Elvis Presley died in mid-bowel movement thirty years ago this past Thursday, an occasion which Graceland — a place with a reputation for tasteful restraint that rivals even its legendary former owner — chose to spend the past week celebrating with a variety of fabulous events, not the least of which was a huge talent show for Elvis impersonators. I’m not sure if James Cawley — Captain Kirk on Star Trek: New Voyages and Elvis “tribute artist” of note — participated or if he was busy with principal photography on “The Sky Above, the Mudd Below,” or whatever their next episode is called.
Doesn’t the gathering of hundreds of thousands of people to celebrate the anniversary of the pathetic drug-induced death of their favorite singer strike you as a little odd? I’m all for an upbeat celebratory funeral instead of the usual black-draped depress-fest we products of the Christian west usually impose on our loved ones, but to hold a week-long carnival to mark the date of someone’s death thirty years after the fact feels like something else, a little bit creepy. We don’t celebrate President’s Day on the anniversary of the Lincoln assassination, afterall.
I’ve never been a huge Elvis fan. I suppose it would’ve been different had I grown up when he was in his prime (or even alive), but as it happened I didn’t, and I prefer Carl Perkins’s original version of “Blue Suede Shoes” to Elvis’s, and most of his other stuff strikes me as a competent interpretation of stuff that was originated and done much better by much more poorly paid black artists. He was definitely an important figure in American music, maybe the most important single artist, but his music has never moved me the way that of a lot of his contemporaries do.
My favorite Elvis story I’ve picked up this last week is the one about him breaking up a fight at a gas station in Madison, Wisconsin. There’s a more detailed recap of it here, but the short version is Elvis was riding by in his limo when the gas station’s night clerk was jumped on his way out to check the pumps. Elvis stopped his car and jumped out, chided the two men for attacking the guy, and assumed a kung fu stance and announced he’d take them both on if they were looking for a fight. They ceased all hostility at the sight of him, and the attendant they’d been about to beat-up ran inside to call his friends. This was less than two months before Elvis croaked, so he probably wasn’t all there; if the two guys had been packing heat and hadn’t recognized him, we might be celebrating Elvis Death Week in late June instead of mid-August. As a part of the festivities this past week, the fight was reenacted at the former site of the gas station (which, in an act sadly typical of the shortsightedness of humanity, was torn down two months ago), complete with an Elvis impersonator throwing some karate poses.
They did at least mark the spot with a plaque, lest it ever be said we are a people who forget our history.