His Truth Goes Marching On:
The Living Legacy of Elvis Presley
by Trevor O'Sullivan
Any academic who looks hard at Elvis and his legacy is forever in danger of romanticising him by virtue of the simple fact that Elvis himself was so sensational, and his story so inherently dramatic. In the continuing passion to find out more about the man and assess his enduring legacy, future generations will face snarling problems of historiography and biographical veracity. It is perfectly appropriate that the literature about Presley would be so astonishingly vast and diversified in scope: as full of irony, paradox and contradiction as the man himself.
By attempting to debunk the myths and reach the truth about Elvis, we invariably succeed in mythologising him further. How is it possible, after all, not to mythologise a figure who so completely and publicly lived out his myths and dreams? No matter how painstaking we try to be in portraying Elvis with sobriety and objectivity, no matter how thorough we are in research, how careful in the selection of words and images, he tugs relentlessly at our heartstrings, engaging our emotions as surely as he did singing.
The American Dream In Its Southern Variation
Mythology insists that the Southern experience is atypical of the American experience: where the rest of America has known innocence, success, affluence and disconnected sense of place, the South has known guilt, poverty, failure and concrete sense of place. These are myths that collide in Elvis; his American success story was acted out in its Southern limitations. No matter how successful, Elvis remained fundamentally disreputable in the minds of many Americans; his best rock and roll records were not honoured by the arbiters of the public taste.
Elvis' inability to transcend his lack of credibility despite a history-making success story confirms the Southern sense that the world outside thinks Southerners are freaks, illiterates, perverts and lynchers. Compounding his case was the fact that he neither appeared nor sounded fully white: to blur the rigidities of a segregated society was to reveal the falsity at its core.
In Elvis there also existed those aspects of the South that were bizarre, violent or darkly mysterious. The hidden terrors, pain and excesses of his private life provoke a compelling and familiar image, and even his drug problem had a familiar Southern accent: prescription medicines, cough syrups and diet pills.
The King's Ubiquity In Modern Culture
For a dead man Elvis Presley is awfully noisy. His spirit, image and myths have done more than live on since 1977; they flourish, thrive and multiply. He sneaks out of innumerable corners of the cultural terrain in ways that defy common-sense notions of how dead stars should behave.
A prime example of his vitality after death came in 1992, when he emerged as a player in the US Presidential elections. When the US Postal Service announced it would issue an Elvis stamp, Bill Clinton proudly admitted he was an Elvis fan. Clinton followed up the association with a sax performance of Heartbreak Hotel on the Arsenio Hall Show. Dubbed Elvis as a press corps in-joke, Clinton's PR machine played up the connection by issuing to the same pressmen a modified version of the Elvis stamp. Not to be outdone, George Bush made continual references to Elvis at the Republican Party's August convention.
Elvis appears in songs and poems, movies and TV shows, comics, papers and magazines, art exhibitions, cookbooks, greeting cards and trading cards, plays and novels, academic journals, university courses, Kit Kat ads, even genetic research (cf. Americans for Cloning Elvis). And his home, Graceland, has become a locus sanctus for the thousands of Elvis fans who visit every year. A Mecca in every acceptable sense, Graceland reinforces the religious aura that has settled around Elvis. It is a destination for holy pilgrimage that the true devotee must experience firsthand. As with all good religions, pilgrims engage in the King's deification on proper feast-days. Pick January 8th or August 16th.
Elvis: The Devil Incarnate
Elvis was a sex star. He didn't have to study it, he knew it. A twitch of the hips brought screams from a thousand girls and tears to their eyes. The enormous response to Elvis is good proof of the Reichian theory that the principal organising tool of the superstructure is sexual repression, proof of the existence of an enormous reservoir of quite untapped sexual energy. And Elvis knew how to tap it (slightly): enough of a tap to let you know it was very much there. The Shangri-Las defined Elvis' position (and that of his counterparts Brando and Dean) in Leader of the Pack. Is he bad?, asks one girl. Well, coos another, He's good bad but not evil.
Presley was at the forefront of the swiftest cultural revolution the world has ever known. It is difficult to imagine just how revolutionary Presley's music was back in the 50s. And today, the antipathy Presley fans face when they mention their idol is characteristic of the generation we have become: a generation exuding distanced cynicism to all that precedes it. Today's audience would not see Elvis' performance of Hound Dog on the Milton Berle Show as an example of a whirling dervish of sex or any other analogy used to describe it back then. The world is somehow still changed as Elvis changed it.
Unequivocally Elvis Presley has become, to some, the butt of an intellectual joke: a figure of derision. Hidden at the heart of this laughter are a host of classist assumptions about art and culture, one of which is the supposed inability of the lower classes to engage in the serious thought necessary to produce meaningful art. Another is the elitist bias embedded in our common-sense notions about what can and cannot be properly considered art.
The single most important aspect of Elvis' music was his inimitable and remarkable voice. His feel for a song, and his adaptability, have few parallels. As Bono has pointed out: He didn't express himself the way the middle classes do, which is with wordplay and being able to explain his actions and reactions. He acted on gut instinct and expressed himself by the way he held his microphone, by the way he moved his hips, by the way he sang ... that was his genius.
Elvis' art came effortlessly. In 1968, in the biggest examination of his career, he passed with flying colours. The moment he hit the camera his nerves dissipated, and he caught pure fire. All the accumulated spleen and passion of his wasted years burst out of him all at once and he sang like a god in flames. Rather than the lithe young panther of the 50s he had turned into a mythic crossbreed: half bull, half lion, wholly magnificent. As Jon Landau of Rolling Stone said, There is something magical about watching a man who has lost himself find his way back home.
Worshipping The King
Elvis reached the top and stayed there, virtually unchallenged. The King title came naturally. What made him, and kept him The King was a quintessential uniqueness. Not until Beatlemania did a power come along to rival Elvis' cult of personality. But it took four Beatles to generate the excitement of Elvis: they were pop nobles, sexual oligarchs, but not Kings.
The Elvis phenomenon is a paradigm for the way a religious enthusiasm begins. Music is a chief expressor of religion. Those who mythologise Elvis are trying to explain in archetypal religious language what Elvis has meant to their inner lives, just as they would Buddha or Jesus. The essential and amazing thing about the spiritual quest is that the divine can be apprehended by all. Of course we think Elvis an inadequate symbol of the divine, but one could have said the same of Jesus, who died the very common death of the disgraced criminal.
The Elvis fan does not worship Elvis as a Christlike figure. Elvis was a flawed genius. But the impact he has had on the lives of his fans is inestimable. For some, he gave meaning where there was none, he filled a void nobody else could fill. It is an impact that will not be diminished by time: his is a power almost religious in its nature.
A Lonely Life Ends on Elvis Presley Boulevard
What Elvis did was magic. He did a thing that launched a million things. Magic is the art of pure influence, a power of the will to move wills. Helen of Troy launched a thousand ships, but Elvis launched a million hips, and a million guitars, a million acts, a million songs.
If some disaster were to wipe out our books, tapes, films and records of historical and contemporary events, and a future generation found only a few clues as to Elvis Presley's identity, what would they make of him? If they merely knew that he was born the only son of very poor parents, and that when he dies aged forty-two millions mourned him all over the world, that tens of thousands flocked to his home in a vain attempt to glimpse his body, and that countless others attended and still attend memorial services in many countries, buying all manner of objects connected with him, they would surely wonder what sort of man could have made such an impact. A religious leader? A politician? A general? A King? None of these: he was a man who sang songs. His truth goes marching on.