Thursday, August 16, 2007

Elvis Remembered

B. January 8, 2935, Tupelo, MS
D. August 16, 1977, Graceland, Memphis, TN

In 1953, Elvis recorded “My Happiness” and “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin,” at Sun Studio’s Memphis Recording Service. In 1954, his “That’s All Right,” the first of his five Sun singles, has been called his “breakthrough.” But on January 10, 1956, Elvis recorded “Heartbreak Hotel” for RCA in Nashville. Released on January 27, it sold more than 300,000 copies the first week, and the King was born.

I was 10 years old, high-toned, and hard to get. It took all of nine months, Ed Sullivan, and, well, “Hound Dog,” “Don’t Be Cruel,” and “Jailhouse Rock” to win me over. But once won, The Pelvis found a life-long friend in me, if not a passionate devotee.

As much as for his music, I remember Elvis for how he won mainstream America. It might have masqueraded as righteous indignation, but in reality, what he was up against was a very nasty American class war waged by preachers, critics, media chiefs, editorialists, and politicians. The usual guardians of the realm linked arms to condemn the sideburned, long-haired, cracker boy from Tupelo.

See, it wasn’t just about holding the line on hot male sexuality. It was about holding all kinds of lines, lines that really are inconceivable to an urban twenty-something today but that seemed solid as slab granite in the genteel hill country South in 1956. After all, my hometown, Knoxville, was just 525 miles from Little Rock, a slow southwestern slope away. And 1956 was just one year before nine African American students changed history by integrating the Little Rock high school.

Definitely without conscious plan, Elvis, in himself, qua Elvis, challenged lines between black and white, between that cracker and your daughter, between church music and roadhouse rock, between decent and incandescent. His most unforgivable sin wasn’t the pelvis thing. It was that he showed America’s girls and boys that some lines could be crossed after all, and once crossed, could begin a slow fade into irrelevance.

I don’t mean that all differences among ethnic and class groups are meaningless. Some are, some aren’t, and that’s another subject. I mean that contempt-on-sight, contempt and condescension based on “race,” class, and style, began to be challenged throughout American not only at the high school door but also in the person and the music of the most famous white man of the times.

The challenge wasn’t simply in his sound or stage presence. It was in his being, a fact which grew increasingly harder to see as Elvis got fat and hooked on pills. Nevertheless, as he fought that class war we saw that Elvis was both astronomically talented and looked like a hood, and was kind, forgiving, courteous, and big in a way that his critics never were and couldn’t fight. Whatever else he was, he was genuine--in his tolerance, his compassion, his capacity to empathize and act on his empathy, and in his sense of civic responsibility. In other words, Presley had sense enough to know which lines really do matter.

Everybody knows Elvis was deservedly the King of Rock. What they might have forgotten in a world where Britney is reckoned a “star” and CNN lingers in a tacky Graceland living room, is that the cracker had class.