WASHINGTON, Aug. 16 (UPI) -- How to explain his continuing hold on us, even as his image metastasizes? A quarter century after his death, Elvis is still with us, bigger and better than ever. But it isn't the same Elvis.
He died 25 years ago to the day this was written, a fat, drug-addicted, grotesquely overweight has-been. Forget banal things like cigarettes, crack cocaine or even AIDS. It was too many big burgers and legal drug prescriptions that did him in. Or did they?
Within only a few years the ecstatic cry "He is risen!" was echoing from across the great American Heartland as he materialized to titillate The Faithful in obscure bars, supermarkets and 7-11s.
In the 1970s, the wild rumor had circulated across a pop-crazed, hash-high counterculture that Paul McCartney was dead when of course he was still alive. Elvis took the opposite route. It turned out to be his best career move since he joined the United States Army in 1958.
The early music was magical and it certainly had a thunderous impact in its time unparalleled since Louis Armstrong in Chicago blew complexity and modernity into the speakeasies of Chicago with his Enchanted Trumpet at the cusp of the Jazz Age. But it has not lasted as well, or with anything like the popularity, of Simon and Garfunkel or Bob Dylan, let alone the Beatles.
Buddy Holly wrote his own music and was a far superior musician to Elvis. He died far younger too, the day his plane went down immortalized by Don McLean as "The Day the Music Died." But if the Jester stole the King's crown in his own spring, fleeting-brief moment of glory, the King eventually to reclaimed it for the ages, even if had to wait until he had eaten himself to death to do it.
If the young Elvis, he of the angry, sex-wild, threatening young Bad Boy 50s -- before Col. Tom Parker, before the execrably schlock movies, before the sequined jump suits, before everything -- could have projected forward to today what would he have thought at the gaudy, mawkish celebrations unleashed in his name?
He would have sneered and been scathing. That pouted lip would have curled with all its justly-vaunted sensual innuendo. He would have despised the romantic indulgence of his old fans grown old and regarded them with the hip disdain he accorded those who adored Perry Como.
And although he grew old, as we that were left also grew old, now that we are even older, we refuse to believe it. We have airbrushed his long, decline, more bizarre than a 1,000 UFO sightings, more unsettling than a dozen "X-Files" episodes, more creepy than the entire "Twilight Zone." We have even tamed the animal energies he unleashed in his charismatic prime. We have remade him in our own ever-more-aging image, no longer dangerous, far indeed from hip anymore image..
Even as we airbrush Elvis, forget his angry, even vicious early persona and challenge, not merely to authority but to all order, and indulge in a selective generational collective Alzheimer's to blank out his fearful end, we remember one transcendent truth. For Baby Boomers, he was the first. He was the door to delights and adventures through which we poured. He was our youth, and always will be. And even in his weird decline, he reminded us of that.
There is precedent for this. Look at the way GI Generation Senior Citizens dance sedately to classic Swing bands as geriatric as they. Then cut to contemporary newsreel footage of real wild swing in Uptown Harlem or anywhere else in the Thundering 30s.
Swing then was what Elvis Rock 'n Roll would be 20 years later, a classic, wild, gloriously undiluted expression of an American generation's youth, optimism and energetic interest in the opposite sex. And it aroused all the suspicion, hatred fear and -- most of all -- jealousy of their elders and far from betters that Elvis did two decades on.
Swing kept the American people gyrating as they confidently swept to victory through the greatest global war in history to the stunning syncopations of Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller. The Heirs of Elvis had a far easier time of it, except for the millions who served in Vietnam and most of all, the 58,000 who never came back. But for their generation, there was a Garden of Eden too: a Golden Age, not of innocence but of the awakening from it. A dawn when bliss was it be alive, but to be young and gyrating to the beat of an electric rhythm guitar was very heaven. Wordsworth would have understood.
Viva Elvis! We haven't forgotten.