NEW YORK, August 19, 2013 — Our pop culture moves so fast that there is hardly a minute to pause in admiration for the lofty men and women who passed by and left us richer but too early.
How many of this generation remember Elvis Presley as an entertainer who made things different in America?
Once upon a time we had such a king. Maybe it is worth spending a moment to remember.
To say that Elvis was an original is to say the obvious. His greatest achievement was this: He was an American.
We, his peers, as we honor the 36th anniversary of his departure, did not know it at the time. Now we know it - a giant walked among us.
The girls swooned, but some of us guys standing on the corner were jealous of him. How could we compete with that look and such depth of talent? When he came on the scene we thought him a quirk. The authorities tagged him a “juvenile delinquent” and a bad influence upon the young and everyone else. He was maligned, ridiculed and misunderstood - by the brass, not the multitudes.
Ed Sullivan detested him and Steve Allen mocked him.
No one at the time knew that he was more than sexual; he was spiritual, even mystical. His repertoire was enormous and dug deep into the American past.
Elvis eventually recovered our folklore, our heritage.
Some still resent him for “borrowing” the African-American beat and soul. Can’t we just say he was influenced? Every artist stands on the shoulders of the past. Mozart was influenced by Bach and Beethoven was influenced by Mozart. They all borrowed, just as Allen Ginsberg borrowed from Walt Whitman, Shakespeare borrowed from Petrarch, Dylan borrowed from Guthrie. Meanwhile, everybody wins.
Contrary to everything, Elvis was not a rebel. He was unashamedly devoted to his mother, and when the call came, he got his hair chopped and went soldiering.
No counterculture for him.
There is a myth going round that the counterculture was an invention of the 1960s. No, whatever happened in the 60s began in the 50s.
The mood of rebellion against authority (which Elvis is falsely discredited for starting) began with the likes of J.D. Salinger, Bob Dylan, Jack Kerouac, Mort Sahl, Marlon Brando, James Dean, Allen Ginsberg, Lenny Bruce. All that was 1950s - and early 1950s, and yes, it all came together in the 60s with marches and protests and sit-ins and love-ins, but let’s not forget that the literature and the music originated a decade earlier. The Beats flourished in Washington Square Park before it all went into the streets, the coffee shops, the campuses - mainstream.
There is no counterculture today because the counterculture is the culture of this generation.
Elvis was separate and unequal and unequalled to this day.
Too bad that my personal appreciation for Elvis came so late. His later music (and he was far more than a musician) goes deep into American mythology. I never thought I’d say this, but, especially at his “Glory Hallelujah” farewell (“hush now baby don’t you cry, you know your daddy’s bound to die”) no artist moved me as much except for Beethoven.
It took four Beatles to match one Elvis.
Elvis fell apart before our eyes. We witnessed An American Tragedy as it was happening. The fame got to be too much. Elvis was too big even for himself.
Later on there was too much of everything - unbridled adulation, drugs, booze, money, women. There was nothing left but to die.
Hush now baby don’t you cry.
But it is all so very sad. We mourn him and we mourn ourselves for the loss. Innocence happens but once and can never be recovered.
Despite the snarl and the sneer, Elvis was a patriot, devoted to his family and fans, loyal to his friends and entourage. This was a humble man, a noble spirit. He traveled the world but never became sophisticated and cosmopolitan. He always came home and never forgot his roots. He was always American.
His kind will never come round again.
But it honors us, honors America, that someone like this was homegrown. Yes, Tupelo, Mississippi.
Some say he never died. He still lives. This is true.
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