This address was presented by Nigel Patterson at the Elvis Week commemoration, "Memories of Elvis" A Tribute to Elvis Presley in Canberra, Australia on Saturday 13 August 2005:
Less than three days later, Elvis was pronounced dead, initiating a mass outpouring of grief….a mourning that was both inward or outward focused, depending on the personalities of the huge numbers of global individuals affected.
Whether you lived in Canberra, Australia, rural China, New York, London, India or Tokyo, Japan, this outpouring of grief was the same and instantaneous.
Nightly news bulletins “ceremoniously” led with the death of the King of Rock & Roll and the one US TV network that didn’t, was severely punished in the ratings.
What differentiates Elvis Presley from other icons of the 20 th century who died at a relatively young age, is that 28 years later, not only does the global community of his fans still remember, (be they in eastern or western countries), but just as importantly, so does the global “mass media”, fuelled by the continuing high level of public interest in the King of Rock & Roll.
It is common at memorial services such as today’s to reflect back on the intrinsic qualities of the person being remembered and their achievements…their legacy.
However today I want to take a slightly different perspective, to reflect on a young man with a cheeky smile centered on a turned up lip, a young man who was misunderstood because of the complex tide of changing times and values.
Indeed, Elvis was a “single” man who not only challenged and disturbed established political norms, but a “single” man who changed those norms as his innate power proved stronger than that of those many parties who rallied against him.
In the mid 1950s the creature that was Elvis Presley occupied the full spectrum of public opinion…he was either
To his detractors , he was:
a ravenous, evil spirit of Satan who would ultimately destroy the moral structure and fabric of society. Elvis was the devil incarnate, risen up to claim the nation’s children, a quasi-pied piper of social evil, a pelvis thrusting delinquent with the potential for social destruction
In the 1950s, extreme, usually white, fundamentalist preachers, used their avenue of power……the pulpit…..to spread the poison of an emotionally charged, ignorance fuelled, and logically irrational….religious agenda.
One preacher cried out:
“The teenager is susceptible to overstimulation from the outside...........when Presley executes his bumps and grinds, it must be remembered by the Columbia Broadcasting System that even the 12 year-olds curiosity may be over-stimulated.”
Others argued that Elvis pitched his voice way up high, in a range that suggests ecstasy - the possibilities of this argument in today’s once again increasingly “right wing” society, are a striking reminder of the circular nature of our socio-political evolution.
One of the best descriptions, albeit, in my opinion, hopelessly misguided, came from the Rev. Charles Howard Graff of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Greenwich Village . The good Rev. denounced Elvis as…..wait for it……a “whirling dervish of sex”.
I hope you will all rush to your Oxford or Macquarie dictionary, as I did, for a full explanation of this wonderfully colorful statement.
To that second group in the 1950s, positioned “neutrally” between opposing forces, Elvis was, and for many in 2005, still is, incomprehensible.
As his close friend, George Klein, perceptively observed:
"If you're an Elvis fan, no explanation is necessary, if you're not an Elvis fan, no explanation is possible."
And that brings us to the third group in the 1950s. As history potently attests, for that group, the rising generation that mattered, Elvis was “THE” relief, “THE” freedom from a staid, quiet 1950’s of “mom and pop” culture, and a decaying political system desperately in need of upheaval and renewal.
Elvis symbolized the bourgeoning spirit of a youth impatiently waiting, urgently needing to burst free of its oppressive shackles…shackles, locked in place by a societal conservatism driven by “confused” parents, and a potentially dangerously deluded and political structure dominated by a power drenched religious right.
The intentions of both parties may have, in their own uniquely different, yet somehow intrinsically similar ways, been well intentioned, but they were awfully misguided, symbolizing their impotency to recognize both the need for change, and that change, was inevitable.
There was nothing they could do to stop the impending change….a change given focus in Elvis’ voice and pelvis, and one that was all about a generation which was increasingly aware of its own, not its parents, identity.
Popular music was never the same after Elvis. His unique blend of rhythm & blues and country music, tinged by varying degrees of both gospel overtones and undertones, was literally a breath of fresh air in a dominant musical landscape, which had long overstayed its welcome.
Unlike many other performers, Elvis, in his own unique way, adapted to changing times. At the time of his famous “comeback” in the late 1960s, it was “Elvis” on the marquee – a man-boy’s name that fittingly stood alone. The King had triumphantly returned from the musical wilderness and was again untouchable.
