• U.S.

Long Live the King

5 minute read
Lee Siegel

Don’t get all shook up, and don’t be cruel, but can we please have a little less conversation about the deep cultural significance of Elvis Presley? Well, no, we can’t, because, for one thing, A Little Less Conversation, a minor Elvis song from 1968, which was on the soundtrack for the even more minor film Live a Little, Love a Little, has been grinding and swiveling at the top of the charts in a remixed version for the past several weeks. You thought only a small cult of Presley fanatics believed that Elvis, who died in 1977 of a heart attack brought on by years of heavy drug use, was still alive? Now, it seems, the entire country does.

And this Aug. 16 is the 25th anniversary of the King’s death, a commercially overdriven event that’s sure to set off a howl of commentary about the King as American tragedy, as vulnerable transgressive, as daring racial-boundary breaker, as revolutionary synthesizer of musical styles, and on and on. Not that there is anything inappropriate about all the heady chatter. Our famous American dead accrue layers of interpretation through the years and become palimpsests of cultural meaning. Like Elvis, born to poor parents in Depression-era Mississippi, our pop figures usually follow an arc from nowhere to somewhere, and so by talking about them we reassure ourselves about the promise and the possibilities of American life. Europe has the grandiose Age of Romanticism. We have the humbly born Marilyn, or Sinatra–or the King. Crystallize an epoch in an individual, and you offer individuals the hope of transcending their epoch.

Of course, in America, the past is always waiting in the wings. It’s like that old boyfriend or girlfriend who won’t go away. On Broadway now, you can see The Producers and The Graduate. (It used to be that only film stars returned to theater on the Great White Way; now entire films do.) Playing on the silver screen are remakes of Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and the old TV mini-series The Bourne Identity. Our President is a revival of sorts, at least genetically. Come to think of it, the whole concept of remixing is a kind of musical cloning. Or in the case of Elvis, whose sobs welled up from his hips, his return to the Top 10 is a sort of musical cryogenics.

Though the stubborn presence of the past is all around us, Elvis is the only cultural icon to have inspired a passionate denial of the fact of extinction. Perhaps this is because his career died without Elvis himself actually expiring, and collective memory has woven into the fabric of myth the striking spectacle of a man living beyond his life. Elvis reached the peak of his fame at the age of 23 in 1958, the year Colonel Tom Parker, his business manager, encouraged the world-famous singer to enter the Army. Parker figured that in the interim, the record companies would sell out their stock of Elvis’ recordings, and that the King could write his own ticket when he returned, in both the recording and the film industries. Parker was right, but after Elvis got mustered out, in 1960, the calculated rounds of studio recordings and film performances made the young star stale and bored. Elvis outlived his career while he was alive; now that he’s dead, his career is outliving him.

For the ardent, the living death of Elvis’ sad decline might have supplied paradoxical proof of supernatural powers, but the strongest evidence of the King’s capacity to outwit the Grim Reaper lies in Elvis’ art itself. He outwitted–outlived–the heartbreak he sang about even as he sang about it. Like Marlon Brando, his favorite actor and another virtuoso of feline virility, the King simultaneously performed and watched himself perform. The emotions he belted out never took him in. His sobs are more like a parody of sobs. Play I Want You, I Need You, I Love You, and listen to the second phrase nearly disappear under tones of mimicry–the title’s order of emotions expresses the singer’s ironic detachment. (Yes, there was irony in the ’50s.)

Standing at an angle to his performances, leaping from style to style, manipulating his physical appearance, Elvis gave the impression of a man enduring beyond whatever external conditions fate pitched in his path. He gave the impression, gesture by gesture, of having come, or run, a long way–he was Huck Finn with a guitar. Before such artfulness, death ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog. The only dismaying quality about the remix of A Little Less Conversation, which is a lot of fun to listen to, is the splicing in of techno sounds, electronic warps and woofs that are like the revenge of impersonal forces on a profoundly original man who thrust and sneered and sobbed (chuckled) impersonal forces away. But the King will outlive his immortality also: “Honey, lay off them shoes.” Happy anniversary, Elvis, wherever you are.

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