This is the story of Elvis, repeated so often it sounds like rock 'n' roll's own rosary, each bead fondled smooth and shiny. It goes like this:

A young truck driver walks into Sun Records in Memphis in the middle of the '50s and, with the help of an older and wiser man, invents rock 'n' roll by stirring black music together with white, mixing blues with country for the first time.

His first records are his greatest achievement; most of the rest of his career will be a letdown. Meanwhile, his star ascends and his TV appearances are so electrifying that adults everywhere are shocked. The revelation of rock 'n' roll spontaneously creates an enlightened youth culture ready to throw off the bonds of Eisenhower banality and he becomes the international symbol of youthful rebellion.

Drafted into the Army at the height of his fame, he returns chastened and demoralized, a bewildered giant forced to record pathetic pap by venal adult advisers who have failed to appreciate the absolute uniqueness of rock 'n' roll. He wastes most of the rest of his life making ridiculous movies and recording schmaltzy schlock.

He redeems himself only once more, late in the '60s, when he returns at long last to rock 'n' roll. Then, after the briefest flirtation with the black-leather verities, he lapses again into pathetic drug-addled parody, alienated from his talent, a puffy-faced object lesson of the harsh penalties that await those who fail to heed the explicit instructions of rock criticism.

This passion play has now hardened, refined itself into a dogma that demands rigid allegiance even in the face of hilarious inaccuracies. Handed down from the best of the rock critics to the worst in the weeks preceding today (one decade to the day since his death), we've heard this quasi-history repeated on television and in every newspaper large enough to have a writer with a stack of rock reference books. We may not owe Elvis a closer look, but we surely owe it to ourselves.

The rock critical obsession with Elvis is justified; he is, as Greil Marcus wrote in his groundbreaking book "Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock 'n' Roll Music," "a supreme figure in American life." Marcus has written more gracefully of Elvis than anyone, and with more insight, and yet he too has fingered the beads without dislodging the dogma. In "Stranded: Rock & Roll for a Desert island," assembled a few years after "Mystery Train," he concisely sums up the earliest part of the canon. Speaking of the recordings that became known as the Sun Sessions (all kneel), he writes:

"They ranged far back into the hills, kept the radio tuned to the latest Memphis blues, and thus, on five singles, Elvis, guitarist Scotty Moore, bassist Bill Black, and producer Sam Phillips performed 'the giant wedding ceremony,' marrying white culture to black, and invented rock and roll. It was as if all the contradictions of American music had been resolved in a dream ... "

Marcus is a bold critic, not afraid to mess around with the mythic. (Statistics have shown that the second most common fantasy among rock critics worldwide has them waking one bright morning to discover their own name on the cover of "Mystery Train.") To truly grasp how dreamy a resolution of the contradictions has been concocted, we need to have the same beads fingered by a more typical critic. Peter Guralnick, author of "Lost Highway" and "Sweet Soul Music," as well as the Elvis Presley chapter of the "Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll," is a devoted rock critic of the more historically inclined sort.

If he's not the writer Marcus is, he's far better than the bulk of his peers, producing actual research and bothering to examine primary sources -- none of which has ever penetrated his allegiance to the Elvis dogma. His extensive liner notes on RCA's just-issued "The Complete Sun Sessions" are remarkable mainly for their fealty to the rock critic's Book of Genesis:

"{The record} shows Elvis Presley and Sam Phillips groping for something it would have been impossible to name (simply because it didn't exist), struggling to discover a common language, and, together, creating a new form out of what anyone else might have discarded on the scrapheap of history. Even this might be deserving of only passing cultural note, were it not for the fact that the ten sides that Sun issued in the sixteen months that Elvis Presley was on the label are so perfectly realized that, had he never recorded again, they alone would be sufficient to sustain the legend of the birth of rock 'n' roll."

The overheated tone is typical -- only swaddling clothes and a manger are lacking for this to become the Greatest Story of all. The construction Guralnick is perpetuating is the romantic and Eurocentric Western Civ myth of the feverish Genius, his brow touched by the little finger of God (or, in the more appropriately secular term, Art). Rock 'n' roll is "created," is "perfectly realized." After suitably heroic labor pains, a white teen-ager gives birth to a historically unique, symmetrically swirled fudge ripple blend of blues and country, and, most remarkably, he does it just in time to meet the rebellious needs of the baby-boom generation's impending adolescence.