He was a performer who, as in 1956, magnetized the nerve center of a youth whose outward appearance symbolized conformity, but whose internal emotional equilibrium was in turmoil…waiting…waiting…until….the right stimulus allowed it to feverishly boil over and change the musical and socio-cultural landscape forever.
Even today, in 2005, many rock music historians do not….…cannot…..…understand “why Elvis?”, for his “breakthrough” appeal was so very different to the white bread niceties of the postwar 1950s and the turbulent, but in its own way, power block manipulated conformity of The Beatles era…..the 1960s.
While Elvis was initially perceived as an instrument of the devil, paradoxically, The Beatles, were seen as a fun loving, “harmless”, mop-topped “boy band”.
While the era of The Beatles, the 1960s, elicited great social upheaval and change communicated through music, it would not be until the 1990s that popular music would again materially threaten the socio-cultural fabric so carefully molded by an increasingly conservative, right wing establishment.
Interestingly, in the 1990s, this musical movement only threatened the establishment, not the intelligentsia, as it had in the less aware 1950s. Perhaps we are learning.
The threat in the 1990s came in the form of “rap music”.
Ice-T, incited widespread condemnation with his song, Cop Killer, before settling down to suburban acceptance in his role as a key part of TV’s popular Law & Order SVU team, while the 21st century’s Bob Dylan, Marshall Mathers, better known as Eminem, has invoked “music-political” black-white tensions and criticisms through his potent, but very socially and politically aware, song lyrics, a situation not evidenced since Elvis’ music and gyrations in the 1950s.
While Chuck D. from the great African-American rap group,
Public Enemy, publicly chided:
“Elvis stole ‘black’ music” and “Eminem is the new Elvis"
it was well argued in one forum that Elvis and Eminem had in fact been separated at birth.
Eminem, himself, could see his political similarities with Elvis, when he wrote in the huge international #1 hit in 2002, “Without Me”:
"Though I'm not the first king of controversy, I am the worst thing since Elvis Presley”
What these examples exemplify is the intrinsically irrational….often contradictory….and always neo-logical dialectic which characterizes our socio-cultural evolution …. (I can just see Karl Marx smiling above us!).
Our society often moves in circles and while issues of controversy take different forms or guises at particular times, if closely analyzed, they share the same underlying characteristics and usually “incorrectly” perceived threat to our social well-being.
It is now 2005 and it is instrumental to note that only last week, Elvis’ first international hit, the seminal, incredibly chilling and atmospheric, Heartbreak Hotel, was voted the #2 song to have changed the world ….behind Bob Dylan’s equally evocative, Blowin’ In The Wind.
The BBC News website invited comments from its readers, and this one by an Australian fan, nicely encapsulates one element of why Elvis is still here and important!:
“Heartbreak Hotel started a youth cultural revolution which would eventually spread beyond just western countries. There were rock 'n' roll records before Heartbreak Hotel, but this was the one that didn't just open the door…it literally blasted the door off its rusted, rotten, anachronistic hinges…. producing....no propelling...an unstoppable, fundamental and primordial shift in not only musical, but social, political and cultural history. “
What this says is that when Elvis exploded on the entertainment and socio-cultural landscape in the mid 1950s it signaled the end of one era and the beginning of another.
Within this simple but complex idea lies a fundamental clue to the enduring, seminal power and importance of Elvis Aaron Presley.
Elvis’ arrival would forever see his legacy indelibly carved into the socio-cultural fabric of our world….in all its nooks and crannies.
On his death, virtually overnight, Elvis went from……man…..to…..legend.
In closing….Elvis was the “big bang”, and he still is. If indeed there is a God and a heaven, then somewhere in the universe, Elvis is there, forever watching over his flock and IMPORTANTLY a mass media, both of whom FITTINGLY refuse to let his memory… his music….and the legacy of his spirit…die.
"Elvis Presley is the supreme socio-cultural icon in the history of pop culture"
(Dr. Gary Enders)
" Elvis is the 'glue' which holds our society together....which subconciously gives our world meaning"
"Eventually everybody has to die, except Elvis"
(humorist Dave Barry)
"He is the "Big Bang", and the universe he detonated is still expanding, the pieces are still flying"
(Greil Marcus, "Dead Elvis")
"I think Elvis Presley will never be solved"
"He was the most popular man that ever walked on this planet since Christ himself was here"
"When I first heard Elvis' voice I just knew I wasn't going to work for anybody...hearing him for the first time was like busting out of jail"
"When we were kids growing up in Liverpool, all we ever wanted was to be Elvis Presley"
(Sir Paul McCartney)