Twenty Years Later, The King's Complex Legacy Still Rocks On
The great Southern novelist William Faulkner once wrote, "The past is never dead. It's not even past," and this week's festivities commemorating the 20th anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley are perfect proof of Faulkner's assertion.
Considered the king of rock 'n' roll during his lifetime by millions of international fans, he has continued to symbolically "live" during the past two decades in the form of previously unreleased recordings, scholarly articles, books, conferences, fan clubs, tours, impersonators, and Internet sites.
No other popular music star in history has ever spawned such intensity of interest following his or her death. "He completely revolutionized the whole music culture," says Marsha Hammond, president of the If I Can Dream Elvis Fan Club of Massachusetts. "Everyone was ready for a revolution of sorts. He was the one to do it."
"Elvis had an energetic and innovative style, but he was also a great musician," says Ken Zambello, professor of performance studies at Berklee College of Music in Boston, who teaches the history of rock.
"In 1956, he was the first rock 'n' roll singer to dominate the charts. He added sex appeal to rock and brought it to a mass audience. Many young people were attracted to him because he was a rebel, and the older establishment looked down upon that."
We are witnesses, Elvis fans or not, to what Greil Marcus summarizes cogently in his book title, "Dead Elvis: A Chronicle of a Cultural Obsession." "No one has ever gotten to the bottom of why this guy is so fascinating," Mr. Marcus says.
A daunting comment by one of the most astute historians of American pop music, but Marcus continues his Elvis research enthusiastically, trying to get to the bottom of Elvis fascination, often listening to rare Elvis recordings and preparing an updated edition of his Elvis book to be published by Harvard University Press next year.
What keeps this obsession going?
First, there are scores of haunting Elvis performances on record. His was a supple voice, easily shifting from booming baritone to piercingly shrill falsetto, moving with equal ease from calm declaration to hysterical accusation.
The same singer who won Grammy Awards for devout gospel performances like "An Evening Prayer" also sold millions of rocking records like "You Ain't Nothing Like a Hound Dog." And these recordings were created by someone whose only musical education came through informal church singing.
Most of all, Elvis exemplified a Caucasian voice capable of a deep and affectionate empathy with African-American musical styles, whether gospel, blues, or R&B. In his CD compilation of blues performances, "Reconsider Baby" (RCA), Elvis sensitively personalizes blues standards, like the title tune long identified with black bluesman Lowell Fulson. Elvis draws upon his family background (working-class Mississippi), his boisterous sense of vitality, his nervy assertion of youthful macho, and delivers a sincere performance.
But beyond vocal flexibility and racial barrier-busting, there was the undeniable presence of a bigger-than-life persona lacing every vocal. Elvis's singing exemplified the energy of rural Southerners caught between an anxiety-provoking sense of sin and shame and an exultant sense of jubilation due to imminent salvation.
Perhaps the single best recording capturing this ambivalence is one sounding initially like silly fluff, the 1957 hit "Jailhouse Rock." A fantasy about inmates having their very own rock 'n' roll dance party - anyone without a partner dances with a chair! - Elvis delivers the lyrics with a disarming sense of childish mirth and full-throated, harsh fury.
The song stands as lighthearted entertainment with a great dance beat - and as a pop tune with a disturbing subtext about the dreams of lonely men in Southern jailhouses.
This isn't to deny the primacy of Elvis the entertainer, the pelvis-shaking, guitar-brandishing king of rock 'n' roll. The 33 Hollywood films he performed in are hardly saddled with significant social messages about race, crime, or alienation.
Complexity of sound
What is most curiously attractive about this oscillation between sin and salvation is how artfully Elvis voiced these contradictory states, maintaining a brightly sunny sound, a semblance of robust spiritual health, even while exploring the blues connected with lost love.
"Elvis was extremely religious," notes Ms. Hammond. "He came from a Pentecostal background, and he never lost that."
The complexity of the Elvis sound has proved as attractive to the rock musicians who have followed in his wake as to his millions of fans. Listen to Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right," and you can hear in Dylan's carefully measured delivery an echo of Elvis's "I Got Stung." And the affection Elvis felt for Dylan is heard in his version of Dylan's "Tomorrow Is a Long Time," a gentle love ballad Dylan claimed no one else ever recorded as well.
Bruce Springsteen's "Darlington County," a rocker about prisoners on a highway repair crew, could be a second cousin to "Jailhouse Rock." And when British rock singer/composer Declan McManus reinvented himself as a musician, he assumed the name "Elvis Costello" out of a desire to pay homage to a key musical inspiration.
"If Elvis were still alive, I don't think he would be as popular as he is today," says Mr. Zambello. "When any cult figure dies, such as James Dean and Marilyn Monroe, it tends to elevate their popularity."
For the millions caught up with thoughts about Elvis during this week, which includes a generation of fans who weren't even born when Elvis passed away, Elvis offers a vision of the "go-for-broke" entertainer, the intensely romantic country boy with one eye sizing up pretty women while the other gazes heavenward, swaying to the insistence of a big beat that just won't quit.
* Judy Nichols and Lisa Parney contributed to this report.
Elvis Presley Resources
* RECORDINGS: The novice listener would do well to purchase The Top Ten Hits, 38 hit songs covering hard rockers and ballads, and a tiny sampling of blues, country, and gospel tunes.
Blues fans will find Reconsider Baby an irresistible sampler. Country rock/rockabilly/ folk fans, and anyone interested in the origins of modern rock, will find the performances on The Sun Sessions CD overwhelming. Nearly all the gospel recordings are collected on Amazing Grace, a two-disc set that, like the previous titles, is on the RCA label.
* VIDEOS: MGM Home Entertainment has recently released 18 Elvis films on video. These include concert documentaries as well as frothy musicals like "Viva Las Vegas." Call 800-586-2021 (MGM) or 800-238-2000 (Graceland Mail Order).
* INTERNET: There are hundreds of Internet sites dedicated to Elvis. The best general sites (with numerous links) are "Elvis Presley's Graceland: The Official Worldwide Website" (www.elvis-presley.com/), a reverent and comprehensive site, and the gently humorous and intellectually rich "Elvis Lives in Evil Levis" (wsrv.clas.virginia.edu/~acs5d/presley.html).