Thursday, August 16, 2007
Elvis in 2007
Today marks the 30th anniversary of Elvis Presley's death. On August 16, 1977, he succumbed to heart disease brought on by years of amphetamine abuse. As thousands gathered in the heat today to partake in the memorial services, one has to ask why, what drives this lingering national obsession with a man who could be viewed as simply a cliche, a self-destructive rock star? Why, according to Forbes, did Elvis' estate gross more in 2006 than any other dead celebrity other than Kurt Cobain? Why do an estimated 400,000 people visit Graceland every year? On some level, people buy into Elvis as a victim, a country bumpkin who must have been over his head and surrounded by self-serving sycophants. His manager, Colonel Parker, and Elvis' family put a lot of energy into conveying an image of Elvis as a gentleman, so concerned for the welfare of others that he'd buy them Cadillacs or food on a whim. When Lisa Marie was born, Elvis the doting father was born. But the fundamental reason that his legend endures is because Elvis had a very strong work ethic when it came to his music. He was relentless, often doing more takes than his producer required and staying at the studio all night in order to get one song the way he thought it should sound. Part of his drug use stemmed from the stage fright Elvis experienced before his performances. And that was fueled by the pressure he put on himself to do an outstanding show each and every time he took the stage. Elvis voiced a sincere concern that the people who attended his shows should get their money's worth and, except during his waning years, he delivered. There is no excuse for the way that Elvis abused the drugs made available to him. He rationalized that as they were prescribed to him by his physician, they were medicine and not illicit drugs, which he ironically despised. We wish that every adult could take a step back and assess the personal damage caused by using drugs. But Elvis never stepped back, never took that opportunity. In 1977, he was miserably overweight, suffering from arthritis, and self-conscious about both. Elvis died in an embarrassing way, on a bathroom floor. But we stand by him now, 30 years later and honor him. We honor the good memories, the flawed human being and especially the music. I was not an Elvis fan for most of my adult life. And still, there are many bands I would listen to before Elvis. But when I listen, and listen carefully as I did today, the soulfulness and desire to please come through. A professionalism and heartfelt urgency come through. His music is playful, rendered, and dynamic. Elvis' style is unmistakable and he carved a unique niche for himself. No one else may occupy this niche ever again in music history. He was an imperfect king. But his music is a rich tapestry, fit for any palace.