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Elvis: Real, Real Gone  

One of the earliest signs of pre-millennial madness – which seems now so calm, in light of post-millennial madness – was the rash of Elvis sightings that began taking place in the mid-1980s, and which continued on through the early nineties. The King was spotted in Arizona parking lots, at a McDonald’s in Kalamazoo, rummaging through boxes of nails at hardware stores in upstate New York. He waved to passersby from the windows of passing buses, and stopped at diners to ask for a glass of water before disappearing in a cloud of greenish vapor. The stories were so unbelievable as to almost be believable. For a time it was hard for those who’d loved and listened to him for so long not to find themselves at least considering the question:
      Is Elvis alive?
This wasn’t the first time that a charismatic figure was believed to have, for unknown reasons, given his or her audience the slip. While a certain percentage of the population – possibly larger than the percentage who believe the world is flat, possibly smaller than those who are sure the moon landings never took place – continues to this day to believe that he’d only gone away for a while, the question of whether Elvis was still hanging around, somewhere, did not linger long in the minds of most.
      (Some believe Elvis did return, in the guise of Bill Clinton. I sooner buy the idea that if he came back, the first thing he would do is go to a McDonald’s in Kalamazoo.)
      But now, a quarter-century on, and as the oldest members of America’s baby boomers find themselves beginning their long, SUV-eased, air-conditioned roll towards the boneyard – bearing in mind that as happens with each generation, many, if not most of their gods, fables, and follies will be buried like mummified cats alongside them – it seems time to raise the question again, although in a different context, and slightly rephrased:
      Is Elvis still alive?
No. Yes.
      Elvis Aron Presley the man, late of Memphis, Tennessee, recedes ever further into the world that was with each passing year. His actuality, preserved forever though it may be on record, on film, is nevertheless as lost as that of Buddha, or Robert Johnson (in a way, it was from the start; I suspect only his mother knew the real Elvis, and perhaps not even she). As the word “Lincoln” conjures in the contemporary American mind a beard, a war, a speech, and next to nothing else of the immensely complicated 16th president himself --including earlier visions of Old Abe in the popular mind: the rail-splitter, the frontier wrestler, the boy who taught himself to read in the light of a cabin fire – so the basics of the King’s symbol set have been as frozen:
     “Elvis:” White jumpsuit, waggling hips, pompadour.
      If the elements are to be used for humorous effect, add peanut butter, bacon and banana sandwiches.
      So far as merchandising goes, things could be worse. RCA/BMG – the King’s record label, the conduit through which all that matters of Elvis in this world continues to run – is prepared. One Joe DiMuro, senior vice president of strategic marketing at the company, spoke of their updated plans for the King in the New York Times earlier this year: ''For us, it's about taking a property and figuring out, how do we make him hip, young and irreverent – into a brand that's relevant to this younger demographic.”
      Elvis is no Britney Spears, in other words.
      Yet it doesn’t seem likely he’ll wind up as the now nearly-forgotten Al Jolson, either. In life, the last time Elvis was truly cool was 1968, after he put on that leather, picked up his guitar, and reconceptualized the product, as those in strategic marketing might say. The product can be iconized in infinitely new guises so long as the customer is satisfied, and that won’t be hard to pull off, even if the target demographics are far more circumscribed now than they were at the beginning. As long as there’s music, there’ll be Elvis.
      But Elvis – happily, sadly – fast outgrew his art. It shouldn’t be forgotten that, on the most essential level, all he really intended to do was make a record for his mother – things kind of took off from there. That he became, within a couple of years, one of the best-known and most beloved people of the 20th century seems now, as it seemed then, almost accidental (and in many ways more unbelievable than the likelihood of his having faked his own death). Yet, however much he might have wanted – hoped – to make it big, he was as stunned as anyone else at what wound up happening to him. Being Elvis, he gave every indication of just rolling with it as it came, and undoubtedly did so for a long time. Sprezzatura came as easily to him as his sense of rhythm.
     “I was a dreamer,” he said, years later, “I read comic books, and I was the hero of the comic book. I saw movies, and I was the hero in the movie. So every dream I ever dreamed has come true a hundred times.”
Doubtless, every nightmare as well, but Elvis never spoke in public of those.
      It is startling, yet undeniable, to realize that his place in Western civilization – judged solely by the direct and indirect effects that this single man proved to have on his society, on his culture, and on the larger world of which both were and are an inseparable part – is solid. It’s impossible to predict how much space in future media (whatever form that might take) will be allotted to Elvis as a historical figure, but it’s a safe assumption he’ll wind up something more than a footnote.
      Still, contrary to what some foresaw, the ultimate transmogrification of the King has not taken place. There were those who hoped, who believed, that Elvis not only still walked among us, but had indeed been sent down from heaven for a specific purpose yet to be unveiled; and there were also those (myself included) who suspected that a person upon whom such an infinite number of limitless possibilities could be, seemingly, forever projected would indeed be the most human, the most approachable personification of the greater spirit – call it God, call it Soul, call it whatever – there could possibly be.
      But, a quarter century after his death, there are no signs that the cult of Elvis will blossom into a religion. No St. Paul has stepped forward to elaborate upon what the King actually intended to say; no Joseph Smith has wandered out of a field, bearing new words from heaven, hammered out in gold by straying angels, no L. Ron Hubbard has drawn up sketches for new, improved E-meters.
      A transcendental figure must retain mystery if he or she is to be effective. We not only know – can hear and see, anytime we put on a CD, or play a video – how Elvis sang, and what he sounded like when he spoke, and what he looked like; but in the years since his death we have learned far, far too much more. We know about his clothes, his doctors, his friends, his diet, his guns, his spending habits, his sexual peccadilloes – if you want, you could look up the exact drugs discovered in his blood at the time of his death, not to mention the size of his colon.
      Where would Jesus be today, had the Fifth Gospel spread the news that he once ate a hundred Popsicles at a time, or enjoyed watching young girls in white underwear wrestle each other? Truly transcendental figures must be infinitely re-imaginable; they must be that genuinely blank slate upon which any number of dreams and dreads might be thrown. As it turns out, there is no room for imagination, imagining Elvis.
      Nor is it any longer possible (not that it ever truly was) to imagine that you, or anyone, could be Elvis. You may get on stage, with a guitar, you may be the best there is, but your audience will always be much smaller than was his. The world in which one person could have the kind of effect he did no longer exists.
      That does, of course, make the one person who did all the more special. And, we still have his music. Not to mention his jumpsuit.
      Elvis lives?
No. Yes.


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