Elvis Presley is one of the immortal figures of American life, not simply American music. In the forty years since his 1977 death, his bridging of white and black culture, his appearance at the onset of rock and roll music, the sometimes cheesy movies, and jumpsuit-clad movements of his body later in his career have all continued to take on more power as cultural touchstones.
In his seminal 1975 book Mystery Train, Greil Marcus might have come closest to describing the power of Elvis Presley:
“Elvis takes his strength from the liberating arrogance, pride, and the claim to be unique that grow out of a rich and commonplace understanding of what ‘democracy’ and ‘equality’ are all about: No man is better than am. He takes his stength as well from the humility, the piety, and the open, self-effacing good humor that spring from the same source: I am better than no man. And so Elvis Presley’s career defines sucess in a democracy that can perhaps recognize itself best in its popular culture: no limits, sucess so grand and complete it is nearly impossible for him to perceive anything more worth striving for. But there is a horror to this utopia – and one might think that the great moments Elvis still finds are his refusal of all that he can have without struggling. Elvis proves then that the myth of supremacy for which his audience will settle cannot contain him; he is, these moments show, far greater than that.”
If only that which you struggle for is valuable, Elvis Presley struggled a great deal and gave up everything for the “American Dream.” He was only forty-two years when he died.
Elvis officially died of a heart attack, but there is of course far more to the story than that. He had ten times the recommended dose of codeine in his system and about ten other prescription drugs. How did someone with so much vitality and youth seemingly all of a sudden descend into prescription drug abuse and a weight that was almost two hundred pounds more than was healthy?
In a very interesting piece for The Huffington Post last year, Garry Rodgers hypothesized that the later years of Elvis’ life may be explainable by a single event in 1967. While filming the movie Clambake Elvis fell and struck his head on a porcelain bathtub. He fell unconscious, was hospitalized – obviously suffering from a concussion. At the time he was thirty-two years old and in good health, weighing only about 160 pounds.
Traumatic brain injuries can sometimes cause severe and chronic health problems. When brain tissue breaks loose from the brain, auto-immune disorders can develop that can enlarge organs such as the heart. It was also the moment when Presley’s abuse of prescription drugs reached greater heights as he became addicted to pain medication.
It’s sobering to think what Elvis might have recorded in the studio or of what concerts or films that might have been completed. But the record also contains twenty-three years of recordings and performances by the man that will always be known as “The King of Rock and Roll.”
This Wednesday, August 16th, will mark the 40th anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley. Had he lived, he would be 82 years old now. The clips below highlight some of the great moments of his life.
With Milton Berle, performing “Hound Dog” and appearing in a comedy skit, June, 1956
Performing on The Ed Sullivan Show, October, 1956
From the 1957 film Jailhouse Rock
Entering the army, 1958
Appearing with Frank Sinatra after returning home, May, 1960
“Can’t Help Falling in Love” from the 1961 movie Blue Hawaii
“Return to Sender” from the 1962 movie Girls! Girls! Girls!
“Bossa Nova Baby” from 1963’s Fun in Acapulco
“Trying to Get to You” and “If I Can Dream” from the 1968 comeback special
“Suspicious Minds” from Las Vegas, 1969
“The Wonder of You,” also from Las Vegas, 1970
From the 1973 telecast of “Elvis: Aloha from Hawaii”: “Burning Love” and “You Gave Me a Mountain”
The very end: “Unchained Melody” at a 1977 concert in Omaha
Elvis has left the building….