Let's don’t let a good thing die: 5 great Elvis tributes
Several ways to remember The King Of Rock 'n' Roll as he turns 75
If Elvis Presley hadn’t died in 1977—or otherwise killed himself with pills and fried peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches before 2010—he would have turned 75 last week. But you probably already knew that, since the anniversary of Presley’s birth and death still gets reported with clockwork regularity in the media. Only Jesus commands more coverage for his first and last days. And Elvis is gaining on Him.
In the past three-plus decades there have been umpteen tributes to the pride of Tupelo, Miss. I even wrote one myself two years ago for the national A.V. Club site: “He took a singular path marked by myriad stylistic turns both inspired and plain crazy,” I wrote. “He picked songs from all corners of the musical universe, and ferreted out the core emotional elements he returned to again and again–the comfort and confinement of tradition, the operatic push and pull of romantic relationships, the inevitability of loneliness–to make it all fit together. And he was adventurous to an unprecedented degree–imagine a singer covering Toby Keith, Amy Grant, Josh Groban, The White Stripes, and R. Kelly on his next album, and we'll talk about a rock singer approximating Elvis' range. He is the great performer-auteur of rock music, and 30 years on, we're still trying to make sense of what he left behind.”
In advance of the Tribute To The King shows taking place today through Jan. 15 at Potawatomi Casino, I made a list of my favorite Elvis tributes. Feel free to break out your horrible Elvis impression at any time.
1. The “I’d fuck Elvis” speech in True Romance
Sex was always a big part of Elvis’ appeal—and not just for the ladies. Rock critic Lester Bangs wrote that seeing The King live and in person gave him “an erection of the heart.” Christian Slater (acting as mouthpiece for screenwriter Quentin Tarantino) similarly admits that Presley makes him feel tingly all over in the classic opening scene of 1994’s True Romance. “Elvis was prettier than most women,” Slater declares. “I always said, if I had to fuck a guy, had to, if my life depended on it, I’d fuck Elvis.” Nearly 33 years after Elvis died, it’s still not question of who would fuck Elvis (in his prime, of course), but who wouldn’t?
2. Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode”/Bruce Springsteen’s “Johnny Bye-Bye”
Aside from the music he left behind, Elvis still matters today because his life has taken the stature of American myth. His story is the quintessential rags-to-riches tale, as well as the ultimate saga of fame gone bad. So while Chuck Berry didn’t write his ode to the American dream “Johnny B. Goode” for Elvis Presley, the lyrics about a wild boy whose mother tells him he’s going to be a big star some day might as well be about him, since the lyrics and Elvis’ story are essentially two sides of the same metaphor. Bruce Springsteen picked up on the dark side of the Johnny B. Goode story for the early-’80s outtake “Johnny Bye-Bye,” which explicitly references Presley’s death.
3. Neil Young’s shout-out in “Hey Hey, My My”
Presley’s death at the age of 42 was a senseless tragedy, but on 1979’s “Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black)”—and its harder-rocking twin “My My, Hey Hey (Out Of The Blue)”—Neil Young famously argues that it’s “better to burn out than to fade away.” Presley arguably had been fading away during the last several years of his life, which might be why Young switches his reference to “the king” from Elvis to Johnny Rotten. But in the long run, it’s clear that Elvis left the building before he really began to rust.
4. Nicolas Cage performing “Love Me” in Wild At Heart
You can believe that Elvis Presley was an uncommonly talented singer, performer, and artist and also acknowledge that he was frequently a ridiculous figure with questionable taste in everything from clothes to food to entourage associates. Elvis himself would probably point this out since he was always endearingly self-effacing about his image. The silly side of Elvis is given an affectionate tribute by mega-fan Nicolas Cage in David Lynch’s lysergic road movie Wild At Heart, which includes an out-of-nowhere scene where he croons a super-hammy (yet still sweetly romantic) version of “Love Me" to Laura Dern. Twelve years later he bagged the ultimate Elvis collectible, Lisa Marie.
5. My Morning Jacket’s cover of “Suspicious Minds”
“Suspicious Minds” is my favorite Elvis song, and this achingly pretty version recorded 25 years after his death by spacey Southern rockers My Morning Jacket might be my favorite Elvis eulogy. "Let's don't let a good thing die" is a fitting epitaph for a man who's still bigger in death than practically any other performer has ever been in life.