In middle school I spent an entire Sunday transcribing the lyrics to “Return to Sender” so I could memorize and sing them later.
But while Elvis was singing: “Return to sender, address unknown,”
I was writing: “Return December, address and phone.”
As an adult I’ve had the opportunity to tour Graceland and to attend a party among Elvis’ cars. It was a celebratory event held as a part of a company conference I was attending. Both a coworker and I were surprised by just how long we spent in the mansion. Neither of us expected the objects displayed to be as interesting or mean as much.
I don’t think I’ve ever not liked Elvis. As I got older there were just bands/musicians/pop figures that I liked a little more. But always more so than figures like the Beatles, Elvis symbolized something very grand and very American, which was important to my father and me. The stories (here and here, for example) of his impoverished childhood and his rise to become a wealthy international pop icon are a part of the allure of the American Dream. And its this dream that drives people from all over the world — under all different circumstances — to give up what they know in a gamble to achieve what might be in coming to America.
My father never took me to a baseball game (It was my mother who took me to my first and only Mets game – Mets vs. the Pirates, tied up to 12 innings and then Wham! Wham! Wham! Mets lose something like 12 to 2 – this was in the late 70s – this was the last Mets game I ever attended), though he did boil hot dogs every now and then. We would eat them with ketchup and mustard, wrapped in Wonder Bread or over rice. He drove Chevrolet cars up until recently and I think he liked apple pie (though I know I did/do, that and New York style cheesecake).
I don’t think he would disagree if Elvis were added to the list — Baseball, Hot Dogs, Apple Pie and Chevrolet.
I’m not going to speak for my father but for someone like me, a Second Generation Chinese kid, going through normal “boy things” in middle school in Hollis in the 70s, Elvis was that proverbial light at the end of the pubescent tunnel. Of course, I didn’t know this at the time. At the time, he was this “voice” and this image to aspire to in my father’s record collection. Even with the “wilder” bands that followed after, side by side in the record rack under my father’s hi fi, Elvis stood out as someone – “something” – different.
My father had some Paul Revere and the Raiders records. They had a raw feel to them like Elvis singing Hound Dog but they weren’t smooth like Elvis was when he was singing Don’t. Don’t was much more like Twilight Time on the Platters record in my father’s collection. It’s nothing technical (No talk of pitches, baritones, basses, or tenors). It’s really more intangible than that. It’s how their voices dress the lyrics to suit the melody. Where Paul Revere and the Raiders “demand,” Elvis and the Platters “implore.”
August 16 was the anniversary of Elvis’ death. It’s been over 30 years since he was found in his Graceland bathroom dead from a coronary arrhythmia. As Rene Lynch writes in the LA Times: “Elvis Presley died 34 years ago today, and since then he’s been lionized and immortalized, morphing into an iconic celebrity whose popularity continues to transcend age and culture.”
As a 12 year old coping with not fitting in through today as a parent dealing with a whole new set of social questions, the myth of Elvis and its glamour retains significance in my life. He’s a symbol of the American economic and social mobility that attracted my parents to America. He’s also a celebration of the solution that results when different cultures are mixed together.