Pop & Circumstance: One for the King

When I checked the Billboard music charts this week and saw that his own bad self Elvis Aaron Presley nabbed the number one spot, I did one of those classic cartoon double-takes where the eyes leave their sockets and snap back with a swivel of the neck. Hell, it’s his first number one album ever! That RCA’s new collection of Elvis’s number one singles, aptly titled Elvis 30 #1 Hits, should top the charts after all these years, in 17 different countries, is an incredible achievement and a testament to Mr. Presley.

The music still sounds great – there is no doubt. But there’s something more to this story: Elvis has been dead for 25 years. Every year around his birthday or the date of his death, some second-rate Turner-owned channel shows a marathon of Elvis movies and biopics. Some record company makes a bundle off of his music catalogue. The radio plays “Love me Tender” and “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” The newspaper features a photo spread of old, fat, Vegas showroom Elvis juxtaposed with handsome, hip-swiveling young Elvis. And somehow, this barrage of images and sounds constitutes our picture of Elvis – this is the way we remember the 20th century’s most important cultural figure?

Without Elvis, there is no rock and roll. No sexual revolution, no punk movement. In his brilliant recording sessions at Sun Studio, Mr. Presley single-handedly laid out the groundwork for all popular music that would follow in his tracks, from hip-hop to heavy metal and dance music. Elvis 30 #1 Hits is a collection of great songs, but it features none of the legendary Sun recordings. And in doing so, it trivializes Elvis’s legacy just like those awful biopics and photo-spreads.

Mr. Presley’s life was one of immense brilliance and sadness. The story has been told many times, but suffice it to say that a handsome, energetic boy from Tupelo, Miss., became a pill-popping fat tub of goo, numb to everything in the outside world. And the fierce young artist metamorphosed into the shallowest, most ridiculous lounge act you could imagine.

These two sides of Elvis – the musical genius and the musical abomination – represent the bipolarity of all mass-produced popular music. Pop artists constantly teeter and totter between the revolutionary and the mundane. Marxist knuckleheads and cultural elitists often mistake this as a relationship between art and commerce-the old “selling out” argument. But it’s not about money, or integrity for that matter. When Elvis entered the Sun Studios half a century ago, I doubt he was thinking about his artistic integrity. And when he stepped onto the stage in a smoke-filled Vegas casino many years later, he was so wealthy that he couldn’t have been thinking about money. I don’t know what separates the music of these two Elvises – youth versus age perhaps – but it makes all the difference. It is the difference between music that grabs a hold of the audience and shakes them around and the music that just floats by, eventually dissolving into the ether.

The hit singles on Elvis 30 #1 Hits do a great job of capturing his entire musical career. But they just don’t tell the whole story of a man whose music was the most important force in the world at one time and completely disposable the next. And as bad as the later Elvis was, those early recordings – god, it’s rare to hear music that full of life.

There isn’t anything else I know of even remotely close to the Sun sessions. While it contained no “Hound Dog” or “Jailhouse Rock,” that’s the music that we still feel today. If you ever needed proof that rock ’n roll can change the world, look no further.

I guess this one’s for you, Elvis. Rest in peace, big fella.