by Larry Durstin

Were he alive today -- and some say he is -- Elvis Presley would turn 76 this week, yet somehow remains nearly as popular today as he was a half century ago. Why?

Well, it's not just because so many of us deify our celebrity icons to near-messianic heights or that a strange brand of religiosity plays a part in the Presley phenomenon. No, at the heart of it is something much simpler and peculiarly American: dreaming big dreams.

In the final scene of the last non-documentary movie of his career, "Change of Habit" (1969), Elvis Presley was shown strumming away at a guitar in church while Mary Tyler Moore - playing a nun with a big decision to make--looked on. The camera went from Elvis to Jesus then back and forth until the two images blended as Moore tried to make up her mind which to choose.

This sledgehammer symbolism was hard to ignore at the time and nowadays - after droves of impersonators, sightings and Elvis Lives Cults - that scene has taken on a downright eerie dimension. (Recently I spotted a small paperback comically showing dozens of similarities between Jesus and Elvis, one of which being that Jesus was a shepherd and Elvis dated Cybil Sheperd).

While I readily acknowledge that, in a collective unconscious sort of way, popular culture has a spiritual element to it, and I firmly believe that Elvis is the most significant pop culture figure of the 20th century, I strongly favor the separation of Church and Presley. I do, however, see a striking similarity between the primary message of the early ('54-'56) Elvis and the one central to most of the great religious figures of history - which is that it is possible for all our dreams to come true.

To appreciate the influence of Presley on rock music and to understand the significance of his role as the quintessential America Dreamer, it is absolutely critical to listen to the music of those first few years - if for no other reason than to dispel the greatest myth about Presley, which is that he was just some semi-talented white guy who ripped off infinitely more gifted black artists and was lavishly rewarded for his mediocrity. Elvis was many grotesque things later in his life, but one thing he was not was a 1950s version of Vanilla Ice.

But please don't take my word for it, instead go back and listen to that early music. Listen to Elvis pump white-hot electricity into Big Boy Crudup's "That's All Right, Mama", and Wynonie Harris' "Good Rockin' Tonight," do right and proper justice to Mama Thornton's "Hound Dog," and generally reduce to the ash heap of history most of the originals that he covered. As for his popularity being the result of don't-know-any-better-white kids, keep in mind that in direct competition with the other two members of Rock's Holy Trinity - Chuck Berry (the Father), Little Richard (the Holy Ghost) - Elvis (the Word Made Flesh) had more number ones on the R&B ("Race") charts than both of them - and that was at a time when primarily only blacks were buying R&B records.

Don't simply look at the sales, however, instead just listen to Elvis squeeze more lactic juice than you can shake your stick at out of the classic "Milkcow Blues Boogie," or convey a pure unholy arrogance in his "Mystery Train" that was nowhere to be found in Little Junior Parker's version, or use that searing, keening voice - one that celebrates nothing as much as its own power - to deliver white-gospel-tinged ballads such as "Anyway You Want Me" like no one before or since. Musically, the early Presley was an astonishingly gifted alchemist, drawing power from primarily black music but singing like no one but himself. When it comes to breadth of vocal range, perhaps only Ray Charles can match him.

But his staggering singing talent is only part of the Presley story. Consider for a moment the society that this comet exploded into in the mid-'50s. It was a culture nibbling on the genial jingoism of Norman Vincent Peale and being made somewhat uncomfortable by Adlai Stevenson. It was a stale, waist-up America, decked out in tuxes and tails - a tasteful semi-corpse living in white picket shadow-houses of cards with stifling secrets and stuffed feelings and suffocating denial and institutional racism/sexism. It was a society with absolutely nothing at stake, one that had taken up permanent residence in the spiritual intensive care unit and where the accumulated hypocrisy of all the piled centuries since Paradise had rendered it ready to split in two.

It was into this theater that Elvis, the "Hillbilly Cat" as he was called, strode with amused, defiant cool - his quivering hips a thousand times quicker than the CBS Eye - and suddenly everything was at stake. Suddenly America was in the midst of a game of chicken, because Elvis was playin' for keeps and takin' his dreams very, very seriously. And, just as suddenly, so were those of us who listened to him. He was all erotic genius, both discovering and uncovering himself - his voice burning into the suburban bushes of Eisenhower's America with other-worldly images of abandoned pleasures and back-alley thrills.

