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Friday, August 17, 2007

The Elvis Fragments

Dear Parish Faithful,

I made a rather rare excursion onto a daytime talk radio station yesterday and stumbled across an interesting interview under the title "Elvis and Gospel Music." Actually, I believe that this is the title of a new book by an older gentleman (I do not recall his name) who sang and recorded a good deal of Gospel music with Elvis Presley. His reminiscences about "the King" and his love of Gospel music were actually rather moving. When asked about Elvis' "faith," the author stated that through all of Elvis' personal tragedies and the excesses that marred and eventually took his life at an early age, he kept his "faith" until the end. Although left unspecified, In the context of Elvis' life, that must presumably be the Christian Faith. For trivia buffs, I learned that Elvis won three Grammy awards for his recording of Gospel music. In a rather reverential tone, the author stated his belief that Elvis was the greatest Gospel singer that he had ever heard. The talk show host invited this gentleman on due to her own deep appreciation of Elivs as a Gospel singer. Apparently, there was a great deal more to Elvis than simply "Nothing but a Hound Dog," "Blue Seude Shoes," and some of the later grotesqueries of his Las Vegas reviews. Elvis' deep and profound love of his mother was perhaps the main source behind his love of singing Gospel music in church and then beyond in his recording career.
I was born, but was a bit too young to get into the unparalleled Elvis phenomenen of the 1950's. Popular culture and popular music were indelibly transformed once and for all. As John Lennon supposedly said: "Before Elvis there was nothing." Actually, I do recall going into my older brother's bedroom and playing some of those early Elvis 45s (together with the music of Little Richard and Fats Domino, etc.) on one of those small and poorly-sounding record players that were popular then. But my "coming of age" was marked by the equally-explosive Beatles phenomenon and the "English Invasion" of the early 1960's. This culminated in a ticket to a live Beatles' performance in Detroit on what I believe was their first US tour. Sheer mayhem and madness. (Hold on tight, but I know for a fact that presvytera Deborah was at that same concert!)
Before I get lost in my own vague reminiscences of a distant past, I should state that these somewhat different "fragments" are being written up because yesterday, August 16, was the thirtieth anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley. It was hard not to catch something of this on the news. Thirty years later, Elvis Presley remains an "icon" of mass adulation. This is born witness to by a real "pilgrimage" to Graceland and his graveside by an estimated 50,000 - 75,000 devotees for yesterday's commemoration, braving the intense heat and humidity. Even without a specially-marked anniversary, it is estimated that about 40,000 fans appear there on this date annually, and that 600,000 travel to Graceland every year! (I cannot resist the comment that Graceland exemplifies some of the worst excesses of bad taste imaginable!) Perhaps here we encounter a combination of genuine devotion to Elvis' music-making talents enhanced by his boundless kinetic energy and "charisma," a nostalgia for an irretrievable past, an attraction to the famous, mere curiosity, a need for a "hero," or even the basic and universal need to "worship" something or someone. To complete this somewhat macabre picture, we are further informed that Elvis is the second highest "grossing dead celebrity" in the country, yielding the top spot to the more-recently deceased Kurt Cobane of Nirvana, but still holding his own with a healthy $40,000,000 per year.
What stood out to me in the description of this media event, was the now ever-present "candlelight vigil" by the faithful gathered around the graveside of Elvis in silent reflection and mourning. Genuine sighs, tears, and prayers punctuated the reverent silence as the crowd swelled. The spirit of fellowship, strengthened by a shared grief, though ephemeral, must have been rather intense. Actually, this may even have literally been an "all night vigil." Hardly anyone was probably waiting for it to end with a spirit of impatience. "Icons," in the form of countless photographs of Elvis were everywhere. Candles were offered before these images. I recall well that intense emotion, concentration and powerful communal spirit from the vigils and funeral services of Frs. Alexander Schmemann and John Meyendorff that I am to this day so grateful for being able to attend. However, with a difference that could hardly be over-exaggerated, there was a pervasive sense of paschal joy present at those vigils based upon our shared belief in the Death and Resurrection of Christ, and a certainty that Fr. Alexander and Fr. John were "good and faithful servants" awaiting their rewards from the Lord. That shared faifh is far-removed from the vagueries and speculations about the fate of the departed today.
Yet, perhaps I experience a twinge of envy or disappointment when I think of the intense devotion offered to our pop culture icons and our own lukewarm veneration of the saints - our ecclesial "heroes" - and perhaps the casualness of our worship of the Lord Himself. An Elvis fan will know the facts and anecdotes of his life in perhaps the minutest details, spending a great amount of money and time on biographies, gossipy memoirs, coffee-table sized - and priced - photo albums, etc. Some of these better-quality books may be accorded the status of "scripture." For that reason, they are read over and over again. And just think of the sheer time spent with the music and the ecstatic experience evoked after countless playings, including the memorization of all the lyrics! Our saints remain relatively unknown, but could it be true that Elvis devotees know more about him than we do of Christ Himself and the Scriptures that witness to Him? Our "passion" for our Lord needs to exceed the passion of others for their "idols." A home in our neighborhood, by the way, has a large bust of Elvis in their front bushes. God alone knows what's inside!
Sadly, it would be far to easy to moralize about the death of Elvis Presley. That is certainly not my intention, though. His last years and especially last days must have been horrific due to the exploitation of his fame and, alas, his fortune. He seemed to have been a sad caricature of his promising and dreamlike youthful days. Of course, his own choices also proved to be fatal in the long run. However, behind the more sordid elements of his "fall from grace," a theme that some of his Gospel songs would certainly have evoked, we must recognize a deep personal tragedy that needs to be respected and not judged. I distinctly remember one of my beloved professors from St. Vladimir's Seminary, Serge Verkhovskoy, surprisingly speak of the deep sense of tragedy behind the life and death of Marilyn Monroe. Her equally sad fate genuinely moved him, and he spoke of her demise with a real sense of pathos. Perhaps this comes with age and maturity, as we come to terms with our own precarious relationship with God and our neighbors. The abyss may only be a step or two away in the wrong direction.
Just a few fragmentary thoughts prompted by the media coverage of the thirtieth anniversary of Elvis Presley's death and my spontaneous listening in to a very interesting interview about him yesterday. i hope indeed that Elvis departed this world with "faith."

Fr. Steven