Brother Jim says, when Elvis keeled over off his throne on Aug. 16, 1977, it was like the world stopped … the reason: evil Dr. Nick, who was summarily punished for his offensive behavior.
Merle Haggard said, “we loved Elvis to death.”
As we all know, “love is strange” (courtesy of Mickey and Sylvia, circa 1960). It is in particular a strange reason (albeit a common one) for dying. But who doesn’t understand the process? There’s only so much that the media can wring out of it. Americans are so over-medicated that everybody identifies with Elvis’ story. We’ve all dabbled in what he swam in (drugs by the bushelful for a short while).
Excess. Stimulants and sedatives. It’s easy to overdo it in this society, this global pharmacy. Elvis just couldn’t stand the spotlight, although that’s what he sought all his life. Once he was up there, struggling to be larger than life, the whole world was watching and he knew it. It was too much for him. He was no savior, no cure for the human condition. He collapsed and became a businessman.
Elvis was no businessman. He was the King of Rock ’n’ Roll. “Ask the boy from Tupelo/he’s a king and he oughta know” sings Emmylou Harris on her album “Red Dirt Girl.”
Elvis knew everybody’s secret: Mama’s Little Helper is the best thing going. Used to be that dope was scarce. Now every kid in high school has a bag in his pocket. Every housewife has access to the radiance of Dr. Feelgood. Every salesman is hip to the benefits of encapsulated happiness.
But Elvis is gone and so is Billy Lee Riley, who was never in a commercial league with Elvis but who passed away Aug. 2 or 3 (Why quibble? He made “Red Hot“ and it was a classic). Billy Lee was ahead of Elvis and behind him. The music that brewed in Elvis was clichéd the moment Elvis appeared. He defined it. He refined it. He carried it with him like a flag.
The King? The King of what? Elvis was the last of the genuine American originals generated by poet William Carlos Williams’ World War II generation. “The pure products of America,” Williams wrote, “go crazy.”
Little did he know that the pure products of America are defeated by America. Or maybe he did know. Maybe he just couldn’t bring himself to say it straight out. It’s almost too sad.