Mystery Train: Requiem (And a Playlist) For a King

by Caroline Klibanoff

Today marks the anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley. It’s been 33 years since he died rather famously, the stuff of legend, at age 42. I have met people that have never listened to Elvis. This astonishes me, though perhaps it shouldn’t; his music can seem dated today, his story told and re-told so many times it’s now less like a legend of rock ‘n’ roll than a tired old movie plot rehashed again and again. It becomes one of those snoozefest tales your dad tells you while he’s driving somewhere and you’re literally subject to his will and his memory, trapped as you are in the front passenger seat by a seatbelt and the car’s velocity. But more than that, I have met people that have listened to Elvis and still never really heard him, never truly given his music that concerted listening it deserves. They admit his story and his influence, but for them his music moves no bones, stirs no heart. I get it. I feel the same about, say, Frank Sinatra. And it’s not that it is somehow wrong to have a deep love for rock ‘n’ roll music, or even the blues, without giving Elvis records a second listen; it’s just something you might want to consider, is all. He has a remarkable talent for saying beautifully simple things in an incredibly truthful way. I didn’t get it until I saw footage of Elvis live, namely his seminal 1973 performance in Hawaii. See below:

It’s easy to write him off as a stage presence only, a white-suited caricature of a pop star swallowed alive by his own fame. But watch closely — he is a presence, but that’s entirely part of why he was, and is, so captivating live. Swinging hips, the gospel choir, and his classic snarl are essential here, but it’s also clear how much he means every word he sings. Nobody has vocal pitch that perfect while fighting addiction and inner demons and a crushing fame and performing live in front of a mammoth audience, unless they mean every word they’re singing. This is real gospel.

The King’s blessed beginnings are as well-known as his unfortunate ends, born in a one-room house in Tupelo, Miss., east of the Delta, smack dab in the middle of the Depression, about as unknown and anonymous as anyone’s ever been. But he loved music, and grew up internalizing as much as he could from both sides of the race coin in an age and a region where that was difficult, to say the least. His impoverished childhood and gospel-spun upbringing lent a true bluesman’s sensibility to what later become rock ‘n’ roll. As a young adult he teamed up with Sam Phillips and Sun Studio in Memphis, which later boasted a roster including Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash, and became a full-fledged star, American cultural icon, arbiter of change, pioneer in rock and dance music, etc.

To visit Sun Studio today is to hear an earful about Cash and little about the rest of the group — perhaps the staff figures the next stop on your Memphis road trip is Graceland, and I guess it’s justified for them to think that, because if Graceland isn’t your next stop it should be.

Cheesy? Take one look at the numerous Elvis impersonators visiting the site, the elaborate memorials placed by eager fans, or the chintzy shag green carpet in the house and you’ll have your answer. Cheesy doesn’t even begin to cover it.

But Graceland remains one of the most moving places I have ever visited in my life. The tour lets you get underneath the Elvis myth. And then there’s his grave. Amid hordes of fans come to pay their respects, having just gained a new appreciation for The King’s music and life from the house-turned-museum, it’s more than a bit uncomfortable to suddenly be confronted with his gravestone, with the cold, hard fact that this humbly-rooted tour de force is laid in the ground right before your feet, excuse my bluntness, dead as a doornail. That, to me, says a lot. You want immortality? Do something as great as Elvis Presley, whose legacy is so powerful you literally forget he’s no longer alive when you listen to his music and read about his life.

After all, his influence seems inescapable: my favorite Elvis song, “True Love Travels on a Gravel Road,” was “Golddigger” long before Kanye West was even conceived as an idea in his parent’s minds, and “Stuck On You” made famous the blues-rock riff you can hear in every blues-rock song since. The opening line of “Viva Las Vegas,” along with the skittering beat, is perfect for anyone jonesing for escape: “Bright lights city gonna set my soul on fire.” His phrasing and intonation is flawless on “Don’t be Cruel.” “Burnin’ Love?” Tell me you don’t want to listen to this every morning when you wake up. And even the classic “Hound Dog” is worth a revisit, given its handclaps and rapid-fire drum break.

So on this day, the anniversary of Elvis’ death, let’s pour a little bit of our metaphorical drinks out for The King. Give the songs below a listen — a real one — and if you’re still not moved, a visit to Memphis might be in order. I’m sure some dressed-to-kill impersonator with an “Elvis is Alive!” bumper sticker and a conspiracy-theory-friendly agenda would be glad to show you around. (I didn’t say Elvis fans weren’t total cultist freaks).


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