This article originally appeared in the August 23, 1977 issue of the Boston Phoenix.
Elvis Presley was not only the first but the greatest myth that rock ’n’ roll ever produced. His place is so fixed that his death will change nothing. No era has come to an end; the current shape of rock ’n’ roll or popular music will not later; the pattern of our daily lives will not shift. This is not because he hadn’t produced a Top Ten hit in five years; not because his recent performances had bloated into self-parody; not because in the last few years (by some reports) he had slid into self-imposed dementia. Nothing will change because the idea of Elvis Presley, much more than Presley himself, has been a constant part of our culture almost since the day he launched into the first words to “That’s All Right (Mama)” in the Sun Studios in 1954.
There is the shock of his absence, of course. We confused the myth with Presley, somehow assuming he would always be there. In some ways I don’t think we were wrong. Like any myth, Presley answered needs we did not know we had. Which isn’t to say that he didn’t possess and extraordinary talent and an even more extraordinary ability to manipulate it, only that we poured so much into Presley that he became our own monumental, ghastly, exhilarating reflection. His death won’t change anything, because when he opened his mouth 23 years ago Elvis Presley changed almost everything.
It is impossible to speak about Presley without hyperbole. He changed the scope of things. More than the 37 Top Ten singles, the million-dollar sellers, the huge movie contracts, more than the unleashing of an entire generation of adolescents, more than the TV specials beamed around the world, the sell-out concerts in Madison Square Garden, the Astrodome and Las Vegas (all of this was unprecedented, of course), what Elvis Presley did was change our notion of what was possible. It wasn’t that he said there were no limits – in his case, success was the final limit – but that the limits were far less confining than anyone imagined. And he proved it by completely absorbing the rambunctious, open spirit of blues and expressing it as his own experience; by taking the galvanizing, implicitly sexual preaching style of the Pentecostal Church and making it explicit and secular; by creating some of the most exciting and enduring music popular culture has ever produced, along with some of its most bathetic.
He did it all with grace, opulence and surprising indifference. With an ease that in retrospect is staggering, this former truck driver tapped the fundamentally democratic impulses of popular culture -- everybody can be a star, every night is Saturday night -- and embodied all of its contradictions: sexuality and repression, black and white, rebellion and tradition, art and junk, and, of course, success and failure. As critic Peter Guralnick has pointed out, it wasn’t that Presley was the most talented rock ’n’ roller or that the elements of his performance were unprecedented but that “Elvis had the moment,” and he seized it with more power than any popular performer before him.