Elvis Presley would have turned 78 this week. One wonders what he might have looked like today, had he not been such a troubled soul, one who abandoned his corporeal being in the bathroom of his by-then gloomy mansion in Memphis back in 1977. Perhaps the jelly doughnuts and peanut butter and banana sandwiches would have caught up with him by now, even if the drugs and loneliness hadn't.
Would Elvis be fat, bald and squeezing into his jumpsuit to make the casino circuit as a nostalgia act? Or would he have taken a page from the Johnny Cash playbook, and returned to his roots, releasing stripped-down albums produced by Rick Rubin that caused critics to salivate and new generations to forgive him for those awful karate moves and onstage meltdowns?
Speaking of “roots,” were those roots ever really the property of Elvis to begin with? Was he simply the first white man from the South to successfully appropriate the African-American music that surrounded him growing up, and turn it into cold hard cash and a rather pitiful movie career? Many would, and have, argued as much. Others see him as simply rock 'n' roll's first and greatest star.
Me? I think he was both of these things – a rip-off artist and, for a very brief period of time, a genius. It's the early stuff that gets me, the tunes the young hopeful tracked at Sun Studios in Memphis beneath the squinty-eyed gaze of Sam Phillips, who must have known immediately this truck-driving hick was onto something, even if all he initially wanted to do was record songs to make his mama proud.
Elvis went into the Army in 1958 at the peak of his commercial prowess, avoided any genuine hard time on his tour, and emerged somehow a changed man. He concentrated on making (mostly) terrible movies, lost contact with those debatable roots and only sporadically – the '68 “comeback special,” the “Memphis” album – released music on par with those earliest recordings. His story – which is likely to be told over and over again ad infinitum, just as it is echoed over and over again by desperate teen pop star after desperate teen pop star – is an American tragedy. Boy falls in love with music; boy develops serious talent; boy gets big break; boy becomes a mega rock star; boy makes his mama proud and his daddy rich; boy loses the plot; boy develops a taste for self-medication; boy feels lonely surrounded by a passel of hangers-on he mistakes for real friends; boy dies alone on the toilet.
It's a pathetic tale, one made even moreso by the religious zealotry that still surrounds Elvis, insisting on his being much more myth than man. His significance as an artist who became the first rock star can't really be overestimated, but his importance as a figure in American music can be, and has been, for what feels like forever. In terms of musical influence, Elvis doesn't come close to James Brown, Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone, Miles Davis or Bob Marley. To say nothing of the many bluesmen (and women) whose music he so artfully imitated, then sold to an American public largely oblivious to where that music came from. And yet, he lingers, because what he did, he did so incredibly well, particularly at the outset of his career. So we still celebrate his birthday, which feels somehow both sad and appropriate.
I compiled a playlist this week in honor of Elvis, comprising it of 10 songs that pay tribute to him in one form or another. They present, in many instances, an unflinching portrait of a fallen king. In others, they simply romanticize the myth, rather effectively, for better or worse.
“The King's Call,” Phil Lynott. The Thin Lizzy frontman was genuinely devastated by Presley's death – which might seem odd, considering the fact that he was a half Jamaican/half white Irish rogue-poet whose own music didn't sound much like Presley's at all. But in “King's Call,” Lynott beautifully romanticizes the Presley myth atop some stunning guitar work from Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits. It's interesting to see the parallels between Presley's tragic demise and Lynott's own, which took place 10 years later.
“Porcelain Monkey,” Warren Zevon. Zevon may be the finest sardonic scribbler to have emerged from the singer-songwriter movement of the 1970s. He dealt with Presley rather mercilessly in this acerbic, hilarious tune from “Life'll Kill Ya”: “He was an accident waiting to happen/Most accidents happen at home/Maybe he should have gone out more often/Maybe he should have answered the phone/Hip-shakin' shoutin' in gold lamé/That's how he earned his regal sobriquet/Then he threw it all away/For a porcelain monkey.” Ouch!
“King of the Mountain,” Kate Bush. Bush brilliantly compares Presley to Charles Foster Kane in “Citizen Kane,” with this simultaneously tender and ominous tune. “Elvis are you out there somewhere/Looking like a happy man?/In the snow with Rosebud/And king of the mountain.”
“Elvis Has Just Left the Building,” Frank Zappa. It should surprise no one that Zappa had little patience with the idea of romanticizing Presley, who he generally saw as a marginally talented oaf with a drug problem and a messiah complex. Zappa skewers the King with this track from “Broadway the Hard Way”: “He gave away Cadillacs once in a while/Had sex in his underpants/Yes, he had style!/Bell-bottom jumpsuits?/That's them in a pile/But he don't need 'em now, 'Cause he's makin' Jesus smile!” Hey, somebody had to say it!
“Johnny Bye-Bye,” Bruce Springsteen. For Springsteen, Presley was both inspiration and cautionary tale. His death left its mark on Springsteen's writing, which then dealt with the myth of the King as a metaphor for the alienation that can come with stardom. “They found his body slumped up against the drain/with a whole lotta nuthin' runnin' through his veins/Bye bye, Johnny/Johnny, bye bye/You didn't have to die/You didn't have to die.” 'Nuff said.
“Fight the Power,” Public Enemy. Chuck D asserts that the deification of Presley is essentially a racist act and an attempt to rewrite American history in the white man's image. You can argue with him, if you like. Good luck with that.
“Tupelo,” Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds. Cave casts the birth of Presley as a Flannery O'Connor/Carson McCullers literary mash-up. Brilliant, and completely terrifying.
“Elvis on Velvet,” the Stray Cats. In which Brian Setzer decries the commodification of the King atop a smoking rockabilly tune.
“Elvis is Dead,” Living Colour. See Public Enemy, above.
“Calling Elvis,” Dire Straits. Here, Knopfler deftly cuts to the heart of the matter, regarding the tabloid frenzy of reported Elvis sightings around the time of the song's writing. “Calling Elvis/Is anybody home?/Calling Elvis/I'm here all alone/Did he leave the building?/Or can he come to the phone?/Calling Elvis/I'm here all alone.”