In Elvis Presley’s penultimate drama, Change of Habit, he plays a young doctor working in a ghetto clinic, a sort of urban Albert Schweitzer. A trio of nuns led by Mary Tyler Moore, working without their habits, are sent to aid him. Moore and Elvis fall in love. Shaken, Mary returns to the convent, questioning her commitment to the church. But one day she is summoned to the chapel. Elvis stands at the altar, looking radiant. He is singing a hymn. The camera follows her eyes from Presley’s face to Christ’s on the cross, back and forth. In the final scene of the film, we see Mary’s face. It looks perplexed. For her, there seems to be no difference between these two men.
This is the most supremely arrogant moment in recent cultural history, surpassing even John Lennon’s “We’re bigger than Jesus” wisecrack. For Elvis moved beyond making a statement to a practical demonstration; in our eyes, there isn’t much difference, either. And unless you understand that—that Elvis Presley was more than anything a spiritual leader of our generation—there is really no way to assess his importance, much less the meaning of the music he created.
Listen to his best songs: there is no mistaking it. Uniting opposites, of course, is the essence of religion, and Elvis did that in the most banal, pragmatic and cosmic ways: he obliterated distinctions between musical forms, between races (for a moment at least) and even between good and bad. Many singers of our era might have recorded bits of deviltry like “One Night” and “All Shook Up.” No one else could also have made a hymn like “Crying in the Chapel” a convincing hit. It would have occurred to no one else to try to span the gulf between those songs.
Elvis’ fans surrendered to him instinctively, willing to take what he gave (no matter how silly), always confident that he could possess them completely any time he chose. Their faith, coupled with the complacency of his advisers, was both his glory and a plague. For if he was so great an artist in an environment where his mere presence was enough to incite riotous devotion, what might he have become in an atmosphere where creative challenge was fostered, risk encouraged, banality derided?
There is no denying that the final few years were depressing and humiliating—especially since their mediocrity followed the great moments of redemption, the 1968 TV show and the string of vital hits that surrounded it. “If I Can Dream,” “Kentucky Rain,” “The Wonder of You” and “Suspicious Minds” were among the greatest records he ever made.
As depressing as the musical backsliding—perhaps more so—was the physical deterioration. From a lithe, athletic and infinitely sexual creature, Elvis became the antithesis of our dreams. Still, many of us turned to each new record with expectations that must confound those who missed even the final glimmerings of his majesty.
Why did we bother? Because Elvis was unique. He had it all. Every element of the rock & roll dream was his—pink Cadillacs, beautiful women, untold wealth, true genius and inspiration—and that was a claim no one else could ever make. A few others might have had some hope of it, most notably Chuck Berry. Berry united his own set of opposites: black and white, adult and teenage, verbal and nonverbal. But Berry was also black, and though he, too, blazed a tough and glorious path, his race denied him the full honor due his genius.
In a way, though, it was Berry’s story, because of songs like “Johnny B. Goode” and “Promised Land,” even though those songs came to stand as prophecies of Elvis, and finally as epitaphs for him. (It is especially ironic that those two songs were among the finest recordings of Elvis’ final years.) “Johnny B. Goode” was a story Elvis, and Elvis alone, lived out to the hilt. “Promised Land” must have seemed a plain fact to him—at least some of the time.
Perhaps I make too much of Elvis Presley—he was, after all, not a saint or a guru. But if any individual of our time can be said to have changed the world, Elvis Presley is the one. In his wake more than music is different. Nothing and no one looks or sounds the same. His music was the most liberating event of our era because it taught us new possibilities of feeling and perception, new modes of action and appearance and because it reminded us not only of his greatness but of our own potential. If those things were not already so well integrated into our lives that they have become commonplace, it would be simpler to explain how astonishing a feat Elvis Presley’s advent really was.
Of course, it is unquestionable that there would have been rock & roll music without Elvis Presley. But it’s just as unquestionable that the kind of rock & roll we have—a matter of dreams and visions, not just facts and figures or even songs and singers—was shaped by him in the most fundamental ways.
His life must have been brutally lonely, for Elvis went it alone, took the biggest chance of all. One reason the Beatles did better, or at least lasted longer at their peak, was that they had learned from his mistakes and successes. Elvis had no such map to guide him, so he had to invent himself, over and over, come up with new terms for dealing with each situation. In the process, he invented us, whether or not we all know it. We are a hero-worshiping, thrill-crazy mob, I suppose, but at our best one that’s tuned into the heart of things—open, honest, unpretentious. Which is to say that he made us in his image.
Elvis was the King of rock & roll because he was the embodiment of its sins and virtues: grand and vulgar, rude and eloquent, powerful and frustrated, absurdly simple and awesomely complex. He was the King, I mean, in our hearts, which is the place where the music really comes to life. And just as rock & roll will stand as long as our hearts beat, he will always be our King: forever, irreplaceable, corrupt and incorruptible, beautiful and horrible, imprisoned and liberated. And finally, rockin’ and free, free at last.