Riffing on Elvis

The King is Gone, But He’ll Never, Ever, Ever Be Forgotten

When the sun rises on 16 August, 2006, 29 years will have passed since Elvis Presley honky-tonked off his mortal coil. But all that has passed since seems to have only confirmed that he never really left us — at least not in spirit. Because since Elvis’ death, whenever a rock star rises to the heights of fame and falls to the depths of ignominy, every time a pop star sends parents and preachers into a tizzy, or bedecks themselves with bling bling, or travels with an entourage, or makes transcendent, timeless music, that star is merely following in the footsteps of the King.

Elvis’s place as the ur pop star, the one from which all others spring, is what keeps him so fresh and relevant and our collective memory – more so even than the often brilliant, frequently tossed-off music he made. Rock ‘n’ roll would still exist if Elvis had never lived, but its meaning, and the meaning of modern popular culture, would be immeasurably different had he not. Would Pat Boone and Ricky Nelson be remembered as the Kings of rock ‘n’ roll? I shudder to think. Would Chuck Berry and Little Richard be just blips on the mainstream cultural radar if Elvis hadn’t opened up all those millions of white ears to the sounds of black music? Might Paul McCartney be treading the boards at Skiffle conventions instead of sitting on a million dollars? Hell, it’s hard to imagine a show like Cribs existing without the gross splendor and spectacle of Graceland. Everywhere you look these days, you’re seeing traces of Elvis. Whether you know it or not.

So to commemorate Elvis’s memory — and to do our little bit to further consecrate his place in pop culture — PopMatters is proud to present a quartet of essays exploring some of the ways that the spirit of Elvis lives on. Since there’s a reason why people still shell out for black velvet portraits of Elvis, we’re glad that Lamar Clarkson decided to explore the image of Elvis as a consumer good. In a diet-defying piece of participatory journalism, Amol Mhatre reports on his surprisingly delicious attempt to spend a day eating all of Elvis’s favorite foods. Alex Schmidt pits Elvis the sexual provocateur against Peaches — one of today’s most sexually fearless artists. You might be surprised to see who ends up on top. But even with all that good food, sex, and shopping that has sprung from his memory, Elvis’s legacy has a dark side. The dangerously seductive aspect of the Elvis myth is the leaping-off point for Adam Graham-Silverman’s moving, personal reminiscence.

Finally, you might be wondering why we’re running these essays now, 29 years after Elvis’s death. The answer is two-fold. First, why not jump the gun and get a word in before the inevitable deluge of Elvis considerations, reconsiderations, celebrations and denunciations that will arrive this time next year? And second, you need to remember that Elvis was a man who thought nothing of shooting a hole in his television, chartering a jet cross-country to fetch a sandwich, or gyrating in front of millions when millions more said it was vulgar to do so. We’re running these pieces the same reason Elvis did all those things. Because we want to.