Just that first name alone conjures up so much imagery, so much cultural currency, so much good feeling for generations of people. Born in Tupelo, MS and raised in Memphis TN, Elvis was an eighteen year old who recorded a single at Sam Phillips’ Sun Records studio for his mum one day in 1953 on the occasion of her birthday as a gift to her; “My Happiness/That’s When The Heartaches Begin“. Who did he sound like? Well, he didn’t sound like nobody. From there, the landscape of popular music, and the barriers that existed between musical genres at the time, would be changed forever. From the cramped studios at Sun Records, to Hollywood movie sets, to Las Vegas residencies, to global satellite transmissions from Hawaiian stages, Elvis weathered all those changes besides.
What also changed was the man himself of course. By the end, he was no longer the earnest American boy with a singular talent for musical interpretation of anything thrown at him. He had become transformed into something more; a cultural avatar of almost religious stature. Those who came after him, carrying legendary mythologies of their own, all held him in the highest esteem. Even to his peers, he was The King; a messianic figure who stood above all of the trends, and enjoying the seemingly unconditional love of the masses up until his death at the young age of 42 on August 16, 1977; thirty-eight years and a day from today in the year that would have had him celebrate his eightieth birthday.
Since his passing, the mythology surrounding Elvis has endured in the imaginations and the works of many. Here are ten songs about Elvis, or at least ones that touch on his cultural importance. Some are down to earth and humourous. Some are profane. Others are almost Biblical in their veneration of that boy from Tupelo who made good. Overall, the range of songwriting styles and musical textures shows that even though he’s gone (or is he?), Elvis’ musical and cultural reach remains extensive even today.
Gillian Welch and her musical partner David Rawlings are two of the most recognized modern purveyors of “old time” music traditions in the twenty-first century, expertly evoking mythical southern landscapes in their work. Why not add Elvis and his legend to that ancient tapestry? In some ways, he was a part of it already. After all, Elvis was a southerner with a powerful story of his own behind him. This song taken from Welch’s 2001 Time (The Revelator) album traces his legend from the beginning, just a boy who combs his hair, wearing a shirt his mother made, to one who could command the forces of nature and funnel it into each performance.
Along with it is the tragedy of the central figure, so exceptional, so gifted, that isolation is the price he pays to get to where he is, and to get western culture to where it is while he’s at it. This can be the story of anyone who attains fame. Yet the figure of Elvis is in a class by itself, being as he is the classic example of how lonely the reign of a king can be. It’s a classic folk music tale of a good man who carries his doom around with him, ultimately undone by a flawed world from which his own basic goodness could not protect him.
The classic hero of literary myth is easily superimposed onto the rock n roll myth, embodied quite handily in the person of Elvis Presley. His story of becoming is one that would bind generations of people together in various ways and with various cultural pulleys behind it; rags to riches fantasies, country to city divides that are finally bridged, and working class boys who get to shake the President’s hand (even if it is Nixon). Elvis’ is a truly American story.
That’s what this song by Alannah Myles tapped into so well, an international hit single taken from her 1989 debut record telling the story of Elvis without naming him, and without having to. In some ways, this song mirrors Gillian Welch’s in another musical field. But, the tone here is less about Elvis as a down to earth and relatable folk hero, and more the object of a “new religion that’ll bring you to your knees”. This is the idealized Elvis, the one who stands as representative of the best of us. What better a figure to reference by Myles, who was then just starting out on the same path of her subject matter, with a number one record in her future? Yet, like Elvis himself, fame is often gone in a flash, seeming to happen so soon after is was achieved. With this story, that sense of the ephemeral is hard to avoid. But in the retelling of the myth, Elvis lives again.
For many, the line between Elvis and the divine is a pretty blurry one. This may be particularly true now that he’s gone, even more so than when he was alive. Even now, if you look hard enough in the right secondhand shops and dollar stores, you can find busts of Elvis, and even Catholicized images of The King, the latter being replete with divine halos of holy light. The phrase “Elvis has left the building” was widely popularized by the superb 1970 documentary Elvis: That’s The Way It Is when it was simply an announcement to fans that he wasn’t around for autographs. It’s interesting in this light, as Elvis’ legend had grown to almost Christ-like proportions. It’s almost an expression of existential angst, applied to anything that was once cherished, and is now gone — or perhaps never was there in the way we thought it was in the first place.
That’s what this 1991 hit song by Dire Straits from their album On Every Street always communicated to me. The song depicts a desparate Elvis fan, trying to communicate with his deity, singing the hymns of his backcatalog in order to summon him. But it’s also the cry of a lonely human race, wondering what’s out there, what it all means down here on earth, and suspecting the answer might be harder to bear than we are prepared for. Here, the act of reaching out to what is hoped for, embodied in an absent Elvis, is strangely comforting. Because, reaching out and being hopeful is such a human thing to do. If we are alone in the universe after all, then at least we are alone together.
