Why Elvis matters. On the 25th anniversary of the King's death, Chris Willman says the singer's beauty, power, and lack of calculation make him one of music's enduring greats
Elvis Presley
Credit: Elvis Presley: Doc Pele / Stills / RetnaUK

Why Elvis matters

”Where were you when you heard Elvis died?”

Maybe he’s not quite JFK when it comes to that kind of question, but I remember where I was in August 1977 when the news came down. I was on a bus headed halfway across the country to summer camp when the driver came back on board and announced that the King was dead.

All shook up? Hardly. I don’t think there was a high schooler on board who didn’t stifle a yawn. My parents had just been to see His Bloatedness in Vegas, but he was so irrelevant to me — a kid weaned on the hard rock theatrics of Jethro Tull, Alice Cooper, and Mott the Hoople, along with the weirder parts of the White Album — that if you’d offered me a choice between an Elvis show and a Starland Vocal Band concert, I probably would’ve wearily flipped a coin.

A quarter-century later, I would love nothing more than to go back in time and snatch those Caesar’s Palace tickets from my parents’ undeserving hands. A lot of the kids who were on that bus have probably come around with me, to Presley appreciation, if not veneration. But not everyone of our generation has gotten on board the bandwagon, and there are still some, like my colleague Tom Sinclair, who see Elvis as symbolizing an outdated ethos that the counterculture rock of the ’60s was meant to supplant.

Tom makes the case that Elvis was less an artist than contemporaries like Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and Jerry Lee Lewis because he didn’t write his own songs or push the envelope with the knowing sense of purpose that they did. Even some of those who grant Elvis his ’50s greatness will argue that it was all but canceled out by his sad manipulation at the hands of the Colonel and decade-and-a-half-long artistic decline, a deceleration that could only be halted by an almost merciful death.

But to my friend Tom and any other Presley playa-haters out there, I would say only this: Go get a copy of ”The Sun Sessions CD,” or ”Sunrise,” or whatever RCA is currently repacking his first recordings as.

Cleanse your mind of extraneous images of white leather used as a girdle or TV-picture-tube-sized belt buckles. Picture the naive young man so pretty he can still make a heterosexual like me swoon, accidentally inventing rock and roll, and pretend that that moment is an eternal one. Because even if Elvis had gotten run over by an Edsel as he crossed the street after his contract was reassigned from the tiny Sun label to RCA, the few recordings he’d made up to that moment would still make him as important and inadvertantly heroic.

Should we hold it as a debit against him that, unlike most of the other great artists of the 20th century, Elvis was kind of, well, a dumb guy? To the contrary: Someone ”smarter” would’ve been way too self-conscious to pull off the brilliant alchemy between hillbilly and black music that Presley — not knowing any better — pulled off in those first Sun sessions. His instinctively perfect phrasing seals the deal, of course. If only we had performers today with this combination of gut instincts and pure lack of calculation, the music might not be stuck on the evolutionary ladder the way it is now.

And what of the fat Elvis? I say we have to embrace him as well as the skinny Elvis, and not just because he was capable of coming up with the occasional great record even in his lazier years (like ”A Little Less Conversation,” the ’60s obscurity that landed on last year’s ”Ocean’s 11” soundtrack, then got remixed for a 2002 Nike commercial and commercially released as a single that recently topped the charts in territories around the world).

We embrace the Portly Pelvis precisely because he is silly, not because we’re above him — although God knows he ought to be the picture next to ”cautionary tale” in the dictionary. We need to block out our pictures of the declining Elvis while we’re reveling in the youthful joy of the early work — and then remember them when we suppose that our own lives are destined to be portraits of unyielding greatness.

And then there’s the ”He didn’t write songs” gripe. I don’t disagree that it was one of rock’s greatest wrinkles that the singer and the song became fused in creative figures like Berry, Dylan, and Lennon & McCartney. But we’ve lost something valuable from earlier pop eras when we suppose that the singer/songwriter is the only valid model.

To be a rock fan is to feel that the greatest songs so viscerally express our innermost guts that it’s as if we’d written them ourselves. And if we feel that sense of near-authorship as listeners, who are we to deny a singer who’s an even greater channel for rock’s feelings of lust and rage and goofy jubilation?

So here’s to Elvis — eternal proof that it’s the singer, not the song. And may we always remember where we were when we first really ”got” ”Good Rockin’ Tonight,” ”Heartbreak Hotel,” or whatever it was that made us realize that Elvis is still alive.