It's a long way from East Tupelo to Germany, Hollywood, the Las Vegas Strip and Hawaii Hawaii. EP was a comet and leaves a glittering trail of images behind.
“A country is the things it wants to see…”
Robert Pinsky, from “An Explanation of America”
And so our country is this
Elvis Presley would be 75 today if he’d survived, been born in another country, maybe. He might have gone on Broadway and taken up songwriting. He might have retired from truck-driving with a pension or never left Tupelo, where he came into America and the world 30 minutes after his stillborn twin.
Our country would like to see Elvis’s stillborn twin, but it’s too late for that. We’d like to see Elvis’s bedroom at Graceland, but you can’t. “The second floor was always his private residence,” says a voice in the headset you’re given on the tour. “It remains private today.” Which makes you want to see it more.
Our country wanted to see a poor boy from rural Mississippi become “the King.” And some people did see that, a little family moving from the country to public housing to a doctor’s “mansion” in Memphis with four Cadillacs outside and gates sprinkled with metal musical notes.
Today, you can go to Tupelo and visit the two-room shotgun house that Presley’s dad Vernon built before the twins arrived. Do you want to see that? Or the Tupelo Garment Plant where Elvis’s mother Gladys worked for $2 a day (twelve hours). Is it still there?
Our country wants to see Sun Records where Elvis recorded That’s All Right, but what about the First Assembly of God Church where he first sang or East Tupelo Consolidated school where he was “average” or Crown Electric in Memphis, where he drove a truck? Do we want to see those things?
Surely, our country wants to see Afro and Anglo intertwined and dancing with itself, male and female snapped together in black leather. Wanting to see that over and over, we have and will again but never more beautifully than in Elvis.
“He made me feel like I was born wrong or something,” said guitarist Jerry Reed. “Man! Look at that dude. He looks like a Greek god. I can’t tell you what the feeling is to sit there and be playing the guitar and watch Elvis Presley about ten feet from you singing your song and getting into it. It was all I could do to keep my guitar in my lap. As a matter of fact it was all I could do to stay in that chair.”
These days we’ll keep our seats, even squirm, seeing 23-year-old Elvis weighed on a scale and inducted. Isn’t watching “the King” swear an oath and carry an Army-issue duffle bag strange? Too much like any other young man (or woman, now) from the country. Do we want to see Elvis setting up a tent, reading his mail in a German field station and hear him talk about eating C-rations?
“Up until Elvis joined the army, I thought it was beautiful music,” John Lennon told a reporter. “Elvis was for me and my generation what the Beatles were to the ’60s. But after he went into the army, I think they cut ‘les bollocks’ off. They not only shaved his hair off but I think they shaved between his legs, too. He played some good stuff after the army, but it was never quite the same.”
Our country doesn’t want to see Taylor Swift in a uniform or Justin Timberlake shipping out for Afghanistan. Inconceivable. His head at the very least is already shaved. Our country doesn’t want to hear a King sing “How Great Thou Art” (ask Bob Dylan).
“A country is the things it wants to see…” wrote our one-time poet laureate Robert Pinsky. And what we want to see has changed since Elvis grew his sideburns in 1955. Our country doesn’t want sideburns or uniforms or letters to Gemany. We once wanted a poor, small-town boy to get rich, kiss Ann Margret on screen, and then devour Las Vegas till he suffocated inside 250 pounds of flesh. Our country wanted overlapping leis, a jumpsuit that glittered. A little sliver of privacy and a room with seven televisions. “But it was never quite the same.”
We still look for a beautiful young man to dance and sing. Doesn’t every country want that? But we want Kings thin and urbane, and invisible soldiers or, even better, virtual soldiers.
Our country wants to feel safe and will pay to be mildly sad. We want a boy with blue-black hair to get rich, grown up and doped up and then lie between his daddy and grandmother by a swimming pool in Memphis where we can get a good look at him.