Happy 81st Birthday, Elvis! Why The King Still Matters
At his best, Elvis Presley was a hip-thrusting, soft-lipped, snarling rock star who almost single-handedly corrupted 1950s youth culture with a perfect pompadour of black hair, long sideburns and a swinging pelvis. And he loved his mama. At his worst, he was a rhinestone-covered mumbling mess doing karate kicks onstage, interrupting himself, sweaty, damaged, yet still magical — because pills, loneliness and overindulging on fried banana, bacon and peanut butter sandwiches could not dampen this man’s glow onstage.
Way back when it all began, after Elvis Presley first performed on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1956, shaking his junk around, parents broke their daughters' record players and burned their Elvis singles. He caused such a ruckus in his first two appearances on the show that for his third, censors demanded that he only be filmed from the waist up, as if audiences couldn’t imagine what was going on below the belt.
In another instance, after a concert in Wisconsin, the local Catholic diocese wrote to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover that Presley was “a definite danger to the security of the United States. ... His actions and motions were such as to rouse the sexual passions of teenaged youth."
By today’s standards, where boobies and vaginas and all sorts of crazy saturate the screen in full color, this Elvis guy and his shaky leg seem like small potatoes. But Presley was the first naughty thing to become a worldwide phenomenon. In an age of innocence and tight-lipped moderation, he symbolized rebellion. And in many ways everything that follows, from The Beatles and The Ramones to Miley Cyrus, was set in motion when Presley performed “Hound Dog” on TV in the mid-1950s.
Elvis Presley did not invent rock & roll, or the fusion of country/hillbilly music and rhythm & blues, which came to be called rockabilly. But he wore the crown, and eventually the cape, selling the most records of any solo artist in the history of recorded music to this day.
But statistics are not the basis for my adoration of The King. And it’s OK by me that of the estimated 700 to 1,200 songs he recorded in his 42-year lifetime, they were pretty much all covers. Nor do I care that he starred in a lot of bad movies. Not his fault.
I love that in the early 1970s, Presley would impersonate a police officer, drive around with a blue light on his car, a gun and billy club on his hip, and pull people over. Instead of a ticket, he would give drivers his autograph. I love that the last food Elvis ate before he died was four scoops of ice cream and six chocolate chip cookies, according to Irena Chalmers' The Great Food Almanac. I love Elvis because I love Wanda Jackson, and he persuaded Jackson to dye her hair black and play this "new kind of music." I love Elvis because after his character died in his first film, Love Me Tender, his fans protested in the streets, and he never died in a movie again. I love Elvis because one of his best friends was a whiskey-drinking chimpanzee named Scatter.
When I see Elvis videos, I don’t want to kiss him or rub my hands all over his body; I want to be him. And probably the estimated 80,000 Elvis impersonators roaming the planet feel the same. When I give a good performance, I feel like Elvis. When I give a sloppy or drunk, but seemingly charming performance, I feel like Elvis.
From 1950s greaser Elvis to soldier Elvis to Hollywood actor Elvis to ’68 Comeback Special Elvis to Aloha From Hawaii Elvis to Vegas jumpsuit Elvis to fat dead Elvis on the toilet — with each incarnation, Elvis Presley became more than a man, and more than a legend. For some, he is a keychain or the face on a stamp; for others, he is better than Jesus. No wonder Presley’s estate, Graceland, is the second most visited home in America, after the White House.
Personally, I don’t want to remember Elvis as a hero. I like my Elvis messy and flawed, cool and somewhat ruined by popular culture.
Daiana Feuer's band, Bloody Death Skull, performs tonight (Monday, Jan. 4) at the Elvis Presley Tribute Show at the Echoplex.
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