Elvis can take a licking and keep on sticking

MIKE LITTWIN

January 08, 1993|By MIKE LITTWIN

Can somebody please explain the Elvis phenomenon to me? Seriously. I want to understand.

There are many things that confuse me. For example, quantum physics confuses me.

How Joey Buttafuoco became a talk-show guest confuses me.

But nothing has got me stumped like the Elvis thing. It's not the stamp. The stamp I understand. The much-anticipated Elvis stamp -- there will be lines today at the post office like they're giving away money -- is pure kitsch. It's the same as a Mickey Mouse watch. It's not unlike this lamp shaped in the form of a '55 T-bird I once tried to convince my wife to put in the den and that is now resting comfortably in a box in the garage.

The stamp is a goof.

Which is why it didn't surprise me to see an ad in the paper the other day for a 30-by-60-inch cotton velour print bath sheet -- a replica of the Elvis stamp -- for only $19.99. Some would see the velour Elvis as suitable for framing (I doubt my wife will). Also there's an Elvis-stamp afghan for $54.99, if you want to sleep snuggled up against the King.

I've got no problem with the stamp. The post office has printed 500 million of them, and that's fine. If the postal service can raise money by putting celebrity faces on its stamps, who can object? Maybe Madonna could be next. We could vote on the naked Madonna vs. the hard-to-find clothed version. Or Liz. We could choose the thin Liz, the fat Liz, the not-quite-so-fat Liz, the obese Liz, the dried-out Liz, the Liz sneaking into Dunkin' Donuts . . .

My problem is with Elvis worship. What I don't understand is how Elvis became a religious figure -- to many people, he's no less than that.

BThe mystery is that the Elvis obsession has, as far as I can tell, absolutely nothing to do with his music. (Elvis-ism is, however, the only known religion in which "Viva Las Vegas" is considered a hymn.) Nor could it be for his lifestyle.

Graceland is a shrine, visited by literally millions, but not a shrine to the origins of rock and roll. It's a shrine to something else I can't quite put my finger on.

Obviously, the Elvis obsession is directly related to his sad, alleged death. I'm not sure who first said that death was a good career move, but the quote must post-date Elvis.

When Elvis died (OK, OK, if Elvis died), he was a fat, drug-addled, over-the-hill, Nixon-embracing, gold-lame-jump-suited, Vegas act who had become a parody of himself. He couldn't even do the famous lip sneer with a straight face. This was not Bill Clinton's Elvis.

In case anyone has forgotten, Elvis, though he didn't invent rock and roll, made it possible. He put together that blend of country and R&B that was at the heart of rock music. As a white man who could sing black music, he became a sensation.

Then there was the Ed Sullivan show, in which Elvis the Pelvis couldn't be shot below the waist, and the world was never the same.

Unfortunately, neither was Elvis. It wasn't long before the early, dangerous, Sun Records Elvis was off to Hollywood where he might as well have been Frankie Avalon. It got worse. He went to Vegas and might as well have been another Wayne Newton. By the end, he had gone from "Jailhouse Rock" to "My Way."

Then he died and took on a mythic proportion. Other rock stars have died. Jim Morrison remains a cult figure among some teen-agers, but you can understand why. As seen in Oliver Stone's over-the-top movie, Morrison was obsessed by death and his music reflected it. That appeals to a certain kind of confused teen, as if there were any other kind.

What did Elvis represent? Maybe a simpler time when rock and roll was the greatest danger a teen-ager faced, when hip shaking was considered risque, when the world was young. (Am I getting too heavy? Can you get too heavy when discussing Elvis?) Maybe it's the hair.

I don't know. It's the King's 58th birthday today. There's the stamp. There's the bath towel. There's the singing T-shirt that plays "Return to Sender." There are Elvis impersonators in the inaugural parade. There's an Elvis traveling show that takes Elvis memorabilia on the road, including -- I'm not making this up -- a wart removed from Elvis' hand and lovingly preserved.

A spokesman for Graceland said that Elvis was, amazingly, getting bigger and bigger every year. He's so big, he can never leave the building.

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