A week or so ago, it would have been Elvis Presley's 75th birthday. I had a few thoughts about Mr. Presley.
When I was 18 years old, just starting college, the first album I bought was an album I'd been hearing on the radio, the Clash' "London Calling." I was just beginning the awakening of what would be a lifetime passion for politics. Living in the midst of a bland suburb southwest of Chicago (Western Springs), the angry politics of the album stirred something in me that was stunning.
When I bought the album, I kept looking at the cover; I kept getting a sense of deja vu; the sense I'd seen it before. It wasn't until years later it dawned on me that it was a very deliberate homage to the cover of Elvis' first album. While the Clash may have decried cheap nostalgia and "phony Beatlemania" in song, they realized where their roots were. They realized that there was a road that ran from the raw blues and hillbilly music to Elvis' blending of those musics, and shaking up all the bluebloods with his shaking pelvis, to the Clash' own angry stance.
On Little Steven's Underground Garage, they frequently play a little biography Steve Van Zandt did of Elvis. Presley grew up, as everybody knows, in Tupelo, Mississippi. What most people don't know is that Presley's family lived in a mostly-black part of town due to their poverty. He went to school with white kids, but was regarded as a loner-- a weirdo who played "hillbilly" music.
Through his childhood, Presley was indeed immersed in that "hillbilly" music, along with black blues and gospel. Out of this stew came an exciting new sound. As another great, Roy Orbison, recalled upon seeing Presley perform for the first time in Odessa, Texas when Orbison was 19, "His energy was incredible, his instinct was just amazing. ... I just didn’t know what to make of it. There was just no reference point in the culture to compare it."
Once he hit the big time, Presley created an amazing body of work. While there are a few clunkers here and there, the breadth and depth of his work is amazing. From the rockabilly romp of his first single, "That's All Right Mama" to the out and out gospel "Run On," with stops at country, boogie-woogie, rock and roll and other genres in between, I find I'm still discovering new favorites.
Elvis has become completely ingrained in Western culture. There was a very funny scene in the 1991 movie "The Commitments," where the main character Jimmy's dad is questioning veteran saxophonist Jimmy "Lips" Fagan about meeting and working with Elvis. Fagan tells Jimmy's father that he never once saw Presley "taking narcotics." All of this is with pictures of Pope John Paul II and Elvis hanging on the wall behind him. Guess which guy is on top?
Presley's personal life was definitely erratic and flawed. I sometimes wonder how I would have done had I had all the temptations he had suddenly thrust upon me. I wasn't a rich rock star and I spent a good deal of my life succumbing to various temptations. Many of the stories that have come out over the years may or may not have been true, but one that is definitely not was the story that he'd said that "The only thing Negroes can do for is buy my records and shine my shoes." This fake quote, which circulated in 1957 was complete bosh; Snopes has even confirmed this:
One other story, though, is true-- the one about Elvis buying a Cadillac for a woman who was looking at one through a dealer's window. He did buy the car for the woman, who was black. Elvis had black friends, worked with black musicians and readily acknowledged the influence gospel and blues had on his music. So much for his "racism."
Over the years, the specter of Elvis Presley has loomed in my life, and been the source for many a great time, such as the now-fabled road trip to check up on the King in April, 1985 when I was in grad school, and great stories, such as the time my old friend Dan and I were miraculously rescued by Elvis in 1996. Even my family is not immune to Elvis' charms: when my son was about 4, he suddenly decided that Elvis' "Kentucky Rain" was the best song ever.
In January, 1989, I was rooming with my old friends Dan and Mark in the Wrigleyville neighborhood. On January 8th, I met up with another old friend, Tim, and we went to Danny's, on Dickens and Damen to have a drink with the King on his birthday. Back then, the bar was heavily Elvis-themed. Angie and Karen, the main bartenders, were huge Elvis fans. Karen had, in fact, been in Memphis intending to visit Graceland on August 16, 1977, when she discovered Presley had died.
That night, Danny, the owner, was there. As I walked in, I was handed a raffle ticket. Over the evening, a bunch of Elvis memorabilia was handed out to lucky winners, as well as a Quija board-- so that you could talk to the King. As the prizes dwindled down, I was convinced that my status as "The guy who never wins a thing" would continue.
Then, suddenly, Danny pulled out one last surprise prize: a flesh-colored bust of Elvis Presley. He called out a number and I realized to my shock that it was my number.
That night, I came home a bit inebriated and woke my roommates up to meet our new roommate. They were nonplussed. Still, Elvis has had a place of honor in my home every place I have lived. He currently resides where he belongs, on a pedestal, in a shrine we have on the back porch, pictured at the top of this post. Someday, if you're lucky, you can come by on some lovely summer night and under the stars and the christmas lights, have a drink with the King and I. Long live the King. We still love you.