Floating: the King is Dead (05/18/06)


“We were finishing up Rolling Stone‘s first issue produced entirely in New York when we heard that Elvis Presley had died,” read the editorial note in Rolling Stone 248, carrying the date of September 22nd, 1977. All resources were marshaled, all writers and photographers called on board, but the first challenge was to find a cover that no one else would use or even think of. From newspapers to television to weeklies to monthlies, everyone was going to go for one of two things: a dynamic performance shot from the 1950s, or a globby, repulsive performance shot from the 1970s—and that was why the face staring down from copies of Rolling Stone on the newsstands in September 1977 was a shock.

It made no claims. It announced no new era or the passing of an old one. It trumpeted no significance outside itself, demanded no opinion, drew no lines. It merely sucked you in—into an abyss of yearning, delight, possibility, beauty, warmth and loss; an abyss defined entirely by what the person gazing at the image brought to it.

Somehow, a photograph of Elvis Presley had been found (an old publicity shot, it seemed; there was no credit) that was so modest it said as much about whoever found himself or herself looking at it as it did about the person pictured—and somehow, it was a picture that no one remembered ever having seen before. Was it so formally neutral when it was made, in 1956 or 1957, that no one would remember it even if he or she had seen it? But it wasn’t neutral now.

The image was uncanny in 1977, and it is uncanny still. Against a light-beige background, Elvis cocks his head just slightly to the right, raises his left upper lip just enough to flash a sly smile onto his left eye, and his eyes look straight into yours. He is maybe twenty-one, twenty-two, and while the picture radiates the aura of a man who rules the world—rules by means of beauty, glamour and grace—you can’t imagine a less spectacular portrait of Elvis Presley. It is quiet, proud, sexy and modest all at once. Yeah, you know me, it says, but it speaks with an overwhelming silence. Not the silence of a tomb—as you look, all other sound falls away and the moment speaks for itself.

The twenty-three-page Elvis section inside the magazine sings mostly with its pictures—none of them, in this moment, seeming at all predictable or even familiar, even if some of them were. Except for Dave Marsh’s shellshocked tribute, the features themselves are predictable, save for “Echoes of Love,” the testimonies of a dozen people from the music world—Bruce Springsteen, producers Chet Atkins and Felton Jarvis, Pat Boone, Steve Allen, Carl Perkins and more. As we first discovered in 1970, upon the death of the Chicago blues pianist Otis Spann, in circumstances like these people who ordinarily live their lives by evasion are eloquent.

They speak straightforwardly, but they spin off poetry in spite of themselves because they want so badly to say just what they mean, to find the word that isn’t close but exactly it—and that is what happened when people were asked if they had anything to say about Elvis Presley. “I hope people remember the impact,” said Roy Orbison. “It’s not only historical fact, but it’s definitely lingering fact.” What precisely does that mean? Nothing, precisely—but you could spend years getting to the bottom of those words if they linger in you.

As a counterweight to the floating Elvis Presley on the cover, the section began with a full-page picture, by photographer Harry J. Siskind, of Elvis near the end—fat, dripping sweat that almost smelled through the newsprint perhaps the only such picture that could have been printed without a sneer, for it too communicated warmth before it said anything else. A man in his early forties sat on a stage, the spangles and bangles of his ridiculous costume holding in his bulk, makeup smeared, and he looked pleased. He looked as if he knew something no one else knew, and as if, in the moment, the smiles and the noise from the crowd were just as they should have been, if the air felt right, if the temperature were not too hot and not too cold, he just might pass it on. Too bad I died before I got the chance, the picture said.

Rolling Stone, May 18, 2006 (from RS‘s 1,000th issue special)

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