“Every time I think that I’m getting old and gradually going to the grave, something else happens” – Elvis Presley

The Undead King
The Undead King

If Rock ‘n Roll is a religion, then Elvis Presley was its pagan god, for as John Lennon once said, “Before Elvis, there was nothing”.   While we can’t credit Elvis with creating the sun, the moon, the oceans, the land, and the birds and beasts, we can be pretty sure that on the seventh day he rested.  And had a peanut butter, bacon, and banana sandwich.  The most frightening thing about Elvis (apart from the Napoleon-inspired velveteen suit he wore in a picture with Richard Nixon, see Elvis Meets Nixon), is that despite his purported cardiac arrhythmia and subsequent August 16, 1977 death, he just keeps popping up in everything from Mojo Nixon’s musical theology(“Elvis is Everywhere”, listen at Mojo Nixon’s Elvis Anthem), to sightings at Burger Kings and laundromats (for as New Wave group Wall of Voodoo remind us in Elvis Bought Dora a Cadillac, “he was just a poor man’s son who never forgot from where he’d come.  The Gods I loved were poor white trash.  One was making wine in Canaan, the other tipping waitresses Cadillacs”), to miracles worthy of a saint (“Woman Cured of Throat Cancer by Licking Elvis Stamp”).  In short, it seems Elvis refuses to die.  And this is because Elvis is evidently one of the living dead, but even as a revenant, Elvis has much to teach us.

Obviously, Elvis wasn’t always undead, although much like Keith Richards (who has undeniably discovered the Philosopher’s Stone), he spent many years teetering on the edge.  From his 1935 birth in Tupelo, Mississippi to his Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award at age 36 to his suspicious death in 1977, we can be reasonably certain that Elvis was mortal.  After that, it’s not so clear, given the fact that he is one of those most frequently sighted dead celebrities.  Conspiracy theorists argue that Elvis faked his premature death to avoid the limelight, and settle into a less stressful retirement in anonymity.  This is indubitably nonsense.  Faced with an imminent drug, alcohol, and cholesterol-induced demise, those close to Elvis noted that in his final days he turned to spiritualism and the occult, and apparently discovered a way to live on eternally.  A perusal of the titles reported in Presley’s Graceland library at the end of his mortal existence includes the Bible, Frank O. Adams’ The Face of Jesus, Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, Paramahansa Yogananda’s Autobiography Of A Yogi, Manly P. Hall’s The Secret Teachings of All Ages, Linda Goodman’s Sun Signs, Cheiro’s Book Of Numbers, Anne Besant’s The Masters, Sri Daya Mata’s Only Love, Joel Goldsmith’s The Infinite Way, and Helena P. Blatavsky’s The Secret Doctrine, among others.  Clearly, the King was looking for a way to cheat death.  It seems he may have found it, Teddy Bear.

By most accounts, Elvis had a pretty awesome life, what with the fame, hysterical adoration of the masses, the successful acting career, bushels of money, the beautiful women, the ready availability of top shelf liquor and quality pharmaceuticals, and setting the bar for what we consider to be the modern rock star.  Who would want that to end?  For most of us it sounds like heaven on earth.  This is why, historically, cultural heroes refuse to die.  What does the afterlife really have to offer them?  Creative sorts always suggest that it is through their respective arts that they will achieve immortality, but Elvis was far more practical in his approach (as he was after all just a good old country boy at heart), and likely subscribed to Woody Allen’s perspective, that is, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying”.  Most of us, were we to unexpectedly achieve immortality today, would still need to spend a fair amount of time brewing cappuccinos, waiting tables, writing computer software, or auditioning as catalog models before we could take advantage of the long view that is the bread and butter of eternal life (or at least undeath).  Personally, I’d prefer to go into the light.  And don’t get me started on reincarnation.  Once is enough, for Gods sakes.

But when we look upon those figures who loomed larger in life, it is no wonder we expect them to similarly loom larger in death, in fact avoiding the whole issue by making further appearances long after they should have been worm food.  The nature of the afterlife, should it exist, has been the primary concern of man since we shambled into species status.

The ordinary observer thousands of years ago knew practically as much as the most learned physician knows to-day about the fact of death. To all visible appearances it ended life then as now. Nevertheless, in the face of all appearances to the contrary, hosts of people, both the unlettered and the thoughtful, have believed, and still believe, that death is not the end of man. It is possible to trace the development and the history of the phases of this extraordinary belief. But before the main question, whether or not this vast trend of belief points to a reality, the expert man of science only can say as he does say, that if his science gives him no reason to urge in the affirmative, it likewise gives him no knowledge more than the rest of us have to the contrary. The supreme condition for wise and sane thinking here — the same as on every subject touching human welfare — is the fullest possible understanding of the facts that constitute and characterize human life, both as it commonly is and at its highest and best (Dole, 1906, p3-4).

But the commonness of death, and the fact that it will visit the vast majority of us right on schedule and without a fuss, is precisely why the living idol must not die.  Those we adore, who lead lives we aspire to, show courage in the face of insurmountable odds, and achieve things we wish we could achieve are leading their afterlife in the here and now, for as Friedrich Nietzche said, “One has to pay dearly for immortality; one has to die several times while one is still alive.”  This is why the culture hero burns bright when alive, and then gets the added bonus of transcending death, even when that involves the occasional show in Las Vegas. Elvis teaches us what eternal bliss looks like.  We can’t all be Elvis while we’re alive.  Perhaps we can all be Elvis in the afterlife.  That’s why the King is undead.  Long live the King.  Thank you.  Thank you very much.

Dole, Charles F. 1845-1927. The Hope of Immortality: Our Reasons for It. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1906.