Death becomes them

Twenty-five years after their final curtains, Elvis Presley and Maria Callas are still bigger than life.

The King

His fans still celebrate the sacred rites of Saint Elvis, 25 years after his death

Cover Story

August 11, 2002|By Gary Vikan | By Gary Vikan,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

A very important Elvis day is coming up this week. Friday, Aug. 16, will mark the 25th anniversary of the King's death, from drug-induced cardiac arrest on the toilet in his second-floor bathroom at Graceland.

Big things of a strangely religious sort are likely in store for that day in his hometown, though that is nothing new. It was clear back in 1987, at the 10th anniversary, when 50,000 "Presleyterians" gathered in the steamy heat of Memphis, Tenn., for a candlelight graveside vigil: Elvis Aron Presley had reached the status of secular saint, with Graceland his Jerusalem, complete with its solemn rituals (vigils), votive inscriptions (the Fans' Memorial Wall) and sacred souvenirs (packets of Graceland dirt).

Saint and Elvis, which had been coupled years earlier in the tabloids, appeared together that August in major daily newspapers for the first time. And why not? After all, saints, as charismatic, mediating agents between our everyday world and remote and powerful spiritual forces, have existed for millenniums in all religions, and outside conventional religion as well. And even within the traditional categories of Christian saints -- comprising martyrs, confessors, ascetics and so forth -- Elvis, in the eyes of his followers, has his place as a "martyr."

This is clear from even a brief survey of post-mortem Elvis literature, such as May Mann's Elvis, Why Won't They Leave You Alone? (New American Library, 1984), in which we learn the King's last thoughts as he lay dying on the floor of his bathroom: "This must be like what Jesus suffered." Purged from the singer's factual life history are any references to drug abuse, obesity or paranoiac violence. (Remember that Elvis was the one who shot up a Vegas TV when Robert Goulet came on.)

This adoring "saint literature," which constitutes an extended rebuttal to Albert Goldman's damning 1981 portrait of the debauched Elvis (Elvis, McGraw-Hill), speaks instead of a dirt-poor Southern boy who rose to fame and glory, of the love of a son for his mother (Gladys), of generosity and humility (he always said "sir" and "ma'am") and of superhuman achievement in the face of great adversity.

These books emphasize Elvis' profound spiritualism and his painful, premature death -- a death coming at the hands of his own fans, whose merciless demands for Elvis entertainment exhausted and ultimately killed Elvis the entertainer. ("Uppers" were to prepare for a concert; "downers" to get necessary rest afterward.) In their eyes, he had died for them, and any further revelations of his seeming debauchery would, ironically, only reconfirm and intensify their image of his suffering.

Elvis the healer

The stickiness of the word "saint" can be avoided by adopting sociologist Max Weber's non-religious terminology for people like Elvis, which centers instead on the word charisma or "gift." Weber identified the charismatic as possessing "a certain quality of an individual personality by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities."

Emphasis shifts away from the source of the charismatic gift, as a grace from God or as a reward for an exemplary life, to its recognition and acknowledgement, for whatever reason, by the world at large. This allows for the existence among the ranks of charismatics of the likes of Jesus Malverde, a mustachioed brigand who was hanged as a bandit in Culiacan, Mexico, in 1909, but who today is venerated there as a saint, with his own chapel-shrine, icons, votives and an impressive list of attributed miracles.

Elvis Presley demonstrated the possession of charisma through his phenomenal early success as an entertainer, from 1955 to 1957. This "gift" he had, in fact, earned through his own onstage and record-industry performance -- through his powerfully affecting voice and mesmerizing sexual gyrations. And his timing was perfect. The depth and breadth of Elvis' impact on America's psyche was enormously enhanced by the appearance during those very years of TVs in our living rooms and hi-fis in our dens.

No amount of bad moviemaking in the 1960s or degenerate Vegas antics in the 1970s could take that gift away. And Elvis knew he had "it," and eventually began to cultivate its latent spiritual and miraculous potential. By the early 1970s, Elvis had become, in fact, an acknowledged healer and self-proclaimed messenger from God. Larry Geller, Elvis' hairdresser and spiritualist, discusses both qualities in If I Can Dream: Elvis's Own Story (Simon and Schuster, 1989):

"I once saw Elvis heal a man who was having a heart attack. Another time Elvis treated Jerry Shilling [of the 'Memphis Mafia'] after he had taken a nasty spill on his motorcycle and was unable to move. 'The next thing I knew,' Jerry said later, 'I woke up the following morning healed.'

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