Before my family moved to mythical Mississippi, I was a lone teenage Southern Californian Elvis fan. Had we moved any later than we did, I am sure that I would have eventually found my way into the rockabilly scene. (Yes, I may or may not have worn a leather jacket and may or may not have used Vaseline to style my hair.) Discovering his Sun Sessions album was a game changer. After that, whenever anyone wanted to wag (or hoist, as the case would have been) fried-peanut-butter-and-banana-Vegas Elvis at me, I could simply hold up that album and snarl, all Elvis-like. Whereas ancient Greek boys looked to Homer, ancient Romans boys the Greeks, ancient Hebrews boys the prophets, and well-formed Catholic boys the saints (when they were not-so-secretly looking to the Greeks and Romans), I looked to Elvis. I projected myself and, thus, my destiny, onto him by identifying with a mamma’s boy who was shy and who stuttered, but who found a release in music that allowed him to transcend barriers–barriers arrogant but, ultimately, unable to oppose a driving–if not divine (just don’t ask a Southern Baptist or a traditional Catholic)–raucous backbeat.
The above video features an Elvis only weeks before his death. What strikes me about this video (apart from his powerful vocal range) is the following–his need for affirmation. At 1:42 he looks toward the camera/audience with beaming self-satisfaction, as if he had just completed a task given to him by a parent or teacher. At 2:20 he looks at the man holding the microphone as if here were looking for a sign of approval. The, at 3:24, he looks back at the audience/camera and nearly demands acceptance. He almost seems, as it were, to mouth the plea “Cheer for me.” (Nota bene: dear reader, please do confuse this with Jeb Bushwacked’s “Please clap.” One issues from an irrepressible urge to please; the other from a pathetic attempt to make sure his audience has not fallen asleep.) What I see underneath the glittering jumpsuit is the shy Southern boy who never fully felt as if he had been accepted, universal popularity notwithstanding.
Elvis was an alpha male. If there is any doubt, watch his 1970 Vegas performance of “Suspicious Minds,” focusing on the way he toys with both the audience and the musicians on stage with a zero-fucks-given attitude. Yet, for all the talk about frame control and irrational self-confidence, Elvis’s vulnerability–the uncalculated kind–still reveals itself. This, and not his Ed Sullivan bravado, is that which with I still relate–a sense that I have fallen just short of the mark and am hoping that nobody catches on to me.