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Jewish World Review Jan. 12, 2001 / 17 Teves, 5761

Dave Shiflett

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Elvis and the Rock of Death -- WE CELEBRATE the birth and life of Elvis this week, a life that was something of a cosmic event, all things considered. From out of nowhere, or close thereabouts, the young truck driver crooned and dry-humped his way to immortality before expiring, reportedly on the crapper, at the age of 42. He was the King and also the father of countless musical offspring, yet now stands as a sad reminder that much of the early promise of rock and roll, which was born to liberate all G-d's children from the dull grind of life, has also come a cropper.

Indeed, fat Elvis dead upon the john might serve as what the folks in the English department call a metaphor.

Elvis started out svelte, sexy, and full of frantic life. He could shake his money maker faster than Aunt Polly could wag her finger, and soon the contest was over. Polly returned to her knitting; Elvis led us toward an era of greater sexual expression, or so many of us U.S. Males hoped. For let us be clear: We counted on the King to get us some free passes to Nookieland.

For many of us, this dream vanished in the face of competition from the captain of the football team and various other nuisances. Meanwhile, Elvis grew fat as Farouk. He became a crank and a recluse. Then came his ignoble demise atop the thunder mug -- a mug which thundered no more. An eerie silence filled the land. We had set sail for Nirvana. We ended up in a dank morgue with a fat greaser on the slab.

Elvis had plenty of company. Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and lesser rock deities would also fall to earth, many drowning in their own vomit, expiring in the tub, smacking their noggins on a piece of furniture during a free-fall. Rock and roll was beginning to look like an invention of the funeral industry. My favorite picker, Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, took up the Farouk diet and died early with lesions on his arteries and heroin in his blood. To complete the effect, his surviving women fought over his money while a daughter denounced him as a deadbeat. One can almost hear the cats yowling in the background.

There is much finger wagging in the direction of the rockers, although the musical life has traditionally be given to excesses. Jazz players are legendary junkies and tokers -- not to mention boozers. As were their musical forebears. Beethoven was a determined guzzler and even Bach professed a love of wine that would today put him in the surgeon general's crosshairs. "It was much to be regretted that the cask suffered a jar, or some other accident, on the journey, for on examination here it was found to be almost two thirds empty and containing, the visitor declares, only six quarts," he once complained to a cousin. "What a pity that so noble a gift of G-d should be wasted."

More to the point, the spirit that now prevails can hardly be considered a vast improvement. Former space cadets now flock to the supermarkets at the first report of snow flurries, become hysterical when their children fire up a Camel -- or look at a Camel billboard -- and see threats in the most benign objects, such as candy bars, which have apparently led many into the ranks of the "Chocoholics," for whom eating a Snickers bar bears all the dangers of chugging a jug of gin.

And in direct contradiction to earlier strictures against ancestor worship, many have joined death cults dedicated to their fallen musical heroes. They make pilgrimages to their graves and websites, recite song lyrics as if they were scripture (which they have become), and name their children after the deceased, as parents once named children after saints. There is very little interest in information that detracts from these cult images. When a biography of John Lennon reported the delicious irony that the former Beatle had become a devoted fan of television evangelist Pat Robertson (information allegedly based on Lennon's diaries), the response was one big "Shut Up!" This week we remember Elvis. He rode in like a Bolivar. He departed on a lesser steed.

Man, what a bummer.

JWR contributor Dave Shiflett writes from Midlothian, Va. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2000, Dave Shiflett