When I first visited Paris, in 1970, I didn’t expect to see a giant Elvis Presly effigy dominating a cinema district. The “British invasion” (Beatles, Rolling Stones, The Who and others) had already swept America, diminishing Elvis in the eyes of a generation of white Americans who were hip to the black-man’s Blues and who saw Elvis, and crooners like Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett, as out of tune with the political and social issues roiling America. So existential Paris, where art and politics mesh, was the last place I expected to see Elvis being celebrated. But there he was, a colossus clad in sexy black leather.
The French fascination with Elvis has not abated. While in France this past summer I always watched the Art channel’s weekly celebration of the ‘50s and ‘60s music scene, dominated by Elvis.
The piece de resistance came on August 15, with 12 hours of non-stop Elis on the channel, including “Love Me Tender,” his first film, and “King Creole,” in which he performs “Jail House Rock,” a seminal music video. This Elvis marathon was a holiday gift to the French, who celebrate the Feast of the Assumption on the 15th, a most holy day in this Roman Catholic country.
I was not in France to watch Elvis on TV, and chose, instead, to visit three Perpignan churches on this feast day, taking in as much Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque as I could before joining an evening procession from the Cathedral of St. Jean to the Church of Royale De Maria. The candlelit procession wound its way through the narrow streets of this ancient ville while we all sang “Ave Maria,” an uplifting hymn in praise of Notre Dame (Our Lady) and one that this old Catholic choirboy sang in many May Processions honoring Our Lady.
What surprises me about the French, the wellsprings of the creative spirit in Europe for centuries, is how they are enamored of movie stars, particularly those made in Hollywood. The French love movie stars and Elvis. James Dean and Steve McQueen, for example, are larger cult figures in France than in America.
When it comes to understanding America, the French follow Oscar Wilde’s maxim that you understand a culture through its art. And the predominant American art forms of the past one hundred years are movies and music, especially Rock ’n’ Roll.
Following World War II, the allure of America was its youth culture, spawned by 1950’s affluence when everyone else was still recovering from the devastation of the war. Marlon Brando, James Dean and Elvis captivated the youth of the world, offering them rebellion and nonconformity as opposed to the stolid routine of their parents’ generation.
Elvis was always more than his music, and more so after his death. Early in his career he was the rebellious youth culture, the Hillbilly Cat singing raw rock ‘n’ roll like nobody else before or after him.
Although blessed with fame and fortune, it didn’t go to Elvis’ head. “He never went Hollywood.” Indeed, Elvis was no phony. He did make 15 Hollywood movies, but he always returned to Graceland, his beloved home, and to his family and friends. Elvis’ legion of fans loved him because he was one of them, a humble southern boy from deep in the Deep South who never forgot his roots. Now that Elvis has passed away, Graceland has become a shrine, a place of pilgrimage for those who loved him. Paul Simon’s compelling “Graceland” celebrates these devotees.
When asked why he was infatuated with Elvis, Eddie Murphy, the hugely popular comedic actor, said, “When I watch Elvis movies, I can’t take my eyes off Elvis. I just want to look at Elis.” No matter the many scantily-clad babes surrounding Elvis in his movies, Eddie only has eyes for Elvis. On the other hand, it is easy to take one’s eyes off James Bond and feast these eyes on all those Bond girls in his movies.
Eddie Murphy crystallized my thoughts. For I watch every Elvis re-run on cable because I can’t take my eyes off him, either. Elvis is transfixing no matter which one of his many forgettable movies I am watching. He was most beautiful right after he got out of the army, when he started dying his hair black and combing it into a gorgeous pompadour.
After his very successful 1968 TV comeback in sexy black leather, Elvis transformed himself into the radiant figure etched in our memory, dressed in white sequined pantsuit and cape. Yet few remember the Hillbilly Cat and the gorgeous pompadour, when Elvis was the most beautiful man alive.
That Eddie Murphy was so openly infatuated with Elvis was a revelation to me since African-Americans have never been Elvis fans. To the contrary, they resented Elvis, listening to him with their eyes. Their resentment turned into hostility when a scurrilous rumor alleging that Elvis had a low opinion of black folk enjoyed wide currency with them.
Moreover, African-Americans are loath to give even the best white artists, and athletes, their due. The British invasion was ignored by blacks, and Jimi Hendrix was resented by black bluesmen for giving to much credit to Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton for their influence on his music. Nor did they like The Jimi Hendrix Experience including two white Englishmen.
And when it comes to basketball, blacks don’t want to see a single solitary white guy on the court. Larry Bird of the Boston Celtics, certainly one of the greats of the game, was really underrated by black fans and resented by some black players, including Isaiah Thomas of the Detroit Pistons, simply because he excelled at what they consider to be their game.
When Bob Dylan was asked if he had any heroes, he shrugged and said, “I guess Elvis.” Then he chuckled, as if to say, “I was like everybody else; we all wanted to be Elvis.” I expected Dylan to say “Woody Guthrie,” the patron saint of American folksingers, whom he idolized and then eulogized in “Last thoughts on Woody Guthrie.” But Bobby was like everybody else; he only had eyes for ELVIS.
Jack Soul firstname.lastname@example.org
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