The King is not gone

It’s been 25 years since Elvis Presley, the King of Rock ’n’ Roll, fell off his throne. But he still hasn’t quite left the building.

Elvis and Richard Nixon, plotting how to win the War on Drugs in 1969.

Elvis and Richard Nixon, plotting how to win the War on Drugs in 1969.

Twenty-five years ago this week, Elvis Presley, the immortal king of rock ’n’ roll, fell off his porcelain throne, thus achieving mortality.

Although August 16, 1977, was a long time ago, it’s hard to believe that an entire quarter-century has gone by since Elvis left the building. Perhaps this is because Elvis was one of those icons whose presence loomed so large that many people can remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when they first heard he’d expired. Or at least a few can.

I certainly can recall where I was: At the dentist, floating on a cloud of nitrous oxide, getting a root canal. There was something about “Elvis” and “drugs” on the radio, and I figured the star—whose experimentation with serious downers was covered in a just-released tell-all book written by three of his former bodyguards—had gotten busted.

When I walked in the door of Tower Records in Stockton later that afternoon, the place was packed with—how to put this delicately?—the sort of young people you’d see getting on and off short yellow buses. I worked there, and my cash-register shift already had started, and I had to relieve my substitute immediately.

“So, um, what happened?” I asked one weeping fellow who was clutching a handful of Presley albums.

“Elvis is dead!” he barked.

The next few days were quite strange. Joking in the abstract about what kind of movie fan might get something out of such landmark cinematic achievements as Harum Scarum and Clambake was one thing; confronting the reality that a large number of the fans, who were showing up at a record store to mourn a dead star, were mentally retarded, was another.

It certainly made for a unique set of circumstances. For example, when we ran out of albums to sell, we patiently had to explain that even though Elvis had died, his record company, RCA, would be manufacturing more records and shipping them to us as soon as it could. One guy—who we called “Victor Elvis” because you could invariably find him standing at a busy intersection with his guitar doing Elvis impersonations when he wasn’t hanging out in the store, bugging us to play Elvis tunes—was especially distraught, and we took turns consoling him, playing his favorite Elvis songs and buying him hot dogs at a stand up the street. People wanted to talk, and they did, and even though some of them didn’t do as well as others at articulating what they needed to say, you could tell that something about Elvis had touched them deeply.

In the weeks that followed, however, it appeared that a lot of people, including Victor, transferred their idol worship to Tony Romano, the character played by John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever.

Others couldn’t let go, and working in a record store was a good perch from which to observe some of the weird tribute records—some sincere, some get-rich-quick schemes from demented hicks cashing in on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity—that flooded the market within days. The most successful was the creepy single “The King Is Gone” by Ronnie McDowell, who managed to parlay it into a major-label deal in Nashville. The strangest, and that’s saying a lot, was Orion, an Elvis impersonator from Alabama who Nashville independent-label owner Shelby Singleton talked into wearing a mask. Singleton had bought the rights to the Sun Records label, which first recorded Elvis, and he quickly shipped Orion’s Sun debut, titled Reborn, to capitalize on any residual Presley-mania. To make sure the point wasn’t missed, the cover of Orion’s album featured a picture of a white casket.

In the years that followed Elvis’ death, his tarnished legend became somewhat of a joke, a staple of bad radio comedy routines along the lines of, “Lemme have a peanut-buttah an’ banana samwich with a side order of Dilaudids, thankyouverymuch.”

Elvis certainly helped accelerate the devolution of his image from golden icon to paragon of wasted American excess. In the last years of his life, the 6-foot-tall entertainer ballooned up to 260 pounds—which did not look so good when stuffed like sausage into one of the sequined jumpsuits Elvis favored onstage. RCA, his label, helped by releasing such curiosities as Having Fun With Elvis On Stage, a 1974 album of nothing but Elvis’ between-song stage patter, much of it sounding like he was pretty wiped out: “Lemme have a glass of water … well well well well well.” And his ignominious death, falling off the toilet with enough prescription drugs in him to paralyze a small orchestra, helped destroy the popular image of a humble country boy who loved his momma.

