‘Coffee with Dead People’ is a recurring series on figures I find to be fascinating, reflections on their lives mashed up with mine. And they’re dead.
If I say, “I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,” there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot. — Jeremiah 20.9, ESV
I’ve finally started launching into Peter Guralnick’s Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley. The first of a two-volume epic biography of the single most important pop culture figure of the 20th Century, Guralnick comprehensively researched and charted the trajectory of Presley, from most modest beginnings through his big break, to Sam Phillips selling him to RCA. (The second volume, Careless Love, chronicles his downfall into self-parody and unseemly death in 1977. It seems awkward to say I look forward to reading it.)
Philosophically and scientifically speaking, we talk a lot about paradigm shifts: revolutionary ideas that at first are mocked and disregarded until those ideas prove to be viable and justifiable enough to upend conventional thinking. While there were plenty of precursors to Elvis, black and white, it was Presley whose force of nature changed notions of popular music forever.
We don’t tend to think of him this way, though. People my age and younger–if we think of Elvis at all–think of the sequined, jumpsuited muse for the Honky Tonk Man–a swollen Vegas crooner who set the standard for fading celebrities flailing at an attempt at a second fifteen minutes of fame. Even in decline, the man remained a trend setter.
And, in our mental depictions of fat Elvis, we neglect his rise, his beginnings, his revolution, his very person. The caricature doesn’t tell us anything save what we think of him, which is to say, not much. We don’t factor in that a man who spirals into self-caricature and irrelevance was, necessarily, at one point a highly relevant icon. We neglect the modest beginnings, the people who told the shy boy he couldn’t sing, the older kids who mocked his guitar playing. We fail to see that this person was once very much a human before he was a rock star.
“…Sam [Phillips] saw in Elvis the very person that he was but rarely showed. Where Elvis appeared unsure, tongue-tied, incapable of expressing himself, Sam saw in him the same sort of burning ambition, he was only lacking the ability to verbalize it.” — Guralnick, p. 120
In a sentence and a half, the author not only nails Sam Phillips and Elvis Presley, but reads the mail of any number of would-be creative and artistic geniuses; martyrs to any number of paradigm shifts. Indeed, Elvis wouldn’t be Elvis without Sam Phillips, a mentor and partner who would give a shy kid a shot on acetate and work with him until the greatness within hinted at in the trickle of a single happy birthday 45 gushed out and set Memphis, the Delta and, eventually, the world on fire.
I don’t know about you, but I’m scarcely a blogger with modest success, and I will never forget two types of people: the few who saw something in me worth encouraging, and the many who viewed me as little more than a novelty act, a heretic to be marginalized or a malcontent to be ignored. We are only as much as those who encourage us encourage us to be. The story of Elvis is the story of Sam Phillips, who saw the opportunity to shape a young Presley into a commanding presence behind the microphone before seeing the opportunity to profit. The story of Sam Phillips is the story of Elvis, an artist who provided enough success to Sun Records to attract and elevate talent like Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and Carl Perkins, amongst others, while also elevating the notoriety of those who had gone before, Arthur Crudup, BB King, Bobby Bland, Bill Monroe, et al. In him was fulfilled all the blues and the country: the new covenant of rock and roll.
And yet, like the covenant more familiar to religious folks, it is not a complete usurpation of that which went before it, but a fulfillment. In the Mississippi Delta, so many contexts swirled together that something like this was bound to happen: the prophetic desperation of the blues, the folksy, Appalachian roots of country, the rapture and hope of gospel, the raw exuberance of jazz, blended together and left to swelter under a steamy Memphis sky. The church didn’t know what to do with a church boy playing the devil’s music, the blues singers and pickers of the day looked on in envy and indignation as a white boy took Big Boy Crudup’s ‘That’s All Right’ and made it something more, Nashville, being Nashville, didn’t want anything that wasn’t by, of and for them. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him.
There is a certain undeniable literary quality to Elvis’ life, and yet it isn’t mythic to the point of being unrealistic. Elvis is perfectly salt of the earth, vulnerable, perfectly human. There is nothing spectacular about his talents: he doesn’t have the considerable vocal range of an Orbison, the steely charisma of a Cash, the prodigious guitar skill Perkins had or the raw hellfire–with apologies to Nick Tosches–of a Jerry Lee Lewis. None of them, though, were anything of cultural note without Elvis going before them. And Elvis, time and again according to Guralnick, is proven to be perfectly polite, decent, hard-working and successful. The excesses attributed to rock and roll are not present yet (though they were certainly present in the blues, country and yes, even gospel. It’s amazing to think of Jake Hess–yes, that Jake Hess from those cringe-worthy Americana-cum-Evangelical Gaither Homecoming specials–as a controversial, gyrating gospel singer with the Statesmen.)
Presley’s rise to prominence is also a story in which any one of us could be the central character. It’s remarkable enough to be literature, messianic enough to be religious, earnest enough to be American (and I mean that in the most non-pejorative way possible) and familiar enough to be both relatable and attainable. We’ve all been told to let our dreams die, to be content with where we are, to know our role and fall in line. Few of us, though, have had that Sam Phillips character around; the one (or several) who won’t be content until he or she finds that potential and works at us until we are able to articulate something greater: to be the paradigm shift in our own lives. To take even modest amounts of talent and making the whole greater than the sum of its parts. To prove the naysayers wrong, not because they need to be told off, but because we believe we could be more. To say “I don’t sound like nobody,” as innocently as possible. And to be right.
Yes, Elvis destroyed himself through bad business deals, bad management, bad spending and dietary habits. But there was something there to be destroyed–something deemed worth destroying, perhaps–in the first place. Irrelevance is always preceded by relevance. Most of us will never attain a fraction of what Elvis did from 1954-1958. Yet we’ll always troll a falling star, because we envy success while, at the same time feel justified in our own misery in deriving satisfaction from watching someone famous crash and burn. (Miley Cyrus comes to mind, though, I don’t think I’ll be having coffee with her any time in the future.)
It’s easy to write off Elvis Presley because, at the end, he was a shell of the man who held America captive and changed popular music forever. To negotiate with his life’s work prior to his downfall, though, is to realize just how meaningless our lives tend to be, a revelation of just how much potential we let others destroy or allow ourselves to squander. His narrative is as much about us as it will ever be about him. That’s not exactly a comforting fact.
Then again, the prophetic seldom is.