The whole world knew him on a first-name basis. The Presley was superfluous, just another color in the vibrant neon-ness of Elvis.

Elvis Aaron Presley.

He was something special. His life, like his name, suggested that; his death and our continued fixation confirmed it.

On Tuesday he would have been 50, had he not died at 42. Some felt his art had died 20 years earlier.

Even before his death in 1977, Elvis Presley had become an enigma wrapped in myth, a ghost floating through the American Dream. In his career, he was both avatar and pathetic parody, as potent a metaphor as he was a singer. He was at once larger than life and smaller than art, victim of his sudden fame and the unprecedented expanse of his own myth.

He was both the Hallowed Man of Ilona Panta's hagiography, "King of Kings" (with its leading question, "When Elvis returns, will you be ready?"), and the Hollow Man of Albert Goldman's scabrous biography. The most popular entertainer of our time, Presley was also one of the loneliest, encircled by endless walls, some as human as the Memphis Mafia but most as vague and inexplicable as his own stunted emotional development and the smothered drive and ambition of his post-Army work.

The details sometimes get lost in the immensity of the legend, but this much we know: Without Elvis, our world would somehow be different.

As David Brinkley said on NBC the night Presley died, "It didn't matter if you liked Elvis or not. He was a part of our lives. Elvis Presley changed things."

Uncovering Elvis is like trying to climb a glacier wall. You fight for a foothold, chiseling fact out of legend. You look for a place to jab in a piton, but you need to choose your path to the real Elvis carefully.

It will not do to treat him simply as a singer, or even as a star. Without denying the vibrancy of much of his work, it needs to be said that his impact was perhaps greater on our social than our musical history.

He was, indisputably, the single greatest superstar of this century. It's not even a question of numbers, though the world bought more than a billion of his records. The Beatles' fame and success were couched in grouphood, Michael Jackson's in brotherhood. And you could point to Al Jolson, Bing Crosby or Frank Sinatra, but their triumphs occurred in the context of already established and well-defined musical genres.

Presley, on the other hand, brought an era into being, defined it as he defined himself, and ultimately embodied it. Call it simply "rock 'n' roll" and you miss its impact.

The faces of rock's founding fathers seem better defined 30 years down the road, and it is Presley's image that dominates, though he is far from alone. He was certainly not the first rocker, and he would be less than faithful in sustaining the genre. Little Richard was the original wildman. Jerry Lee Lewis is still dangerous, particularly to himself. Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry were more talented and original as songwriters. Other pioneers such as Bo Diddley and Carl Perkins also built rock 'n' roll, established it as a populist 20th-century art form. But they, and the blues, hillbilly and rhythm-and-blues settlers who cleared the land, are best remembered by their songs.

Elvis is best remembered for the revolt that he turned into style, for the style that touched off a social revolution. It was a gorgeous juxtaposition. Smack dab in the middle of the staid '50s, Elvis Presley was offering a new, exuberantly rhythmic anthem of life. He was defining a demographic subspecies, "teen-agers," and in so doing inspiring an assertiveness that was misread as youth rebellion. No wonder that the day's psychologists branded rock 'n' roll "a communicable disease." What it was was a communicative disease, an emotional life cycle that suggested new possibilities, new freedoms, and even new dangers, for a generation that needed them.

Much of Presley's enduring appeal is locked away in a mass cultural memory, where no amount of revisionism can touch it. There, Elvis rests poised with the easy physical grace of a wild horse, his mane tossing in the wind, his reins flying loose, his saddle flung. The heart zooms in on details: the sly rounded cheeks above the smile that could slay you; the earthy sensuality centered on a liquid pelvis; the curling lip whose sneer was ingratiating; the slicked hairdo; the voice that was both fire and ice.

At a time when popular music was straining for something new, there was no better catalyst than Presley. If there were great songs, especially in the beginning, it hardly seemed important what the lyrics were saying. Looking back, the lyrics were less than inspired. It was Elvis' delivery, Elvis' innately physical stance, that made things happen, that let the music say everything that words couldn't. Elvis could tell you as much in a news photo as on a record. Like, let's have some fun, there's good rockin' tonight.

We discovered that the shock was less musical than ideological. That Presley made his first record within weeks of the historic 1954 Supreme Court decision on school desegregation was just one more indication that new winds were blowing in America. The social intermingling of black and white was being eased by the kind of musical intermingling provoked by rock's pioneers, an evolution much more important than the sexual one rock 'n' roll's critics fixated upon (though that was real as well).

