We were sitting at a stop sign at the corner of College and Line Streets, directly across from the First Methodist Church. My mother was driving. My sister sat in the backseat. Riding shotgun in the front seat with the windows down on an August afternoon, I was six years old.
It was fortunate that we were not moving, for that is the moment the crackling AM radio announced that Elvis Presley was dead. Had we been traveling at speed, we all might have had “August 16, 1977” engraved on our own gravestones just like the King of Rock and Roll, because my mother went bonkers when she heard the news.
Raised as I was in a Christian fundamentalist household, that “filthy rock music” was not allowed in the house. No Rolling Stones. No Bob Dylan. No Pink Floyd or Jimi Hendrix. None of the iconic music of the late 60s or early 70s. The only artist that got a pass was Elvis.
So when it comes to Presley, in my mind’s eye not only do I see my mother grieving behind the wheel on the day of his death, I see all those records of his, stacked on the family bookshelf, and I can hear him crooning with the static of the LP player. “Blue Christmas.” “I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You.” “In the Ghetto.” “Suspicious Minds.” “Don’t Be Cruel.” These are my favorites.
And of course, there are his gospel songs, the reason, I think, that his vinyl was allowed under our sacred roof. When he tore through “How Great Thou Art” and “Peace in the Valley” like a rhinestoned, side-burned angel, well, he could be forgiven for his worldliness, hip-gyrating, and other devilishness.
Interestingly enough, in his lifetime Elvis was nominated for a Grammy 14 different times and received the award three times. But none of these were for his rock, blues, or popular music. All three were for his gospel recordings. He loved that genre most, and said, “I probably know every gospel song ever written.”
In the end, the man was a contradiction – just like his records were – sitting next to our family Bible. He was the King of Rock and Roll, yet his highest career achievement was in gospel. He had 150 albums reach gold or platinum status, but the songs he played the most often around Graceland, were the spirituals and hymns he learned in church as a child.
He was the icon of the sexual revolution, said to be depraved by the adults who watched his performances, had some 10,000 doses of pain killers and amphetamines prescribed to him in his last year of life alone, and still called the Bible his favorite book. He died with a dozen substances in his bloodstream, but with a book about Jesus clutched to his chest. He was – by his own testimony – a conflicted person. But aren’t we all.
As the Apostle Paul said, summarizing the human condition, “I have discovered this principle of life – that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong. There is a war within my mind.” Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote the same: “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties – but right through every human heart – and through all human hearts.” We are all the combination of darkness and light, good and evil, right and wrong.
I often heard the story of the two wolves growing up, an old Cherokee tale. Everyone has two wolves that live inside of them, as the story goes. One is dark and evil. The other is good and right. These two wolves are always fighting among themselves, one trying to beat the other. The one that will win is the one that is best fed.
We each have a bit of Elvis within us, as our better angels and howling devils compete for daily dominance. It’s no secret which direction the battle will go. That part of us that we nourish will always carry the day.