Elvis Presley’s Enduring Legacy and the One We Choose to Forget

Elvis Presley, 1958

Elvis Presley, 1958. (Photo: Wikimedia)

It was 42 years ago (Aug. 16, 1977) that the world lost Elvis Presley at the age of 42. Here, we revisit a previous story on his complicated legacy that includes his rise to rock ‘n’ roll king, his well documented fall from the top and his posthumous fame.

The following story was originally published in October, 2009. 

This is it. This was the name of Michael Jackson’s last, never-to-be tour; the huge red letters he rehearsed under in L.A.’s Staples Center the day he died. And no one has yet to remark that these same blocky red letters stood behind Elvis Presley in 1968, spelling out Elvis, that This Is Elvis is the name of a wildly popular 1981 Elvis documentary.

“Never dreamed you’d leave in summer,” a badly shaken Stevie Wonder sang at Michael Jackson’s July 7, 2009 memorial, a sentiment easily adjusted to Elvis Presley, who slipped away at the age of 42 on the blazing hot day of Aug. 16, 1977 in Memphis, Tenn.

Michael Jackson, Elvis’s former and de facto son-in-law, died on June 25, 2009 and, the week he died, among all the formal grieving, the kitsch and the crazy started to emerge. My local vintage store, for example, put out a hideous bust of Jackson that ends at the epaulets of his red leather “Beat It” jacket, the first of a wave of memorabilia both austere and repulsive.

Consider the following Elvis-o-bilia: the Tickle Me Elvis doll; the Rockabilly Elvisalope; Aloha From Hawaii Musical Egg, tufts of the man’s hair, his jumpsuits, capes, guitars, commemorative statuettes, teddy bears, muumuus and refrigerator magnets. As one site notes: “If you want it — it’s probably been made with an Elvis logo!”

What does any of this trash have to do with Elvis, the man? Nothing. It concerns only our own inability to let go of him. So central to so many people’s lives, to lose him is to lose, effectively, a very tender part of one’s self.

Many commentators have spoken about Jackson this way, as a series of emotional signals: “Many can mark moments in our lives,” notes biographer J. Randy Taraborrelli, “by certain achievements of his.”

A photo of Australian Dean Vegas impersonating Elvis' mug-shot.
Australian Dean Vegas impersonating Elvis’ mug-shot. (Photo: George Whiteside)

Jackson’s music hit the top again in July and was heard blaring everywhere: the media, with detached, if not cynical politeness, have feasted for months on the sad, lonely details of his death. The pathos, the irony, the emotional frenzy: this summer is Elvis all over again, and one should not have to lose two kings in a single lifetime.

“Life is no fairytale” is a lyric from Presley’s “My Boy,” one of the two maudlin numbers Thane Dunn, an Elvis tribute artist, performed for the Collingwood Elvis Festival judges this July in Collingwood, Ont., and won before heading off to the Elvis Tribute Artist Contest, “the world’s biggest mama,” in his strategically mumbled words.

If it were a fairy tale, Jackson and Presley would be alive and thriving, yet it has always been the darker, more numinous regions of these stories that characterize their actual essence; that is, while bland princes and princesses marry and float away to their castles, the most intriguing and compelling characters — the evil queens and shape-shifting beasts — linger in our imaginations.

As Margaret Atwood says of the archetypal ugly stepsister in Good Bones, “I’m the plot, babe, and don’t ever forget it.”

In the large historical/cultural narrative about 20th-century solo artists, Jackson and Elvis are indisputably — with James Brown and Frank Sinatra playing commanding secondary roles — the plot.

If Jackson’s legacy, his posthumous persistence, is as yet inchoate, Presley’s legacy is clear. His music is loved and admired; his charisma has transcended him and persists in the guise of the many fans who continue to make pilgrimages to his grave in Graceland’s memorial garden; who dress and sing like him; who still collect memorabilia; and who are given, on occasion, to crying out, in the manner of James Joyce’s Mr. Casey (mourning the Irish nationalist, Charles Parnell, in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man), “My dead king!” That last bit may just be something that I do.

