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Elvis Presley: at 75, I still care

By Ken Burke, January 2010

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Elvis Presley helped provide the soundtrack to my young life, and at every juncture of his career, I listened to the King sing his heart out in good records and bad. Along with my burgeoning interest in Jerry Lee Lewis and Conway Twitty - two performers whose careers could not have flourished without Presley leading the way - Elvis's move to country radio during the 70s established an enjoyment of that genre that still thrives.

I saw Presley in concert 7 times between 1970 and 1977, and never had a good seat at any of the shows. However, the first time in Detroit was the best. Although he looked no bigger than a rather handsome dot from where I was sitting, the music was fresh, vital and cohesive. No, there weren't any riots, just appreciative happy people glorying in the best rock-country-pop-gospel-blues-soul-and-schmaltz vocalist of our time. (And, to paraphrase Nick Tosches, don't give me that Sinatra shit either because I don't want to hear it.)

Later in the decade, while sitting in the nosebleed section of a freezing cold Pontiac Silverdome, I remember witnessing Presley tear his jumpsuit. Frankly, we all thought it was part of his act - a way to make a joke about being fat and laugh at himself. Yeah, the audience knew he was fat, probably buzzed too. They didn't care. He was Elvis and every now and then he'd cut a song worthy of the name, something like For the Heart and Way Down that just made you glow from within when you heard it.

It was a damned shock when he died.

I was working in San Francisco as a guard when it happened. Funny thing, "Elvis - What Happened," the bodyguard-tell-all-book had been out for a week. Prominently stacked in a bookstore window that I passed on the way to work, I could tell that the ballyhooed paperback hadn't sold a copy. Either interest in Elvis was pathetically low at the time or - more likely - no one in the Bay area wanted to read a tell-all about the King. The day he died, as I walked home past that bookstore, I looked in and saw that nearly all the paperbacks in the display had been sold.

People wanted answers and providing them became a phenomenon unto itself.

Yet, after literally thousands of so-called tell all books, reports, retrospectives, documentary exposes, and testimonials - most of which portray him in the worst possible light - the only thing most of us knew for sure is that Elvis Presley died too soon.

People deal with their grief and attachment anxieties in the silliest ways when it comes to Elvis, and I'm no different. I once got fired from a job because I insisted that I have his birthday off. (I still take that day off.) I've watched people who could never have possibly seen Elvis during his lifetime, break down and cry when they see his old house or the gate at Graceland. I often wonder if what they are pining for is the rags-to-riches American dream that died with Elvis as the age of irony and no-holds-barred tabloid journalism moved in. ("The world was a nicer place when Elvis was alive," Linda Gail Lewis once told me.)

Whatever the reason, every year on Jan. 8, a large number of us quietly celebrate the life and times of Elvis Presley. Some travel down to Memphis a mourn anew. Most just spin some records, watch old movies on TCM. I do all that too. In addition, I spend the day practicing curling my upper lip while quipping in a hip Mississippi accent, "I got news for ya baby, I did 29 pictures like this."

So yeah, tired, cynical and old enough to know better, I still care.

Happy 75th birthday Elvis.

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