Little wonder then that it's as a symbol that Presley still dominates. He was the one who most publicly and effectively sowed the seeds of the new rhythm, and in so doing, unleashed a million libidos. He was the fuse as well as the flame. Presley set the pace that popular music has followed for almost three decades but, like the pace car at a race, he dropped out early, teasing us along the way with suggestions of what he could do, seldom doing it.

Because Presley was so essential at the beginning, it made his later withdrawal all the more sad, especially when two decades of vastly inferior work were measured against the vividness of his arrival.

You'll get an argument from the fans, but it is for the early years, roughly from 1954 to 1958 and his induction into the Army, that Elvis is most worth remembering. Certainly the lapses in his career after 1958 far outweigh the occasional triumphs. Even so, it was how Presley got there in the first place that counted.

He simply dipped into America, the America that he heard singing on the radio, the record player, in the church, on the tin-roof shack porch, at the roadhouse. Presley listened to the heartbeat of Tupelo, Miss., and Memphis, Tenn., and imbibed from all sources, black and white, holy and profane. He understood precisely the distance between the hedonism of Saturday night and guilt of Sunday morning and tapped the middle ground, drawing on the energy and fervor that bound as much as separated them.

Presley's sources -- blues, gospel, country -- shared another trait: They were working-class art forms, the property of the South's two disenfranchised minorities, poor whites and poor blacks. Unlike many musicians, Presley never made any bones about his sources. As to charges that he stole his style, one has only to listen to those sources to understand just how much transcendence was involved. Even early on, when his style was still derivative, Presley displayed enough character to be seen as fresh and innovative. The same could be said of early Dylan and Beatles material.

What Presley sought from his sources was the passion, the exuberance, the raw beat into which he could channel his energy. And inside that beat he finally found not only a means of self-expression and honest emotion, but a context that validated his mammoth ambition.

The 10 rockabilly sides that Presley cut for Sun Records in 1954 and 1955 are marked by a raw, unfettered, almost cocky spirit totally at odds with the bland mainstream music of the time. "That's All Right, Mama," "Good Rockin' Tonight," "Baby, Let's Play House" and "Mystery Train" only registered on the country charts, but they allowed Elvis to find his voice. By the time he moved to RCA and started his still-unmatched string of hit singles with "Heartbreak Hotel," "Hound Dog," "Don't Be Cruel" and "All Shook Up," Presley had also discovered the cost of his success and the fact that he was unequipped to deal with it.

Those initial contributions are there to be turned to again and again, as is so much of his work. But as early as 1958, Presley settled into the pattern of accommodation that would mar his subsequent work, though it seemed to make little difference to his fans. The distance between the reckless "All Shook Up" of 1957 and the mindless "Wear My Ring Around Your Neck" of 1958 is more than just one year. It's an entire esthetic.

It's been pointed out that the price of a great audience is the need to constantly satisfy it. Whether such satisfaction was demanded by Elvis himself or by Col. Tom Parker, the manager who took control of Presley's career and character in 1956, will never be known. But the Sun sessions had been virtually defined by risk, as had some of the early RCA sessions. Once he started making films in Hollywood, and especially after he was drafted by the Army in 1958, Elvis seldom challenged the limits established by his own fame. Outside of the triumphant television special in 1968 and his subsequent return to concerts after a 10-year absence, Presley didn't take a significant artistic risk in the last 18 years of his career. And his fans never demanded it.

If Presley had been something of a rock Samson, the combination of Col. Parker and the United States Army proved to be too much of a Delilah for him. Symbolically, at least, his hair never grew back once the Army shaved it off; what was restored was a fright wig, indicative of a lack of will.

If he had been a wild-haired rebel and social outcast before duty called, Presley emerged close-cropped and commercially transformed. He was now the All-American buddy next door. What he came back to was not the continued triumph of rock 'n' roll, but a series of vapid movies and more vapid sound-track albums that reeked of the pop sensibility he had so zestfully defiled.

Between Parker and the Hollywood moguls, Presley had only one chance. Since it was himself, it was not enough. Soon he was following in the footsteps of Bing Crosby (an immensely popular singer who showed a propensity for film, especially light comedy) and Frank Sinatra (whose flagging singing career was revitalized by dramatic roles). Unfortunately, Presley proved adept at neither comedy nor drama. The best that could be said of most of his 33 films is that they made money.

That Elvis Presley made a lot of money was fine. After all, he'd been launched as a moneymaker by Sun Records' Sam Phillips, who knew he could make a mint on a white man with a black sound. Merchandising empires were built around Elvis, and if he was a victim, he was also a beneficiary. But when RCA traded the sharp and authentically southern passion of Presley's rockabilly expression for a nonspecific pop stance, it also substituted facile showmanship for genuine emotion.