A photo of Tribute artist Danny Granger posing as a young Elvis at the 15th Collingwood Elvis festival in July 2009.
Tribute artist Danny Granger posing as a young Elvis at the 15th Collingwood Elvis festival in July 2009. (Photo: George Whiteside)

It wasn’t always smooth sailing, commemorative stamps and tribute artistry for Elvis. When he died, he was running out of money fast because of his pathological spending and generosity, and he was, of course, bloated and overweight, severely addicted to pills and morbidly depressed. One reason? He had come to despise his ritualized performances at “that f**king Vegas,” as he once despaired; he had not had a hit since 1969’s “Suspicious Minds,” the year he made his last film, Change of Habit, with a gaunt Mary Tyler Moore.

Papers were referring routinely to his “grotesque” appearance and, worse, situating him as an artist and performer, with Liberace, whose awful excesses were a cautionary tale about ever yelling, “More sparkles!”

Worse, Elvis’s best friends, Red and Sonny West, were poised, that summer, to release Elvis: What Happened?, a shockingly vindictive biography composed after Elvis finally took them off his payroll — for decades, they had been enjoying his outrageous largesse: his home, his women and lifestyle.

Their parasitic natures were rivalled only by their profound treachery: the book would reveal the ferociously anti-drug Elvis, who was made an honorary member of the DEA by Richard Nixon, to be an addict (at a time when celebrity drug use was not a casual matter). Insalubrious details of his sex life, his violent temper and dismaying physical appearance were spilled as well. Elvis read the galleys, as did Frank Sinatra, who, it is rumoured, offered to take care of the book — and its authors. To his credit, Elvis didn’t follow through, though one wishes that the Chairman of the Board had taken swift cement-shoe action.

Elvis began composing ersatz suicide notes, one of which Wayne Newton snatched up and transformed into 1992’s “The Letter,” which contains passages from Presley’s broken-hearted prose: “Even though the crowd surrounds me/God, I am so all alone/When I know I can’t go on/Help me, Lord.”

The Lord did not come through, and Elvis, in the very early morning, after having taken a heroic amount of pills, fell to the floor, smashing his dear head and conceding that “the fires of hell” he sang about in “Life” raged too hard on Earth.

In the same song, Elvis refers to an “ageless soul,” one which he continues to possess, in his long, often garish, “posthumous life,” to use John Keats’s dolorous phrase.

This life began, not at his funeral, which was besieged by fans but disquietingly absent of celebrities other than his devoted and lovely ex-girlfriend, Ann-Margret. “Just before his death,” critic Samuel Roy has observed, “Elvis had been forgotten by society.”

A photo of Shawn Barry from Ottawa posing as Elvis, mimicking the style of Andy Warhol.
Shawn Barry from Ottawa poses as Elvis, mimicking the style of Andy Warhol. (Photo: George Whiteside)

The National Enquirer, unparalleled, ran a then-unheard of photograph of Elvis’s corpse on its cover, while another tabloid ran the headline “King Elvis Dead,” as if the regal phrase excused the aesthetic grave robbery.

Still, Elvis languished, leaving aside the anonymous bandits who tried to unearth him from his resting place in Forest Hill Cemetery, until an evil little troll named Albert Goldman, a celebrity biographer, wrote the first definitive biography, Elvis, in 1981. A book so gauche, Martin Amis referred to it as “no more tasteful than a Presley pantsuit; so filled with hatred and contempt for the subject and everything related to him.” Pop critic Greil Marcus called it “an attempt at cultural genocide.”

