Thursday, August 15, 2002

The Once and Future King

Twenty five years ago, my Mom, my pal Mark Bush and I were driving in a wood-paneled Mercury Montego wagon through Pennsylvania on the way to my first semester at Wesleyan. On the car radio, we heard the news that Elvis was dead. That night we stopped at a non-descript roadside motel somewhere along route 80. We sat in the room that night and watched a special tribute on TV. It was kind of weird, because at the time, I had all but forgotten about Elvis -- he had kind of disappeared from view. The last I remember seeing him was the 1973 Aloha special from Hawaii. I remember being particularly grossed out by the fact that these women would throw their scarves (and underwear) onto the stage and Elvis would wipe his sweaty face with them and throw them back. This was right before Elvis ballooned into the super-fat Elvis of the final days, but wearing that leather-spangled karate suit and pumped up on methedrine and vitamin B, he must have been sweating like a racehorse. He put on a great show, though and that's really the way he should be remembered.

My first memories of Elvis are probably from the mid-sixties, when Elvis was holed-up in his Beverly Hills mansion making movie after movie about how cool it is to be Elvis. There was this kid named Kenny Ray Davis in my third grade class who came in one morning with his hair slicked back and singing the title song from "Girls! Girls! Girls!" which had played on TV the night before. Right then and there, Kenny Ray Davis became the coolest guy in the class. And even though I wasn't sure exactly what it was Elvis was doing with all of those girls, I knew that one day I would forswear the mama's boy bangs that hung down over my forhead and slick my hair back like Elvis. And then I would be cool like Kenny Ray Davis and I'd be surrounded by Girls! Girls! Girls!

It took several years before I worked up the courage to actually start combing my hair back. First I tried just parting it on the side and combing it over. I stuck with that for a while. Eventually I got around to combing it back, but now it makes me look more like my Dad than like Elvis. But I still think it's cool.

The next Elvis sighting was the 1968 comeback special, where Elvis proved that he still had what it takes to rock our world. He even brought back the original guys who he played with at Sun Studios and ran through a set of the songs that first made him King. My favorite of those was "One Night With You", a bluesy gospel number with a barrelhouse roll that paid homage to the likes of early R&B greats like Lloyd Price and Ray Charles.

After that, Elvis popped up only now and then, 'Suspicious Minds' and 'In the Ghetto' in 1969, 'Kentucky Rain' in 1970, 'Burning Love' in 1971, the Aloha special in '73... But he was overshadowed by the Beatles, the Stones and a whole generation of others. It wasn't until years later that I went back and listened to those great '56 and '57 recordings and watched some of the the concert films from the 70's that I truly appreciated the gift he had. True, he squandered it in every way imaginable, but at the heart of it was a real genius for recognizing the essence of a song and delivering it with incomparable style and charisma. That's why he lives on, because he found the universal truths expressed in the songs he chose and shared them with the audience in a way that made you believe that he was speaking from his own personal experience. And sometimes he was. He was essentially a storyteller and his life was a fable. Even at the end, fat and wasted and paranoid, he still had that spark of coolness that propelled him from Tupelo to Memphis to Hollywood to Vegas and on into posterity.

I prefer to remember Elvis as the guy who slicked back his hair and sang about girls and made me think that someday I could be cool too. I needed that back in Louisville all those years ago. I still need it.

Thank you, Elvis. Thank you very much.