By KIT RACHLIS  |  August 20, 2007

A national outrage, condemned by the nation’s elders, not allowed to reveal his gyrating hips on national television, Presley consistently topped the charts from 1956 to 1963. A two-year hitch in the Army didn’t prevent him from selling. Of course the furor died down after his return, and Presley began to act less like a rebel and more like a matinee idol. Eventually he stopped performing entirely. For anyone who began his or her adolescence in the ’60s, Presley was a dim figure who made ludicrous movies and crooned vapid, overblown songs. It wasn’t until I listened to his rockabilly sides that I realized what I’d missed. It’s impossible for me to tell how much I bought into the Presley myth, but these records have haunted me ever since I heard them. For their real meaning lies not in their creation of rock ’n’ roll as music, but in their definition of rock ’n’ roll as style, as a way of dealing with the world. What I hear on the Sun sessions (and on the two comeback albums, Elvis’ TV Special and From Elvis in Memphis) is an openness, a willingness to take on anything no matter what the cost. There is a rudeness – in its old-fashioned sense – that refuses to be denied. Every rock ’n’ roller from Carl Perkins to the Sex Pistols’ Johnny Rotten has borrowed something from those attitudes.

In eulogizing Elvis Presley last week, the network specials and newspaper obituaries gave their imprimatur to the extraordinary cultural changes he helped bring about. They recognized that he offered a vision of freedom to the children of the middle class and so made this era possible. But by imply that he was simply in the right place at the right time they denied, as they did 20 years ago, that Presley had any say in this process, that he took hold of his time and place and made of them his own destiny. You can see him work it out in Jailhouse Rock and, best of all, you can hear it in his version of Sleepy John Estes’s “Milkcow Blues Boogie,” which he recorded in 1954. The song begins at an agonizingly slow pace. Bill Black’s bass is deliberate, Scotty Moore’s guitar squeezes out each note, Presley stretches out each word. It’s the beginning of a wonderful blues. But that’s not enough for Presley. He stops and says, “Hold it, fellas. That don’t move me. Let’s get real, real gone for a change.” An incredible transformation takes place. All three of them careen into the song. It explodes with an optimism and a freedom that the original never had. And in those first few seconds one can hear rock ’n’ roll being created – and America getting real, real gone. 

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