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Passages of Great Men: Elvis Presley

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My cousin commented earlier this week about me being psychic.  Well I’m beginning to think she’s right; as I sat down at the computer in the wee hours of the morning I decided Elvis must be the next in the series.  Imagine my surprise when, as I was looking for articles online, I discovered today, January 8th, is his birthday – what would have been his 75th birthday.  As Freud said, “There are no coincidences.” So the homage is fitting.  Let this confirm his presence on the list if for no other reason.  And let’s not even start comparing Bernstein, to Lincoln, to Presley.  Can’t be done, nor should it. 

The music of Elvis illustrated what may have likely been the worst fear of those in the South during Lincoln’s time, and that fear was that blacks and whites were coming together.  As Elvis shot on the scene like a comet he brought huge controversy with him.  And with that controversy he broke barriers.  I once read somewhere that controversy was G-d’s way of making others pay attention to someone or hear a message.  Elvis took one handful blues, one handful of country “hillbilly”, some black and white gospel music, added a dash of hip swivelling (which during that time was seen as blatant and overt sexuality which must be Feared) and then let the masses stir and stew while the young people danced and grabbed their ticket to freedom and independence: Rock ‘n roll. 

Much like the “John Wilkes Booth’s” of Lincoln’s story, there were  those around Elvis – vociferous ne’er-do-wells – who dug their heels into the ground when changes were occurring across the landscape and went on a full-frontal attack.  The culture wars prior to the birthing of the civil rights movement in the 60’s were boiling strong.  It is sometimes shocking and scary to remember that it was really only yesterday that segregation and sublimation of other races was widely deemed a legitimate practice by the powers that be.

“Everything is tied together with the Brown decision, public school, desegregation, rock and roll music, Elvis Presley. I think that illustrates the fear in the South that blacks and whites are going to come together,” —Michael Bertrand, Ph.D., Professor, Tennessee State University.

“Without meaning to, and really without understanding it, he’s a point of conflict because it’s not just the mingling of blues and rock, it’s also his reliance on a music that is in the minds of some really sinful,” — John Seigenthaler, the retired founding editorial director of USA Today, who covered Elvis as a young reporter for The Tennessean.

In essence, Elvis and his music represented an evolution, most of which was a natural progression to a long pent-up and repressed society.  This evolution had to happen.  Why should this change not come through music?  When something is repressed it always comes out eventually, but in perverted form.  The fear of the elders was that the youth was going to become cocky, slick, leather-clad, free and sexually permissive, like they felt the King was selling.  Maybe this evolution was necessary.  Regardless of the unflinching efforts of elders and Ed Sullivan himself, they were forgetting one fact: if one is vehemently told not to do something as a youth, the natural inclination is to do it.  If parents could get a stronger grasp on reverse psychology, their efforts to control and direct might be more effective.  That said, shouldn’t the youth be leading the direction and not the parents?  The progression of a generation is just that, progress… and that evolution should be honored.  For every time the older generation complains of the youth showing disrespect, having no manners or being condemned as interminable sinners and blemishes on society, it begs the question:  To what extent have adults shown their children disrespect as human beings and independent souls – and does not this disrespect, by universal law, always come back in some way, shape or form?

Adults may stick tight to traditions and attempt to infantilize youth, but social and cultural change, often ushered in by youth is not only inevitable but necessary.  To the youth, Elvis was being painted as the Devil Incarnate which of course only encouraged teenagers as they clandestinely listened to Elvis in basements on their little AM radios, surely condemned to hell.  Not!

Here is something frightening to watch.  If we pay attention, this kind of thing still happens today, even if in different forms.  In the video below, Elvis basically stood and sang, tapping his feet repressing his urge to unleash the dynamite that he typically brought to the stage.  At this performance he was forbidden to engage in “illegal” hip movements. It appears that some people, somewhere get upset when other people somewhere else are having fun.

Speechless is all I can say.

Without turning this into a biopic, the turning point in his life and what began his own demise and self-destruction was the death of his mother who he adored and depended on for moral support and advice.  Adding to the pressure of his divorce from Priscilla, he was never really the same after this period a part of him dying and checking out. 

“This is the end of rock ‘n’ roll.”  — Bob Moore Merlis, Warner Bros.exec

“The void he will leave is impossible to gauge.” — Pat Boone, an early rival of Presley’s

“The King is dead, but rock ‘n’ roll will never die. Long live the King.” — John Lennon, former Beatle

“His music was the only thing exclusively ours. His wasn’t my and mom and dad’s music. His voice was a total miracle in the music business.” — Carl Wilson of the Beach Boys

The youth of the 50’s and 60’s have deified Elvis since he came on the scene as a revolutionary; his passing seeming only to further elevate him as a rock and roll deity.  Graceland gets over half a million visitors every year and as reflected in the urban legend and myth that the King is still walking among us, there are still some who are unwilling to accept his passage.  For many, the possibility that he might come back to life, was their only solace. The preponderance of Elvis sightings and unwillingness to let go of such mirages is evidence alone of how much so many loved him.  Regardless of what people see or don’t see in order to sell papers, his spirit, at least, is still very much here – alive and well.

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