Elvis is not dead.
Now, before you dismiss this as another shaggy-dog story of the "I saw Elvis working down at the Jiffy Lube" variety, bear with me. We all know that Elvis Aron Presley died of heart failure at 3:30 p.m. on Aug. 16, 1977. We know he was mourned by millions, and buried (next to his mother, Gladys) at Forest Hill Cemetery in Memphis two days later.
We know this because it was widely reported and exhaustively documented. There was an autopsy (which disclosed that his death was at least in part due to drug abuse), and photos were taken of his corpse (which the tabloids duly published). There was even an attempt to steal his body -- something which almost never happens to the living -- that forced his estate to move his and Gladys' graves to Graceland.
Even so, Elvis is not dead.
How could he be? Even though it has been 15 years since the King left his throne, Elvis is, in many ways, more alive today than he ever seemed in 1977.
Back then, remember, Elvis was fighting a losing battle with irrelevance. Although the faithful still bought every album as it hit the stores, his sales figures were a long way from the days when 50,000,000 fans couldn't be wrong, and it had been years since he last put a single in the top-10. Even his appearance, which was once so lean and sensual that women squealed at the sight of him, had bloated to the point of grotesqueness.
These days, though, Elvis seems very much a man of the moment. His sound and look are still basic reference points for modern pop stars. Michael Jackson, for instance, declared himself the "King of Pop" partly in homage to Elvis, but mostly because he knew that "King of Rock" was still taken. Nor is he the only Elvis wannabe in the music world; performers ranging from Bruce Springsteen to k.d. lang still cop his stage moves, while U2 frontman Bono has even taken to hitting the stage in a gold lame suit like the one you-know-who used to wear.
Nor are musicians the only ones who seek extra grace by invoking the big E. When Bill Clinton wants to underscore his regular-guy qualities, he doesn't talk about his economic policies -- he talks about Elvis. (Perhaps that was why he chose "Heartbreak Hotel," and not "God Bless America," for his sax solo on Arsenio).
Why, though? What is it about Elvis that makes him seem so much more vital now than when he was actually among the living?
Some of it has to do with the fact that it's easier to focus on an idealized Elvis now that the imperfect, flesh-and-blood Elvis is no longer in the way. Indeed, we can simply ignore the physical flaws that might seem to mar our memories of the King -- wasn't that what the message behind the thin-Elvis, fat-Elvis postage stamp debate was all about?
Granted, the flip side to this phenomenon is that Elvis can just as easily be demonized by his detractors. Take, for example, the slow-witted, sex-crazed, cholesterol-choked cartoon Albert Goldman conjured in his best-selling biography, "Elvis." You don't have to be an Elvis-lover to realize that Goldman's portrait was a mean-spirited exaggeration, but even so, without the singer himself around to contradict Goldman's prose, the words assume a reality of their own.
Likewise, the notion that Elvis was a bigot -- "a straight-out racist, simple and plain," as Public Enemy insists in "Fight the Power" -- is seductive for many of the same reasons. Never mind that a racist quote attributed to him, which first surfaced in Jet a few years ago, is second-hand and uncorroborated; whether or not Elvis actually said it (and odds are that he didn't) hardly matters.
What's important is belief in the quote, and the way that faith reflects resentment over the fact that while Elvis got over, the African Americans who influenced and inspired him got nowhere. As Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid has pointed out, Fats Domino or Bo Diddley or Chuck Berry could as easily have been called the King of Rock. Instead, it's the white man who gets to wear the crown.
But none of this adulation and resentment really gets to the heart of what makes Elvis still seem so alive for us today. After all, we continue to argue over the impact and importance of Christopher Columbus, but you don't find people claiming to have seen him at the Kmart recently.
Why not? Because the kind of changes Columbus brought about were gradual and concrete, whereas the sort of transformation Elvis wrought was, for most people, instantaneous and intangible.
Ask anyone who was there when Elvis' star first shot through the popular consciousness, and they'll confirm that what they heard touched them in ways that nothing before or since could ever match. It was more than just a new pop trend; for Elvis' audience, it was as if the whole world, and their place in it, had suddenly and irrevocably changed.
In ancient times, anyone capable of that kind of impact was considered a savior or saint. Nowadays, of course, we don't believe in such things; stardom is as near to divinity as any of us are allowed. But considering the way the Elvis phenomenon lives on -- the rumored visitations, the bitterly debated legacy, the pilgrimages by the faithful to the shrine at Graceland -- maybe it's time to rethink that particular prejudice.
! Elvisism, anyone?