Yet, if Goldman was trying to decimate the Presley legacy, his attempt failed. The book’s revolting admissions — about the artist’s late-life incontinence, girdles, pill gallery, somewhat ravenous sexual and gustatory practices — only served to galvanize hard-core fans (who denied every detail), and to attract a legion of new fans, people like me, not of his generation but intrigued by the tragic, deeply campy nature (think Shakespeare’s Falstaff) of, to use Malcolm McLaren’s exultant locution, this “fabulous disaster.”

One snowy day in 1985, a group of us went to Niagara Falls for one of the first Elvis conventions and filmed the event: in attendance were disturbingly sinister identical twins, surgically altered to look like Elvis, a lot of frail elderly women and fat, butch men with big, thick moustaches.

I would see the same sort of people at Graceland in 1987, the biggest of the death anniversaries. We, the faithful, were packed like sardines on Elvis Presley Boulevard; flashbulbs popped; TV cameras whirred. “We’re going to marry Elvis impersonators and take them home with us,” I told a Citytv crew, as my girlfriends and I vamped by the Music Gates.

A poster of a trio of Elvis Impersonators.
A poster of a trio of Elvis Impersonators. (George Whiteside)

Eventually, Priscilla Presley would commercialize Graceland and the Elvis industry with revisionist and greedy zeal; eventually, so many books (from I Called Him Babe by Nurse Marian Cocke to Elvis’s DNA Proves He’s Alive to Are You Hungry Tonight?), literary homages, films, songs and, bluntly, hideous garbage including a recent product, advertised in the National Enquirer: Elvis Holiday Flags (Halloween is, wretchedly, one)! So much impersonation, as well.

Elvis, the actual man, is now reminiscent of the grim ending of the 1985 French Canadian film, Pierre Falardeau’s Elvis Gratton, which features a mass of people swarming in a depanneur, each in synthetic Elvis masks. Or the silk screens that Andy Warhol devised of accidents and stars (including Elvis) — images, one art critic states, that allow “sentiment and lack of sentiment, care and carelessness, to jostle together.” They are a series of misshapen pieces in the larger puzzle that is Elvis and his persistent fame and allure. Yet the genius and the sacred mystery of Elvis is still as real, as tangible as ever, for those who genuinely love the man and, more importantly, love his music.

Many like Elvis, still, for his kitsch value; others remember or invoke the man’s raw sexuality, so searingly alive he seems capable of setting fires in one’s heart and so many pairs of the white cotton panties he was said to love.

In the biopic Elvis and Me, based on Priscilla Presley’s gimcrack 1985 memoir, Elvis laments of his foundering career in the late 1960s, “They just don’t write good songs anymore.”

If Elvis was restricted by virtue of being a cover artist himself, who never wrote his own material, he always, in the manner of a jazz virtuoso, put his distinctive stamp, his particular phrasing, on even the worst of songs — “Raised on Rock” or “Song of the Shrimp” — and righteously owned them. And when in high form and singing, in a hoarse, passionate voice, no one could touch him.

Why would they try? How could anyone impersonate Elvis? Leaving aside his style, his looks, his unbearably poignant life and dreadful end — he sang like an angel, a hot and steamy angel, not a mere man in a nylon wig, ratty sideburns and a polyester suit.

Yet it is, after all, his lavish approach to excess and profound loneliness that continues to draw fans old and new, to someone entirely too mortal, so fragile, so large in his communion with the fans he always reached out to with a single, shining hand. In 1999, musicologist Peter Guralnick published the second volume of his measured, warmly appreciative study of Elvis’s art, Careless Love. In it, he writes, of Elvis-mania, “The informed opinion, uninformed speculation, hagiography, symbolism and blame can be difficult at times to drown out, but in the end there is only one voice that counts.”

That is Elvis’s, that restless and haunting voice that one must blare indeed, the voice that gives steely form to the phrase “Often imitated, never equalled,” that, in its absolute authenticity, assails the very idea of imposture.

— “Always true, true to you.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 2009 issue with the headline, “Elvis, Mon Amour,” p. 78-80, 128.