Even when he was alive and walking among us, Elvis’ unlikely tale of gaining fame out of poverty still took on a sheen of the mythical. This story-song and top twenty hit in the fall of 1967 by guitar picker Jerry Reed gives us a sense of Elvis’ stature while he was still around. Reed, who is the sole figure on this list who knew Elvis personally and even played on Elvis’s take on Reed’s own “Guitar Man” single, spins a tale of a Tupelo MS son who is an equally unlikely a candidate for fame, but gains it anyway to the initial chagrin of the narrator. This adds even more dimension to the idea of Elvis as a cultural avatar; here he becomes a mid-century archetype that can take on multiple incarnations, and still be recognized.
The song also evokes some of the good-natured professional jealousy that existed between Elvis and his peers during his heyday. There is a certain affectionate acknowledgement here that even if Elvis’ talent and his fame were on a scale beyond many of his peers, that the joke was always on those who underestimated it. Here, the figure of Elvis is less Christ-like, and more like that of an older brother or cousin that our grandparents always favoured, infuriatingly more successful than we are, yet drawing none of our contempt and all of our love at the same time.
When Elvis first showed up on the scene, not everyone was thrilled. He was thought to be a vector to the corruption of American youth. His bodily gyrations were thought to be lewd, even pornographic. And of course, he sang R&B tunes arranged for a country combo that had social implications that pointed to (wait for it) the mixing of the races. This was looked upon as anti-social by many, and even anti-Christian. We’ve all seen the outcropping of this down through the years, with rock ‘n’ roll music in its various forms put in the sights of parent’s groups, churches, and even in court rooms.
So, if in some instances on this list, Elvis is framed as a sort of Christ-figure, then Nick Cave’s song taken from 1985’s The Firstborn Is Dead, frames things in a slightly different light; Elvis as an Anti-Christ figure. This song is written as if taken from The Book Of Revelation, full of Biblical doom and last-days-style portent. Beneath the surface of hellfire preaching and lurid and exaggerated eschatological landscapes lies a wry criticism of the initial objections to Elvis (and by extension, rock ‘n’ roll itself) as some kind of moral threat to the souls of the innocent. His objectors were in fact right in one respect though; that time was running out for the carefully controlled world as it stood in 1950s America. It could not contain what was to come without being transformed.
Moving from his mythical birth as depicted in Nick Cave’s song, and to his death, this song by fellow Mississippian Steve Forbert traces the feelings experienced by the narrator on the news of Elvis’ passing. It calls into question the nature of fame itself, how a simple “hillbilly singer” can attain such heights, bringing out the best and the worst in those that his example touches, with our adoration of the man mixed with our appetite to consume him. Yet in this song, that complex relationship we have with our heroes goes even further. It’s also about the world that they help to create just by being in it, fragile though that world may be.
That’s what Elvis represents for many; a world that makes a certain kind of internal sense, culturally speaking. As such, this song is not only one of mourning for a man who has died. It’s also a song of mourning for that version of the world that he helped to define. It was a world that seemed so sure, so immutable, yet was ultimately revealed to be a house of cards, always ready to fall. As long as cultural icons may last beyond death, it is sobering to reflect that even our world as we understand it today is even now on its way to passing out of memory as new worlds rise up in its place, for good or ill.
Having said all that, there are those who welcome the passing of icons and the worlds they help define to make way for new mythologies and new paradigms. Because after all, today’s revolutionary force is tomorrow’s staid establishment. And generally speaking, a rhinestoned, corseted, and otherwise Vegas-ed Elvis became something of a repellent cartoon for many by the end, an insult to the lithe, pompadoured, and pelvis-shaking badass of the past. The business of being an icon is tricky in that respect, sometimes turning out to be a representation of the very things that they originally went up against.
All of that is at the heart of The Forgotten Rebels’ 1979 tune taken from their full-length In Love With The System that poked holes in the legend. Sure, it’s pretty crass, rude, and irreverent of the passing of the King. At it’s heart though, it’s about what we heard in the Steve Forbert song above about how Elvis’ death sparked all manner of cultural grave robbing, cheapening his true legacy as an artist, and reducing it to a crass industry instead. Even if the lyrics are pretty shocking to your average Elvis fan, I think the key ingredient to be found in them isn’t really disdain of the man himself or his work necessarily. It’s disappointment in what we turned him into.
