Almost two years ago, while discussing Gillian Welch's song "Elvis Presley Blues" with the INDY, folk song slinger Jake Xerxes Fussell noted that "when you start thinking about Elvis, it's hard to stop thinking about Elvis." Though the observation was just a passing riff on the song's opening line, it stuck with me. I'd already been thinking about Elvis for a long time.
As a child, I developed a mysterious, intense adoration of Elvis. Nobody knows why. He'd been dead for nearly two decades by then, a fact that my family fretted over—they thought it would traumatize me to learn that I'd never get to meet my idol. One of my strongest early memories is of my grandparents taking me to see an Elvis impersonator named Eddie Miles in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. A woman there gave me a laminated copy of Elvis's driver's license, and I cherished it. I was four or five years old, and Elvis paraphernalia populated my life for several more years.
As a teenager, I confessed my Elvis obsession, which had cooled considerably by then, to a guitar teacher named Max Drake who was trying to suss out my tastes. It was fine by him, a gruff and burly bald man who adored the blues and rockabilly, but he was the first person who told me that Presley's "Hound Dog" wasn't actually his; the song was originally written for and recorded by a black blueswoman named Big Mama Thornton.
The following week, he returned with a CD-R of Thornton's Hound Dog: The Peacock Recordings, and I listened to it like my life depended on it. I played "Hound Dog" over and over again, wrapping my brain around Thornton's swinging original and reveling in her fantastic, powerful voice. That song was my first big step toward understanding appropriation at large, as well as the more specific mechanisms by which white executives with money wield power in the music industry. The "perfect" object of my innocent fascination wasn't so flawless after all, gold lamé tux or not.
As disappointing as this revelation was, I didn't feel betrayed. Rather, it fueled my curiosity about the underdogs of rock 'n' roll—indeed, the underdogs of American music in general. Max continued to be a helpful resource as he guided me toward the likes of Memphis Minnie and other lesser-sung heroes. Even when I quit taking lessons, I still spent a significant amount of time digging deeper into American roots music and expanding my horizons. Elvis, for all his faults, still ended up being a vital starting point for my burgeoning, lifelong love of music.
Still, Elvis will forever be my most problematic fave. He's been dead for nearly forty years, but he's not going anywhere. He set the mold for the pop star as a single-named icon who absorbs backing musicians and songwriting credits into a larger-than-life aura, one that could be reinvented over and over to suit its era while retaining its essential core. Throughout all his phases—fifties heartthrob, jailhouse greaser, bejeweled and bloated crooner—Elvis was always Elvis.
Beyond music, Elvis's image still permeates pop culture as a whole—hell, even the demolition derby at the North Carolina State Fair features an unconvincing Elvis impersonator who serenades the crowd between bouts of destruction. And this weekend, to celebrate what would have been Elvis's eighty-second birthday, people around the world will be partying in his honor. The two-day Elvis Fest comes to the Cat's Cradle Back Room. Later this month, Raleigh's Memorial Auditorium is hosting an "Elvis Lives" tribute night.
These days, I don't hold Elvis in as high esteem as I did twenty years ago, but loving him taught me that it's not always a bad thing to kill your idols. Doing so can, in fact, teach you more about the world than you ever expected. I probably won't ever stop thinking about Elvis, who served as my gateway from childhood innocence to the murkier waters of adulthood. And that's OK.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Elvis! Elvis! Let Me Be!"