Friday, August 16, 2002

Whup-dee-doo, Elvis is Still Dead

Today marks the 25th anniversary of the passing of the King. Forgive me if this date is completely meaningless to me. I truly can't comprehend why people would sit around at Graceland with candles to sob big salty tears because some performer died of a self-inflicted heart attack from a drug overdose and being hideously fat. 25 years ago, no less! This man, who ate sandwiches made from gristle and three entire packages of greasy bacon, forcing them into his maw like they were tic-tacs. This man, who's claim to fame was unhinging his pelvis and limping across the stage like a paraplegic in rehab.

I guess what upsets me more than anything else is the notion that this man, above all others, was the true musical genius of the past millennium (and ask any fan, and they'll tell you just that). I think the true geniuses here were Elvis' PR people, the marketing machine that propelled him to god-like status after he bit the bullet. Viva Las Vegas, indeed! Just before they found him unconscious on the floor, he was finished. His big selling points were his strange propensity for sequins that almost put Liberace to shame and an inability to complete shows without drenching himself with sweat and staggering off the stage in a stupor. In the "Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock 'n' Roll," critic Peter Graining said at the time that, "It seems to be a continuing battle... and Elvis is not winning. His hair is dyed, his teeth are capped, his middle is girdled, his voice is a husk, and his eyes film over with glassy impersonality. He is no longer, it seems, used to the air and, because he cannot endure the scorn of strangers, will not go out if his hair isn’t right, if his weight -- which fluctuates wildly -- is not down. He has tantrums onstage and, like some aging politician, is reduced to the ranks of grotesque."

And now, today, Elvis is more popular than ever. Forbes Magazine recently named him the top earning dead celebrity and sales of Elvis-related paraphernalia earned more than $37 million (US) in the last year. Are people insane?

My disdain for this lunacy has nothing to do with his music. I agree wholeheartedly that he was very talented and I enjoy a great number of his songs, and I appreciate the fact that he did a great deal towards popularizing rock-and/or-roll. But I also recognize that in many ways, he just happened to be in the right place at the right time. Rock & Roll truly started with black musicians as an extension of jazz in the southern United States. Elvis grew up in the south, heard the new sounds, copied them, and made them his own. He broke out onto the scene in 1956, when the young people of America were looking for something new, something that spoke to them and made them feel independent. Elvis came to symbolize this new smooth talking, sexy youth culture of fast cars, diners, leather jackets, and loud music -- he became their King almost by default, riding the wave of his good looks, decent voice, and unconventional dancing style. Parents hated him, and teenagers wanted to be like him.

And why Elvis? Why don't we mark the passing of Beethoven or Mozart with wracking sobs and composer-impersonators strutting by? They were true geniuses.

And if we mark Elvis as the grandfather of Rock & Roll, will we celebrate Joey Ramone, the recognized father of punk, and Kurt Cobain, the recognized father of Grunge music and the one who can be credited with popularizing Alternative bands (creating one hell of a confliction in terms), in the same way, 25 years from now? I certainly hope not. They were entertainers, not prophets....and I don't think that Joey Ramone would appreciate something like that anyway. If anything, he'd want everyone to get really drunk and watch Rock & Roll High School or something.

Or maybe we celebrate him because he was a great musician and he died before his time? If so, maybe we should circle April 5th on our calendars as the day that BOTH Layne Staley of Alice in Chains and Kurt Cobain of Nirvana overdosed....we could call it OD Day, and go to Seattle and light candles under the Space Needle. Or have a midnight vigil in the Paris hotel room where Michael Hutchence asphyxiated himself with his belt. Or for Tupac, or Jimi , or Janice. But I don't see that happening in any hysteria-level way anytime soon.

So why do we hold Elvis up on a pedestal? Why do we impersonate him with a ghoulish mockery of his on-stage persona? Does he truly define two generations of Americans?

But all of this is just my humble opinion. I guess you'd have to ask a fanatic to get the whole story, because I just don't get it.


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