Elvis died 44 years ago, on August 16th 1977. When he died people were asking each other ‘where were you when Elvis died?’ Much like Kennedy’s assassination in ’63, before him, and 9/11 and Princess Diana after, the death of Elvis was one of those things which other humans use to mark time by. The passing of the first King of Rock and Roll was a big deal. I can’t remember where I was when Elvis died, I was just a little kid. I don’t even remember the adults around being shocked or upset, but then the adults in my life were never very cool anyhow. Elvis was always the epitome of cool.
Proto Elvis of the mid to late 50s, with his gee-shucks attitude, neat little suits and a pelvis which lent towards an imperative to thrust its way into the consciousness and consumerist desires of repressed post war America woke the world up to the world to the fact it had genitals and, not only that, a desire to do something with them! A nudge of his shoulder could send a crowd in to paroxysms of desire. A flick of his hair would send those repressed knees a trembling. Proto Elvis was sex on two nubile legs and the most flexible hips ever seen on any paleface Ed Sullivan worshipping Assembly of God fundie Christian boy thus far. Elvis was the bad boy. The rebel with a cause: to make the boys hopeful they would see more than Mary-Jane’s perfect ankles, and to encourage Mary Jane to give into her latent desires and put out in the back seat of his daddy’s Studebaker, while closing her eyes and imagining herself with Elvis The Pelvis, riding in a Stutz Blackhawk, Daddyo: and who can blame her!
There was always a little snarl, a little defiance to his early persona. The almost orphaned Danny Fischer, who had to drop out of high school, not out of rebellion, but instead nobly helping his bereaved father out of a financial hole, in the 1958 Elvis vehicle, King Creole, positioned Elvis as the new rebel, but this time with a cause. The light side bad boy to replace the dead James Dean. The male foils would start off hostile to him: “I hear you can sing, boy, I’m gonna need you to prove it!” …and ended up with their girlfriends ditching their unsexy prematurely middle aged selves for the blue eyed cutie with the dyed black hair and a body which moved in the waves of the universe and to the beat of a more primally aware drum. Elvis was wild. The voice, as deep and rich as it was; as expressive and full of desire, pep and emotion as any of the black blues acts that came before him, and which he stole so much inspiration from, was almost secondary to his dance moves.
Elvis was the sound of love. Japanese Grandpa loved Elvis with a passion usually reserved for female crushes. The only celebrity that approached Elvis in his affections was Marilyn Monroe. He would pour a Suntory whiskey, and talk about how much he loved Grandma, “are you-ou lonesome-mu, Baibay?” he would croon sloppily like so many other drunks, in touch with their sensitive longing sides by means of ethanol are wont to do. Elvis was the music of GI’s on their way to war, of their sweethearts left back Stateside. Elvis was the sound of a generation. But more than that, as that generation is on it’s way out of the world, let alone influence over the public consciousness, where does that leave the legacy of Elvis Presley? He did his worse and woke up the world to the power of sex and desire, demystified desire, and made it cool to shake that thang. No Elvis, no 1960s sexual revolution. No Elvis, no Lou Reed. No Elvis no opening the world up to the possibility of freedom to be themselves. Elvis is the Daddyo of the hippies. The progenitor of rock and roll, and you know what….he still sounds good.
Primo Elvis, the Elvis of the 1960s and early ’70s, leather clad, still lithe and slim and sexy, in full bloom of his rebellion, and his rebellion embraced by society around him, still under the thumb of the Colonel, but powerful enough in his own right to do his own thing, adored and adoring. He was still in love with his audience. If Proto-Elvis was Sex, Primo Elvis was Rock and Roll, and not only was he rock and roll, he was The King. The undisputed Emperor of Rocking and Rolling and all that comes along with it, from the lavish lifestyle, to the adoring fans, the ability to sell whatever he put his name and beautiful face to, and the oodles of money and influence that fell into his black leathered lap.
Elvis could still make the girls scream, but other guys, including the Beatles and the Stones had got in on that little meal ticket, so Elvis moved forward, singing about Heartbreak hotels, after jail (house rock)breaking the young people from religioso-social morality chains, he led the forward charge into leather clad rock n roll bad boy kingdom. He was the leather God sex on legs growl and thrust before Jimmy Morrison even got the idea that it could be turned into something big. His image was everything. The leather buckle bracelets, the no shirt under the tight leather jacket, the perfect quiff, that tumbles onto his forehead so winningly, the vocal ticks, the little electric shock jerks of his body, the stylized voice and performance, all carefully put together to form ELVIS PRESLEY. Even the sweat dripping down his bare chest is glistening so perfectly that it could have been sprayed there by a team of stylists, yet Elvis was natural, he was the real thing – he was his own stylist and creator.
