Thinking about Elvis

Today is the anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley, who died on August 16, 1977. Elvis died of a life of excess and drug abuse at an absurdly young age, but he had been a worldwide celebrity for more than 20 years by the time he died. He had long been entombed by his own celebrity.
When Elvis, Scotty and Bill found their way to the heart of American music with their recording of “That’s Alright, Mama,” they knew they had done something great. Elvis found the heart of America — the place where country, blues, and gospel meet — many times over in his music. Indeed, after his artistic decline in the ’60s, he willed himself to a second period of creative genius and genuine accomplishment at the end of the ’60s and early ’70s. Am I wrong in thinking that listening closely to the music all by itself can make you love our country more?
With his brilliant two-volume biography of Elvis, Peter Guralnick has made himself the essential chronicler of Elvis’s story. Guralnick of course tells the true story of the strangest photo-op in history, the day in December 1970 that Elvis visited Richard Nixon in the White House.
The story of the visit provides comic relief to an otherwise sad denoument. Below is the first page of the handwritten note by which Elvis sought to meet Nixon. (If you want to read the rest of the note, you can access it on this site.) Suffice it to say that his heart was in the right place.
Dwight Chapin’s memo to Bob Haldeman (also available on the site) summarizing Elvis’s request is a kind of classic of cluelessness. The second page of the memo has Chapin’s earnest advice and Haldeman’s somewhat more astute response. Chapin writes: “[I]f the President wants to meet some bright young people outside of the Government, Presley might be a perfect one to start with.” Haldeman responds: “You must be kidding.” In any event, at least this particular part of the Elvis story had a happy ending.


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