Wednesday, January 9, 2008

A young 73

Yesterday would have, or should I say could have been the 73rd birthday for Elvis Presley. With the complete pimping of his legacy and the passage of time, Elvis looks quaint and comical in this, the end of the first decade of the new century. The sparkled and colorful jumpsuits with massive 6” belt buckles, the shows in Vegas and the ultimate ballooning of weight before death took him. They all combine and make Elvis the cautionary tale for gluttony and the passing fancy of clothing styles. He wasn’t the jumpsuit or the fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches, and he wasn’t the cat in the movies. He was something else, entirely.

Late June 1954 saw the recording of his first hit with the great Scotty Moore on guitar and the late Bill Black working the slap bass and almost fifty-eight years have since passed but the immediate and lasting effect Elvis had on southern culture and the national obsession with pop culture can still be found. Regardless of how you view his place in music history or view the credit he has been given over many black artists of his era, Elvis still carries the flag for being the first wave of modern pop culture icons. He was the first wave of leaders for the youth of America who unappologeticaly flew his freak flag, allowed his true inner self to be seen and showed the kids a glimpse of what freedom was really all about.

Consider this, like Frank Sinatra Elvis was a teen idol. Elvis had something else working on the periphery of his fame; the danger associated in the 50’s with race, leadership of American youth, the promotion of self-realization and blistering overt sexuality. Unprepared and realizing much too late that he was not a fad, it is easy to understand the dread Elvis struck in the minds of the American power base. He could muster thousands of screaming, out of control teenagers at the mere mention of his presence. All this at a time when the CIA was hip deep in MKULTRA and J. Edgar Hoover initiated the COINTELPRO program. He was a threat to the systemic control over the minds of Americans that government agencies and business and financial leaders were fighting for.

Two short years after becoming a national presence, Elvis was drafted into the Army and while stationed in Germany his long affair with dope began. In 1960 the Army discharged Sgt. Presley to a pop culture landscape that was becoming much more corporate controlled, a career in Hollywood movies that would sap the power of his presence and an American music scene that was beginning to fracture. The Army and corporate America quelled the danger he posed to their agendas. He never shook the core of American consciousness again on the same level as he had between 1956 and 1958. He wasn’t allowed to recreate himself as he had while touring the south between 1954 and 1956.

Look at the early pictures of Elvis before Sam Phillips sold his contract to RCA. Look very closely at his eyes and you can see that he wore eye shadow and mascara. Elvis was wearing makeup not as a stage effect or as a sign of an alternate sexual nature. For a young truck driver who loved wearing amazing Lansky Brothers suits this was a radical thing to do. This, coming from a young man who was actually unpopular and bullied while in school, is even more amazing. In 2008, a teenager in high school who is bullied might go on a killing spree. In the early 50’s it was a different beast, a different and dangerous path to follow, even in a wild southern city like Memphis.

My God, those suits and those clothes. The Lansky Brothers made wearing black pants with a pink shirt something even a street fighter could wear and pull women while tipping back a bottle of Schlitz. Roll collar shirts, pegged pants, you name it and he made it look good. Once Elvis hit, those guys couldn’t keep anything on the shelves long enough to go out of style.

That is the Elvis I think of when his name is mentioned. Not the stoned and obese tragedy. I think of the young man fresh from a truck route and the Memphis projects who made the men carrying the weight of power shift uncomfortably with concern as they realized he wasn’t going to simply go away. Elvis was the epitome of the poor white trash southerner who doesn’t seek revenge but finds it when he becomes a success on his own merits and with absolute freedom. Freedom is the true reason he was dangerous to the CIA, Hoover and the establishment. He showed the kids of the 50’s that being yourself and doing your own thing was far greater than following the pack.

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