One of my favourite headlines in The Onion was the historic news story of the death of Elvis in August 1977 found in the book Our Dumb Century: “Elvis Is Dead: Is Elvis Alive?” It seems when you have a messianic aura around a certain mythical story, then it follows that tales of cheating death with shades of The Resurrection can’t be too far behind. Thematically at least, our culture has remained consistent on this score when it comes to Elvis and his death. Even if we want to believe our love of the man and his work is strong enough to overcome death itself, that doesn’t make it true.
That’s the joke at the center of Kirsty MacColl’s 1981 hit single from her album Desparate Character about the veracity of a lover’s resolve as compared to the titular guy who works in the chip shop and his claims of King-hood. This makes for a great little country rock song that the King himself would be proud of. And it also reinforces the idea that legends themselves can easily become a part of the vernacular, and even a part of urban legend. MacColl’s song puts this in a lighthearted context. But, the repeating patterns of human storytelling about venerated figures achieving immortality in our culture remains. In some ways, they hold a truth, too; that icons are icons because we all agree that they are, and that their stories should continue to be told. That’s the kind of immortality one can really count on.
For an entire generation of musicians and music fans, Elvis provided the template on which to base their own personas. Elvis really was a good-looking boy by anyone’s standards. If you wanted to build up a persona for yourself as a kid in the austere 1950s, particularly in areas where knowing your place and not getting ideas above your station were key values, then Elvis was a great place to start, since his story was all about breaking those kinds of rules. The defiance of those accepted structures in post-war Britain were the key motivations for what would feed the British Invasion, during which time The Who would be among the bands to lead the charge.
Like an awful lot of Pete Townshend’s songs, this one released as a single in 2004 deals with identity, perception, and the struggles to understand and come to terms with their relationship. Here on this song, the narrator falls short of the Elvis ideal to which he aspires. But in the end, he gets what Elvis arguably did not get while perched on his rock ‘n’ roll throne; connection, intimacy, and real acceptance from another. Because Elvis was also “The King”, his own glory made him unapproachable, making it difficult for others to see the man behind the icon. Once again, the loneliness of his journey is alluded to here. And in the end, the narrator is grateful not to be viewed as Elvis was; as an object of beauty and envy, but never being able to truly reach out to others, and be seen for the man he wanted to be.
To round out the list, Mojo Nixon’s tune from his 1987 record Bo-Day-Shus!!! about the omnipresent nature of Elvis is perhaps both a reflection of over-the-top Elvis worship by crazed and often delusional fans, and the tendency to make gods out of celebrities with all of the absurdities that follow. But, this song is no po-faced commentary on any of that. There’s definitely the spirit of affection that we saw in the Jerry Reed tune here, balanced with the irony also found in hefty measure in The Forgotten Rebels song as well.
This is kind of the lighter side of Elvis’ fame and impact that serves as a counterweight to some of the other songs on this list that focused on how lonely he must have been to be treated as more than just an artist, and rather as the kind of unattainable ideal that we heard in The Who song. Overall, this tune is a humourous acknowledgment of the influence that Elvis had on global culture, which is ultimately positive. Despite the deeper implications of his rise to fame in the end, and all the nuttiness it inspired later among fans and conspiracy theorists, in this song more Elvis is better than less!
The famous quote from Lester Bangs, written after the death of Elvis Presley on August 16, 1977 was mostly true when it comes to rock fandom: “We will never again agree on anything the way we agreed about Elvis.” It’s a pretty sweeping statement, and very arguable in retrospect, especially when we consider how many black artists, on whose work and influence that much of Elvis’ career was based, were unjustly left behind when it came to the fruits of their labour, and to what they contributed to the development of rock music, a lot of the time before Elvis came along. But for many, Elvis represented an ideal world in which all of people could celebrate a single common factor without hesitation and with our full hearts, whether young, old, black, white, male, female, and everything in between. That must have been a big burden for one man to bear, whether one venerates him as an icon, or vilifies him as a symbol for cultural imperialism.
Either way, walking into Sun Records in the summer of 1953 as an eighteen-year old looking to make a birthday present for his mother by singing on a self-made record, he could not have been able to predict what would happen to him from there, and what the cultural implications would be even beyond his own death. Despite the loneliness and pain that can be found in his story mixed with unprecedented glory and fame that made him what he was, ultimately we can still celebrate Elvis with pure hearts beyond all of that. We can remember him as that earnest and talented boy born into humble circumstances in Tupelo who viewed making music as a gift to be given, both to those who make it, and for those who continue to listen even today.
Perhaps it is this that we really can all agree on; that music really is a gift. And that Elvis Presley gave more than most.
As an unofficial eleventh song on this list, let’s hear from David, Nigel, and Derek, with a barbershop raga version of “Heartbreak Hotel”.