As an American Dream re-inventor, Elvis wasn't lacking qualifications - not the least of which was volcanic ambition. And although he was the son of a dirt-poor sharecropper, he had roamed Memphis' black Beale Street section studying his trade and spending his money on the kind of clothes that earned him the nickname "Memphis Flash." He had also spent plenty of growing-up time listening to the gritty, vengeful last-shall-be-first message of white Pentecostal preachers holy-rollering around sawdust floors - scratching, clawing and pleading for redemption.

His music bled menace and lust, but also tenderness and vulnerability and an overpowering romantic lyricism. He was all contradiction - the raunchy roadhouse rocker who loved mom and Jesus, the yes-sir/no-sir Southern boy with the swaggering carelessness, the sneering sex symbol with the self-mocking smile. And, like Fitzgerald's Gatsby, he was all magnetism: "There was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promise of life - as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away." He was and is the stuff that American Dreamers are made of.

Sixties' activist Abbie Hoffman said that Elvis killed Ike Eisenhower, and John Lennon said that before Elvis there was nothing and after Elvis there was everything. While these assertions are debatable, I do know for sure that when Elvis hit America in 1955, howling and gyrating like he had gulped down a jackhammer, the Hillbilly Cat was definitely out of the bag - and the world has never been the same.

From a creative standpoint, should he have quit in 1957? Probably. But the Stones probably should have quit in 1974. Since then no one can name more than two or three of their songs that can even be mentioned in the same breath as the phenomenal material of their early years. And as far as their stage performances go, let's hope that the next time they get face lifts or blood transfusions they put them to better use than prancing around the stage like vampires-on-the-verge-of-keeling-over while come-hithering14-year-old-girls. How much less grotesque is that than Elvis ballooning around a Las Vegas lounge stuffed into a frilled jumpsuit?

But he didn't quit and instead went into the Army and came out as Bozo, churning out a decade of insipid movies with uninspired (at best) soundtracks, surrounding himself with the biggest group of losers in the history of the Western World, and literally throwing away his colossal talent as if it were a trifle. Every now and then he would come up with a song that would flash a bit of the old brilliance, and in 1968 he made an incredible, leather-clad live TV special that proved he still had more than enough to blow just about everybody away. But aside from that it was pretty much all downhill.

Sadly, he spent his final few years eating peanut butter and banana sandwiches, theorizing about visitors from other planets or how the Jews were running the world, giving rambling interpretations of the Bible that make David Koresh seem like a secular humanist, and aimlessly performing in front of primarily leisure-suited, beehived audiences who conjured in Elvis' multi-rhinestoned visage a glamorized version of themselves. Finally he pill-popped himself into oblivion and disappeared into his own mythology, where he has been - from time to time purportedly still sighted in the flesh.

Efforts at justifying and analyzing his demise continue to go on and on, but perhaps the only definite thing that can be said is that maybe no one could have survived as Elvis Presley - the backwoods boy who brilliantly mixed the music of poor whites and poor blacks and literally scared the beejeezus out of racist, mid-'50s America; and whose charisma dwarfed any and all who succeeded him. Sociologically and musically the birth of rock and roll can be glibly explained away simply as a matter of some white guy coming along who could "sing black" and get the bobbysoxers to screech, but there is absolutely no way to ever fully and truly explain Elvis.

Just after Presley's death in August, 1977, his Svengali-like manager, Col. Tom Parker, was asked for a comment. He said, "This doesn't change anything."

In a way the old cigar-chomping hustler was right, although I'm sure the Colonel was referring to the amount of money he himself would still be making. But what will really never change and will remain forever magical are Elvis' early, lightning-bolt musical performances which - like the words and deeds of every great political, cultural or spiritual revolutionary - simultaneously struck the deepest fears of some, like parents and preachers and teachers, and the secret dreams of others, like me.