The Elvis Presley behind the jokes

elvisSometime in the next few months, Elvis Presley will have been dead longer than he’s been alive. 

It’s 42 years today since Elvis died at age 42 in 1977, and it took a long time for me to take him seriously. For most of us Gen-Xers, the King of Rock ’n’ Roll who died fat and a parody of himself was a joke. It took me years to see that there’s a thousand different Elvises. 

I was a California kid, but I lived in Elvis’ backyard for much of the 1990s, just outside Memphis and just an hour down the road from his birthplace of Tupelo. I wanted to work at Graceland for a summer job, but I couldn’t beat the competition. I fell in love with a girl from Tupelo. I slowly found the King behind the jokes. 

There’s at least four eras of Elvis proper – the young fiery prodigy, captured best in the haunting Sun Records recordings that still amaze today; the post-Army burnout whose talents were wasted for years in movies and cheesy soundtracks; the black leather-clad colossus who stormed his way to a ’68 comeback, and who then melted into the sad sweaty mess of his final years. 

When a legendary person dies, they slowly transform into myth. There’s a Shakespearean heft to the Presley story, a boy from nowhere who conquered the world. Elvis becomes a trailblazing comet or a paunchy punchline, a star of endless daffy movies, a boy who mourned his mother, a kung-fu kicking drug case who once pestered his way in to see Richard Nixon. 

I like the “Comeback Elvis” years the best, from that stunning 1968 TV Special on to the early ‘70s. At his best, he’s like a lone gunslinger bashing through the saloon doors, reminding all the young guns why he mattered. It’s the height before the fall. He’s got the years to give him authority, but he’s still young enough to prowl like a tiger in that insane leather jumpsuit. There’s a horrible trail of wasted possibilities in the Elvis story, which you can lay at the feet of his drug problem, his emotional immaturity, or the terrible mismanagement by the Colonel, who never really understood the power of Elvis. The story is Elvis is a story of lost dreams. 

Imagine if a 60-something Elvis had gone on to have a Johnny Cash-style latter years revival, if he’d just taken a stage with a guitar and a song and captured something of the haunting echoes of the Sun Studios years. 

One of my favourite Elvis songs is “Hurt,” (not the Nine Inch Nails/Johnny Cash version, of course) which he covered just a year before he died. I used to listen to it with a jaded, ironic eye, because Elvis sings the HELL out of this song, murdering it with an unrestrained abandon that teeters right on the edge of parody. But listen to it, man. Listen to the voice breaking as the song launches into the stratosphere, listen to the way his voice dips deep into the canyons as he sings how he’s hurt “way deep inside of me.” He’s singing about a lot more kinds of hurt than just being dumped. This is Elvis in his autumn, looking back at his highs and lows. 

It’s easy to see a punchline in the thousands and thousands of different Elvises the world has seen in the last 42 years. But deep inside the best of his songs, whether it’s the slow burn of “Mystery Train” or the unrestrained operatic bombast of “Hurt,” the real king still awaits. 

Author: nik dirga

I'm an American journalist who has lived in New Zealand for more than a decade now.

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