But the real damage was done a few years later, when Elvis, the 1981 “biography” by Albert Goldman, was issued. Elvis was a hatchet job, but a hugely entertaining one. It depicted the King in all his horrid tabloid glory: consuming massive amounts of prescription drugs, destroying TVs with gunfire whenever singer Robert Goulet appeared, rounding up his entourage for an impromptu flight to Colorado for peanut butter and bacon hoagies with champagne. Goldman deconstructed the Presley legend with vicious abandon, and even though some critics charged that his research was, to put it politely, factually challenged to the extreme, you had to give Goldman points for spewing such a sustained level of vitriol.

And, coming as it did in the early ’80s, with a fresh wave of punk bands germinating in response to corporate rock’s then-hegemony, Goldman’s iconoclastic attack on the Presley legend was welcomed by cynics who were growing tired of hagiographies of Saint Elvis appearing in a Kalamazoo Burger King to bless somebody’s whopper, the kind of people who were getting off on “Back 2 the Base,” a song John Doe had penned for Wild Gift, the 1981 sophomore album by his band, X: “Man on the bus screaming about Presley / Man on the bus screaming about Presley / All tied up got a knot in his hands / He says ‘Presley sucked on doggie dicks / I’m the king of rock ’n’ roll / If you don’t like it you can lump it / You gotta get me back to the base … ’ ”

But if Goldman got the story wrong, who got it right? Perhaps the best place to look is in Peter Guralnick’s two-volume biography of Presley, the 1994 book Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley and its 1999 follow-up, Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley.

The first volume details Elvis’ meteoric rise during the first 23 years of his life, and it gives the reader a palpable sense of why the singer mattered. Guralnick has an excellent feel for the Memphis milieu in which Presley grew up, and etches a portrait of a musical sponge who assimilated a thrilling cross-section of American music and spat it back up in a form the world had never seen before.

Careless Love, the second volume, chronicles the long decline, after Elvis returned from serving in the Army. After the rocket ride detailed in Last Train to Memphis, the years of crappy movies followed by a 1968 TV comeback special and some good studio records, followed by Las Vegas showrooms and endless tours in the hinterlands and ending with Presley’s death at age 42, is more of a disheartening read. But even that period wasn’t a washout; Presley’s ’68 comeback was electrifying, and the records he was cutting in Memphis at that time were mature works that stand up to his Sun and early RCA material.

The point is that Elvis was a far more complex person than the cartoon character he became in the public imagination, helped along by the scores of Elvis impersonators who still suit up to try and recapture a bit of his stellar luster. (One of these, Mike Albert’s Memories of Elvisthe 25th Anniversary Tour, will play the Radisson Hotel at 500 Leisure Lane this Sunday, August 18, at 7:30 p.m.; tickets are $30 at the door; it’s a Jackson Rancheria production.)

For another take on the legend, long-time Berkeley rock intellectual Greil Marcus’ 1991 collection of essays, Dead Elvis: A Chronicle of a Cultural Obsession, is more a stitched-together, prismatic look at the King through the prism of cultural anthropology than a straight biographical narrative.

Of course, you could go to the source, or at least one of the new releases that coincide with the 20th anniversary of Presley’s death. Elvis: The Great Performances (Rhino) is a three-DVD set of TV performances, filmed footage and home movies, most of it drawn from early in his career, when his performances were unhinged. If you can watch these clips and still not get it, you probably never will. And the 4-CD set Elvis: Today, Tomorrow & Forever (RCA/BMG Heritage) may not cover any unfamiliar ground, but it’s all new, as in alternate takes. BMG already has covered the essentials in previous Elvis boxed sets, so this one’s for completists. Nevertheless, there are some swell sides here, including a boffo version of Roy Hamilton’s “Hurt,” from his last recording session in 1976.

What it doesn’t contain, though, is Elvis’ most recent smash. “A Little Less Conversation,” originally a song from Elvis’ 1968 movie Live a Little, Love a Little that was used in the recent remake of Ocean’s Eleven, was remixed by a Dutch DJ named JXL for a Nike World Cup commercial; it went to No. 1 in England.

Twenty-five years later, the guy can still get a hit.