By Carl Golden
The Philadelphia Inquirer
It’s been 40 years since the death of Elvis Presley in his mansion in Memphis on Aug. 16, 1977.
His passing doesn’t rise to the memory level of other public notables – “I remember where I was when Elvis died” – but it shocked millions around the world who mourned one of the most enduring cultural icons of the 20th century.
Those of us who were on the verge of our teenage years or had just edged into them were convinced that music wasn’t invented until Bill Haley and the Comets recorded “Rock Around The Clock” in 1954. But while Haley invented it, Elvis perfected it in 1956 when he recorded “Heartbreak Hotel.”
We reveled in the adult reaction to Elvis, snickering when he was denounced from the pulpit as the embodiment of evil or shaking our heads in disbelief when local government officials banned his concerts.
It was our rebellion, kicking the establishment in the shins and grinning when we got away with it.
It’s pretty tame compared with the rebels of today who express their displeasure by heaving an iron bicycle rack through the plate glass window of the nearest Bank of America.
His movies were dreadful, remarkably thin plots that served as background noise for his singing. We went anyway.
I can still recall sitting in the darkened theater in my hometown, watching “Love Me Tender,” Presley’s first movie. He sang four songs and was killed in the end.
As we grew older, the shocking reality hit that we had become the establishment, the recent targets of our shin-kicking.
But, we still followed Elvis, bought his records, jammed with the upbeat material and hummed along with the ballads.
We stuck with him through his leather jumpsuit phase and engagements in Las Vegas.
Even as his appearance deteriorated and his physique transformed into a badly overweight middle-aged man, his voice still reached and touched us.
When the stories surfaced and intensified about his drug use, we didn’t try to rationalize or ignore it. The voice was still there, strong and vibrant, and we could always conjure up the Elvis of the movies or “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
His work has been remarkably enduring. Videos of his shows and CDs of his songs are hawked endlessly on cable television. Documentaries tracing his career, featuring interviews and concert footage, still draw decent viewership.
Never has an entertainer spawned so many impersonators, people who either grew up with him or who were captured by his music and style even after he had died.
His only real rival for our affection and admiration was James Dean, whose three films before his death made him, in our eyes, America’s greatest actor.
Elvis stood alone in our music-centric generation. We were witnesses to the birth of rock ‘n’ roll (even if we didn’t call it that), and Elvis was the center of it all. He was us or what we convinced ourselves he was. His rebel streak was ours – the clothes, the sideburns, the ducktail haircut. His cool was our cool and he wasn’t afraid to show it.
He didn’t conform to the rigidity of the 1950s and, we were convinced, neither did we. He was in control and we all thought we were, too.
The years have dulled the edge of our rebelliousness and our collective memory is, perhaps, a triumph of nostalgia over reality.
But, 40 years later, in any discussion of American music, someone will mention The King. There’s no need for clarification. Everybody knows who it is.
Now, that’s endurance.
Elvis was but 42 years old when he died, an age most of us have long surpassed. We married, began careers, became parents and grandparents, and retired.
Had he lived, he’d be 82 years old, probably long retired from performing and spending his days at Graceland listening to himself and re-living the ’50s.
Of course, if he’d be 82, all of us who memorized “Heartbreak Hotel” and saw “Love Me Tender” multiple times are closing in on that as well.
Carl Golden lives in Burlington Township, N.J., outside Philadelphia. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.