Our musical education starts young, and is largely influenced by our parents in its infancy. I’ve oft hypothesized that you either grow up in a Beatles household, or an Elvis abode–that the two seem to be mutually exclusive. My father was a HUGE fan of the King. To my teenage horror, he would roam the house doing impressions: singing with his lip curled and pulling Presley tunes from his diaphragm. I even inherited a sweat-stained scarf he allegedly (according to lore from his own mouth) fought a woman for after Presley had tossed it into the audience at a show. To reassure you, the provenance of the item is legitimate, but the process of acquisition is suspect; my father could tell a tale.
Elvis Presley remains an integral thread in the fabric of our American heritage, he cannot be ignored, but he is also a controversial icon. Largely credited with the creation of Rock and Roll, he is also criticized as a thief for stealing music played more authentically by its originators, black musicians, and making money from their sweat with his white face and bedroom eyes. He was also a drugged-out psychotic who commodified women, loved guns to an uncomfortable degree, and was drunk on the power of his own mystique. Greil Marcus (my idol) discusses Elvis’ legacy as it relates to the American landscape far better that I in Mystery Train, which I suggest you read if you want to follow this thought further.
As with most criticisms, however, there is always a counter-argument. Elvis grew up dirt poor on the wrong side of the tracks, literally, so it stands to reason that he would absorb the rhythm and blues prevalent in the black community with which he interacted, bonded as they were in their poverty. He was also incredibly generous and while his taste was ostentatious and his entourage absurd, it’s easy to interpolate from these facts the underlying insecurities that drove the King of Rock and Roll–he would always be the Mississippi mama’s boy with dirt under his fingernails from scratching his way up into the world. To displace this, he lived lavishly and showered all he knew, even mere acquaintances, with finery as if to remind himself that he had made it, but also for the joy of giving and having. Once you taste the P in Poor, you never again want that flavor on your tongue and are compelled to spare others from the same.
My father was a lot like Elvis Presley. The plot lines of his early years were the same but different, the generosity almost identical if not financed on a lower level. I have a feeling he understood this even if he didn’t consciously dissect it’s meaning. The last years of his life were difficult and did not befit his stature, just as the way the world lost the King did not jive with all that he had given. No man who savored company as sweetly and cared for his loved ones so thoroughly as these two should have died alone, and in this respect I will always mourn the passing of them both with a pang of regret. When Elvis died, the world sobbed together and sort of lost their minds. When my father died, I grew up fast and soundtracked his last moments aboveground with an Elvis song. After all, my father had left the building.
This Throwback Thursday happened because I stumbled upon an uncut version of Elvis Presley’s glorious 1968 NBC Comeback Special. 1968 was a heavy year of world-wide social upheaval, and in its midst comes a svelte, leather-clad Elvis, looking better than he ever did before and ever would again, singing stories in an intimate setting. This is how I prefer to remember Elvis, and not as the bejeweled Las Vegas spectacle he became. After rolling through the Presley catalog like a stroll down memory lane, the special ended with the debut of “If I Can Dream”–a call for hope in a time seemingly gone made, and now, through the fog of nostalgia, a thought to guide a daughter growing older in a vacuum.