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The Loneliness of Elvis

Elvis Presley, born 83 years ago January 8, was the loneliest rock star. He virtually created the notion of a rock star himself in 1954 when he exploded on to the popular music world brimming with raw sexuality and magnetism that frightened and fascinated America. He took the brunt of the backlash of being new and controversial. He was taunted by the establishment and humiliated on The Steve Allen Show. When, years later, John Lennon incurred American wrath with his “we’re more popular than Jesus” comment, he had three other Beatles to share the burden. But Elvis stood alone. Even later in his career, after he had proven his staying power and then some, he was a gaudy freak show, surrounded by sycophants, to the end. And yet, his musical gifts are undeniable, almost impossible to fully appreciate. To capture the essence of his loneliness, you have to skip the early songs that made him famous and spend some time with From Elvis in Memphis and Back in Memphis, recorded in 1969 and 1970 during his glorious comeback. He sounds like he recorded every song alone with only his voice in the studio although in reality he was surrounded by musicians and hangers-on. On songs like “Only the Strong Survive,” he sounds vulnerable, something he’d long ago forgotten how to do. When he asks, “Do you know who I am/Have you have any idea who I am?” on “Do You Know Who I Am” he sounds like he means it. Maybe Elvis had to be alone in order to be Elvis. When he died, he left us with a lasting memory of a man in sad decline. But he also gave us rock and roll. So happy birthday, Elvis. And thank you.

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Writer and pop culture lover.

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