Elvis has been dead for thirty years, a significant achievement for any deceased person. Elvis is one of those few cultural phenomena that are identified only by their first name, joining that highly esteemed club comprised of Cher, Roseanne, and The Rock. This fact no doubt irritates Elvis Costello to no end, and one suspects just about every baby boy (and one presumes the occasional girl) born in western Tennessee from the years of 1956-1960 or so.
To understate the impact Elvis had on American culture is almost unavoidable. He was one of the first entertainers to be almost universally successful, selling countless albums and racking up nearly twenty #1 hits. More importantly, he was the one person who introduced Middle America to a musical tradition that had at that point not been met with success, a movement so powerful it transformed the music industry forever. That movement was, of course, singing songs created and written by black people but improved by having them performed by people who had made the then-pioneering decision to be born white.
Elvis followed a rather normal ascent into the music industry, playing at gospel choirs and county fairs, slowly gaining fans and prescriptions. But by 1956, he had hit the big time with a mixture of upbeat tempos, crooning voice, and (let’s face it) sex appeal. Entertainment back in the day was almost painfully sanitized, where variety show hosts were routinely hired on the basis of how much they resembled roadkill that had been mulched, and women were cast upon with heated stones if they showed any skin below the neckline or above the hollow, hollow earth. And here comes Elvis—up to this point a literal choir boy—swinging his hips around like a damned hippie, had hippies existed in 1956, which they didn’t, though had he worn a beret and snapped his fingers while thrusting his pelvis about like an unattended garden hose turned up the whole way he could have been mistaken for a rather excitable and therefore uncharacteristic beatnik. Anyone who things it was just the songwriting or the voice are kidding themselves; Elvis introduced sex into music on a grand scale, which to many could only be the work of segregationists or Joseph Stalin.
Elvis managed to put ten singles in the #1 position in a remarkably short time, from the beginning of 1956 to the fall of 1957, one of which I just found out when I looked it up was called “Big Hunk O’ Love,” a title of which makes me seriously doubt the musical taste of anyone born after 1940. But his popularity skyrocketed, and he was easily the most recognizable face in music.
It was during this time that Elvis converted his singling style into something more important than all his previous accomplishments combined—that being, of course, using these songs as a platform to create some of the single worst movies ever put to film, the collective awfulness that had not been matched up until the production of any randomly selected ten minutes of Face/Off.
Time passed. As with all celebrities, his glamour wore off, and by the mid-sixties kids were more interested in licking LSD off of each others’ faces while everyone and their friends were out having sex, inhaling ground-up mushrooms, and shooting presidential candidates than buying his records. Like any good superstar, of course, he reinvented himself. Just as he had pretty much single-handedly brought rockabilly to be a viable commercial genre, in 1968 he invented the concept of the comeback concert. This grandiose concert was performed live in network television and with a jumpsuit that clearly had approximately eighty pounds of sequins, almost equal to the amount of flop sweat he produced during that hour. Once again he became a powerful force in the music industry.
Though not for long. The next decade was stop-and-start, culminating in one of the single greatest cultural achievements of mankind—a picture of Richard M. Nixon, standing awkwardly as he always does in the Oval Office, commissioning one Elvis Aaron Presley as “Federal Agent At Large” for the Bureau of Narcotics. This was insanely laughable in retrospect. Here was Elvis, who by this point no doubt suffered side effects every time he broke a sweat, which, given his weight, was pretty much a perpetual state of being, having the authority bestowed upon him equivalent of a drug enforcement officer. This was so odd that even Richard Nixon later had misgivings about his own judgment about handing a badge over to the King.
It descended quickly from there. While the musical product was good, if sparsely created, his live concerts were jokes and he became a parody of himself, crooning half-asleep in a tired old jumpsuit and sequins locally weighted to help him keep his balance. And had someone sat down and devised the single most inglorious manner in which any man should die, it’s doubtful he could have come up with anything much worse than how Elvis died—at the john, hopped up on drugs and unable to move.
There’s more to Elvis than simply his life and death, of course. Elvis’s rather strange peccadilloes are legendary. Fried banana and peanut butter sandwiches, for instance, seem kind of quaint now in hindsight, what with the fact that he was ingesting about 2% of the profits from Merck for breakfast each morning. But back then, it was just a good ole boy feeding a strange appetite with something that was apparently designed by a four-year-old given the opportunity to create a sandwich out of all the random crap found in the kitchen.
The Elvis fans—then and since—have always been a bit unfortunate to witness. I mean, sure, sure, sure, all singers and movie stars have their fans that are—let’s stay charitable here—crazier than a drunken moonbat. But Elvis fans have somehow origamied this into an entire industry. Graceland, Elvis’s home, is one step away from installing roller coasters and have a pantomime Colonel walking around handing out paraffin pink-Cadillacs-on-a-stick. And they have single-handedly managed to keep the Elvis Is Alive! rumor—with a little bit of help from all of us—for a few decades.
Despite his success, immense wealth, and cultural impact, one can’t help but feel a little sorry for the man. Well, I can. Elvis has the distinction of dying mere weeks before I was born, so I have lived in this world completely Elvis-free. More importantly, the fact that the 30th anniversary of his death is approaching means that the 30th anniversary of my birth is, also. Don’t be cruel, my ass.