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The Ghost Has Left The Building

Elvis' legacy of change and rebellion drowned in kitsch and commercial glut

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The original Elvis Presley has left the building. In this year of his 25th Deathiversary, with an avalanche of commercial "product" being peddled to cash in on, er, commemorate his legacy, you'll be hard-pressed to find a trace of the light brown-haired, still-pimply, half-scared-to-death 18-year-old Memphis weirdo who screwed up his courage enough to walk into Sun Studios to make a record for his mama.

Hit the stores and what you'll find, amazingly enough, is an actual hit single -- Elvis' first in decades -- a throbbing remix of "A Little Less Conversation," a forgotten 1968 album cut that was picked up by Nike for its World Cup sponsorship; a bevy of CD boxsets, including a four-disc set of outtakes and live performances scraped from the bottom of the Presley barrel; a cleaned-up, remastered release of some of his earliest live recordings from the Louisiana Hayride show; DVDs by the armload, including a three-disc set of some of his best performances; and several new books including a couple of weighty coffeetable tomes that'll set you back 50 bucks apiece. In September, you'll be able to buy a CD of Elvis' 30 Number One hits (yes, including the new one).

On top of that, several universities are holding Elvis conferences, and some stores will be selling Elvis furniture suites. There are now Elvis bank cards, and in some parts of the country, you'll even be able to find Elvis-themed state lottery tickets. If that's not enough, AOL Time Warner, along with Elvis Presley Enterprises, has created a toolbar link on AOL's Internet keyword page leading to Elvis music, pictures and news of Graceland events, including the annual Elvis Week (August 10-18) and the third annual live Vigilcast on AOL (August 15). The national celebration will reach its peak at Memphis's Pyramid Arena with "Elvis: The 25th Anniversary Concert," featuring a live band, including many musicians who toured with Elvis, accompanying film and video images of Presley in performance.

All that is, of course, in addition to the usual stampede of Elvis kitsch available all over the world: Elvis ashtrays, Elvis shot glasses, Elvis wall clocks, coasters, pencil boxes, teddy bears, salt and pepper shakers, toothpick holders, towels, hats, pennants, coffee cups, trivets, spoon rests, t-shirts, cigarette lighters, silverware, placemats, baseball caps, toilet paper holders, laminated wall plaques, decals, sunglasses, key chains, vases, tie tacks, stickpins, posters, candles, wallets, calendars, and God knows what else.

And that's all fine, or at least there's nothing you can do about it; like it or not, a full-tilt commercial glut is America's way of celebrating events and honoring heroes -- it even seems fitting this time, in view of Elvis' status as one of the all-time champion buyers of consumer goods.

The problem, though, is that as each year passes, the images of Elvis that remain in our cultural memory become more and more cliched, leaving little room for the Memphis boy who rebelled against, and conquered, his native culture's repression and racism. (It's an increasingly aged cultural memory we're talking about here, by the way; try to find someone under 25 who really knows or gives a rip about Presley.)

Elvis' life is now generally summed up in the media by three main images -- a) Fat Elvis the druggie; b) trim, Vegas karate chop Elvis; and c) Silly Movie Star Elvis. So who's missing? That would be the young Elvis, the important Elvis, the turned-the-world-upside-down Elvis, now largely drowned in a tide of latter day jumpsuits, odd personal quirks and inconceivable pill habits.

In present-day culture, the extremely famous become something more than human, at least to their fans. And so it is with Elvis Presley. But it was a very human and shy boy, a mama's boy with a wild streak and a "dreamy" disposition, who wound up taking last century's great musical leap of faith for us, mixing black and white styles with an energy and flair no one else had imagined.

Presley's melding of genres has become part of the rock history canon. Some very learned, talented people have written about what Elvis means to our culture, what lessons are to be learned from his career, how he was a metaphor for the potential, and the traps, in the American system. But what's easily lost in the shuffle is how gutsy that kid was -- the kind of guts that's often the property of the underclass -- growing up poor, living in public housing, with really nothing to lose anyway, so why not play a white man's version of rhythm & blues? Nobody had really cared about anything he'd ever done before, anyway; why should it be any different this time? Of course, this time he was so good at it, it all turned out to be very different.

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