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Friday, January 8, 2010

Today, another kind of king was born

Posted By on Fri, Jan 8, 2010 at 12:44 PM

Today would have been the 75th birthday of Elvis Presley. The human being behind the icon has long been relegated to the sidelines, which is how mega-celebrity works. It’s the icon, for better or worse (in other words, slim Vegas Elvis or fat druggie Elvis), that first comes to most people’s mind when they hear his name today. But it’s the young, startling Presley that really matters, the sneering, joking smartass who played a major role in liberating American culture; that’s the guy who should be celebrated.

Presley’s thrilling early brazenness is part of his legacy that’s usually buried under the wave of commercial exploitation, and worn down by his own history of long decline. But at his most important, his most daring and his most dangerous -- in those three or four years before commercial pressures, the Army, and the long tentacles of his manager, Col. Tom Parker, squeezed the spark from him -- Presley was the raw flame, America's own funhouse mirror that, depending on your outlook, either reflected a scary, vulgar delinquency or a completely unexpected excitement and sense of liberation. It was his toppling of the status quo, and his recognition of black and white interdependency, that lay at the heart of his initial appeal, and were what ignited rock & roll's Big Bang and the cultural roller coaster ride it’s provided ever since.

Yes, in the end, he blew it, victimized by his celebrity, insecurities, and horrendous management. Presley certainly wasn’t the first entertainer to suffer a similar fate (Jean Harlow or Michael Jackson, anyone?); come to think of it, it’s hard to think of any artist in any field who could keep the raw flame burning for an entire career. But at one time, Presley set the world on fire, he felt like an earthquake rumbling through the land, he opened white eyes to black music, and he brought Americans the gut feeling that everything had changed.

We’ve written about Presley before, and you can read a longer piece about him here. Meanwhile, here’s a verse from singer Gillian Welch’s “Elvis Presley Blues,” celebrating the man’s effect on the nation’s racial/cultural divide, and the young king himself, doing a shortened version of "Hound Dog" in 1956.

Now he took hold of Black and White,

Grabbed it in one, then the other hand, and he held on tight.

And he shook it like a hurricane,

he shook it like to make it break.

He shook it like a holy roller, baby, with his soul at stake,

his soul at stake.

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