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
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
Is Elvis still alive?
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
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
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
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.