On Aug. 16, 1977, Elvis Presley suddenly died, and now, in retrospect, the way Americans and the world absorbed that news says something about us that just may be enduring.
By 1977, Elvis as something other than fodder for gossip had been fading. It had been nearly a decade since he’d had a great single, and in the time of disco and punk, he was a has-been.
Yet the news spread like a thunderclap: Dead of an apparent drug overdose at just 42.
Elvis expired at his Graceland estate and was pronounced dead at 3:30 p.m. Three hours later, it led the evening TV newscasts. NBC anchor David Brinkley tried to sum up in three minutes what he said was “one of the two most spectacular careers in the history of American entertainment – the other being Frank Sinatra’s.”
Brinkley was 58. He’d seen Elvis come and go and he was not sure what to make of it.
Presley “sold records in the multiples of millions; made millions; bought a string of Cadillacs, one after another; gave away a string of Cadillacs to people he liked; and along the way, he was married in 1967 to Priscilla Ann Beaulieu,” Brinkley explained. “The very symbol of sex for all of the millions ... of teenagers was married only once, and then, relatively late.” Was that ironic? Brinkley did not know.
He tried to assign Presley a place in popular history with unpredictable results:
“In the 1950s, the great swing era of Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw and Tommy Dorsey was about dead. Big band pop music had turned into what was called ‘bop’ or ‘bee-bop’ – remote, obscure, bloodless. Nobody liked it. Nobody could dance to it.
“And then, here came Elvis with a hot, stomping, steaming, sexy kind of music that turned on young people as pop music never had before. Others came along, including The Beatles, but they were all indebted to him and most of them said so. He died today – even though he didn’t drink, smoke or drive his own car. He quit breathing.”
The median age of an American today is just a hair over 38, which means that most never lived when Elvis did. Neither his life nor his death have much relevance anymore. All that survives, really, are a few campy images of a faded star.
But what mattered, what came first, as Brinkley could not help admitting, was the music – and some of that holds up extraordinarily well today.
There are the Memphis sessions, recorded over several weeks in early 1969. (Some of the recordings later would have strings, horns and backup vocals overdubbed and would be hits: “Suspicious Minds,” “In the Ghetto,” “Kentucky Rain.”)
The mother lode of American music is in those sessions, in all the false starts and outtakes and alternate takes which have been released in the years since, where he and a few crack sidemen blend country and soul. You can hear some of them on YouTube, such as “Long Black Limousine, Take 6,” where the intimacy of the setting and the warmth and confidence of his voice are close to nirvana.
And almost none of it was known in his lifetime.
Two weeks after he died, the critic Lester Bangs, who was 29, published a remembrance in The Village Voice under the headline “How Long Will We Care?” and came to a devastating conclusion:
“If love truly is going out of fashion forever, which I do not believe, then along with our nurtured indifference to each other will be an even more contemptuous indifference to each others’ objects of reverence. I thought it was Iggy Stooge, you thought it was Joni Mitchell or whoever else seemed to speak for your own private, entirely circumscribed situation’s many pains and few ecstasies. We will continue to fragment in this manner, because solipsism holds all the cards at present; it is a king whose domain engulfs even Elvis’s. But I can guarantee you one thing: we will never again agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis. So I won’t bother saying goodbye to his corpse. I will say goodbye to you.”
Lester Lives. Elvis lives. Nothing is gone that is not forgotten.