The Draw of Elvis
There was a time before The King of Rock and Roll, a blurry time that is close and yet far away. That particular time and its societies preceding him affected everyone there in one way or another, down to the way he was met when he finally arrived on the scene. The stage was set for what was to come, the chain of events and its effects that led to the rise of Elvis. You had to be there to fully understand how things occurred and why the world received him as it did. You became a fan or not. You had to be there to feel the heat of it all. You had to be there to understand the fuss.
There have always been places where societal lines are sharply drawn, forbidding and clear, and in the South—pre-Elvis— that was excruciatingly so. Generally, those boundaries are not crossed or messed with because the risks are too daunting to merely contemplate, let alone try to ignore, and escape.
Viewing Baz Luhrmann's film Elvis (2022) brought them to the foreground again, but this is not a movie review. Instead, it is a brief recall of the Elvis phenomenon in its earliest period by someone who saw its beginnings as an adolescent.
I loved Elvis only the way an unworldly preteen or teen could. It was before knowing what would follow down the road and all the complexities of expected and forbidden social interactions and relationships. I became aware of him later than the average teen because our native community didn't have access to the media outlets of that day. He turned out to be larger than the movie screen. When his movies showed in my small town, lines went around the block and people waited for hours. Not all my friends went, because they or their parents said out and out he was "sinful" and some people still hadn't decided if his music was white or black. This was Oklahoma and he was ushering in something unfamiliar and threatening.
He bowled me over with his kind of vulnerability, intensity, and dreams, though he was a bit older. I followed his story, the ups and downs of it, from a distance all my life as most of his fans did. It was like a long movie playing in the background and was always running. I followed his story because it presented some contrary actions and surprises rather than the usual line. He was likable and he gave everything to his astounding and breathless performances. How could I not know where it would lead?
In the eighties, I had several paired parakeets. They lived in a section of the house where they might go in and out of their cage at will and fly about as they wanted. One of them was named Elvis. His cage was always open but he never ventured out. "Oh Elvis, go!" I begged, but he never did.
Probably most everyone— fan or not— remembers where they were and how they heard The King had died. I had left Gallup, N.M. heading toward Grants on old Route 66 that day. Traffic had halted for road repair when that announcement came on the radio. It was not unexpected, of course. There were signs of its coming. Nevertheless, I sat in my car mulling over the news as cars started honking, either about Elvis's passing, or the halt they were forced to make. The laughter and screams and the joyful excitement in the King's past performances replayed momentarily in my head and heart, the endless applause, the streams of encores.
The setting of the pre-Elvis period, a blurry far-away yet too-close for comfort time, had set all this off, his beginning and end. I thought of the DO NOT CROSS billboard-sized warnings of my youth, remembering my longing to explore the great beyond anyway. It's human nature to resist the odds. He did it. Uniquely. Others like him coming from the same socio-cultural background, facing the same time barriers could do it, too, even me. That possibility was his legacy.
The celluloid images in the long Elvis movie wound down. The King had left the building.