More nonsense will be written about Elvis than of any figure in all of rock criticism, and that makes for a mighty, mighty pile of nonsense. Far from the first to "marry" white culture to black, Elvis was simply an especially significant part of the process that has taken place ever since blacks were brought to America.

The history of American music is a series of shotgun weddings, an unending story of whites and blacks imitating one another, parodying and copying and stealing back and forth, and the curious thing is that the better grade of rock critic knows this only too well.

Jimmie Rodgers, for example, known in his day as the Blues Yodeler and in our day as the Father of Country Music, is part of the same tradition Elvis embraced. Rodgers had been a blackface minstrel in his time, part of a tradition that stretched at least to the 1820s and lived on through the 1950s -- a tradition that was nowhere near as hermetic and separate as ill-informed memory would have it. "Jim Crow" was the pop hit of 1828, performed by a white man named Thomas D. Rice in imitation, he said, of a crippled black livery stable hand.

The pucker-mouthed Carter Family, Country Music's First Family, sang any number of blues; a black man, Deford Bailey, was one of the Grand Ole Opry's first stars. The Mississippi Sheiks and a hundred other black string bands played for white dances; Delta blues man Robert Johnson, he of the rock critic's bravest reveries, played corny hot tamale hokum tunes like "They're Red Hot" as well as the devilishy dramatic "Hellhound on My Trail"; Roy Acuff and Gene Autry and most other pioneers of country music did their time behind blackface makeup.

To suggest that Elvis was breaking with tradition by mixing black and white music, by daring to mix country and the blues, is to span the gap between laughable and ludicrous.

In fact, gospel music is much closer to the center of the music Elvis made than either blues or country. Raised in the Pentecostal church, Elvis warmed up for all of his recording sessions with gospel sings. He recorded two albums and one EP devoted entirely to sacred music, the most conceptually unified work of his recorded career, and the least appraised and most rarely mentioned of all his records.

Curiously, the usual rock critical recipe for the creation of rock 'n' roll studiously avoids mention of gospel. The simple explanation is that gospel music scares rock critics senseless. They know next to nothing of its history, its traditions or its esthetics. (And hearing Sister Rosetta Tharpe knock out what can only be called rockabilly guitar licks nearly a decade before Elvis strolled into the Sun studio shoots one hell of a big hole in a beloved theory. Needless to say, stout middle-aged black women in blond wigs singing about God are not allowed to invent rock 'n' roll.)

Equipped with the predictable background of the 20th century intellectual, carrying all the usual liberal-arts existentialist luggage, the rock critic comes underequipped to the task of comprehending gospel's awe-inspiring force. Concepts like faith and grace and surrender are bizarre and impenetrable anachronisms, and the 20th century's understanding of art has had everything to do with modernism, with the destruction of tradition, with the Bohemian urge to e'pater la bourgeoisie, lightly sprinkled with the popular romantic notion of absolute originality.

If nothing could be further from Elvis Presley's own motivations, rock critics since Day One have done him the favor of ignoring the blatantly obvious.

Despite the fact that even the Immaculately Conceived recordings he made for Sun contained a Rodgers and Hart number, a Hawaiian novelty, and tunes previously covered by Eddie Fisher and Patti Page, the rock critic's myth would have us believe that the corruption of Elvis -- that is, his first moves away from "pure" rock 'n' roll toward the impurities of pop -- came about when he left Sun and signed with RCA.

Following the sadly inauthentic "Heartbreak Hotel" with the histrionic "I Want You, I Need You, I Love You" is the kind of betrayal that will force successive generations of rock critics to shake the solemnest of forefingers at an Elvis who dared to err in the direction of schmaltz.

But Elvis embraced schmaltz from the first. It was part of his greatness that he condescended toward nothing, reached for all he could see. You'll search rock criticism in vain for the smallest mention of Mario Lanza, for instance, but there's no doubt that Lanza had a tremendous effect on Elvis. The handsome dark-haired singer became an enormously popular movie star by ignoring the purist urge to stay exclusively inside the world of opera. "It's Now or Never," precisely the type of full-throated slab of schmaltz that makes rock critics shrink back in horror like Bela Lugosi confronted with a gilded crucifix, is simply a derivative of "O Solo Mio" with extra-thick Lanzaisms ladled over a rumba-roni beat.

