Friday, February 1, 2008

A Month With Elvis Presley

The final word count was 4,011. I had never written anything so epic. I e-mailed the piece to my editor, and took a deep breath. I was exhausted. I put aside everything in my life to focus on that article. I locked myself in my room and lived on a steady diet of Goldfish and Mountain Dew, pausing occasionally to sleep and shower. For one month, I was consumed with Elvis Aron Presley.

Elvis and I have a long and complicated history. When I was in the third grade, my dad came home with a box of records that he inherited from an elderly client. The records were pretty terrible. My dad went through the box, periodically rescuing treasures and commenting on the oddity of the collection: “Who in their right mind buys two Dr. Demento albums?”

I didn’t have any interest in anything that contained “I’m My Own Grandpa,” but two records caught my eye. The covers featured a man wearing a white-sequined jumpsuit and a helmet of black hair. The man apparently had one name: Elvis. At eight years old, I had a vague idea of who Elvis Presley was. I had never heard any of his music, but I knew that he was pretty important. I put the record on, and the moment I heard “Jailhouse Rock,” everything clicked. My friends listened to bands like The Spin Doctors, Counting Crows and Toad the Wet Sprocket, but I immersed myself in the music of the King.

As I grew older, I moved on. I stopped listening to Elvis all together and moved my posters down to the basement. In my late teens, I even subscribed to the revisionist theory that Elvis was nothing more than a wilder version of Pat Boone. I didn’t understand his impact. Sure his ‘50s work was fantastic, but pap like “It’s Now or Never?” The terrible films where he always seemed to be playing a race car driver? How could he be considered the king of anything, let alone rock n’ roll?

I don’t think anyone from our generation can truly grasp what an impact Elvis had on our culture. We’ve grown up in a world where sex is no longer a dirty word. When Elvis hit the national stage in 1956, male singers stood stoically at the microphone crooning sweet ballads and novelty songs. Elvis threw that notion out the window with swiveling hips and a hiccupping vocal. Male singers had never been sexy, and in the conformist world of the mid-‘50s, that was threatening. His sneer still implies danger a half century later.

Unfortunately the image that most people have of Elvis Presley is not the “Hillbilly Cat,” of 1956. Elvis’ fall was so stunning that people only think of him a fat drug addict who died in his bathroom. To place him in that box is not only insulting to the man, but also insulting to our culture. Elvis gave us some of the greatest music of the 20th century, and we take it for granted. We take it for granted because it has always been there. However, there was a time when it wasn’t there. Elvis Presley is the root of all modern music. Everyone has been influenced by him, consciously or unconsciously. As legendary rock critic Lester Bangs once said, “Elvis threw “Doggie in the Window” out the window, and the rest of us are still reeling from the impact.”

I decided to write about Elvis because I wanted to understand his impact. I have a firmer grasp on it, but I don’t think I’ll ever fully appreciate it. However, I am fully aware of one thing: Elvis’ early records encapsulate everything that is wonderful about rock n’ roll. He will never leave the building.

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