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Elvis freed people's bodies in the way that Dylan freed their minds

Elvis Presley was like nothing on earth. American film director Sidney Lumet felt that there was something "other-worldly about him".

Looking down from Heaven -- presumably with Jesse Garon, his twin brother who was stillborn, leaving him as an only child -- Elvis Presley is doubtless pleased at all the fuss over the 30th anniversary of his passing from the planet he left such an impression on.

He seemed, at the end, happy to be rid of this world: like the narrator of Suspicious Minds, Elvis was caught in a trap he couldn't get out of. His demons had got the better of him. The most famous man in the world was lonesome almost every night.

He could, his ex-wife Priscilla said, retreat into an intense loneliness the like of which she'd never seen. Perhaps he wanted a way out of that lonely sadness.

On August 16, 1977, at the age of 42, he died in his bathroom at Graceland -- a prisoner in his own palace, a victim of his own phenomenal success.

He was no longer snake-hipped and lean; bloated, ugly, depressed, drugged-up, washed up. He was no longer The King. Burger King.

In that dark moment, it must have seemed to Elvis centuries previous when he exploded on to 1954 with That's All Right, thus triggering a cultural revolution. They filmed from the waist up on the Ed Sullivan Show on 1956 because he threatened to scandalise young America so much; the animal desire was barely kept in check during Hound Dog.

The young truck driver with a toothpaste grin from Memphis who loved his mother and mashed banana sandwiches was suddenly an Antichrist whose diabolical crotch could only be shown on TV from the waist up. Elvis the Pelvis was born.

"Performing is like a surge of electricity going through you. It's almost like making love," he said. "But it's even stronger than that."

"If any individual of our time can be said to have changed the world, Elvis Presley is the one," Greil Marcus wrote in his 1975 book, Mystery Train. "In his wake more than music is different. Nothing or no one looks or sounds the same. His music is the most liberating event of our era because it taught us the new possibilities of feeling and perception, new modes of action and appearance, and because it reminded us not only of his greatness but of our potential."

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You can't reduce his appeal to mere nostalgia. Elvis was the most carnal and potent communicator of emotion in popular song. He was the purest embodiment of rock 'n' roll. His voice and the way he used it in songs such as In the Ghetto, Heartbreak Hotel, Moody Blues, Patch It Up, Polk Salad Annie, This Time, Lord You Gave Me a Mountain, Blue Suede Shoes, Suspicious Minds was literally timeless.

That's why Elvis has endured for so long. Not because he married Priscilla. Or because the National Enquirer sees him every other week at a coffee shop in Tupelo ordering a soda. Or because Albert Goldman wrote that book about him.

"It was not until the decade of the Seventies that Elvis finally laid claim to his royal prerogatives, the tardiness of his coronation being balanced by the extravagance of the ceremony. Once the King felt the crown upon his brow, he could not have enough of the prerequisites of royalty, each new claim to princely prerogative or assertion of kingly privilege leading immediately to an even more audacious feat of self-aggrandisement," Goldman slimes.

"As King Elvis contrived his costumes and elaborated his rituals, as he enlarged his court and extended his largesse, as he viewed himself even more fixedly as a man with a vast if ill-defined mission, his people responded by according him more and more of the honour and glory owing to a king.

"The immense crowds that gathered everywhere he appeared, the fanatical devotion, amounting to worship, with which he was adored, the mad passion to make contact with the royal body -- a mania he sought to gratify by tossing sweat-stained scarves to the people -- make it obvious that his regal posturings were as much a fulfilment of his public's deepest longings as they were expressions of his own megalomania."

Listen to the haunting melancholia of Always On My Mind or the biting carnality of Hound Dog or the depressing sadness of Suspicious Minds and you soon forget Goldman's poison. Listen to the edgy kick of Jailhouse Rock with drummer DJ Fontana imagining he was on a chain-gang smashing rocks for the recording and you hear what Elvis was all about.

Hear the bawling R 'n' B bluster of I Got a Woman which inspired guitarist Chet Atkins, who played on the session, to ring his wife to tell her to come down to the studio because she'd never see any thing like this again . . . and if you don't get up to dance, there's something wrong with you, or your legs.

I listened to Heartbreak Hotel last night. It chilled me. Its spookiness is inspired by a newspaper story of a man who committed suicide, leaving a note which read: "I walk a lonely street . . . "

The late DJ John Peel recalled the strong sense of awe at hearing Heartbreak Hotel for the first time: "It might sound pretty safe now but in the context of what was happening in the Fifties, hearing Heartbreak Hotel was as shocking as if someone was dancing naked in your living room."

Others weren't so impressed. The Memphis DJ Fred Cook played Blue Moon of Kentucky for 25 seconds in 1954 before proclaiming it "the worst piece of shit I ever heard". And that was one of the better reviews of early Elvis Presley. His schoolteacher told him he couldn't sing. "Popular music has reached its lowest depths in the grunt of one Elvis Presley," screamed the Daily News in 1954.

The Miami News expressed its disapproval by describing Elvis Aaron as "the biggest freak show in show business history." Brimstone-and-fire preachers in the South bet their bibles with the solemn belief that Elvis had booked his passage straight to Hell with that white-negro voice.

Elvis didn't just sound black, of course, he dressed black too. His cousin Billy Smith recalled that his family began to think: "Well why doesn't he just go and live with them [the African-Americans]?"

It was, in every sense, the Devil's music. If this was true, the Devil had all the best songs. The irony is that Presley's earliest musical influence emerged from listening to the psalms and gospel songs in the Pentecostal Church as a young boy.

They would eventually beat their Bibles harder when they heard the young truck driver from Tupelo, Mississippi, sing his homoerotic meisterwerk Jailhouse Rock (with Spider Murphy blowing on more than his saxophone possibly): "You're the cutest jailbird I ever did see -- I sure would be delighted with your company."

Bruce Springsteen once said that Elvis freed people's bodies the way Bob Dylan freed their minds. Without the fat Elvis in the star-studded jumpsuit in Las Vegas, or in Aloha from Hawaii, we would never have had Bono (the U2 singer's black leather Zoo TV persona was Elvis's NBC TV comeback special by another name and don't let Bono tell you any different).

John Lennon probably wouldn't have picked up a guitar to sing had it not been for hearing Elvis sing.

Elvis inspired me to sing too, but it turned out to be the most embarrassing moment of my life. My sister Karen walking in on me when I was a six-year-old, dancing and singing along with a broom in my hand to Elvis's woe-is-me classic, like I was the tragic anti-hero of the song, You Gave Me a Mountain. Karen still ribs me about it to this day . . .

"Born in the heat of the desert

My mother died giving me life

Deprived of the love of a father

Blamed for the loss of his wife

You know I've been in a prison

For something that I never done

It's been one hill after another

I've climbed them all one by one

But this time, Lord you gave me a mountain

A mountain you know I may never climb

It isn't just a hill any longer

You gave me a mountain this time."

And Elvis is still climbing that mountain up in Heaven.


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