Where were you when I laid

The foundations of the earth? . . .

Who laid its cornerstone in place,

When the morning stars sang together,

And all the sons of God shouted aloud?–Job 38 : 4-7

The music was new black polished chrome, and it came across the summer like liquid night.–Jim Morrison

I went to Memphis last year. Graceland was interesting, but it didn’t move me as much as I expected. Then we went to Sun Studios, where Elvis recorded his first rock ‘n’ roll songs on a July night 33 years ago. It wasn’t open to the public when I was there, though I think it is now. It is a small, very nondescript whitewashed storefront amid warehouses and diners, the neighborhood a little shabby, traffic roaring by. Baptist Memorial Hospital almost overlooks the studios–the hospital where Elvis was declared dead, where he stayed periodically for weeks on end when they were putting him back together in his last years. He might have looked out of his hospital window and seen Sun. A life lived in a local compass. No wonder that down there his legend was nurtured by the faithful during all those years when he was making himself a public joke to much of the rest of the country. He lived there, he did his work there, and he died there, just like most small-town people. He belonged to them, though he sealed himself off from them like he did from everybody and everything else. There is no excuse for Elvis.

But I stood and stood in front of the windows at Sun. And I thought about historical sites and great men’s homes, seats of government and religious shrines. Places that are important because they stand for the traditions and myths that shape and give meaning to cultures and individual lives.

Because Sun Studios is one of those kinds of places. And it is the closest to me. This is where my culture starts, this is part of what made me what I am. My life in a sense has been a process of getting around to this couple of windows and looking them back in the face, blank curtained windows with dead flies. What did you do to me, how did you do it, and why? What did John Lennon hear and see in you that thrilled him so deeply and darkly and strongly that it drove him half crazy? Because he gave it to me, and after that, nothing in the world could have kept me the same. I’m 34 now, and the world still looks different, and different in the same way.

For reasons I cannot explain, some part of me wants to see Graceland . . . –Paul Simon

“Graceland” is such a great song. That’s exactly how it feels, going down there. Paul Simon’s thinking about the Civil War, he’s traveling with his son. The past and the future. And Graceland, Elvis, is the hinge. Graceland is possibility, where things can be. How ironic that Graceland, that fortress of solitude, that bell jar where energy and love withered in the wasted air, becomes a symbol of welcome–hope and potential. “Poor boys and pilgrims with families . . . I’ve reason to believe we all will be received in Graceland.” You believe right, Paul.

They will turn away from the still-shocking footage of what Elvis Presley did on stage in the mid-’50’s: movements so suggestive, not merely of things sexual, but of all possibility, that were they not now safely contextualized as “history” we would find them shocking today. –Greil Marcus

Yes. You could put Elvis anywhere–and you can see him singing on truck beds at supermarket openings, at state fairs, on those early TV appearances where the intent from the first was to mock him and make him small–and the effect is still shock; it still jars you out of your ordinary framework.

I think of those clips, probably from shows in old movie theaters, heavy movie-palace velvet drapes providing a backdrop of matte darkness. And Elvis in dark sport coat, dark shirt, and trousers, so that all you see of him, like a mime playing a ghost, is white shoes, hands, tie–and that pallid, marble-white diseased face, the whites of the eyes glowing and rolling in the black sockets, black eye shadow above, black circles of exhaustion beneath, and the jet curtain of lank hair shaken loose over the face. His expression is abstracted or self-involved, as if intent on some inner process, a little like what had been seen on the faces of conductors of orchestras but not before on pop singers; sometimes pained, contemptuous, sometimes like a man doing some heavy labor or a gymnast concentrating on a difficult feat; sometimes almost frightened. In the grainy glare and darkness of the film, in the apparent random febrility of his movements, his whiteness in that dark flickers like unnatural lightning. Like the fool’s fire or jack-o’-lantern that burns over the swamp, made lurid and doubly dangerous with electricity. You feel it would be wise to step back. This man’s immersion in whatever is driving him is complete and has no reference to you or anything exterior. You can feel it. Power has just arced across the gap from latency to reality. There it is. The new possibility. A new way to be.

You look and you look for the guy who burns with a low blue flame and then one day you find him and you say, “Yeah, that’s him, that’s who we’re looking for, that’s our connection–where can we buy his T-shirts?” –David Lee Roth

Elvis wasn’t exactly performing. Not at the start. He was being. And implicitly inviting others to feel their being as strongly as he felt his. That’s the origin of all charisma. The force that comes from a connected person, from a person who is actually feeling his or her own being–and so is more there than other people.

That’s central to what I think is the meaning of Elvis, and why I say that rock ‘n’ roll is a culture. I don’t mean the culture of fans and musicians and the music industry. I mean that the meaning of Elvis is now operative in our whole culture, that it somehow leaked from popular music into life in general. It’s become one of our large assumptions, an element in the complex of ideas that makes up American life.

People have said that the central American freedom is the freedom to invent yourself. To me, that sounds a little superficial, like a con man’s trick. To me, the marvelous, dangerous freedom that the early Elvis acted out was the freedom to be himself–to discover himself, to feel it and allow that self to be. That may sound pretty simple, even simplistic. That’s because most of us have no idea how it would look or feel until we see a person like Elvis. This is the first freedom, without which all other freedoms are hollow exercises in individual indulgence. Yet that freedom will always remain elusive, subversive, unformulated, mostly unclaimed.

Of course, in the end, most people become idolaters–worshiping that charismatically projected being instead of taking him as a signpost to finding and cherishing their own. This is what confuses and defuses rock ‘n’ roll fans, and makes them just fans instead of a threat to the world order. It’s also what in the end confused and killed Elvis. Finally, he became converted to his own religion. Then he became truly powerless.

The communication of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living. –T.S. Eliot

So was Elvis Presley’s in 1954. Rest in peace? Maybe. “Not peace as the world knows it, but the peace that passeth all understanding.” I think the peace of the angels is a terrible turmoil, a triumphant uproar. Elvis knew good rockin’, so he’ll do all right.