WASHINGTON -- Elvis Presley died 20 years ago at the age of 42. By rock 'n' roll standards, it has not been a good death.
Almost without exception, rock idols who lived fast and died young -- Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, John Lennon -- were sanctified in pious mythologies that grew around them after their deaths. In these legends, the overindulgence in drugs that marked their lives and (Lennon excepted) hastened their deaths was an experience essential to their creative achievements, even if personally debilitating.
But Elvis was cheated of his apotheosis. Instead, he was debunked, exposed, mocked. In death, the Presley legend took a beating. A crude memoir of his life as a Graceland shut-in by disaffected hangers-on shot up the best-seller list just after his death. Later, Albert Goldman's best-selling biographical portrait of Elvis as a twisted cracker who parodied black blues influenced public perceptions, while remaining controversial. The disclosure of his secret meeting with Richard Nixon in 1970 further stigmatized him in elite cultural quarters as a reactionary cheeseball.
After 20 years of posthumous demythologizing, little was left of the Presley legend but fat jokes. And Elvis sightings -- usually of the bloated Southern grotesque addicted to amphetamines, barbiturates, law-enforcement badges and fried peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches. The man who dominated American popular music in the 1950s had the misfortune to be defined in terms of his relationship to the counterculture of the 1960s.
More than any other man, Elvis Presley has been assigned ultimate paternity for the children of the '60s. "He introduced the beat to everything and changed everything -- music, language, clothes; it's a whole new social revolution -- the '60s come from it," said composer Leonard Bernstein. "Before Elvis, there was nothing," the decade's most representative child, John Lennon, once said.
But Elvis repudiated his progeny. Religious, anti-communist, unconflicted capitalist to the end, he neither aligned himself with the Woodstock generation's politics nor joined their countercultural party.
Woodstock's middle-class children dressed down to look deprived; the Depression-era striver from a Tupelo shotgun shack costumed himself ostentatiously in sequins and gems. He even used the wrong drugs -- amphetamines and barbiturates -- instead of "consciousness-expanding" hallucinogens -- acid, mushrooms, pot. More significantly, he did not record music intended to be listened to on drugs.
The repudiated children of the '60s never forgave Elvis. Showtime's recent "Elvis Meets Nixon" illustrated the Woodstock generation's resentment of Elvis. The otherwise forgettable dramatization of Presley's visit to Nixon giggles at Elvis as an anachronism who sat out the '60s. Back from military service in 1960, "Elvis was about to become a cultural dinosaur," narrator Dick Cavett says in his smug voice-over. "As the Beatles, Vietnam, the civil-rights struggles and psychedelia overtake America, Elvis remains in a time warp."
Elvis in his context
In terms of the '60s generation's cherished myths about itself, maybe Elvis was a dinosaur. But in his own context -- the segregated mid-South in the mid-'50s -- he was a buzz bomb: Before anyone had heard the explosion, he had demolished racial segregation in the popular music market.
To understand Elvis in context, read Peter Guralnick's definitive account of his rise, "Last Train to Memphis" (Little, Brown, 1994). It leaves little doubt about the young Presley's contribution to the cultural integration that accompanied the political strides of the civil-rights movement in the '50s.
"In his early sides for the Sun record label, he embraced R&B; music -- not as a form to be imitated, but as a form to be honored and interpreted," Mr. Guralnick told us in an interview. "You had an obliteration of distinctions to the point that neither black disc jockeys nor white disc jockeys were quite sure what to do with the music at the beginning."
Elvis' early singles, like "That's All Right," "Mystery Train," and "Good Rockin' Tonight, obliterated the color line in music. Presley's original synthesis of black R&B; and white country music demonstrated unprecedented triple appeal -- to rural whites, suburban whites and urban blacks. In 1956, just one year after Rosa Parks set off the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott, Presley's first RCA recording, "Heartbreak Hotel," reached No. 1 on the pop and country charts and No. 5 on the rhythm-and-blues chart. "Hound Dog"/"Don't Be Cruel" surpassed even that, reaching No. 1 on all three charts!
Presley's celebration of a black musical tradition previously hidden from a mass white public went beyond his records. Time and again, he reinforced it with overt public statements and gestures gratefully acknowledging his debt to the music and its creators. Although he was no crusader, his oft-repeated solidarity carried professional risks in the '50s for a Memphis artist with a large following in the white rural South.
Even measured by the Woodstock generation's own standards for rock 'n' rollers -- as a force for social change -- Elvis stands out. Of course, most of the country never really accepted those standards -- and never abandoned Elvis. His legend may have been tarnished; but his sales remained pure gold. And as Lennon sang, "A working class hero is something to be."
Ben Wattenberg is a syndicated columnist. Daniel Wattenberg writes regularly for The Weekly Standard and is a contributing editor for George.
Pub Date: 8/19/97