In 1992, the U.S. Postal Service conducted a nationwide survey to determine which face of the late Elvis Presley should be immortalized on a 29-cent stamp: a 1950s Elvis with a pompadour and tweed jacket, or a 1970s Elvis with mutton chops and a jeweled collar.
Everyone knew exactly how this vote was going to go down.
Never mind that the “mature Elvis,” as the more respectful media reports called it, was the Elvis of “Suspicious Minds” and “Kentucky Rain” and arena-filling world tours. Never mind that there was nothing visible of this Elvis below his bright eyes and Rushmore-firm jaw; nor that the man was selling millions of albums and actually fitting quite nicely into his jumpsuits through most of the era, thank ya vera much.
Mature Elvis was inescapably tainted in the public mind by the dismal spectacle of his final year or two — the startling weight gain, the sluggish performances, the final collapse alongside a toilet. Even 15 years after he had died, Mature Elvis was still “Fat Elvis” for too many people, and Fat Elvis was an embarrassment. By a 3-to-1 margin, America voted for an Elvis of an even more distant past.
Wednesday marks the 40th anniversary of Presley’s death, and with every passing year, it has become ever more clear that Elvis picked the absolutely worst time to die.
He was 42 in August of 1977, and that is a very awkward age for a rock star. Perhaps especially so for the first rock star.
It was hardly the first rock-star death. There had been a bumper crop at the start of the decade — Jimi, Janis, Jim Morrison. But they were all stars on the rise, with nothing but hit records and gorgeous photos in their wake. Their final moments were drug-addled and reckless, but they were only 27, so in death they achieved the James Dean effect later conferred upon Kurt Cobain — frozen in a moment of youthful promise.
That was not Elvis’s moment.
“Elvis is fat,” The Washington Post’s Style section declared in June 1976, when he performed at Maryland’s Capital Centre. “Not only is he fat, his stomach hangs over his belt, his jowls hang over his collar, and his hair hangs over his eyes.”
It was (only) 20 years after Presley had electroshocked the culture with “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Hound Dog.” At the time, it probably felt like speaking truth to power. The writer, Sally Quinn, noted with astonishment the number of swooning female fans who had traveled many miles to see him, hoping to touch the hem of his garments.
“The scarf routine is particularly disconcerting,” she wrote. “. . . A draper drapes the silk scarves over his neck, he wipes the sweat off his neck with the scarves, the girls scream, he throws the sweaty scarves to them, they faint and collapse and are pushed away by the guards or led away by their friends.” She concluded: “It is not understandable.”
At the very least, it was not cool. As a child, Lisa Robinson thought those first Elvis releases back in 1956 were cool. But by the time she was a rock journalist in New York in the 1970s — absorbed by the chart-dominating bands such as the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin and the punk insurgency of the Clash and Television — he was more or less irrelevant.
“I don’t mean to be a snob about it,” said Robinson, a Vanity Fair contributing editor. “But for those of us who were sitting at CBGB, he was just kind of a kitsch figure.”
Many of the cool kids of the era still carried reverence for his early work, the transformative Sun Studio years — the Clash’s Joe Strummer loved to talk about the King, and Robinson recalled that David Bowie got over his fear of flying for the sake of catching Elvis’s 1972 Madison Square Garden concert — but for the most part, he was “the MGM Grand and white jumpsuits and the fringe, and it was just kind of corny.”
And then he died. His death was front-page news, a global event, another shock to the culture — and yet for many, it was as if they were mourning a man who’d died years ago, not a contemporary in vital middle age.
“Yesterday afternoon the ’50s bit the dust,” another Post writer, Marion Clark, proclaimed. “The King was gone . . . just like that, the blue suede shoes empty.” She went on to evoke a swiveling pelvis, “The Ed Sullivan Show,” high school sock hops, her old Sun 45s.
Many fans clung to those vintage memories, choosing to look away from Las Vegas and “Burning Love” and lightning-bolt medallions. If they didn’t appreciate what Elvis was doing musically at that time, it wasn’t necessarily their fault, says Peter Guralnick, author of an epic two-volume Presley biography.
Presley remained a creative genius, he said. But “for the most part, his music had been neglected, in large part because his record company had totally neglected him and had merely sought to exploit the legend, the name.”
Dying young — but not James Dean young — meant that Presley’s image was mired in the 1970s aesthetic that the culture was on the cusp of firmly rejecting. He couldn’t be appreciated without a wink. Dread Zeppelin, an early 1990s novelty act, put Led Zeppelin tunes to a reggae beat, and of course their drawling lead singer was a jumpsuited fat guy named Tortelvis, ha ha. Elvis impersonators capered all over the Nicolas Cage comedy “Honeymoon in Vegas,” part of a running shtick.
It also meant that he missed out on the comebacks and critical reevaluations enjoyed by other performers after years in the wilderness — Glen Campbell, Leonard Cohen, Brian Wilson, Tom Jones, Johnny Cash.
It’s thrilling to imagine Elvis in the 1990s, doing an MTV “Unplugged” concert or a VH1 “Storytellers,” with short hair and a gorgeous suit, that voice of his enveloping a room.
“When you see the pictures of what people imagine he would look like today, it’s this gray-haired guy with sideburns. But he was always changing with the times,” said Dwight Icenhower, an Elvis tribute artist from Orlando who last year was named the nation’s best Presley impersonator.
For the show he was performing Tuesday during Memphis’s annual “Elvis Week” festivities, Icenhower had worked up renditions of songs he likes to think Presley might have covered one day: “Rock This Town” by the Stray Cats, “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” by Elton John, and Bruce Springsteen’s “Fire.”
“Elvis always had a good knack for finding the perfect songs,” he said. “He would have just adapted.”
It fell to other artists (the Rolling Stones, Chuck Berry, Bowie), slightly younger or at least more durable, to figure out how to grow old as rock stars and then to offer those aesthetic templates up to even younger rock stars — expensive tailoring, corporate gigs, pared-down ballads, country estates, supermodel second wives, environmental activism, knighthoods.
And yet, Guralnick says, “I don’t think Elvis wanted to grow old as a rock star.”
Grow old, sure. Elvis was sick and suffering a crisis of confidence, Guralnick says, but people come out of tailspins, and so might have Elvis had his heart not stopped that day 40 years ago. There could have been a life-altering surgery, some antidepressants, a trip to Betty Ford, and then a long climb back.
Still, it’s hard for Guralnick to imagine Presley embarking on the lucrative oldies tours enjoyed by his luckier peers. More likely, the man of many comebacks would have moved into a new direction — very likely gospel music, in which he’d already found some 1970s success.
“He could have found real satisfaction with that,” Guralnick says. “He wasn’t looking backwards. He was not looking to stay still.”