On This, the Anniversary of the King’s Death

“You are either a Beatles person or an Elvis person,” was a phrase I remember […]

Sarah Condon / 8.16.16


“You are either a Beatles person or an Elvis person,” was a phrase I remember hearing for the first time in high school. I was in that golden age of teenage years when music changes the way you see everything and so you are compelled to have very strong opinions about it. For me, the answer has never changed over the years. I am an Elvis person. I would listen to “Love Me Tender” over the chirpy “I Want to Hold Your Hand” any day of the week. But honestly if you try to compare Elvis to anyone else, I am always going to go with the Rt. Rev. Presley.

When my near deaf great-grandmother was dying in the hospital during what, I am sure, was a hot Louisiana August in the summer of 1977, someone managed to communicate to her that Elvis had died. Family lore is that she immediately perked up and said, “Elvis died! Nobody told me that Elvis had died! What else am I missing?!” I was born in 1982 and Ethel Gandy would go on to live until 1987. I always credit Elvis with my being able to meet and know her.

I was indoctrinated into the cult of Elvis early. My mother used to play his records in the living room and we would all boogy. Going to Graceland was like a elvisposter2holy pilgrimage. And I can clearly remember hearing my parents discuss the injustices done to Mr. Presley by his infamous manager, Colonel Tom Parker. “He just insisted Elvis do all of those movies where he had to sing,” my mother would say. “Elvis could have been a great actor without the Colonel interfering,” my dad would chime in.

And so when conversations arose about what my parents would name my brother, there was a sophisticated line of thought that said his name, Aaron, was for the composer Aaron Copeland. But also, we had to collectively admit, it was also a lovely nod to Elvis Aaron Presley.

I love the entire songbook of Elvis’s work. His early work is freedom on a record. To hear someone in the pent up days of 1956 belt out “Good Rockin’ Tonight” must have been a life altering experience:

I said, meet me and a-hurry behind the barn

Don’t you be afraid ‘cause I’ll do you no harm

I want you to bring along my rockin’ shoes

‘Cause tonight I’m gonna rock away all our blues

I heard the news, there’s good rockin’ tonight.

Elvis. Stop. I’m blushing and it is 2016.

For reasons that should be obvious, I love his Gospel music recordings. My grandmother used to stand at the kitchen sink, washing dishes, humming along to his gorgeous How Great Thou Art album. If you only listen to one Elvis song on this, the anniversary of his death, it has to be “Crying in the Chapel.”

But even when Elvis got on in years, and the weight came with the jumpsuits, and the drugs really began to take their toll, even that Elvis I adore. Perhaps, in our family, we adore that Elvis even more. Because for us, Elvis was much more than just his music. We loved him because he looked and sounded like us. His landmarks were our landmarks. He built a gaudy house in Memphis, Elvis and familyTennessee and moved his parents in as soon as he made it big. He bought an airplane and named it after his daughter, Lisa Marie. He had a daughter named Lisa Marie. That man was our kind of people, in sickness and in health.

We loved him because his life was one of the first celebrity lives to be so tragically and so publicly lived out. His story was not one of victory but of tremendous and embarrassing defeat. For all of his unbelievable accomplishments and staggering career, there is still the story of his wasted talent, infidelity, divorce, addiction, and his death on a toilet, of all things. He was arguably one of the most famous people to completely lose control of his life in front of everyone. And, at least in my family, we loved him for it.

When I heard the stories of this King as we gathered around my childhood dinner table, they were not tales of shame or judgment. Talking about Elvis Presley was never seen as a morality moment when we learned that drugs were bad and that fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches were not heart healthy. There was not even a solid he-found-Jesus moment at the end of his life.

We told the story of Elvis around the dinner table because it was beautiful and tragic. Even if you are not from Mississippi, even if you have not toured the Jungle Room at Graceland, even if you are, in fact, a Beatles person, you can still look to Brother Elvis for a word about how we cannot outrun ourselves. Like so many people we know, and like we ourselves have experienced, life will break you. And Elvis broke in front of everyone. God bless him for that.