Thursday, August 16, 2007

Loving him tender

Thirty years ago a green reporter for a college newspaper in Boulder, Colorado was startled by news that suddenly belched from the AP wire machine in the corner, swirled around the newsroom and then around the world: Elvis Presley was dead.

The reporter – like more people than might be prepared to admit it – had never known a world without Elvis in it. He was like Sinatra or Mao or Groucho Marx, one of those people whose antecedent presence and outsize personality suggested that they’d somehow reached an accommodation with the Almighty – that they’d been made exempt from that third act of life that awaits the rest of us.

Since Elvis died on August 16, 1977 – his death effectively becoming the Elvis Impersonators Full Employment Act – his life and career and bad movies have formed the basis for a cottage industry. Or a mansion industry: his estate, Graceland, continues to be a top draw for visitors coming to Memphis, Tenn., in a pilgrimage that shows no sign of ending. Memorabilia with his images still sells well there and everywhere else. Early this year, in anticipation of the very anniversary written about now, Elvis fan Chuck Murphy published an "interactive pop-up tour" of Graceland's many rooms. And his surviving heirs – his widow, Priscilla Presley, and his daughter, Lisa Marie – still reap an estimated $40 million a year in royalties.

For Elvis – as with the estates of Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix before him and Frank Sinatra and Kurt Cobain after him – death was, among other things, a brilliant career move.

Cynical? Maybe a little. There’s no escaping the real, deep affection that Elvis fans still bear for the man and his music. Legions of fans continue to show that they love him tender today, more years since his death than Elvis spent alive on the national scene. And a touring production, Elvis Presley in Concert, is filling concert halls. Members of his original group perform Elvis’ greatest hits, backed by a 16-piece orchestra, a choir and, towering above everything, the image and sound of a video-projected Elvis doing an array of hit songs, in a deftly-edited montage of some of his best concert performances.

“Today, people are accustomed to seeing giant video screens used in live concerts to bring the star closer to the audience,” says a statement on the official Elvis Web site. “Elvis' recorded voice and his on-screen presence are so powerful, the interaction with the live musicians and singers so seamless, the audience reaction so intense that, a few songs into the show, one can almost forget that Elvis isn't really there in person.”

That kind of staying power was hard for even Elvis to achieve when he walked among us; toward the end of his life, Elvis was a sad, bloated parody of himself in better days. Such adulation is harder still for living, breathing celebrities to achieve in these attention-shortened, rapid-fire times. You gotta give the man his props: He cast a long shadow, one that endures almost eleven thousand days since he became yesterday.

And what about that yesterday? Do you remember where you were when you heard the news that he was gone?

Yes you do. You may not admit it, but you do.
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Image credit: U.S. Postal Service

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