It's not especially difficult to understand what Elvis saw in the likes of Mario Lanza and Dean Martin and Eddie Fisher. To the boy raised in a shotgun shack in Tupelo, Miss., they probably seemed impossibly exotic -- as impossibly exotic as a rockin' Mississippi boy seemed to the teen-agers who would grow up to write the foundations of rock criticism. To those teen-agers, Lanza and Martin and the rest no doubt seemed like simply more of the same, something to rebel against instead of embrace. Rebellion is the mood that dominates the writing about Elvis' early music, a repeated insistence on destruction of tradition that has nothing to do with, say, "Love Me Tender," a gentle ballad based on the Civil War-era tune "Aura Lee."

In the face of a reality that can contain "Teddy Bear" and "Jailhouse Rock" and "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" the rock critic retreats, muttering mournfully about wasted talent. Elvis could have chosen to rock and only rock, could have come to symbolize simple-minded teen angst, could have stayed a one-dimensional rockabilly also-ran, perhaps disappearing mysteriously after the Sun sessions never to record again, as Guralnick has repeatedly projected in a truly perverse sort of wish-fulfilment fantasy, could have died to redeem teenage boys of the sin of their ineffectuality. The critics would never be able to forgive him.

Instead, they would spend an enormous amount of energy offering him advice, helpful hints as to how he might once again regain the path of righteousness, handy suggestions on just exactly how he might remake himself in their own preferred image and likeness.

Jon Landau, these days manager of Bruce Springsteen, was once a rock critic, and invariably saw his task as tuning up matters of taste and etiquette. The problem, as he saw it, was Elvis' advisers; the King himself was simply too stupid to take the situation in hand, so Landau went over his head. "My advice to them: Put Elvis Presley in the studio with a bunch of good, contemporary rockers, lock the studio up, and tell him he can't come out until he's done made an album that rocks from beginning to end. You'll get the best selling Elvis Presley record of the last ten years, and we'll get Elvis Presley doing what he's supposed to do." (Oddly, Elvis took no notice and Landau was left to go scrap together a rock 'n' roll king of his own.)

No collection of groaning quotes by rock critics dutifully hectoring the King would be complete without one or a dozen from Dave Marsh. Marsh wrote a revisionist photo essay in book form ("Elvis") that attempted to review the standard myth, suggesting that Elvis' Hollywood period wasn't quite so bad as all the other rock writing fellows would have you believe, and besides, it wasn't really Elvis' fault. "Anyway, Elvis didn't have a single advisor with the imagination that he make an album of Beatles, Dylan and Stones songs or perhaps record an album using those stars as sidemen."

You can be forgiven for feeling like these guys would rather have been record producers than record reviewers any day.

Look, this stuff goes on and on forever -- take my word for it. But it happens that Elvis fans have done a far better job of appreciating his music than rock critics. Oldies radio has been playing all of Elvis' extremely cool mid-'60s rockers like "Return to Sender," "Little Sister" and "His Latest Flame," for all the years that rock critics have ignored their challenge to their porous theory.

And mixed among those rockers were "Can't Help Falling in Love," "Crying in the Chapel," "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" and even the dreaded "It's Now or Never," each enduring and even gathering force in the true testing ground of cultural memory.

Even an essay like this defeats itself finally by being limited to typical rock critic standards, standards established by grumpy middle-class white boys who collect records the way other adolescents collect baseball cards or comic books.

The discussion of Elvis in performance has rarely moved past perfunctory repetitions of how his hips were too wild for that show business adult, Ed Sullivan. Rock critics are among the worst dancers in the western world, and it's less than surprising that the essential importance of Elvis as a white boy who danced has remained undiscussed. Eurocentric culture could give a good half-damn about the integral nature of music and motion; that was part of the shock of Elvis when he arrived.

Elvis has primarily been written about by male rock critics for other males, boys talking about a boy to other boys, and given the nature of boys, they've managed to flat out miss mentioning the single overriding factor in Elvis' ever-enduring hold on the world's imagination: his beauty. Women have never had any problem discussing his astonishing features, his physical grace, his beloved eyes, his glorious lips.

Somebody was going to all these movies and checking out every word, every motion, every moment when he sang "Do the Clam" and "No Room to Rhumba in a Sports Car." It sure wasn't the rock critics.

Bart Bull is a free-lance writer based in Los Angeles.