Let’s brace ourselves. In case you’ve missed the buildup that has already started, let me report that next Thursday will be the 30th anniversary of the death of Elvis.
That’s Elvis Aaron Presley, in case you had any doubt.
The tributes have been under way all month. Those who, in addition to the pop idol’s musical legacy, use the occasion to focus philosophically on the tragic end of Elvis’ life are also presenting their arguments. One of the latter by John Whitehead, founder and president of the Rutherford Institute in Charlottesville, Va., is particularly sobering.
The author said that while he had been “electrified” by the music of Chuck Berry, he became totally absorbed when Elvis arrived on the scene. So I gather that the writer was a fan. And to me, that should make his observations even more valid.
“In Elvis’ life, we see an allegory of the entire American experience during the 1950s, 1960s and beyond,” Whitehead wrote in a column distributed to media outlets. “Like many before and after him, a youthful and dynamic beginning ended in premature old age and a bloated, overweight body. A victim of success, Elvis became a parody of himself, and of a modern, materialistic America. Like so many of the generation he spawned, Elvis was a lonely soul of that train to nowhere.”
Elvis’ life certainly mirrors what happended to many in his generation. His contemporaries are Americans who as children watched their parents battle and win World War II, who came of age professionally during the Eisenhower years and helped create a national economy that provides unprecedented opportunity for those willing to work and sacrifice to achieve their goals.
Elvis was part of a generation born in the 1930s to parents who were just emerging from the Great Depression, and who grew up to claim the promise that freedom and America’s post-war place of leadership in the world provided. The vast majority of them enjoyed a level of financial success their parents and grandparents never imagined, and they established a standard of living that became a benchmark for millions of others throughout the world.
When I compare what happened in Elvis’ life to the fate of many others of his era and some who have been born since, I must admit the parallel is startlingly accurate. Some enjoy their success to fatal excess. Others hit a plateau and respond with a feeling of emptiness — a sense of personal opportunities lost and a desire to recapture the possibilities that seemed to exist in their younger years. For many, aging gracefully is not the goal; denying the inevitable is. Plastic surgeons are busier than ever. “Sixty in the new 40.” And on and on.
Few will ever enjoy the fame and acclaim that Elvis achieved, so few understand the personal pressures the ultimate level of success brings. But granted, in numerous ways and to varying degrees, the young adults of the 1950s and 1960s became famous for their maverick manners, their protests against traditional values and — yes — the abuses they inflicted upon themselves.
Still, I prefer to think that what happened to Elvis was the exception, and not the rule. If you’re looking for a poster boy, perhaps we could nominate somebody like Warren Buffet, who was just a lad of 4 growing up in Omaha when Elvis was born in Memphis. Described as the second-richest man in the world behind his friend and bridge partner Bill Gates, Buffet built his fortune in business through skillful investing. He has long been a generous philanthropist, but last year announced that the majority of his billions are being given to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation while he is still alive.
That’s not exactly what you’d call rock ‘n’ roll, but it’s certainly a legacy worth celebrating.
Gene Deason is managing editor of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Friday. He may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.