For people of a certain age and older, here’s one of those blips on the timeline that cause you to do a second take: Had he lived, Elvis Aaron Presley would be more than halfway to his 79th birthday.
Instead, on Aug. 16, Elvis minions around the planet will line up outside of Graceland in observation of the 36th year of his death.
On Aug. 16, 1977, the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll slid off a somewhat undignified throne in the bathroom of his gym in Memphis, Tennessee, thus establishing an odd ritual for recognizing someone who’s had a dramatic impact on history. Rather than celebrate Elvis’ life on the day he was born, Elvis Death Day has become the time to remember a unique cultural icon.
(The only similar recognition day I can think of is the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. Since then, most people commemorate JFK on Nov. 22, the day of the assassination, rather than on his birthday, which is May 29.)
Anyway, every year Elvis fans look ahead to Aug. 16 as the day to toss a big party and shed some warm tears for the feller who went from being the child of share croppers in Tupelo, Mississippi, to a regal place in world history.
Acknowledging Elvis also confirms the universality of rock ‘n’ roll, the world’s dominant music form for the last 60-plus years. (Country music’s huge these days, you say? Yeah, sure. Half the modern country you hear is just rock ‘n’ roll with a twang!)
Rock ‘n’ roll touches all human emotions and reactions. It is joyous and rebellious, loving and sensual, stimulating and soothing, silly and thought-provoking. It’s a celebration of youth, with a tip of the hat to the past, and it’s been the soundtrack of life since the Baby Boomers were babies.
Few define this musical and cultural amalgamation better than Elvis Presley — dead or alive.
We who’ve lived through the Elvis phenom know he was complex and enigmatic. We saw The King change skins often.
There was the Young Elvis, the 19-year-old who drove a truck to Sun Records studio in 1954 and altered popular music forever. Elvis turned “race music” into something that crossed all lines of color and social status. He was the rockin’ cat with a voice like no other, a lip that curled and gyrations that made females and Baptist ministers swoon — for different reasons.
Then along came Movie Star Elvis, who turned out more cinematic schlock than great rock music. But just about the time he was being dismissed as passé, in 1968 the Resurgent Elvis appeared in black leather on NBC television, reviving his place as a musical force.
That was followed by the Las Vegas Elvis of the ’70s, who bridged the musical genres and bolstered the income of scarf and panties makers.
Unfortunately, toward the end there was also the Drugged-Out Self-Indulgent Fat Elvis, who seemed to be an impersonation of an Elvis impersonator.
Through all the changes, good and bad, The King’s subjects remained faithful — and they still are.
On Aug. 16, we’ll also be celebrating the Marketable Elvis, because that side of the man can’t be dismissed. Hey, this cat’s the richest dead guy in history; just try naming another dead cultural icon who continues to make the fortune Elvis generates.
Even 36 years after he died, The King pops up everywhere; from kitschy ceramic plates to T-shirts to cigarette lighters to microwave beams NASA sends to the edge of the universe, carrying the message that we’re here in the Milky Way, waiting to be discovered by other life forms.
Wouldn’t it be cool if those life forms turned out to be lanky creatures with jet black hair, curled upper lips and swiveling hips? And when we welcomed them to the fourth rock from the Sun for the first time, they’d stick out a hand with a red silk scarf in it and say, “Thank you. Thankyouverymuch.”
Elvis Death Day is also a chance for the older members of the tribe to pass down the legend of The King before he became the Drugged-Out Self-Indulgent Fat Elvis. The kids of our kids need to know there once was an Elvis who was lithe and limber, full of energy and, oh, so talented.
So if you’re a person of a certain age, on Aug. 16 pull out the vinyl records and the DVDs of those old Elvis movies. Teach your grandchildren and great-grandchildren the reason Who guitarist Pete Townshend once said, “In the history of rock ‘n’ roll, Elvis is ground zero.”
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