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Elvis Presley, Still Dead (and Other Observations)
by Brian S. Wise
16 August 2002

The King is dead, long live ... curiosity, and wonder about celebrity worship..



Two nights ago, about ten-thirty, your author was finally overcome by the amount of work to be done and stepped away from the veritable mountains of writing, web page construction and correspondence to bike ride around the neighborhood, in hopes of clearing the cobwebs. Approximately three blocks from Camp TGO rest two sets of train tracks, and as they came closer the lights began to flash, the gates easing down. Patience prevailed as the traffic passed, but once the last car whizzed by I carried on across, only to look to my right and see another train, rapidly approaching. This columnist was about three seconds away from becoming human cottage cheese. And yet, as the moment of terror is reflected upon now, being struck by a locomotive and smeared along two miles of track would have been better than writing about Elvis Presley. But the news dictates the author’s direction, not the other way around, so here goes nothing.

The Chicago Sun-Times, normally a paper of reasonable quality control, has copies to sell, and as a result doesn’t seem to have this problem of journalistic conscience when it comes to Elvis. Last Sunday’s “Showcase” section was fronted with an article entitled, “The King is Gone, but Not Forgotten.” That Elvis is gone but not forgotten goes directly to the root of the problem: there’s no such thing as a human being so profound he should command a loyalty that leads to yearly candlelight vigils outside his home. And yet there they are, at Graceland, August after August, mouthing the words to “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” through tearful convulsions. Even the Sun-Times inherently senses the silliness, but tries to pull back, in the interest of the reader: “As the hordes descend on Graceland for their annual Death Week pilgrimage, it’s time to remind ourselves why he remains relevant.”

No; what we should be asking ourselves is, “How in the name of God has Elvis remained relevant?” In the beginning, there was relevance to be had: he was present at the dawn of rock music, a cultural time in our history we have come to adore, with good reason; he presented a certain danger some teens found attractive and some parents resented, which naturally adds to one’s allure; he was the first to do what he did. This much is understandable. But what he became was, at best, an adulterer and a drug addicted disgrace of a human being; the aggregate is a man graced with above average singing skills and extraordinary timing, but an intellectual barbarian besides, and nothing to worship.

Don’t let the regular column, readership and confidence of conviction fool you: there are many things I cannot even comprehend, let alone explain, and celebrity worship is one of them. (Royalty worship is worse yet, but that’s for another time.) This is not to say one cannot grieve: my childhood home was continuously filled with the sounds of rock music from the 1960s and 70s, including the Beatles, to whom my dearly departed mother was particularly attached. On the day John Lennon was killed, she cried; this is at least reasonable – there’s something to be said when a notable part of your youth is unjustly taken away, something you’ve cared about. But at no time in the four and a half years before her own death did she take it upon herself to arrange a pilgrimage to New York City so she could lay roses outside the Dakota. On this she was a woman of reason. (My strongest suspicion is the people who will congregate outside Graceland this week have birthed the people who camp out in front of movie theatres for Star Wars tickets; this can only be a hereditary anomaly.)

Perhaps the more interesting question to ask would be, What causes someone to worship a celebrity? Thirsting for knowledge, but generally ignorant on the topic, I entered “celebrity worship” into an Internet search engine, only to find predictable results, namely hundreds upon hundreds of links to individual pages and articles that had nothing whatsoever to do with the topic. (Although a site entitled “Sea Monkey Worship” was perused, as was a page advertised with, “Those who worship me.”) Typing “celebrityworship.com” into my browser brought me to a site constructed by one Tom McSweeney, who prominently states on the main page: “Celebrity worship has no future: you owe it to yourself to get a life.” Exactly; but there was nothing to be found on what would turn an otherwise rational person (a dubious contention, to be sure) into the sort of person who makes a yearly trek to Memphis for … whatever those celebrations are that mark the anniversary of Presley’s death. (Your author simply couldn’t bare a visit to the official Elvis Presley web site for a rundown of the … well … festivities, if you must.)

Unsatisfied, thoughts wandered …. Hasn’t it traditionally been the case that those who dedicate the most of themselves to some distant, far flung object or person (besides themselves, their families or their work, in some coherent combination) are the people who have something (or some things) significant missing from their lives? At some point, aren’t these people nothing more than stalkers without portfolio (all that would be missing, then, would be the Salinger sticking out of the back pocket)? Outside NASCAR, it’s hard to imagine as many rednecks gathering in one place as will outside Graceland this week; so how can it be possible that this sort of assembly can be understood by so few people outside of the loop? My sense of curiosity is genuine, and I crave a salient explanation.

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