a stale, waist-up America, decked out in tuxes and tulle—a tasteful semi-corpse living behind white picket fences in houses stuffed with secrets, suffocating denial, and institutional racism and sexism. It was a society with absolutely nothing at stake, one that had taken up permanent residence in the spiritual ICU and where the accumulated hypocrisy of all the piled centuries since Paradise had rendered it ready to split in two.
It was into this theater that Elvis, the "Hillbilly Cat" as he was called, strode with amused, defiant cool—his hips quivering a thousand times quicker than the CBS eye—and suddenly everything was at stake. Suddenly America was in the midst of a game of chicken, because Elvis was playin' for keeps and takin' his dreams very, very seriously. And, just as suddenly, so were those of us who listened to him. He was all erotic genius, both discovering and uncovering himself, his voice burning into the suburban bushes of Eisenhower’s America with otherwordly images of abandoned pleasures and back-alley thrills.
As an American Dream re-inventor, Elvis wasn't lacking qualifications, not the least of which was volcanic ambition. Although he was the son of a dirt-poor sharecropper, he had roamed Memphis’s black Beale Street section studying his craft and spending his money on the kind of clothes that earned him the nickname “Memphis Flash.” He had also spent plenty of growing-up time listening to the gritty, vengeful last-shall-be-first message of white Pentecostal preachers holy-rollering around sawdust floors—scratching, clawing, and pleading for redemption.
Elvis literally scared the bejeezus out of racist, mid-'50s America.
His music bled menace and lust, but also tenderness and vulnerability and an overpowering romantic lyricism. He was all contradiction: the raunchy roadhouse rocker who loved mom and Jesus, the yes-sir/no-sir Southern boy with the swaggering carelessness, the smoldering sex symbol with the self-mocking smile. And, like Fitzgerald's Gatsby, he was all magnetism: “There was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promise of life—as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away.” He was, and is, the stuff that American Dreamers are made of.
Sixties activist Abbie Hoffman said that Elvis killed Ike Eisenhower, and John Lennon said that before Elvis there was nothing and after Elvis there was everything. While these assertions are debatable, I do know for sure that when Elvis hit America in 1955, howling and gyrating like he had gulped down a jackhammer, the Hillbilly Cat was definitely out of the bag—and the world has never been the same.
Sadly, he spent his final few years eating peanut butter and banana sandwiches, theorizing about visitors from other planets or how the Jews were running the world, and giving rambling interpretations of the Bible that make Pat Robertson seem like a secular humanist. By the end, he was aimlessly performing in front of primarily leisure-suited, beehived audiences who conjured in Elvis’s multi-rhinestoned visage a glamorized version of themselves. Finally he pill-popped himself into oblivion and disappeared into his own mythology—where he is still, from time to time, allegedly sighted in the flesh.
Sociologically and musically, the birth of rock and roll can be glibly explained away simply as a matter of some white guy coming along who could "sing black" and get the bobbysoxers to screech. But there is absolutely no way to ever fully and truly explain Elvis: the backwoods boy who brilliantly mixed the music of poor whites and poor blacks and literally scared the bejeezus out of racist, mid-'50s America, and whose charisma dwarfed any, and all, who succeeded him.
Just after Presley's death on August 16, 1977, his Svengali-like manager, Col. Tom Parker, was asked for a comment. He said, “This doesn’t change anything.”
In a way the old cigar-chomping hustler was right, although I’m sure the colonel was referring to the amount of money he himself would still be making. But what will really never change and will remain forever magical are Elvis's early, lightning-bolt musical performances which—like the words and deeds of every great political, cultural or spiritual revolutionary—simultaneously struck the deepest fears of some, like parents, preachers and teachers, and the secret dreams of others, like me.