The move to Hollywood and soporific filmmaking proved to be a disaster artistically. Presley was separated from rock at precisely the moment that the British invasion was recasting the vibrant energy that he and his mates had originally inspired. Hollywood offered precious little inspiration and that was what Presley needed most after the Army. Everything thereafter became a holding action.

The 1968 television special, and the concerts that followed, effectively broke Hollywood's stranglehold. Presley made four films before going into the Army, but only one after 1968 (plus two concert films). Still, there was no real gain. When Elvis made his return to the concert stage in Las Vegas, he defined his audience very clearly by site and by sound. It was his original audience, now a little bit older, middle of the road, pop. There was little attempt to reach a new rock audience. Again, a commercial accommodation: better the audience you know . . . Commercially, Presley succeeded himself, upgrading his title from the king of rock 'n' roll to the king of entertainment. Inspired by his return to the concert stage, he seldom failed his fans.

Had Presley died young like Buddy Holly, or been morally discredited like Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis, his reputation might have been cast quite differently. Like James Dean and Marlon Brando, he embodied the rebel stance, and was blessed with the kind of sex appeal that inspired boys and girls alike. Had Presley died young, his myth would probably have been, like Holly's and Dean's, inviolate. Dean lives on in our cultural memory more vibrantly than Brando, who, like Presley, became fat and complacent and made too many bad career moves and financial accommodations.

If 50 million Elvis fans can't be wrong, that doesn't excuse the fact that Presley's art is essentially insignificant. That's not to say that the songs and the performances have not attached themselves to millions of hearts around the world, but outside of a few dozen titles, the music itself is surprisingly slight, occasionally rescued by performance.

It's also hard to look at Presley's catalogue -- on record and film -- and claim that he did anything significant. He never directed his energies at social change, though it's true that his very existence and success provoked social change. He didn't preach, he converted. But he himself stood outside the social and political ferment that defined the '60s as clearly as he himself had defined the '50s, and for all its polish, his music became trivial.

What Presley did do, and what his fans and critics both agree on, was to give voice and a measure of self-respect to a tremendous segment of the American people -- one defined and connected by region and class as much as by age. It was a generation and a social stratum historically "unable to articulate its aspirations and frustrations," Presley's home-town newspaper pointed out after his death. Little wonder then that he was rewarded with enduring adulation, more so than any other entertainer, even the Beatles.

By the mid-'60s, Elvis Presley had stopped meaning anything to music, but not to the people who bought his music. Their response to Presley goes beyond rationality. What his fans always saw was what they had first seen. Talk to them and they'll grudgingly admit some creative indiscretions. But most refuse to concede the significance of any personal aberrations that posited Presley as a walking pharmaceutical shop and a tragic figure in the last years of his life. It might be true, but it wasn't important.

Presley was the ultimate victim of what John Landau, manager of Bruce Springsteen, once described as the manic, uncontrolled, irrational adulation at the core of the American star system. His celebrity was sloppy, immature. Yet, despite the public's insatiable appetite for the minutiae of his life, the myth of the poor boy who became a king ultimately excused all Presley's excesses and shortcomings. Even after Goldman's biography, he remains a fixed entity in the public mind, which loves him just the way he was. Like Presley, the fans would never be cruel to a heart that's perceived as true. Ironically, that kind of acceptance is most prevalent with R & B and country fans, those at the very source of Presley's original synthesis.

If Col. Parker's motto was "Don't explain it, just sell it," the fans countered with "Don't understand it, just buy it." Of course, this was always done for the most personal of reasons, which is why the worldwide reaction to Presley's death caught everybody off-guard -- except the fans, for whom he was family, most often a brother. Family was central to Presley and he never disavowed it or his cultural heritage. He stayed close to home, and when he had to go to Hollywood and Germany, he did his best to recreate his home environment via his parents and buddies. In the end, he was simply what he had always been -- a hard-working, God-fearing only son who found and lost his moment of independence and who quickly returned to the inherent conservatism of his cultural origins. And of course, there was nothing wrong with that process, particularly since it echoed the inclination of his audience.

It's doubtful Elvis Presley ever understood the significance of his success, or the depth of his own myth. At least, he never betrayed either in public word or deed. One can cry at the sadness of it all but the fans who invested a part of their growing up in Elvis never felt sold out, only confirmed. For them, Elvis satisfied a thirst for stateside royalty and how much sweeter it was that their prince had once been a pauper. They may still know every song and every movie, may even distinguish between the real achievement and the mere production. Their hearts, however, know the truth: Elvis was the central metaphor and the key catalyst, the man who sought only to change himself and and ended up changing the world.