The archetypal southern boy, with his entourage telling him, “you gonna get arrested boy!” when he oversteps the bounds of decency, making ‘hot’ little jokes about pleasuring himself, much to the delight of the women watching, and no doubt some of the boys too. “It’s a fine line” replies Elvis. His friend Johnny Cash sang about walking that line, as did Bobby Dylan, but no one walked it as well as Elvis. Elvis making fun of “Someone Left The Cake Out In The Rain” is one of the cutest things I have ever seen, and I never considered myself an Elvis fan. Even I think he is cute, and that is saying something.
This is the perfect rock and roll bad boy image anyone thinks of when the name Elvis is mentioned, that is if they have managed to fight off the Las Vegas fat boy days, of Elvis in the sickly depths of his food, drug and excess addiction.
Primo Elvis lasted as long as anyone could have under the circumstances. When everything is on the table, everything is available, when nothing is out of bounds, then of course things are gonna go too far. Elvis’s struggles with food – the ‘fools gold loaf’ – the fried bacon, banana and peanut butter sandwiches, the pills – can anyone say Quaalude addiction; the opiates that led to his constipation and dying straining to pass a stool on the toilet, in the most undignified way out imaginable. This Post-mortem Elvis is a tragic figure.
He could still sing, even if he did look like a Las Vegas hotel made mortal, studded with Rhinestones, encased in white polyester, a golden belt buckle as big as his head, and excess dripping off him. Elvis was sacrificed to his success. Blown up, gotten fat, everything too much: his naturally blonde hair too black, his voice tipping over into a parody of its previous emotion, his teeth bleached past whiteness, his drug habits reaching peaks only dreamt of at this point by Hunter S Thompson, Burroughs and the doomed hippy boys. Too much, too long. The Elvis bubble was always gonna pop at some point.
There is only so much hot air that can be pumped into a legend before it blows up. The flares were huge, the pomp and circumstance overwrought, the band was big, instead of the little intimate circles of the Primo-Elvis years, the set was too long. He was pouring sweat at that last ‘special’ performance, like a man whose heart could not contain the ‘too muchness’ of being Elvis Presley in 1977. Post Morten Elvis completed the popular music triad of Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll, and once made whole, there was only one way Elvis could go: onwards into infamy and eternity.
Years down the line Elvis has been accused of faking his death, and appears in grocery store shit-paper tabloids, announcing that he is alive, on Mars, in the swamps, living a new life. Elvis never left the building in these ‘buy a complete set of real gold plated Elvis memorial plates for the small price of only $35.99 a month for 24 months’ alternate naugahyde-covered realities that exist in a twilight zone of double wide trailer park rumors.
In that world, Elvis never died, but instead is something even more fantasical than the truth. Elvis the spaceman. Elvis, friend of aliens. Elvis the fugitive from fame. Elvis, long live the King. Elvis, the resurrected. Elvis who lived and died, so we all might fuck joyously and with abandon and free from the confines of Christian morality pushed onto us by the Churches and the preachers of middle America. Elvis who showed us how to have style and live authentically. Elvis the living work of art. Elvis the drug hero, who pushed it all the way and then some. Elvis who died both too early, and not early enough to protect his legend. Elvis the contradiction, and the deep southern heart of the truth of rock and roll.
Elvis, the King. Long may he live on Mars, and in our hearts. May my grandchild laugh one day if I am lucky enough to have a few of them, as I tell them about their great granddaddy, the Japanese Elvis fan who won grandma’s heart with a sneer and a snarl and a crooned karaoke version of Love Me Tender, as he used the name her daddy gave her, not the evil nuns who abused her. We all have our own personal Elvis stories, even 44 years after he passed away. You have your story I am sure, your story of dancing round the living room, of your grandma blushing every time he came on TV shaking his hips and pursing those full lips of his. This is his legacy. The question now, is not where were you when Elvis died, but ‘Where were you when you first heard The King, and what was he singing?”
Long live The King, even if rock and roll is dead, he lives on and on….possibly on Mars.