Belfast Telegraph

Elvis was more than A Big Hunk o' Love... he was someone that we could all relate to

Four decades on from death of king of rock and roll and we're still beguiled by his charm, writes Gail Walker

Elvis Presley (RCA Records)
Elvis Presley (RCA Records)

There might have been rock and roll without Elvis Presley, but not as we know it. While it may be correct in terms of one strand of the music's origins, black artists like Chuck Berry and Little Richard were never going to cut the mustard. Nor were Bill Haley - middle-aged with a kiss curl and chequered suit - or Jerry Lee Lewis or Buddy Holly, hugely gifted certainly, but also geeks. None of these were going to make it happen. Why?

Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but you only had to look at those artists to see the answer.

Because when you looked at Elvis, you were looking at a gorgeous amalgam of immense talent and almost supernatural beauty.

Elvis had everything. It was his charisma, his instinct, his febrile attractiveness, his scary physicality, his uniquely flexible and melodic voice, making noises few could emulate and none could resist, which charged up rock and roll for the succeeding decades and made it so potent a brew for the emerging teenagers of the post-war generation.

Elvis moved as if sex had just been invented. The elders were right to be uncomfortable - he was a reminder that we were more than the accumulation of money and social position.

We were also subject to less controllable, less measurable, impulses - desire, hedonism, fun, silliness and an insatiable need for style. Elvis the Pelvis indeed.

He changed the world not by doing things or thinking great thoughts - unlike Cole Porter, Woody Guthrie or Bob Dylan he wasn't a singer-songwriter, but he had an instinctive genius for interpretation and understood the intimate connection between music and movement.

By a miracle, the times found their man. And what a man.

He was a mean machine in his early Hollywood movies - Jailhouse Rock, Loving You, Wild in the Country, King Creole, GI Blues, Love Me Tender are good movies.

When the rock bands took over in the Sixties - The Beatles, Stones, Kinks, Beach Boys - Elvis 'came back' in 1968 in a black leather suit in a TV special which is now classic viewing, still scary and more gorgeous than ever.

The Vegas years, the years of 'The King', were all too brief, but gave the century and human culture some of their most vivid and memorable images: adding to grinding hips and curled lip, the rhinestone suits, the garlands of flowers in Hawaii, the sideburns you could build a small bungalow on, the karate kicks…

Of course, this was parodied mercilessly in the 1970s by younger artists, yet look back now at David Bowie, Elton John, Sir Freddie, Rod Stewart, and you see just how Elvis's daring icon-making influenced their own images.

Even grumpy Van Morrison - the Belfast man whose Tupelo Honey (1971) honours Elvis with a spectacular love song, turns up in Scorsese's documentary The Last Waltz (1978) doing karate kicks in a mauve jumpsuit.

For me as a child, Elvis was always just there, a fact of life. Unlike many pop stars, he seemed like a decent and modest person. Not for him giving out about the world or tortured angst about his inner being: he was far too - I know this sounds a bit mad - unassuming.

Paradoxically, the King was much like the men we knew. Not a man known for his oratorical power, his mumbled, tongued-tied 'thank you very much, ma'am's spoke of an essentially good man, a decent spud.

By that time, we were into Elvis's final phase - GI Elvis, the comeback Elvis, had long since passed. We didn't know that then. We didn't know he had fallen prey to addictions and compulsions we didn't even know existed - prescription pills, uppers and downers; or that he was subject to insecurities we could believe possible in someone so immensely gifted, so hugely loved, so magnificently sculpted from precious metals … ahem …

But we had a kind of claim on him. Maybe it was because as a good old southern boy we thought of him as one of our own.

Son of dirt-poor dirt farmers - that one-room wooden shack remains a chastening sight for anyone too quick to sneer at the King's gold bathroom fittings.

His background was solid, conservative, respectful, honest. Regardless of genealogical trees, we just knew that he came from the same type of background as we did.

I suspect most Northern Irish homes had Elvis LPs displayed proudly on their shelves. And not just the greatest hits but the country albums, the Gospel and Praise collections.

This association was only vindicated years later when we heard his version of Danny Boy.

Like so much else Elvis recorded, it competes as the definitive account of that old sorry song of loss and longing, one he understood immediately from the inside. Indeed, as the years have passed, what is enduring in his legacy has deepened and spread into so many areas of song, from blues to bluegrass to gospels to country to stadium rock and, often, simple, heartfelt prayer.

It may seem slightly bizarre but the first time I saw the tall yellow and black lighthouse at St John's Point, its big light double-flashing, I thought it was, well, Elvis-y. He was an adjective in himself.

He was never the darling of the arty avant garde - quite the contrary. There was something too earthy about Elvis, seemingly too popular, too lovely, not anxious enough. But it ended up he was the most artistically gifted of all.

Elvis also introduced me to death for the first time or perhaps, more accurately, to the strange grief that is aroused when a legend dies.

Like millions I remember where I was when I heard he'd gone - on my bike over the fields playing with friends when somebody announced the news. Elvis dead? How could somebody like Elvis just die? He was 42.

True, this was long before the hysteria of 24/7 rolling news, but there was enough in glimpses of the hysterical crowds in Memphis, the weeping Teds in Liverpool, the ghastly front pages, the sheer sense of the world in shock, to register the momentous loss.

Not much of a memory, true, but it will always be there. In any case, the mind makes its own associations.

Whenever I hear that voice raised either in profane rock or profound praise, I see a world long lost, like IT record shop in Lurgan where my mother, in a little homage, bought us each an Elvis single - all of them reissued and strung round the walls of the place like fairy lights. My dad doing the talking bit in Are You Lonesome Tonight?

I also think of that elderly Vegas hotel cab driver who when asked on a BBC radio show, which of the many celebrities he had chauffeured over the decades had been his favourite, replied without hesitation, "The only one who said 'Thank You' and the only one who called me 'Sir".

That's why when I think about Tupelo, Mississippi's, most famous son I get such a warm feeling.

Forty years ago tomorrow, he may have left the building but not our hearts.

Belfast Telegraph


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