Alive in our dreams

By Jimmy Guterman (this essay originally appeared on the op-ed page of the 8/16/2002 Boston Globe)

Like most parents, I have a limited imagination, so I brought my children to see Lilo and Stitch, the recent Disney animated feature. Instead of the usual sub-Broadway soundtrack, it featured some of the best music of Elvis Presley. In one scene, an alien mad scientist walks through the bungalow he's in the process of destroying, hears an Elvis 45 on the record player, stops, and announces, ''I love that song!''

It's only in our dreams that Elvis has such intergalactic impact. Whenever Elvis shows up in culture nowadays, it's almost always as a joke: the fat Vegas guy, the pompadour, someone saying ''Thank you very much'' a la the King. Tabloids don't care enough about him to find evidence of his appearances at 7-Elevens anymore; even the Graceland tourist trap is facing tough economic times. Twenty-five years on, Elvis is really dead.

Shouldn't Elvis be everywhere? He cast a shadow so vast that nearly half a century after his unprecedented, thrilling early recordings for the Memphis independent label Sun, our culture should still be trying to accommodate him. All that energy, freedom, and sexuality dropped like an A-bomb on a moribund culture: Psychotherapists should still be treating the fallout. Eminem, the latest provocative white performer making a fortune by minting black culture, is a mosquito by comparison. Hey, if you're an artist and you don't anger Lynne Cheney, you're not doing your job.

The reason Elvis isn't everywhere is because the Elvis that has lasted is the iconic one, the guy who made bad karate poses on stage in casino showrooms, not the one whose music set us free. Just like the alien in that loud movie, let's take a break from our everyday destruction and listen to the music for a moment.

Pick up one of the CDs or DVDs documenting Elvis's TV comeback special, recorded in June 1968 when, thanks to a series of increasingly demented movies, his career was nearly as dead as it is now.

The scene: Elvis and a small group are being filmed in a small stage set to look like a boxing ring without the ropes. Everyone wears beet-red Nehru suits except for Presley, whose black leather reflects the good humor of his comrades as well as the studio lights.

The stage is too small to accommodate D.J. Fontana's drum kit, so he keeps time on a guitar case, with sticks, with brushes, with his hands. The jocular quintet sits in a circle, and they themselves are encircled by the audience. And for the first time in eight years, Elvis performs to a live audience.

Elvis races the compact unit through a steaming ''Baby, What Do You Want Me to Do?'' Elvis is playing lead electric guitar now. The tune peaks, then, on a whim, Elvis stops it because ''there's something on my lip.'' It takes a second for the self-effacing joke to sink in, but the delayed roar is worth the wait. He loses the practiced sneer and laughs back but intones, `I've got news for you, baby. I did 29 pictures like that.''

For his last song in the boxing ring, Elvis picks Smiley Lewis's New Orleans standard, ''One Night of Sin,'' a wondrously filthy blues number that Elvis had cleaned up and recorded as ''One Night with You'' in 1958. Presley wiggles between the two versions, ostensibly singing the clear one, but appreciating that the malapropos politeness is what led him down the road to so many bad movies. He struggles to keep his guitar in control and stand up at the same time. He reverts from the wholesome line ''The things that we two have planned/Could make my dreams come true'' to the original ''The things I did and I saw/Could make the earth stand still.''

The band notes the change and leans deeper into the song, especially Moore and a skeetering Fontana, thrilled to be finally playing the tune right. Elvis smiles back; the song carries them all home. 25 years after Elvis's bad habits caught up to him, it's still a place worth visiting.